Last year Charlotte from The Daytrippers Team mentioned reading about an innovative special needs theatre production team called FROZEN LIGHT that focuses on performing shows for audiences with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). The more we poked around the website, the more we realised it was, indeed; very cool and a perfect match for Daytrippers. As if by fate, one day we received an e-mail from Amber Onat Gregory, one of the co-founders of Frozen Light and an expert in multi-sensory theatre performance. We look forward to collaborating with her in the future, but first, she agreed to an interview with We Are Daytrippers.
The Daytrippers Team: Who are Frozen Light and how did you come about?
Amber Onat Gregory: Lucy Garland and I met at The University of Kent where we did a Masters in Applied Drama which involved working very practically with community groups. One of our projects was working in a special school developing a theatre production for a class of teenagers with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). Inspired by the sensory work of Oily Cart and the storytelling techniques of Louise Coigley (Lis’n Tell) we began fashioning our own form of multi-sensory storytelling for audiences with PMLD. After going our separate ways after university, where we both continued to create small scale sensory storytelling shows that toured special schools, we decided to come together six years later to heighten the quality of our work and take it into theatres.
We received a grant from the Arts Council England in 2012 to create a show for teenage audiences with PMLD which resulted in the creation of Tunnels. Through the success of Tunnels we decided to create Frozen Light- a theatre company dedicated to creating theatre for audiences with PMLD to tour mainstream theatre venues. By putting the work into theatres we wanted to raise the quality of the theatre that we were creating through the use of larger sets and theatrical lighting. As theatre lovers ourselves we were also keen to look at how venues could become more accessible for people with PMLD.
From January- June 2014 Tunnels toured to 18 venues across the UK and reached over 400 people with PMLD plus an additional 500 carers, friends and family. Out of those 400 audience members with PMLD we discovered that 41% had never accessed the theatre before. This was something that we had suspected but seeing the actual figures, collected from carers and families filling out feedback forms, we were quite shocked. This really cemented for us the need to continue to create accessible multi-sensory theatre for audiences with PMLD and to work with theatres to programme more accessible shows.
The Daytrippers Team: Why is the multi-sensory aspect so integral to the production?
Amber Onat Gregory: By having multi-sensory elements throughout the show we have been able to create an accessible and theatrical environment that responds to the needs of our audiences. Most of the multi-sensory elements are performed as an individual interaction between audience member and performer. As a performer we step into the world of the person with PMLD rather than making them come into ours. This one to one interaction gives us the opportunity to experience unique moments with our audience and give them the chance to explore the story using their senses.
The Daytrippers Team: What interested you in creating theatre for such a specific audience?
Amber Onat Gregory: We have been working with people with learning disabilities for many years- both as performers and also in the care sector. As well as performing, I used to work supply as a Teaching Assistant in special schools around London and Lucy worked as a support worker in a day centre for adults with learning disabilities. As people who work in the theatre industry we have seen how theatres across the UK are trying to improve their accessibility and the post of an Access Manager is becoming more common. Theatres are making their venues more accessible with ramps, toilets, hearing loops, sign interpretation, and even programming relaxed performances for audiences with autism. All of this is absolutely fantastic but there is still minimal work being programmed specifically for audiences with PMLD. People with PMLD often find it difficult to access mainstream theatre shows for many reasons: the stage is too far away; the text is complicated; the only senses that are really used are sight and sound (very difficult for people with sensory impairments) and you are expected to sit in one spot and stay silent. All of this on top of large audiences and mobility needs makes mainstream theatre almost unapproachable. It is exciting to be making work for an audience who may be seeing theatre for the very first time. Creating work for an audience who are not your average theatre goers is extremely liberating as so many of the usual theatre traditions are taken away which gives you a lot of artistic freedom when creating the work. Due to the interactive nature of the production no two performances are the same which is also refreshing as a performer.
The Daytrippers Team: Is your show only for people with PMLD?
Amber Onat Gregory: When we created Tunnels we always had our specific audience in mind and all artistic decisions are created thinking about the responses of our audience. We are also aware however that we all like to go to the theatre with our friends and family. In our tour we did shows for both school groups and the general public. It was our general public shows that got some of the best responses- audiences who had come together as a family. When we created the show we made sure the production was an enchanting and mystical story that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Even though there are a lot of one-to-one moments there are also many collective moments that the audience can enjoy together.
The Daytrippers Team: What kind responses do you get from your audience?
Amber Onat Gregory: We received really positive responses from all of our audiences- this includes companions, siblings, parents, grandparents, and of course- our teenage audience. We were told many times that this was the first time that someone had ever been to the theatre and that there needed to be more accessible opportunities like this. One family who saw the show at The New Wolsey in Ipswich said:
‘A surprise visit from family including 2 teenagers with PMLD gave me the ideal excuse to experience this wonderful show. I loved it! The performers were so committed to involving everyone, even a 6yr old with an obsessive need to understand how everything works! Our group included people from age 6 to 87, some with learning disabilities of varying levels, some without. We all enjoyed it equally which says it all for me, totally inclusive and completely enthralling. Thank you!’
Another mother who brought her daughter spoke about how relaxing it was to come and see a show without feeling judged by others,
In our world there is the constant frustration of “where can we go where there is no one staring, where not only Lauren is having a great time but as a parent we can relax and just revel in her enjoyment, where she is the majority not a minority ” well in just under an hour TUNNELS achieved all of this and more!
These comments from our audiences really demonstrate everything that we are trying to achieve through setting up Frozen Light.
The Daytrippers Team: What’s next for Frozen Light?
Amber Onat Gregory: We have just started to develop our next show The Forest. We have been fortunate enough to once again to receive funding from the Arts Council England for the development of the show as well as developing our audiences. This project will take place over the length of a year and we plan to tour our new show in Autumn 2015. We have also received a grant of £2500 from the Bruce Wake Trust (who also organise accessible boating holidays for people with disabilities) and £5000 from the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation. We are incredibly grateful for the support we receive from trusts and foundations as without it our work would not be possible.
Our new show will be for teenage and adult audiences with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). We created Tunnels for teenagers but had many adults with PMLD access the show with their families and carers. There is very limited accessible arts opportunities for adults with PMLD therefore this is an audience that we really hope to develop.
We will be booking the tour this October so please do get in touch if you know of a theatre venue near you that you would like us to visit.
Connect with Frozen Light’s Amber Onat Gregory: