The Old Fire Station, Oxford
“Today is different.”
Today I saw a show made for teenagers and adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities. This is something of a first for me, and I went in wondering how much of a useful write-up I would be able to contribute, given that I know little of what makes for meaningful and engaging work and with PMLD audiences. As it turned out, I didn’t have to know. I could see.
The Forest uses a simple narrative framework to immerse its audience in a succession of sensory experiences. Every sense was given a range of stimuli: from confetti paper raining down on us, to sound, music and song, to scented logs to smell and feel, to rain sprayed over us, wind blowing in our faces, even a couple of moments of taste… and the list goes on. That’s not to say, though, that the show is simply a succession of sensory moments tacked together at the last minute with a story. What really struck me about the piece was how integrated everything was: the story acted as a driving force behind each new experience, which then (in part) functioned to place the audience within the story. So, for example, when the characters got cold and wet, we got cold and wet. It helps to maintain a flow and cohesion which really makes this a piece of coherent theatre, and not a series of ‘set pieces’, as it were.
Of course, I was not the primary audience for this piece, and what was fantastic to see was how well the company worked with their PMLD audience. The wonderful thing to watch was how the actors were genuinely happy to have the opportunity work with them, to engage with them in very honest terms, and to share with them. There were many moments where they came to each audience member one by one, to offer an experience which was treated with a meaningful, gentle, but playful focus. It might be a moment of song, it might be offering food, it might be a scented lotion rubbed on the hands, but whatever it was, it always became a reciprocal exchange: not just something offered from company to audience, but often something offered in return from audience and accepted by company (and quite often with genuine laughter). There was a moment when the man next to me held out his hand, and the performer singing to him simply took it, and kept hold until she had to move on – offering him thanks as she did. I’m trying hard not to come off as patronising here, but it was a very powerful thing to see such simple moments of exchange clearly meaning a great deal, both to the audience and the performers.
But then, maybe I shouldn’t worry about it being patronising, because I loved it too. I’ve been to a few sensory experiences, and I have to say that this one ranks quite high on the list. Not only did I feel like I had a wide range of sensory stimulation, but the combination of how well it integrated to the story, the playfulness, and the welcoming nature of the exchange between performers and all audience members made it a hugely engaging and satisfying experience. And some of the moments are just beautiful: in particular, a sequence using torches and small screens to create shadows – first for the audience, and then with them – was lovely. By the end of the show there was an incredible warmth in the room: everyone, from performers, to the PMLD audience, to their carers, and the odd observer like me, seemed to radiate a pleasure and a satisfaction that I don’t feel nearly enough at the end of a theatre event. It’s led me to wish there was more of this kind of work: I intellectually knew it was important before, but now I’ve felt it. We need more.