Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Amber Onat Gregory: Home

By | Published on Thursday 2 February 2017

We first came into contact with Frozen Light Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, where they staged a very successful short run of a show created especially for those with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities.
Very few theatrical companies offer the kind of shows that are so tailored to their audiences in this way, so I was very happy to see that they’d be performing a new show in London, firstly at Stratford Circus, and at Ovalhouse later in the year. To find out more, I put questions to one of the company’s two artistic directors, Amber Onat Gregory.

CM: Can you start by telling our readers a bit about the company, and what you do?
AOG: Frozen Light make multi-sensory theatre for audiences with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). We create age appropriate touring theatre, which we perform in professional theatre venues. We are passionate about making accessible theatre for audiences with PMLD and putting it into theatre venues so that our audience can have a high-quality theatre experience, which is designed specifically for them.

CM: What made you decide to focus on this kind of work?
AOG: Lucy Garland (co-artistic director) and I met at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Our final year was a Masters in Applied Theatre and during this period we worked in a special school for three months with a group of teenagers with PMLD where we developed the very beginnings of our practice. After uni we went our separate ways but we both toured special schools doing multi-sensory storytelling. We both also had other jobs working with people with learning disabilities – myself as a supply Teaching Assistant in special schools, and Lucy as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities.

Having built up a strong background of working with people with learning disabilities, we came back together in 2012 amd decided to focus on creating larger scale theatre productions for audiences with PMLD, to tour theatre venues.

CM: Are all your shows made for the same audiences? They are obviously tailored to those with profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities, but is there a range of needs within that group to be catered for?
AOG: All our shows to date have been created specifically for audiences with PMLD. Our first show ‘Tunnels’ was for 13-25 year olds but ‘The Forest’ and ‘HOME’ have been for both teenage and adult audiences. We decided to make this change due to the number of adults who came to ‘Tunnels’, clearly showing the demand for accessible theatre for adults with PMLD.

Over the last few years it’s been exciting to see more and more adult audiences attending from local day centres and care homes, and the demand is continuing to grow. Although we market the shows specifically for audiences with PMLD we do have audiences with very different needs coming to see the show. As the work is so interactive and multi-sensory it is really appropriate to anyone who communicates with the world through the multi-sensory.

CM: Do you think there’s a need, or a market, for theatre to be created which is accessible to those with other types of disability?
AOG: There certainly is. We’re told so often by carers that the person they have accompanied has got so much out of the show because it was so specific for their needs. This has happened because we are thinking about how we want to communicate with our audience with PMLD from the very start of the devising process. People with PMLD may enjoy attending a relaxed performance at their local theatre, but they are unlikely to experience a show that is specific for their needs. Shows that are created for specific needs in some ways can seem exclusive, but they are crucial for individuals to access the arts in a way that is meaningful to them. We are constantly expecting people with PMLD to step into the world that we live in, but in our shows, for that hour, we try and step into theirs. Oily Cart create and adapt work for audiences with autism and PMLD. Their latest piece, ‘Kubla Khan’, will also be adapted for audiences who are deaf and blind. They are the pioneers of creating theatre for specific audiences.

CM: What is ‘Home’ about? What inspired its creation?
AOG: When we first went into development for ‘HOME’ Lucy and I were interested in looking into science fiction environments. We’d recently seen the latest Mad Max and the dystopian desert landscape felt like it could be a multi-sensory wonderland. We started with a load of Lucy’s dads Science fiction art books and started thinking about the world we wanted to create from there.

‘HOME’ tells the story of Scarlet and Olive who are the only ones left behind in Zynta city following a dust storm. They explore their new surroundings and must learn how to live together in their new environment. As one reviewer, Susan Elkin, put it: “’Home’ is powerful piece of theatre about loss, separation, fear, loneliness, reconciliation, hope and rebuilding relationships – human life, in fact. And those things matter to people with PMLD as much as they do to anyone else.”

CM: Can you tell us about the creative process? How do you go about creating a show?
AOG: Our creative process is very much a devising one. Lucy and I go into the rehearsal room with some initial ideas but we bring in other artists very early on into the process. Our company musician Al Watts and set designer Stephanie Williams were in the very early stages of the development period for ‘HOME’. By involving more artists from the beginning we have found that the elements they bring are crucial to creating the best multi-sensory environment. We then brought in our director Kate O’Connor who works with us on developing the characters and story structure. Our production manager and lighting designer Dave Sherman is also there to ensure that the dream world we want to create is practical when it comes to creating a touring theatre show. We also worked with a costume designer, make up artist, visual communication expert and movement director on this show. Every artist we’ve worked with has significantly contributed to the world of HOME.

CM: Are there elements of interactivity to it?
AOG: Yes! And this is the bit that myself and Lucy really specialise in. Throughout the devising process we are always asking ‘what will this mean to our audience?’. Whilst we’re creating the environment and the script we’re looking at how we can bring it alive for our audience with PMLD. In all our shows we have a Name Song, which is close to the beginning of the show, this song is welcoming our audience into the story and we sing everyone’s name individually. The responses we receive from audiences on hearing their name sung is quite often the most significant moment in our productions. We then look at how we can bring to life through the multi-sensory what is happening in the story. In HOME we have created a cinnamon smelling sand mixture to create our ‘dusty’ environment, foamy eucalyptus bubbles to clean the city after the dust storm, shelters made from plastic and clothing form our new home, and twinkly star boxes represent the new clear sky.

CM: When we last spoke to you, you were staging ‘The Forest’ in Edinburgh. How did your run at the Festival go? Would you consider returning?
AOG: Edinburgh went brilliantly for us. We were at The Pleasance, who we worked closely with to ensure that the experience was the best it could be for our audience. We were there for a short run of 4 days but were sold out a month before, really demonstrating the need for accessible theatre for audiences with PMLD at the festival. We plan to return this year with ‘HOME’ and are hoping to do a longer run.

CM: How easy is to find the right sort of venues for your work?
AOG: This is an interesting one. There are different ‘right sorts’ of venues. We love to work with venues who have an ongoing commitment to having an accessible theatre programme. Good examples of these are The New Wolsey, Ipswich, Harlow Playhouse, and The Theatre Royal Plymouth, who have programmed a variety of work for audiences with PMLD.

We also like to tour to venues in areas that we haven’t toured to before, with a venue who may not have programmed this kind of work before. This is exciting as it means we get to work alongside venues in developing completely new audiences, and often at these venues it will be our audiences’ first ever theatre experience.

The only thing that it is essential for a venue we tour to is that it is an accessible theatre space. Most of our audiences are wheelchair users so we can only perform at venues with flexible seating or large enough flat floor level stages. When in the design process of our work we try to make the set adaptable so that there is flexibility in touring some smaller spaces.

I’d say our favourite type of venue is one with an accessible black box and a good café!

CM: What’s next for you, after the London performances?
AOG: Our London performances at Stratford Circus Arts Centre and Oval House are part of a 41 venue, 59 date (with 2 shows most days) tour of HOME so we’re pretty busy until the end of May! After that hopefully Edinburgh, and then we plan on going into development for our new, currently untitled show, in September. We’re currently interested in how our audience can experience music and sound in other ways than just hearing as live music has always been integral to our work. We want to see if there are ways that our audience could experience music through the multi-sensory, and we’ll be doing a lot of research into the science of cymatics. We currently have plans to premiere the new show in May 2018 so watch this space….

‘Home’ is on at Stratford Circus from 10-11 Feb, see this page here for more info. The show returns to London’s Ovalhouse from 5-6 May. Also see this page here for further tour dates.

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Photo: JMA Photography

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