Museum of London
We were initially commissioned to create a new performance for groups from special schools, but ended up entirely re-evaluating how we work with all young people regardless of disability – becoming much more multi-sensory in our approach.
We began by taking part in an evaluation of how drama and theatre was used with young people from special schools and the how our new session would be developed in response to this. There were very successful storytelling sessions happening already by storytellers who were able to be flexible to the needs of the group. There were some theatre based sessions which had originally been devised for mainstream groups, (monologues by historical characters) but the success of these depended on the abilities of the group. For groups with more complex needs, if we wanted to use drama, a new approach was needed. We started off thinking about these groups but in fact the multi-sensory, participatory approach we developed is accessible to all and flexible enough to be extended for more able groups.
We began with a focus group of teachers and drama practitioners who had more experience than us at the time of working with with young people with learning disabilities and complex needs. The participants were generous in sharing examples of their good practice for example call and response games and rhymes and sensory stories. They also advised us on areas of the museum that had potential for our session. Most of the sessions for special schools at this time were outreach but there was a desire by the museum to increase the number of museum based sessions. We decided that each session would be in 2 parts: an outreach session for us to get to to know the needs of the group, them to get to know us, and a museum based participatory performance.
Over the Sea to London.
The performance happens in the Warehouse of the World gallery and begins with the sound of an ocean drum and a large sea cloth passed over the groups heads. (the group is usually no bigger than ten) They then hear the story of boats coming into the docks in the Victorian era, laden with goods. Nine puppet boats sail before them, each carrying real cargo: coffee, tea, cocoa beans, shells, feathers and so on, which they are able to smell and touch They are then put into role as workers on their first day and meet Charlie : a warehouse worker who shows them the ropes and also gives them parcels with goods to identify and interact with in a sensory way. At this point Lady Isabella arrives, a rich friend of the boss who has heard that the Golden Bird of Paradise has arrived in the docks and she is determined to buy it. The children are faced with a dilemma when Lady Isabella lets the Golden Bird of Paradise out of his cage. They take part in forum theatre to try out ways of calming the scared bird and then decide the ending of the story: whether Lady Isabella should be allowed to buy the bird or not.
At the Pleasure Gardens
Our second session takes place in the new Pleasure Gardens gallery at the Museum of London. We followed the same process in development, of working with a focus group to begin the project. The outreach session again introduces the characters and music and explores the theme of gardens with a feely bag. The group are also set the task of making and decorating their own fan to use in the session.
As with all of our sessions, the group meet us out of role and are contracted in. We show them a hat or prop that the character we are about to play will wear and also tell them the role that they are to play. The group then enters the fabulous, magical, Pleasure Gardens Gallery. It is an experiential gallery which evokes the light, atmosphere and visuals of an 18th Century Pleasure Garden. Out of role they hear the story of the Pleasure Gardens and meet some of the creatures (represented by puppets) that inhabit the garden. They are then put into role as people arriving at the Pleasure Gardens by boat on which they have to pay a penny. On arrival they meet Miss Kitty, a Lady who is also coming to the gardens for the first time. They are greeted by Horace, an artist who works at the Pleasure Gardens – who has made a fan for Miss Kitty. He takes them on a sensory tour of the gardens where they smell coffee and cake, feel the marble of the statues, hear the flute music of Handel and feel the water of the fountain. Whilst on the tour Miss Kitty’s fan is stolen by her cat. The young people take part in forum theatre to try to get the fan back and help Miss Kitty and her cat to remain friends.
Miss Kitty’s Cat
This is an early years session that developed alongside At the Pleasure Gardens. It takes place in the same gallery and has the same characters and a similar story, but is developed specifically for an early years audiences. The session begins in the same way – the group encounter the puppets in the garden.
As the children row down the river they sing row row row your boat. They meet Miss Kitty and Horace and are taken on a sensory journey through the gardens. They play musical statues instead of feeling the marble, and all pretend to drink tea and eat cake and suggest what flavour they might be eating. They also help Miss Kitty get her fan back and spend some time trying out ways of Miss Kitty and the cat becoming friends again. The session ends with the group lying on the floor looking at the stars and listening to Twinkle Twinkle played on the flute.
Since 2007, these 3 sessions have been performed to hundreds of young people from special schools and children from early years settings.