Kate Lovell interviews co-artistic directors of Frozen Light Lucy Garland and Amber Onat Gregory about the process of creating an in-home experience for audiences of adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities.
There’s nothing more exciting than a parcel landing on your front doorstep. Frozen Light’s sensory Rebel Pack, accompanying their film 2065: The Multi-Sensory Movie, is stimulating from the get-go in its large box labelled “Archive Records 2063 – 2065”. Peeling off the lid, it’s tempting to immediately open each of the carefully wrapped objects which accompany the film’s narrative. The instructions laid on top give you the option to explore the items along with the film, or to check them out beforehand to help familiarise yourself with the story. There’s also encouragement to set the scene: dim the lights, build a den, lay out the props and get ready for the performance. The attention to detail is exquisite.
2065 started life (and will tour in the future) as an in-person theatre show. Garland explains:
“We always start our shows thinking about the sensory aspect we want to explore with the audience. That’s always led by the previous tour, what we’ve seen the audience enjoy and like.
Our shows before this, the sensory had been taken from the outside and nature. And we really wanted to look at: actually, what does an industrial world look like?”
The show is set in a dystopian future where people live under an oppressive regime and some become rebels who wish to escape from their enforced isolation. Watching it during a global pandemic, the parallels with real-world situations were startling. Onat-Gregory jokes: “It was life imitating art”.
“But even in pre-pandemic times, we were feeling this very overt capitalism and oppressive leaders in the world and the impact that this has on our audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities.”
2065 is striking because, whilst the sensory is front and centre, the narrative is equally strong, as well as the music which is played on film by the musician-actors.
This is in contrast to some other sensory-led work for adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities, which can be more abstract in form, letting the sensorial experience fully take the lead.
Garland and Onat-Gregory are “both very passionate about the power of stories. Everybody has a human right to access stories. Story is the way you learn about life and you start reading stories to babies as soon as they’re born.”
“And so for us, it really feels like our audience have a right to a story. We can’t assume to know what our audience get out of that story. But that’s why our work has layers. So there’s a story. There’s an emotional narrative. There’s music, there’s lights, there’s sensory, there’s one-to-one engagement. And it might be that somebody only gets something out of the music, or it might be that they really go on that narrative journey with us. But everything in our work is an offer.”
The selecting of props to include in an at-home experience, where Frozen Light’s team would not have the ability to fully curate their use, was no mean feat.
“We had to work out: how do we take what’s in the theatre show, which is custom made specific sensory items, and change them to fit within this sensory box that can go out to people en masse?”
There is some laughter when discussing the choice of the mini battery-powered fan, twinned with a pocket torch, which creates a particularly spectacular accompaniment to a helicopter with searchlights arriving in the film’s narrative: “I don’t want to have to tell you about the journey we’ve been on with that fan.” The painstaking care taken to choose just the right props is evident and makes the experience of watching 2065 so distinctive and exceptional.
The high quality of the sensory pack was important for another reason, Garland and Onat-Gregory share that “it’s also really important to us for our audience to know how valued they are. I think so often people with profound learning disabilities aren’t made to feel valued by society. Everything we do in our work, we go okay, let’s make it the best quality, I almost sometimes think it has to be better, because our audience aren’t going to go and slag us off on the internet.”
2065 will be touring in a theatre form in late 2021 and throughout 2022 – but Onat-Gregory and Garland are far from nervous about their audiences feeling they’ve been there, done that and got the mini-fan.
Fantastically, Frozen Light have a regular audience panel who always inform their work by giving feedback on early iterations.
Asking them whether they would still be interested in the live show having already watched the film, the response was clear:
“What’s amazing for people with profound learning disabilities is repetition. With our live shows, we always provide visual stories, which are photos and little bits about our work, before the show. But this is the world’s most epic visual story. So you can watch it, you can actually see the actors what they look like. And with this sensory pack, what it might feel like and what it might smell like so that then when those audiences who have seen the film come to the theatre show, they’re going to be so much more prepared, and their anxiety levels will be less, and they’ll be kind of more excited and ready to go with it.”
Onat-Gregory and Garland speak of their initial nervousness to make digital work, “we’re not filmmakers”, and creating 2065: The Multi-Sensory Movie did take time. But Frozen Light are not ones to twiddle their thumbs: “when the pandemic first hit, and we lost that contact with our audience, we realised we really need to reach out to people’s carers to continue the conversation and start new conversations”. This led to the launch of the Frozen Light podcast, ensuring that the company maintained a meaningful connection with their audiences, elevating the needs, concerns and opinions of a group too often forgotten.
Most outstanding in a conversation with the artistic directors of Frozen Light is their creative care, their long-gathered expertise and openness to continually respond to the audience their work serves. A truly unique company whose work can necessarily be seen by smaller audiences, but whose impact is immense.
2065: The Multi-Sensory Movie was sent into the audience’s homes in March 2021 and tickets sold out in record time.
All the Frozen Light podcasts are available to download on their website or through your usual podcast provider.