Creating theatre for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities

Frozen Light theatre company started from a very simple idea, writes co-artistic director Lucy Garland: we love going to the theatre so why shouldn’t people with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) have the same opportunity? 

Both Amber Onat Gregory and I (co-artistic directors) had been creating small-scale sensory storytelling shows in special schools since 2007. Amber worked as a teaching assistant and I was a support worker at a day centre and community support team for adults with learning disabilities. We had got to a stage where we wanted to create larger scale productions in theatre venues. That’s how Frozen Light was born.

We started the company in 2012. Our first show was Tunnels, an underground adventure for teenagers with PMLD, which toured to 18 theatres across the UK, and was very well received. Building on the success of Tunnels we wanted to create a show that was bigger and better, so we created The Forest, with generous support from The Arts Council and several other Trusts and Foundations.

What makes Frozen Light different?

Conventional theatre may not always be appropriate for our audience. The stage is very far away and you have to sit still and be quiet. We’ve removed these traditional theatre conventions and have explored new ways of working that makes theatre appropriate for people with PMLD.

We do this in a number of ways. To begin with, our shows are only for six people with PMLD, their carer/companions and 12 additional friends and family members. This means that we create an intimate performance. Many of the sensory elements of our show take place on a one-to-one basis, ensuring that everyone is fully engulfed in the atmosphere. We also sing to each individual audience member, a song that includes their name. Making the production so personal really brings everyone together.

As a company we are passionate about stories, so we always put a story at the heart of our work. We look at the story we want to tell and think how we can communicate this on different levels, other than just the spoken language. This is where the multi-sensory comes in. We take each part of the story and add a sensory element. In The Forest, for example, we have a fire, so we take pieces of wood that smell like wood smoke around to each member of the audience.

In this production we wanted to push the multi-sensory even further, we did this by creating a set that is also sensory. The floor is reflective and the theatre space smells like a forest. We find that the multi-sensory elements allow us to communicate with our audience on many different levels and allow us to enter their world rather than forcing them to enter and conform to ours.

Creating a safe space

We work really hard to create a safe space. Many of our audiences have never been to the theatre before, and going to the theatre for the first time can be a scary experience. We create visual stories – which explain through pictures and words what will happen during the show and what the theatre looks like – and send them out to each audience member before attending. When the audience arrive, they are greeted by a member of Frozen Light and gently guided into the performance space, where we ensure they are settled and comfortable before the production begins.

We never expect anyone to sit still or be quiet in our shows and are more than happy for audience members to leave and re-enter the space as many times as they need to. We have had audience members come and sit on stage with us and or peek through a crack in the entrance door. We really don’t mind, we just want everyone to engage with the show in a way that is comfortable for them.

For more information, please visit the Frozen Light website.