At Replay Theatre Company in Belfast, Northern Ireland, part of the organization’s mission is to provide meaningful arts experiences to children and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties and those who live and work with them. Their current production for students with disabilities is Into the Blue, a show in a pool featuring actors who sing an original score.
We had a chance to speak with Janice Kernoghan, Replay’s artistic director, and Anna Newell, director of Into the Blue and former artistic director at Replay, about the show and the company’s other work with students for disabilities.
VSA: Tell us about what happens at a performance of Into the Blue.
Janice Kernoghan: Three pupils attend each show, each with an adult companion (who could be a teacher, teaching assistant, parent, etc.). We tour the show to special school hydropools across Northern Ireland, so our audiences are pupils from each school we visit. This increases accessibility as it means no travel for children for whom travel can be disruptive and/or difficult. Into the Blue is currently on its second tour, and on both tours we have also performed it in the hydropool of the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice.
We send schools a social story for the show in advance so that students can get an idea of exactly what happens at a performance. Three performers sing the entire 20-minute show in three-part harmony. The performances always have a ratio of one actor to one child. This means that the actors can be completely attuned to the reactions and preferences of the child they are working with. This intensive interaction is central to all of Replay’s work with children with disabilities. Each different song in Into the Blue represents a different feeling of being in water—gentle waves, bubbling whirlpool, open seas. To accompany these changes in mood there are different props used, including colanders and reflective mirrored globes. You’ll find video footage of the show on our website.
VSA: What was the inspiration for creating the piece?
Anna Newell: I’d always had the plan to make a show in a pool for children and young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties, inspired by our contact with [UK children’s theater company] Oily Cart who had made a very different piece in the same unusual environment. Much of my work for both the very young and children with disabilities involves substantial use of harmony singing. There is something ultimately, beautifully, and viscerally connective about human voices singing in harmony. And the pool is one of the few environments where children and young people who are anxious find calm […and] have a (literally) more fluid kinaesthetic experience. So it made sense to me to put these two things together.
VSA: What was the development process like?
Anna Newell: Practically, we would spend the mornings learning the sung score and the afternoons taking the singing into the pool with audience members. This show is incredibly responsive to each audience member and is a totally different bespoke experience each time, with the performers nuancing the show in tacit dialogue with the audience both as individuals and as a group. And whilst there are initial conversational openers—gentle droplets of water dripped on hands, floating reflective globes, cascading colanders—during the development process, the children and young people in all their extraordinary diversity are training the performers to be able to create a blissful watery adventure that is developed/devised in the moment substantially led by the audience. Some shows are very, very splashy and energized, others are very, very gentle, some are cheeky and playful, and others are intensely intimate; some are all of these at the same time in different corners of the pool with different audience members.
When I was creating the first ever show I made as Replay’s artistic director for this audience, I had a massive personal revelation about what theatre meant to me. These children and young people revealed to me that what I think theatre is, is very simply one human being communicating with and connecting with another human being. And my job as director is to create the optimum conditions for this communication, for this connection. Into the Blue does this, I think, really uniquely, with its combination of a blissful environment, David Goodall’s exquisite vocal score, and performers who have been trained through the development process (and trained by their audience as much as by myself) to listen intently with all their senses and to find the connection, to find the conversation, and to travel on the adventure together with their audience.
VSA: Does Replay have any other productions or programs happening this year for students with disabilities?
Janice Kernoghan: Replay always has a production for young audiences with disabilities in development. Into the Blue is the last project for audiences with disabilities during 2016; however, in February we will be continuing development work on our brand-new show Yes Sir, I Can Boogie. The show is designed for children ages 3-7 with physical disabilities who may not always be able to get on the dance floor. Yes Sir, I Can Boogie is a party of a show where everyone gets to get on down, and is an upbeat celebration around the joy of dance and movement.
Next year we will also be retouring Snoozle & The Lullabugs, a rockabilly-rockabye show for children under age 5 with profound and multiple learning difficulties or severe learning difficulties, which can also be enjoyed by under 5s without disabilities. In the show, Snoozle wants to stay up and rock, but his band, The Lullabugs, just want to go to sleep. Using everything at their disposal, including chilled-out doo-wop harmonies and calming sensory activities, The Lullabugs try every trick in the book…but Snoozle will not be easily swayed. The audience decide for themselves and vote with their eyelids who wins this battle of the band.
For more information about Replay Theatre Company and Into the Blue, visit their website, http://www.replaytheatreco.org/. There is also an article about Into the Blue on the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s website.