Blog: Reimagining accessible theatre

Published: 11 Mar 2019

Author: Ellie Griffiths
Blog: Reimagining accessible theatre

“Most of our pupils get taken home by the school bus on a Friday and then don’t leave the house until the school bus picks them up again on Monday.” This is something I was once told by a teacher who worked with teenagers with profound autism. For children with complex disabilities, after-school activities are extremely limited and, as a result, social isolation is common.

As the Artistic Director at Oily Cart Theatre, a company specialising in making shows for neurodiverse audiences, I want to address the lack of social and cultural activities accessible to these children by making theatre that engages them. It’s a fascinating creative brief. The audiences I make shows for relate to the world in a primarily sensory way, meaning they often do not use or understand verbal language. I have to reimagine what theatre can be.

It’s hugely rewarding work. I have witnessed countless moments of delight and wonder from audiences. This is particularly powerful when you see parents sharing a moment of engagement with their child. In day to day life, these moments of connection can be hard won and fleeting. When I see, as I often do, tears from a parent as their child smiles at the feelings aroused by a cello played live, or as a scented breeze wafts over them, it makes you realise how powerful theatre can be.

Below: Ellie Griffiths

Ellie Griffiths

In 2017, I travelled to Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and the USA on a Churchill Fellowship to seek out people and organisations who are making theatre accessible for audiences with profound and complex disabilities. I was privileged to spend time with some of the world’s most innovative and diverse theatre companies.

One highlight of my trip was visiting Polyglot Theatre in Australia. What I found so interesting about Polyglot’s approach is how they collaborate with their intended audiences to create new productions. During one research and development session, a young boy drew a picture of a boat. As he told stories about the boat, Sue Giles, their Artistic Director, realised he was retelling his experiences of being a refugee. This became the starting point for their show Cerita Anak (‘Child’s Story’). Polyglot’s work asks - whose voice gets listened to when making a show? This has influenced each project I have made since my travels.

Below: Tangle, an installation by Polyglot Theatre

Tangle by Polyglot Theatre

In the Netherlands I went to see Lady Eats Apple, a production by Back to Back Theatre featuring a cast made up mainly of adults with learning and social disabilities. It was performed at Amsterdam’s main theatre to a sold-out audience, and the performances, production values and creative vision were outstanding. Back to Back had worked with their ensemble cast to create a style of theatre that was completely authentic to the people onstage. In a way, it could only work for them, making it totally original and very exciting to experience. Witnessing a production of such high quality emboldened me to raise the ambition of the theatre I make.

Despite a handful of committed companies, there is a real lack of high quality, varied theatre being made in the UK for audiences with complex needs. I hope that my Fellowship inspires artists and practitioners to imagine new possibilities, to raise their artistic ambition and to make shows that, with integrity, come from the hearts and minds of the diverse individuals with whom we work.

Top photo: a pupil of Sherbourne Fields school at a sensory theatre workshop

Read Ellie’s report

Apply for a Fellowship

Sign up for blog alerts