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Sensory, inclusive, accessible theatre fun for all

With Sara Cole, Artistic Director, Head2Head Theatre

Most people love the pantomime at Christmas. But when you have learning disabilities or sensory issues, it can be hard to tolerate the noise, the crowds, the loud music -- all the sensory issues that come with a children's theatre-going experience.

There are a number of theatre companies around the country that are inclusive or adapted for disabled children. Head2Head, based in Surrey, recreates plays and pantomimes so the performances are accessible to all, as well as interactive. They even stage pre-show familiarisation sessions to help those children who need preparation to enjoy the show.

A few years ago, I met the theatre's Artistic Director Sara Cole, at a women's business lunch group we attended. Her enthusiasm bubbled over for her work and I'm delighted to be able to share the story of the group here today.

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Accessible and inclusive sensory theatre fun for everyone by Sara Cole, Head2Head Theatre

Here at Head2Head Sensory Theatre, we create accessible theatre for young people with additional needs, from curriculum-based installations and our take on well-known stories, to traditional family pantomimes.  More about this year’s panto later!

The creation of Head2Head Sensory Theatre came about after our founder, Anni, worked at the RNIB in Redhill and met David, a young adult who was blind and physically disabled.  His father said that "drama is the only way David can access the world".  So in 2005, Anni set up a not-for-profit company employing undergraduates as performers.  The company spent six weeks travelling around special needs units, visiting them on a weekly basis, rehearsing with students aged 14-19 to perform in their school pantomime written specifically for the event, 'The Small Kingdom'.  Teachers said it was very empowering for the children.  

Touring theatre shows

Over the following years, H2H extended its work to touring shows during holiday periods throughout South-East England so the whole family could enjoy an inclusive theatre experience.  These are promenade shows that move around the SEN school from space to space and are close-proximity, immersive, interactive, multi-sensory and Makaton signed. We pride ourselves that our shows are very much relaxed performances in that whatever the participants wish to contribute we just go with it!  Many a time we have gone completely off-script to incorporate a young person’s flight of imagination and we love it!

Pandemic performances

performing Merlin on Zoom
Zooming to the theatre

Needless to say, lockdown 2020 provided some challenges for our kind of work.  In March, with our tour cancelled, I did a quick re-write of Come Trot to Camelot. This was then filmed in our family back garden with just me and my daughter performing, and my husband roped in as cameraman. The neighbours must have wondered what we were up to with a castle drawbridge on our decking!  

Even virtually, we maintained Head2Head’s multi-sensory and interactive style by supplying an advance pack with all the bits and bobs needed for joining in with the video.  We encouraged viewers to joust, become Will-o’-the-Wisps, collect jewels, mend the round table, be knighted, dance around a maypole and, of course, Makaton sign.  Come Trot to Camelot had a great reception as you will see from Merlin the Magician at home:

“What a fabulous way to spend the morning. My son, who has special needs, beamed from start to finish and made a fabulous Merlin.” 

Virtual, multi-sensory performances

Over summer 2020, we produced three separate Zoom multi-sensory shows, again all Makaton signed and with accompanying advance packs to help families prepare.  In Beachcombers & Mudlarking, there was mucking about in cereal-sand and chocolate-mud; in Toad’s Totally Awesome Adventure, discovering slimy pondweed and in Hatter’s Hectic Tea Dance, buttering yummy scones.

“The session you ran was superb in many ways; it was fun, it really held attention, it was organised both in terms of helping us prepare for the session and also in delivering the session, and above all it was inclusive at all levels.   A great success and a refreshing change that was really appreciated at this time.”

Zooming into Christmas

Christmas 2020, we filmed our panto, Cinderella!  This video was not only accompanied by an advance pack but also Zoom sessions with a panto character running a fun workshop for schools and families to prepare for their pantomime.  

Since then, there have been further Zoom shows: the Stevie Solvesit series and Blackbeard’s Revenge. We even ventured into a fun and interactive game, Can You Find Neverland, which was accompanied by videos available on our YouTube channel.

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Creating work opportunities

This year, we instigated our Work Experience and Professional Placement programme.  We are offering opportunities to young people with SEND to gain experience with acting, stage management, directing and front-of-house duties, as well as employing young actors with SEND to play professional roles alongside us.  Working in conjunction with the Orpheus Centre based in Godstone, we Zoom-auditioned loads of young actors for the role of J Crick the Cricket in Piccolo Pinocchio.  They were all so brilliant, so it was hard to make a choice!  However, we were delighted to offer the role to Lauren.

Lauren

“I enjoyed the carnival dance because it was so much fun to do and also because I did it with the other actors.”  

Lauren Masser (Actor)

 

Lauren was a real star!  And I’m pleased to say we have another star in our film Piccolo Pinocchio.  We were very fortunate to have been provided with the vocal skills of Phil “Mister Maker” Gallagher in the role of the whale

"I am so pleased and proud to be a small part of Piccolo Pinocchio.  It is a pleasure to support Head2Head Sensory Theatre and I wish all the team, cast and creatives my very best wishes.  I can't wait to see the finished film!" 

Phil Gallagher (from "Mister Maker")

Phil Gallagher

From there, we employed another Orpheus graduate in our history spectacular, Canvas Castles.  Thomas was outstanding in the role of Alex.

Thomas Puttock
Thomas Puttock

Where are we at now?  Well I’m delighted to say that we will once again be touring live!  We've loved getting back out there to meet our families again; it's is what we’ve been waiting for these past long months.  Being able to provide an inclusive theatre experience that the whole family can enjoy is what Head2Head Sensory Theatre is all about.  So we hope to see you at future performances. Please visit our What’s On page for further information for all available shows.

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