Innovative and Inclusive Theater for Young Audiences with Disabilities in the UK

Oily Cart actors in Pool Piece

Oily Cart actors present POOL PIECE, a theatrical show done in hydrotherapy pools for young people with complex disabilities including autism.

Nothing thrills an audience quite like a great, live theatrical performance. Two innovative theater companies in the United Kingdom, Kazzum and Oily Cart, are making sure young audience members with disabilities are fully engaged in the excitement of live performances. We spoke to artistic directors Daryl Beeton of Kazzum and Tim Webb of Oily Cart to learn more about their approaches to inclusive theater for young audiences.

For more than 25 years, Oily Cart has been offering fun, non-traditional, and multisensory theatrical experiences to young audiences with disabilities. Artistic Director Tim Webb says the company mostly works with children who have profound and multiple learning disabilities, many of whom are nonverbal or have mobility restrictions. According to Webb, “…no matter what the level of impairment or disability, if we have sufficient time and the right kind of space, then we can break through and communicate with one another and that enables our audiences to be a part of the [theatrical] world.”

Oily Cart artists

Oily Cart actors in SOMETHING IN THE AIR, a show for young people with complex disabilities, featuring an acrobatic ensemble and seats that swing, spin, and bounce in the air.

In the coming months, Oily Cart will produce two theatrical works designed specifically for young audiences with complex disabilities. One is a revival of a show called The Bounce that combines trampolines, music, projections, and textures to give participants every opportunity for theatrical engagement.

The other show on Oily Cart’s upcoming schedule is called The Two Day Wonder, and it will tour to special education schools. Oily Cart artists will spend two days with the students at each school, sharing the story of a “visitor from the stars” and celebrating differences between the students and their visitor. Webb says the company works with the schools to ensure the performance is not a one-off event, introducing the characters ahead of time via YouTube to build anticipation and suggesting ways the “people from the stars” can be a stimulus to further classroom learning.

Kazzum actors in their original show ADDRESSED TO A FRIEND.

Kazzum actors in their original show ADDRESSED TO A FRIEND.

Kazzum, another UK theater company for young audiences, calls itself “quietly inclusive.” Artistic director Daryl Beeton says they chose that phrase “…because our inclusive approach is in every project and activity [we] do.” Beeton further explains, “We believe that anyone who wants to be involved in Kazzum…is entitled to expect the same [thing]: a high quality experience that will entertain them and stimulate their imaginations.”

Kazzum thinks about the inclusion of students with disabilities within all of its programs, and strives to create work that can be engaged with by all. Still, Beeton acknowledges the need to sometimes create projects from a more disability-focused perspective (these Kazzum productions are always open to all).

Kazzum is currently developing a new, more disability-focused show called Where’s My Nana? This outdoor family show is designed for marketplaces, shopping areas, and festival environments. The piece is directed and performed by a cast of artists with and without disabilities. Beeton says audience members will wear headphones and become immersed in the world of the lead character, Chantelle, as she searches for her nana.

Kazzum actors

Kazzum artists in their show WAITING GAME.

The use of headphones allows audio description to be integrated within the live show. Since the character of Nana has a hearing impairment, Chantelle also uses sign language throughout the performance. According to Beeton, “The use of creative access within Where’s My Nana? provides an accessible adventure for anyone who wishes to take part, at any time!”

To those artists and arts organizations who want to make themselves more inclusive, Beeton suggests getting out and seeing work that is targeted at young audiences with disabilities. “I think the main barrier to creating inclusive work,” Beeton says, “is that people are not sure of what it actually means…I only feel confident and comfortable about making inclusive work because I’ve tried, experimented, and made a lot of mistakes along the way.”

Webb encourages artists to “be flexible, be playful, and be needed” when working with students with disabilities. He also suggests making multisensory offerings within a performance and seeing how the students react, then adapting the performance to capitalize on the reactions.

Finally, Beeton urges anyone who is interested in learning about, creating, or programming inclusive work for young audiences to visit the International Inclusive Arts Network website, where they will find resources, blog entries, and a database of companies working inclusively around the world.

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