I had no idea what to expect from ‘Hanging In the Balance’ a new show from Spectra being premiered at the mac in Birmingham on 19-20 May. Billed as an ‘All Age Outdoor Adventure’ in Cannon Hill Park, where the arts centre is located, I was intrigued and excited by the prospect of being both entertained and sustained by a mystical show using promenade theatre. There was also the enticement of ‘snacks’, which clinched it for my 10 year old daughter Emily.
As we are both wheelchair users I was keen to see how the show was kept accessible whilst travelling though various sections of what is quite a large park. How would the performers keep us engaged whilst moving between performance locations?
Unfortunately on the evening we attended the weather had unpredictable so all of the story stations had to be re-located indoors. This was no mean feat as the mac is like most Art Centres – a series of rooms and corridors, with discreet closed-door performance spaces and a main atrium.
The audience were grouped on arrival into touring parties, making the move between the different performance points smooth, with a minimum of clashes as we moved between locations. It was no easy task but it was well-produced. I think any less confident wheelchair-user may have struggled to push their way through to find a viewpoint where we could see safely. An access assistant ensuring clear sightlines for disabled people would have been a real boon.
Conversely had the outdoors been dry and useable this may well have presented its own access issues. Without seating and with a significant distance between performance points any audience members with any kind of issue with moving or standing for any length of time would have struggled.
Upon arrival into the show we were ushered into a large open space where out of sight musicians performed. We were encouraged to investigate what was in affect an installation with a collection of props or exhibits relating to elemental earth. There was a free snack station with cups to fill with wonderfully created natural nibbles to take with us on our journey as we traversed the tale Hanging in The Balance.
After the show my daughter, said she thought it was brilliant. What was particularly important was that she made no reference to the composition of the cast being of mixed cognitive and physical ability. What she saw was a visually appetising piece of fairy tale storytelling, with music, comedy, and a sense of the Vaudeville.
As an adult it is so easy to slip into critical mode, and start to critique performance styles, and individual deliveries, and intellectual content, and musical competence, and so on, but that would be the wrong approach to this kind of inclusive theatre.
If we are able to suspend reality and engage in endless superhero cinematography, made real by the use of billions dollar special effects, then we should and must be able to go back to the simplest of childhood games and allow our creative minds to play an active part in our entertainment.
The story follows fairy tale convention told through the various locations. It has ‘good’ elves, fairies and creatures of the forest and wild flora and an evil baddie intent on poisoning all. There are lairs and magic potions, playgrounds of unbalanceable objects, charms and chants and active participation with an array of hitty, bangy, shaky and blowy sound instruments.
Once immersed in the show and allowing oneself to be part of the story, then joining in and enjoying the joy of the performance was easy. Investing in the characters became easy as you get wrapped up in the entertainment factor.
I can imagine that some people might question whether using prompt boards built into the props was proper theatre. They might also criticize the casting of personal assistants as a distraction to the performance: To them I say ‘PAH’. To me these elements were part of the endearing and inventive quality of the show, and were far more engaging and creatively constructive, than for instance, a magicians assistant, because not only did the disabled actors have an active role in the story, but they also facilitated the telling of the tale.
The costumes and set design were fitting and lively adding to the sense of magic and mystique. What I thought was particularly clever was that other than the seeing opening and closing scenes at the right time it didn’t matter what route you took along the promenade, as long as you took it all in. The story was told in elemental sections, themed by earth, sun, water and fire, and gave you everything you needed to understand the resolution.
Emily described Hanging In The Balance as exciting, interactive and really fun, and that it showed that it is good to be strong but really important that everybody must learn to get along. High praise form a 10 year old interpreting the show so literally and enjoying it.
The climactic scene brought the whole cast together in a rambunctious finale with the audience joining the celebrations of the newly discovered camaraderie in the defeat of the arch-villain, and most poignantly a villain who wasn’t somehow designated evil through any impairment.
We came not knowing what to expect, we went home entertained, effervescing and enthused by the energy and depth of belief brought to us by this inventive piece of inclusive theatre.
Spectra draws on its mixed professional and learning disabled community cast to devise multi-sensory, immersive theatre and has been developed through a partnership between mac birmingham’s Next Generation programme, independent artist Kate DeRight, and Queen Alexandra College.