Frozen Light Theatre was founded in 2013 with the aim of producing multi-sensory theatre specifically for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Co-founders Lucy Garland and Amber Onat Gregory aim not only to increase the amount of accessible theatre on offer in the UK, but also to ensure that more accessible shows are produced in theatres, rather than travelling to their audiences by going into care homes or schools. We at culturised caught up with Lucy Garland to talk both about the work that Frozen Light have been doing for the past four years, and the on-going national tour of their current show Home, which is travelling to theatres all across the UK before finishing with a run at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

How did the idea of staging immersive, multi-sensory theatre for people with severe learning difficulties come about?

Both Amber (Frozen Light Theatre’s co-founder) and I did masters’ degrees in applied performance at the university of Kent in 2007. During that time we worked in a special needs school with six teenagers who had profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) and very much developed our work with that initial group. That experience was what helped us develop our mode of multi-sensory storytelling, but we then kind of went separate ways: I carried on doing multi-sensory storytelling on a smaller scale in schools, and Amber was doing similar things all around the world. We eventually got back working together in 2012/13 and we both thought we wanted to make what we were doing bigger and more theatrical, and specifically we wanted to take it into theatre venues. We were seeing at the time that there was a real push towards access in terms of things like relaxed and more accessible performances and a lot more disabled artists, but what wasn’t so present was companies making work that was very much specifically designed for people with the most profound learning disabilities. That was where our passion for making this work comes from.

So your essential aim is to make the theatre an accessible space for this new audience?

Yes, and we believe for theatre to be truly accessible for someone with profound and multiple learning difficulties it needs to have sensory elements: it needs to be a lot more enhanced than a mainstream theatre performance. Our audience are on the stage with us – currently with Home we have a floor cloth and they sit around the edge. It’s very much about keeping the audiences small, so we perform each show to an audience of six people with profound learning disabilities plus their carer-companions, and then we have a few additional tickets to each show, usually taken by theatre staff or people interested in seeing the format. Myself and Amber both come from a storytelling background and what we’re really passionate about within theatre is creating a narrative and telling stories because life is a story and theatre reflects life, so our principal interest is in how we can do that, but make it accessible for our audience. So we always like to tell a story, but we then enhance that story with the multi-sensory side of things: every part of the story has a sensory element within it.

So what kind of multi-sensory experiences do you create in the shows, and how do you create them?

So, in Home, the story is centred in a city that has been destroyed by a dust storm, and the audience experience the dust storm through the use of large fans to create the wind, and they feel the dust which is glitter which flies through the air, and there is also sand mixed with corn flour and cinnamon which they feel. What we’ve found is it’s really important to cover all the senses, so the theatre smells when the audience comes in, and we change the smell of the show half way through. We also try to impregnate every sensory object in the show with a smell I order to try and reach our audience on every sensory level. What’s really important about the multi-sensory nature of the shows is that it allows us to interact on a one-to-one level with our audience, and communicate with them non-verbally in a manner that they access and a way that might be more appropriate to their needs. So the multi-sensory aspect allows us to have close interactions with particular audience members, and as such the performances are very much determined by the way in which we read non-verbal cues and react to what that person needs from us in that specific moment. That might mean that they really want to put their hands in the sand and feel it, or it may mean that they want to push the bowl away and for you to leave them alone for a bit, or they may want to throw sand all over the stage, which is all fine: it’s all about using that sensory moment to realise what that person wants from you as the show goes on. We make these pieces of theatre for the audience, so it’s very much about the audience experience and about what they want from that experience in that moment.

And how do you find managing what must be at times very difficult audiences with a variety of different disabilities?

We never know anything about our audience before they come in, and we enjoy not knowing what they like or dislike because it gives us a fresh page to start with. It also does occasionally lead to people discovering new things: for instance it may be that one of our audience members has always hated sand, but when we present it with music and theatre lighting they end up touching sand for the first time. We feel that if we knew beforehand if that person didn’t like sand, then we’d be more likely to keep the sand away from that person. Also, for us, theatre is about presenting something to the audience that they might not like. Able audiences go to the theatre and don’t like what we see every time, and it is equally important for someone with learning disabilities to have the opportunity to experience things that perhaps they don’t like. Both Amber and I have a lot of experience in working with people with learning disabilities, and that’s what enables us to manage the space and this experience for our audiences. I was a support worker for adults with learning disabilities for six years, and Amber’s assisted in a lot of special schools, so we’ve built up a lot of years of knowledge through that, and we learn a lot with every Frozen Light show we do. All these years of experience have enabled us to be able to read our audience in the moment. Of course, you don’t always get it right, and that’s why it’s important that their carer-companions are with them, because those are the people that know them best. For instance, we had one lady at one of our shows who just shouted “NO” the whole time, but her carer explained to us that this was actually the way that this person expressed that she really liked something. So that’s an example of a moment when we really relied on the carer because we were kind of backing away to give the woman some space, and the carer had to explain we were just misreading her. So you’re always on some level reliant on the person who is supporting and enabling that person with learning disabilities to be there and access that moment.

