by Laura Kressly
“Welcome to the glitter zone!”
I’m greeted exuberantly by one of the actors, who are mid-yoga warmup when I arrive. Though I try my best to quietly enter their rehearsal space, I’m flustered by a series of train and tube delays that mean I arrived nearly half an hour after I intended and it’s impossible for me to not be noticed. I self-consciously wave, smile, and settle into the chair that’s closest to the door. There are musical instruments, costume, sound equipment and lots of ‘stuff’ everywhere in their Tooting rehearsal room overlook a school’s playground. And indeed, glitter.
Even part of the floor is covered with a silver, reflective material, but most of the shine comes from the costumes for Jamboree, Oily Cart’s newest show for young people aged 12+ with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). The actor who greeted me, Mark, is wearing a waistcoat of shiny green, orange and earth toned ribbons, and a feathered headpiece. The other five performers are similarly bedecked in sparkly and shimmery garb in a range of styles. There’s a futuristic, tailored jumpsuit, a flowing dress of sheer silver that reminds me of an angel or a fairy, an elaborately beaded top hat, pink glitter Doc Martens, and other incredible pieces. The bright and shiny style immediately reminds me of all the different variations of Birds of Paradise that live in Papua New Guinea (when I’m not at the theatre in the evening, I watch nature documentaries).
It turns out the 42 individual species of bird with dramatically different variations in colour, song and feather is a fitting metaphor for this gig-theatre show. It isn’t just made for young people with PMLD, young people with PMLD helped make it. Some of the actor-musician cast were on placement at local SEN (special educational needs) school Linden Lodge, which specialises in educating students with visual impairment (VI), multiple disabilities including VI, and students with PMLD. Every song in the show is based on a student they met – sounds they make, responses they have to different instruments, or aspects of their personalities are evident in the tunes. Short introductions provide a bit of context about each young person, but the best way to understand them is to contemplate the unique characteristics of each song.
Adding to the rich, visual landscape of the rehearsal room, are the scripts. They are completely different from what I normally picture when I think of a script; here they are series of illustrations and symbols and taped to the walls for easy reference. There are some bits of text, but rather than pages of only words, there are five to six sheets of A4 in a row, each row representing the staging for a song, or the overall order of the show. Disabled musician and cast member Robyn talks me through them on one of the tea breaks, showing me her blocking for one of the numbers. Each performer is a distinct symbol, with arrows and other markings showing where they stand at what moment. These relics of the devising process may look simple, but they indicate a precise dramaturgy that is suitable for performers who learn their staging, lines and songs in different ways. It also reflects their audience demographic who experience theatre and performance through a rich collage of sights and sounds rather than an intricately worded story.
There isn’t time to run through of the full show, but it’s clear the cast are pretty much ready for their upcoming opening. At this point in the rehearsal process, director and new company Artistic Director Ellie Griffiths makes small tweaks to the staging and helps the performers solidify the introduction, a lengthy process allowing for the young people to acclimate to the characters and the performance space. Everything is precise and centred on the audience and their needs. Nothing Griffiths asks of the performers is generalised, even though parts of the piece depend on the young people and their carers’ needs and reactions. They performers explore and improvise there way through a variety of scenarios, like how to support anyone who is deaf, and what to do to comfort and soothe a young person who may be feeling anxious.
Throughout the day, I’m continuously impressed by the processes that put inclusion at the centre of the theatremaking process rather than tacked on as an after-thought shortly before opening night. Whilst teenagers with PMLD is a very specific audience demographic, surely considering access more broadly can be part of the starting point of any new piece of theatre. Keeping those needs in mind throughout the rehearsal and development process means that access provisions become an innate part of the storytelling and are fully integrated into the show. Theatre would be richer, more welcoming and more radical for it.
Jamboree tours the UK over 2019 and 2020.
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