Lucy Garland: Making a path through the forest
By Caro Moses | Published on Saturday 30 July 2016
It’s an important fact worth remembering that not all theatre is accessible to everyone, and that there are ways in which performances can be created for people whose needs go beyond the norm.
‘The Forest’, which is in Edinburgh for a short run this August, is the work of Frozen Light, a company which works with a very specific aim in mind – to stage theatre for those with severe learning disabilities.
We spoke to Lucy Garland, who founded the company with Amber Onat Gregory.
CM: Your show is for a very specific type of audience. Tell us a little more about the project.
LG: ‘The Forest’ is for an audience of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, or PMLD. And it is specifically designed for teenagers and adults with PMLD. People with profound and multiple learning disabilities have more than one disability, the most significant of which is a profound learning disability. They usually have great difficulty communicating, and may also have additional sensory or physical disabilities, complex health needs, or mental health difficulties.
CM: I think this is the first time a show like this has been on at the Edinburgh Fringe? What made you decide to create this kind of piece and then bring it to the Festival?
LG: Yes, as far as we are aware this is the first time that a show made specifically for audiences with PMLD has visited the Edinburgh Fringe. We wanted to bring ‘The Forest’ to the Festival because we wanted to address the issue that at the world’s largest international arts festival there was no work that our audience could access.
For starters, the Edinburgh Fringe is notoriously bad for physical access. I think over the past few years venues have really started to address this, but there needs to be more than this for audiences with PMLD to be able to access the Fringe.
We knew if we were going to bring work for this audience to the Edinburgh Fringe then we would have to find the right partner venue. We did a lot of research into this and had many meetings, and in the end the Pleasance showed a real passion for our work.
They understood that due to the nature of our project and the needs of our audience we didn’t fit into a traditional Edinburgh Fringe model and they have been flexible in order to ensure that they reach audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities.
CM: What happens in the show? Does it tell a story?
LG: It is really interesting that you should ask if there is any story. Sometimes theatre for people with PMLD doesn’t incorporate a story as it is seen as unnecessary. There are questions about what someone with PMLD would gain from a story and some say it would therefore be better to just focus on the sensory experience.
This is a valid view and the theatre created under this model is incredible and the experience for the person with PMLD is wonderful. For us, though, story is really important. Life is built up of stories and it is important for us that we work with story in our theatre. Both Amber and I love theatre that has a strong story-line running through it.
We cannot know how much of our story our audience understands or doesn’t, but verbal language – which we back up with visual communication methods – and the rhythm and cadences in it provide an audible landscape if nothing else. We also use a lot of repetition which is proven to be an important tool for people with PMLD. Repetition can help reiterate the story and stimulate memory.
So ‘The Forest’ does have a beautiful universal story of loss and love. It is the tale of Thea and Robin who both crave an escape from their everyday routines. One day they are drawn into a dark and mysterious forest and find themselves on a journey of self-discovery filled with surprising encounters and experiences that change their lives forever. Ivy, the caretaker of the forest, weaves a path with the hope that eventually Thea and Robin will find each other and the escape from their everyday routines that they so desperately seek.
CM: It’s interesting to hear the differing opinions on what a show of this kind should be like. What other elements do you see as being important to make the experience truly work for your audience?
LG: People with PMLD access the world on a sensory level so this means that for theatre to be able to reach them it needs to be multi-sensory. It also needs to be performed at close proximity to the audience so they can explore each moment in detail. This therefore means that we have to perform to small audiences, six people with PMLD and their companions and families.
Traditional modes of theatre are incredibly difficult for our audience to access: the stage is often quite far away, no one interacts with them directly, and it isn’t multi-sensory. Our audience may also find it difficult to sit still and be quiet and this automatically excludes them from mainstream theatre. It is great that in Edinburgh over the last few years there has been a real growth in relaxed performance, but they still do not have the sensory elements our audience need to allow them to access theatre.
Relaxed performances take away parts of the production to make it more friendly to audiences, specifically with autism. For our audience they may need some other things taken out – though strobe is the only thing I can really think of – but more importantly, what they really need is elements added to the performance. Creating theatre for audiences with PMLD is about creating a more enriching and encompassing theatrical experience rather than a stripped away version.
CM: How do you go about creating a show like this? Is it ‘devised’ rather than ‘written’? What is your working process?
LG: As a company we create devised work. As artists this is our background and is the type of work we find most interesting to see and also create. Using devising techniques means that we can build our work around our sensory ideas.
We always start with the needs of our audience. What do they need to be able to access our work? Usually we start with an environment. We like to choose environments that have scope for lots of sensory interaction. In ‘The Forest’ we wanted to create a dark abstract forest, this gave us lots of sensory ideas to play with.
CM: Your company was specifically set up to create theatre for those with learning disabilities, wasn’t it? What inspired this aim?
LG: Amber and I did a masters together in Applied Performance in 2006/7 and developed this work during that time with a group of teenagers with PMLD from a local special school and some mentors. As soon as we started to work with the group of young people from the special school we knew that this work was really important and that we wanted to continue making work for this audience.