You and Amber wrote a piece for The Guardian in 2015 about staging immersive theatre for people with learning disabilities. What have you learnt since then and what do you see as your role in helping to expand this form of theatre more generally?

When we wrote the Guardian article[1] it felt that they were interested both in what we do and what other artists, even those who don’t work with people with learning disabilities, can learn from the way that we work. What we’re passionate about is always being audience focused, and so always thinking about our audience’s perspective when devising a new piece of theatre. We feel that even if we were to come up with the world’s best artistic idea, if it wouldn’t work for our audience then there’s no point in doing it. In terms of encouraging more people to engage with this form and the audience for whom we perform, we obviously can’t put on shows for every person with learning disabilities in this country. There are a handful of other companies doing great work, such as Oily Cart[2] in London and Interplay[3] in Leeds, but our unique edge mainly comes from our commitment to touring theatres. But what that means is that we tour really prolifically and we can’t reach every person in each community, and we find that the more we tour and the more people see us, the more the demand grows. More people catering to this specific audience is definitely needed, as once we’ve been at a venue we are unlikely to be back for around eighteen months and there’s nothing else that they can access. Whereas a theatre company I like may not be back in the same are for a couple of years, that’s alright as there’ll be another company I like that I can go and see, that isn’t the case for our audiences. In November we ran our first artists’ residency week in Norwich, where we worked with a group of nine artists to share our practice, and to share what it’s like to work with audiences with severe learning disabilities and to teach them ways of adapting or creating work for these audiences. A new company (Collidescape) has started out of that, which is great, and that sort out outreach to other artists is definitely something we plan to do more of. We often have groups of university students come in to speak to us about our work, and we feel that the more people know it exists, the more people will start making this type of work, or the more people who might adapt their own work to make it more accessible for a variety of audiences.

As you have said, Frozen Light is committed to doing these shows exclusively in theatres rather than care homes or schools, how has the reaction been to that?

It’s really the foundation of what we based the company on. When we did our first tour in 2013 with a show called Tunnels, over half our audience had never been to the theatre before. That’s a lot of adults and teenagers who have never been able to access the theatre before because there’s nothing around that’s appropriate for them. Our audience sometimes need to make noise, or move around the space, and many other things that you’re not allowed to do in conventional theatre performances; so, for a start, their carers are not going to feel comfortable taking them to a mainstream theatre production. We get parents coming up to us and saying that the only thing they can take their adult or late-teenage children to at the theatre is the kids’ show or the panto, because those are the only shows in which it’s ok that they make noise. So, for us, it’s about breaking down the conventions of theatrical space, but then what is also challenging is reaching the carers or families and persuade them that this is a theatre experience, but one that is different and accessible: you’re not going to get tutted at or shushed. Once we’ve broken down those people’s expectations of what theatre is and they’ve come to our shows, generally the response is really great.

And you’ve found being in theatres beneficial to the work you do?

It’s also being in theatres that allows us really to create multi-sensory experiences: in a theatre building you have professional lighting, the sound system, and all the other effects. We have found that black box theatres are actually really calming spaces and we can go in there and transform it into another world. Whereas what we found when we performed in schools (where many great companies do perform and create incredible work) is that we could bring our stuff in and set up the show, but you’re still in a dining hall: you’re still in a place that the members of the audience associate with having their dinner. Because both Amber and I are so passionate about going to the theatre, we found it wrong that people with learning difficulties had nothing to access there. We also feel that people with profound and multiple learning disabilities are very much the most invisible people in society and we believe that by putting our work into a theatre venue at the heart of the community, it means that those people can come there and become more visible: once these theatres open their doors to this new audience they often find that these people come and use the café, and sometimes flick through a programme and see something else that has a relaxed performance to which they might come along. So it’s also about promoting the rights of people with learning disabilities by bringing these people into a professional and community venue with our shows.

