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Frozen Light: opening theatre’s doors to adults with learning disabilities

Frozen Light’s The Isle of Brimsker combines sight, sound, touch, smell and taste to bring the atmosphere of a remote North Sea island to life in specially adapted theatre spaces. Photo: JMA Photography Frozen Light’s The Isle of Brimsker combines sight, sound, touch, smell and taste to bring the atmosphere of a remote North Sea island to life in specially adapted theatre spaces. Photo: JMA Photography
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While a number of companies offer accessible performances for learning-disabled children, few are aimed at over-18s. The designer of Frozen Light’s latest multi-sensory show The Isle of Brimsker and the organisation’s co-founders tell Tim Bano how they have turned theatre on its head to cater for their audience’s needs

In designing The Isle of Brimsker, a multi-sensory piece of storytelling, it all started by playing, according to Katharine Heath. “We attached things to fans, pulled materials around ourselves. We had a day where we all sat around in a circle passing little vials between us, trying to find ones that didn’t smell like toilet cleaner.” This is the latest show from theatre company Frozen Light, which makes work for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities and their shows, which have very small audiences – just six people and their carers – aim to evoke all the senses, which offers an interesting challenge to its backstage team.

The show has essentially been made backwards. Heath was brought on board early for the first research and development session, collaborating with artistic directors Lucy Garland and Amber Onat Gregory from the off. In fact, the entire creative team – lighting and sound designers, as well as the production manager – were brought in at that very first stage. The process began with sensory ideas, which suggested an environment – the North Sea, remoteness – which in turn suggested a story. “It’s turning theatre on its head,” Garland laughs.

Katharine Heath. Photo: Nomad Creative Studio
Katharine Heath. Photo: Nomad Creative Studio

CV: Katharine Heath

Born: 1986, London
Training: Art foundation, Central Saint Martins (2005); BA theatre design, Wimbledon School of Art (2008)
Landmark productions:
• The Drowned Man, Punchdrunk – prop buyer (2013)

• How I Learned to Drive, Southwark Playhouse – set designer (2015)
Awards: Best opera production, Off West End Awards, for Cosi Fan Tutte (2013)
Agent: The Designers Formation

In previous shows the multi-sensory elements have included sand storms created by blowing glitter through huge fans, and portable log fires that smell of woodsmoke. The idea behind The Isle of Brimsker, set on a remote island in the North Sea the day before its lighthouse is decommissioned, was to “make music move, make our audience experience sound in ways other than hearing”, explains Garland.

So Heath’s design has water-filled rockpools with speakers embedded at the bottom, and, as music plays,  the water jumps up and down. These rockpools are taken to each audience member, and they can feel the vibrations, while huge lightboxes change colours with the music.

As well as that, Heath says the aim was to capture the feeling of the sea and the shore. Heath has worked extensively in immersive theatre, particularly with Punchdrunk, but the complex needs of the audience for this show, as well as the different way they experience the world, have pushed her practice. “A lot of our audience have never been to a beach,” she says. “How do you bottle that and put it on a stage?”

Smell is a particularly important part of Frozen Light’s shows and, she says, two smells dominate in The Isle of Brimsker, an outdoor smell and an indoor one. “The outdoor smell is very coastal and fresh – it’s like rockpools. The indoor is very homely and smells like crusty bread. In fact, I think it’s called ‘crusty bread’. It’s really lovely, not saccharine at all.” Even taste is evoked, through the use of salt spray.

Visually, the design has been inspired by naturally occurring spirals – “my desk is completely covered in shells” – as well as the helical staircase of a lighthouse. Working closely with the lighting designer David Sherman, Heath has also created light panels with the colours of the Northern Lights providing the boundary of the set, but, Heath suggests, “hopefully making it look like it goes on forever”.

The complete lack of provision for adults with multiple and profound learning disabilities led Lucy Garland and Amber Onat Gregory to set up Frozen Light in 2012.

A scene from The Isle of Brimsker. Photo: JMA Photography
A scene from The Isle of Brimsker. Photo: JMA Photography

“With the Paralympics, there was a lot of talk about access, disability arts and awareness, but there still wasn’t an offer for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities,” Garland explains. “It’s a group of people that’s completely invisible in society.”

Companies such as Oily Cart and Bamboozle produce shows for children and young people. What sets Frozen Light apart is that its audience is made up of adults. “The feedback we were getting was: ‘We can’t go to the theatre.’ People aged 18 or 19 were going to see children’s work,” says Garland.

The Isle of Brimsker, the company’s fourth show, is about to embark on a huge nationwide tour to more than 50 venues. Taking work into theatre buildings, rather than performing in care homes or schools, is an important part of the company’s ethos. As Garland explains, theatres are better equipped than schools or care homes for making shows, in terms of lighting and sound. “There’s also something so calming and neutral about an empty black box. We want to create worlds.”

Asking people with complex needs to leave a space where they feel comfortable and safe can cause a great deal of anxiety. So the team ensures the theatre becomes a safe environment.

“We provide visual stories to everyone beforehand: photos of the set, the performers and the sensory elements. We explain what will happen before they get to the theatre.”

They also provide more detailed information to carers saying that it’s okay for people to make noise, to move around, to leave if they want to. And before each performance the performers meet the audience in the foyer, and take time to say hello and seat them, making sure they are comfortable.

Although Garland stresses the importance of touring work into theatres, there is an obstacle in persuading venues to programme the work in the first place. Each show only has six audience members, plus their carers, and the company is very upfront that the venue is going to make a loss. Charging about £10 per ticket, the maximum box office for two performances a day at a venue is £120.

With the venue paying a guarantee fee to Frozen Light, they’re never going to make back their investment through box office returns. But for Garland, that small audience is essential for the work they make. It’s an inherent part of making high-quality theatre for people with profound disabilities as it allows the three performers to be reactive on stage, to respond to audience members’ particular care needs, and to make direct connections with each person.

What the venue cedes financially, however, is made up in other ways. Garland and her team offer training to box office and marketing teams on how to reach audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities, and the shows themselves bring in new people to those venues. In fact 50% of the audience for Frozen Light’s first show, Tunnels, had never been to the theatre before.

“What the theatres realise is that it’s part of their remit to reach people in their whole community. And the more we tour, the more the demand for the work grows. Once venues realise there’s an audience they contact us, asking: “When can you come back?’ ”

Garland and Onat Gregory are hoping to support other artists in working with people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, helping them realise that it’s a viable way of making work.

It’s about choice. “When I go to the theatre, I can choose to see work by one particular company, but not by another one. I have a choice. But our audience can only see Frozen Light shows. Why can they not say: ‘I love what x, y and z do but I don’t really like Frozen Light’? They’re allowed to not like things, but to do that they have to have another option.”

Profile: Frozen Light

Artistic directors: Lucy Garland, Amber Onat Gregory
Number of performances (per show): 150
Number of employees:Five
Turnover: £150,000
Funding levels: £45,000 from Arts Council England Grants for the Arts for last show Home, plus income from private trusts and foundations

The Isle of Brimsker runs at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival from May 15 to 19, then tours to venues  across the UK

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