Fast forward six years, and me and Amber found ourselves back together again. We had both been creating small scale multi-sensory storytelling shows in special schools but on different sides of the globe. When Amber returned to the UK we got together and decided that we wanted to create multi-sensory theatre for audiences with PMLD to be toured to theatre venues. We saw the lack of opportunities for people with PMLD to access theatre appropriate for their needs in their local community and we wanted to be able to provide those opportunities.
We started Frozen Light in 2012. At the time there was a lot of discussions around access in the arts, with a big push for accessible performances and relaxed performances. This was all brilliant, but we really noticed that no one was talking about audiences with PMLD, so we decided we wanted to be part of that voice.
CM: What did you have to do to develop your skills at making this kind of show? Did you do lots of research? Is there training available?
LG: As I mentioned, Amber and I first developed our work at university. We were completely inspired by a wonderful speech and language therapist called Louise Coigley who has a sensory storytelling method called lis’n tell. We worked alongside Louise and a group of teenagers with PMLD for six weeks and were given time and guidance to create our own version of sensory storytelling.
Once I had left university I continued working in this field and developed my skills whilst performing in special schools to young people with PMLD, listening and learning from them. As time went on my stories would adapt to the needs of each individual audience and I became adept at reading what each audience member needs from each individual sensory moment.
I also worked as a support worker with adults with learning disabilities for six years. This experience was vital to the work I create today. It gave me the background skills and knowledge in caring for people with PMLD and understanding what they need to live a full, rich life. This role also gave me the opportunity to partake in lots of training around working with people with learning disabilities. All of this has fed into Frozen Light and gives us the in-depth knowledge into the needs of people with PMLD.
It is also really important to us that our work is current and sits aside the latest contemporary theatre practice. This means that we avidly attend theatre and the practice of this feeds into all our work
The only specific training around creating theatre for audiences with PMLD comes from Oily Cart and Bamboozle. Both theatre companies run courses which give you information about creating work for audiences with PMLD. Oily Cart run week long courses which go into great detail and lead you through the process of making your own work. Oily Cart have been a huge inspiration as they pioneered this type of theatre many years ago.
We also keep up to date on best practice when working with PMLD by avidly reading PMLD Link, a journal about the needs of people with PMLD.
Within the last couple of years Ellie Griffiths has started the Upfront Performance Network, this is a great resource for anyone interested in creating work for audiences with PMLD and would be a brilliant place to start if you are interested in this field.
CM: I sense there is still a significant deficit of work like this?
LG: Absolutely! In the UK there are only a handful of companies that create work specifically for audiences with PMLD and we are the only ones that tour extensively.
This means that audiences with PMLD can only access theatre appropriate to their needs once every eighteen months when we – or the couple of other companies – visit their local theatre. It would be great if people with PMLD had a choice of what show they want to see or if there was opportunity for them to be able to access the theatre more than once a year.
There are now many more companies creating inclusive work which is great, but I would argue that to reach those people with PMLD you have to make multi-sensory work specifically catered for them.
CM: How aware do you think people are that this kind of work even exists?
LG: People often have no idea this work exists. People with PMLD are amongst the most invisible in our society and people often aren’t aware of their needs. This means that people have no idea that theatre for people with PMLD is even needed, let alone that it exists.
We hope that by taking ‘The Forest’ to the Edinburgh Fringe it will not only raise the profile of multi-sensory theatre but it will also increase the visibility of people with PMLD. We can only start fighting prejudice against people with learning disabilities if people are aware of the needs of people with learning disabilities. People are only going to understand these needs by people with learning disabilities being more included in society in general.
CM: It’s the first time for a show of this kind, but is this also your first time in Edinburgh?
LG: Yes, this is Frozen Light’s first time bringing a show to Edinburgh and we are really excited about it. Though we came to the Edinburgh Fringe last year to research if there was scope for us to bring a show there.
We had several meetings and this proved to be invaluable. I am so pleased we spent a year researching the possibilities to ensure we and our audience get the most out of our visit to the Fringe.
We definitely plan on seeing other shows whilst up in Edinburgh and want to support other companies who create inclusive work, for example Hijinx with ‘Meet Fred’, and companies from the Eastern region where we are based.
CM: What’s next? Do you have anything else in development?
LG: Yes, we are currently in development with our third show ‘Home’. In fact, we are about to head into two weeks of technical and dress rehearsals. We are really excited about the new show as it is very different to the work we have done before. It is for adult audiences with PMLD and incorporates lots of new sensory moments alongside an original score and lots of one to one interactions.
‘Home’ premieres at bOing International Family Festival in Canterbury at the end of August. And, yes, that does mean driving straight from Edinburgh to Canterbury! ‘Home’ then goes on an east of England tour in Autumn 2016 and a much larger nationwide tour in Spring 2017.
‘The Forest’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2016.