And so how do you manage to fund the shows? Presumably unless you’re charging a fortune for tickets, which would almost defeat the point of the work you do, there must be sources of funding separate to the audience.

Yes, of course. We are very upfront when dealing with theatres, as it’s always clear that the show will make a loss. The audience for each show is only six people, with tickets usually falling between ten and fifteen pounds, and so the venues know from the off that our shows aren’t money-spinners. But they understand is it’s bigger than that: if you are going to reach these people then it’s going to take some investment, and what it’s about is your venue actually reaching everyone in your community. And we are currently on a forty-one-venue tour of the country, so there are forty-one theatres that have been willing to enable us to put on our shows. On top of this we receive some subsidy from the Arts Council, who have been really supportive of us from our inception, and from a few private trusts and foundations, so we are able to put forward some money to help venues that aren’t financially able to pay our full guarantee.

So, as you say, you’re just starting out on a tour of the country worth your new show, Home. Tell us a little about that.

Home is the tale of two women who are left behind after their city is destroyed by a dust storm and it’s about how they rebuild their lives together through finding friendship and learning to survive in this new environment. As I said, our focus is always on telling stories, but we keep the narrative fairly… I’m always loathe to use the word “simple,” I suppose the right way to put it is that we keep it accessible to our audience. There’s not a huge amount of verbal language and we use a lot of signing and non-verbal communication to carry the story forward. Our focus is on the emotional narrative and we make sure that the play follows an emotional arc, as all good theatre should.

And in 2016 you took your previous show, The Forest to the Edinburgh Fringe, how did you manage to stage it there and what was the reaction?

Yeah, we always seem to do Edinburgh the wrong way round: we toured The Forest and then did it at the Fringe, and now we’re touring Home before we take it there. But when we were there last year it was the first time that a show specifically designed for audience with profound and severe learning difficulties had been staged at the Edinburgh Fringe. We had to work through quite a few issues: being a multi-sensory show there was obviously no way we could do a fifteen minute get-in before each performance. We almost started to believe there was no way to make it work, but then we asked ourselves, “actually, why shouldn’t it work? Why should people with learning disabilities be excluded from the largest arts festival in the world just because the shows that can cater to them can’t set up in fifteen minutes?” It felt as if, by placing these limits on shows, the Fringe ended up excluding this entire group of people. So we kept at it, and with the help of Matthew Dwyer, the programmer for the Pleasance, we were given a space and time-slot in Pleasance Beyond that enabled us to do the show. Also last year was the first year that every venue at the Pleasance had been wheelchair accessible, so it worked really nicely that we were there. We were also sold out before August, because we are aware that our audience are not people for whom theatres have an easily accessible databases, or are likely to pick up a brochure and expect to find something, and so we do a lot in terms of outreach and contacting members of those communities. So last year we managed to sell out four shows, and we’re back at Pleasance Beyond this year doing seven shows as part of the British Council Showcase. That will be Home finished, and then we will start work on a new show in September.

And so, to expand back into your role as theatre practitioners, how do you see yourselves as being placed within the wider world of immersive theatre? With the multi-sensory experiences you create it seems like that’s the most natural way to describe what you do, and you are expanding the audience of this increasingly popular form.

Yeah, I think it’s really interesting, and we have very much been inspired by lots of immersive theatre work that we’ve seen. It does feel like it has similarities with our work through the destruction of the fourth wall and focus on those close engagements with the audience. But what is really interesting is that it feels like a lot of that immersive work is moving out of theatres into very specific, non-theatre, spaces. That’s refreshing for those audiences because they have always been used to going to the theatre to see plays being performed, whereas for our audience going to the theatre to see theatre is a new thing. We wouldn’t consider site-specific because, apart from all the access issues it would entail, for our audience it is that experience of going to the theatre that is so exciting. But yeah, what we do is really immersive, and what we try to do, through the multi-sensory nature of the shows, is create worlds that our audiences can enter, but always maintain the environment as a really safe space. That’s really crucial: obviously when working with people with learning disabilities and autism it’s really important for them to feel comfortable and safe. So that really comes back to all the work we do as being a character who interacts with individual audience members and caters to their needs: it’s all part of creating a theatrical experience for someone who may never have had one before.

For more information about Frozen Light’s current national tour of Home, see here.

[1] Amber Onat Gregory and Lucy Garland, “Staging theatre for audiences with profound learning disabilities”, The Guardian 2nd July 2015.