We have reached the end of week one of Butterfly Psyche Theatre’s production of the Snow Child at the Rondo Theatre in Bath. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster of a journey which started over two years ago, but one which is proving to be an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involved and I find myself feeling very emotional at the end of our first production week.
When I was first asked to be involved with an accessible production I had no real concept of what that meant. What is accessible theatre? What makes a production accessible? So we’re just putting on a children’s show right?
What I have learnt is that actually making a production accessible is not as scary or hard as it may first sound.
This production is fairly unique in the fact that accessibility has been included from the very start of the process, not as an add-on at the end or something extra that may happen if you get chance. Including accessibility into the initial planning stages and getting the right consultancy from Include Arts has enabled the entire company to dispel our preconceived ideas of what theatre is and to work in a very open and honest way breaking through the traditional fourth wall and removing it completely.
Firstly you have to have the right team on-board and Artistic Director and Writer, Alison Farina has assembled an amazing bunch of people and has gained support from a wide variety of different sources. This has been really integral to the process – having a team that says “yes, we can make that happen!” has made a huge difference. And it truly is the whole team that have been involved including the Rondo Theatre. All areas of access have been considered and planned for in great detail.
All of the actors, crew and staff at the venue have undergone accessibility training and Alison has worked Makaton into script itself. Makaton is language programme which uses signs and symbols to help people communicate. It is designed to support, rather than replace spoken language. I have to admit I was sceptical about how this would work when I heard about it – I felt that perhaps it would jar with the performances and make them seem unnatural. But actually it has the entirely opposite effect and is so integrated into the production that it feels like it is truly just a part of it, a natural extension to what the actors are doing on stage.
From my point of view, I was tasked with creating an accessible lighting and sound design – the thought of which slightly terrified me. Having never done anything like this before I had no idea what to expect or how to achieve it. The reality – it was actually really easy to accomplish and I needn’t have worried. We had a lot of meetings and discussions about sensory items and how the show could be visually stimulating. The lighting design itself contains lots of bold and bright colours, a mirror ball, snowflake gobos (a gobo is a metal disk that has an etched shape on it which is inserted into a lantern and projects the pattern), a series of hanging light-bulbs to represent stars and a Northern Lights effect (created using a dual gobo rotator with a glass gobo in the back set to rotate slowly clockwise and a steel gobo in front with a soft focus to give the image a blurry look). There is always plenty to look at and hopefully capture the imagination. We also have a Packman snow machine which creates a realistic and safe snow effect over the stage (backlit with a couple of led batons).
Creating the main design was only part one. Because we have different types of performances (relaxed performances and performances with integrated British Sign Language), I also had to consider how these elements may change the overall design. Again I needn’t have worried, with a few very simple tweaks we managed to add in extra elements to make this work.
When you think of BSL interpreted performances you normally think of a signer stood in a spotlight at the side of the stage. That is not the case with this production. Our signer, Simon is completely integrated into the show and joins in with the action, in effect becoming the 6th member of the cast and another storyteller. We held a special rehearsal to work him into the show and make him a part of the action and it is an incredible thing to watch. Certainly it is something I have never seen done before and really adds to the piece. From a lighting point of view the main consideration was making sure that his hands were well lit at all times and that was it… Easy!
The relaxed performances were a whole different ball game and I don’t think any of us really knew quite what to expect. Relaxed performances are designed to allow ANYBODY to attend. The audience are encouraged to make noise and it is made clear from the outset that this is absolutely fine. There is also a safe soft-play area, filled with sensory toys which is outside the main auditorium and anyone can leave at any point they feel like to go there and calm down. The audience are allowed, and that’s the key thing ALLOWED to respond however they want and by giving them permission to do so creates a really friendly, open and relaxed atmosphere.
From a lighting point of view all that was needed was to keep the house lights in the auditorium on at 30% throughout the entire show so that if anyone wanted to get up and wander about they could do so safely and also so that the auditorium was never in darkness so it felt safe for those sat watching. Instead of just having house lights on I also put snowflake gobos around the auditorium which were also left on. This again created a friendly atmosphere and gave something visual to look at throughout.
From a sound point of view all that was needed was to drop the level of all the sound by about 20% to make sure there were no really loud noises that might have startled audience members. It really was as simple as that.
As a technician who has worked in a variety of different job roles including stage management and event management everything you are trained for goes out of the window. Allowing audience to invade the stage, even for the stay-and-play at the end of the shows would normally be a big no-no. You immediately just see all of the risks involved and all of the paperwork and risk assessments. It does take a while to adjust to the fact that actually this is okay to do and it does mean dropping your preconceived ideas and putting aside some of the ways you’ve been trained to be open to working in different ways. But that is just the thing – if you are open to it you can achieve anything and the fact that a small company in a small fringe venue can do this makes me question why a lot of larger theatres and companies aren’t doing more to help with the creation and integration of this type of work. It is not as hard as people think – it just takes an open mind.
Sunday was our first relaxed performance and we were all a little nervous. But actually it was one of the most beautiful things to experience and witness. Because the cast had worked on accessibility from the outset they were prepared that anything might happen. It was a very emotional experience. Here’s what I posted on Facebook about it:
“I know I keep banging on about the Snow Child but it really does feel like this production is making a huge difference to families that wouldn’t normally be able to attend theatre and is achieving more than we ever dreamed it would. Today was very emotional. A young lad kept jumping up onstage and holding hands with the actors during the show – and you know what it was totally fine – fine with the other actors who were prepared for it and fine by the rest of the audience who just accepted it. It was a really welcoming and friendly environment. A boy with severe autism came to the show. He normally wouldn’t play with other children and would run away scared. At the end he came up onstage and joined in playing with the other children. His dad, who was almost in tears said it was a massive step for him and something he would never normally do. THAT is why we do this. So proud of everyone involved right now!”
I’m still feeling very emotional writing this now, but seeing that everything you stand for and believe in can become a reality is a truly amazing experience. The arts CAN be accessible to everyone and they can help transform lives and we MUST encourage more companies to embrace this and help create opportunities for ANYONE to experience the magic of theatre and to feel that they can be included in it.
For more information about the accessible aspects of the show visit Butterfly Psyche’s Access Page
To book tickets for the production please visit the Rondo Theatre’s website
The production runs until Sunday 20 December at the Rondo Theatre in Bath with plenty of relaxed performances, BSL performances and a Big Scream performance as well.
Set Design by Natalie Remington.
Photos by Owen Benson.