Katherine Vernez Gray trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where she received the gold medal in acting. She has 20 years of experience in theatre, which includes performing with Oily Cart, a company that specialises in theatre for children with special needs.
Performing for special-needs children is humbling. It is about the children and not about you. It’s about personally connecting with the children and celebrating their differences. If you fully engage with openness, truth and sensitivity, the children become the main focus and part of the story of the play. This is when theatre comes alive and is magical.
Get as much information about the children as possible from parents, teachers and carers. First, it helps to know if the children have profound multiple disabilities or are autistic. This knowledge enables me to adapt my performance to each group differently. Knowing of specific, individual needs – such as visual or hearing impairment – ensures that you can be sensitive to those needs by finding other ways to communicate.
While working with Oily Cart on Hush-a-Bye, I have been amazed how effective it is to communicate through the language of all five senses – touch, sight, taste, smell and hearing. However, if a child has only two of those senses, I heighten those specifically to communicate directly to them. Allow plenty of time for the child or children to discover, process and explore the sensory activity.
This form of theatre is more effective with smaller audiences. It gives you more time and space to build a relationship with the child. It also gives you an opportunity to bond and engage with each individual. And being close means that you can see whether a child is enjoying an activity – or not, in which case you might change the choice of communication. Being closer allows you to respond to the children’s reaction spontaneously too. These moments can be very exciting.
Working with Oily Cart has given me the opportunity to develop animated characters. When I have mixed my animated character with truth and sensitivity, I’ve seen how effective it can be and observe the positive impact it has on the children. Then you can let your character react to what the children say or do, which is refreshing. Performing to children with special needs is highly rewarding but you also learn new things from them.