What kind of family-friendly events are there at the Unlimited festival to enjoy with little ones? As Nina Muehlemann experiences her first disability arts festival as a mum, she writes about taking her son to Chickenshed’s ‘Tales from the Shed’, an interactive, inclusive performance for under-fives.
As a parent who identifies as disabled, it is extremely important to me to introduce my son Teddy, who is 18 months, to the vibrancy of disability arts and culture. The Unlimited festival provided a great opportunity for that! There were several activities especially for young children during the festival, such as the brilliant ‘Leaps and Bounds’ afternoon, where the Clore ballroom was transformed into a beautiful workshop and play area, and Pram Jam Unlimited. Other events, such as Noemi Lakmeier’s Cherophobia or the music performances, were something that we could enjoy as a family, too.
The highlight for my son was Chickenshed Theatre’s Tales from the Shed, a truly relaxed performance that included singing, dancing, puppets and live music. The show was extremely interactive, and the children learned playfully a bit of yoga, some signing and, randomly, a few words of Maltese.
There was no stage, just a level floor, during this performance. This layout meant that I, as a wheelchair user, could chase after my son if I had to, and that he could decide for himself whether he wanted to sit on my lap or interact with the performers (most of the time, it was the latter). The stageless room also meant that there was no divide between audience and performers, and many of the little children put on amusing shows themselves as they waltzed across the stage with performers dressed up as monkeys, birds and lions.
Children were very much encouraged to be active, creative and to use their imagination. Teddy loved running around on the colourful stage, exploring the puppets (his favourite was the crocodile) and repeating the dance moves of the actors.
Having said all of this, what I really missed at Unlimited was an event for children that is disability-led. Tales from the Shed felt like a mainstream production that happened to be inclusive, not a disability-led performance. I fondly remember Tin Bath Production’s play ‘Bee Detective’ which was on at Unlimited 4 years ago, where Sophie Woolley provided a playful, child-friendly exploration of different ways people access theatre (and the world), and I wish this year’s Unlimited festival, which was my first one as a mum, had provided a similar experience.
That is not to say that my son and I didn’t enjoy ‘Tales of the Shed’ immensely, because we did. It also encouraged me to nurture Teddy’s interest in performing further. We appreciated the relaxed, friendly atmosphere that the performance created – everyone, disabled or nondisabled, seemed to be welcome.
Still, for me the lack of disability-led art specifically for children was a big gap in the programme. Talking to some of the artists present at the festival, I was very heartened to hear that many enormously talented disabled artists are working to fill that gap and are developing pieces for children, even for under-fives.
I really hope that in the future, disability arts festivals like Unlimited include these pieces too so that children, too, can see performances that push beyond what the mainstream already provides.
Tales from the Shed is performed all through autumn at Chickenshed Theatre in Southgate, London.