Brian Hayward attends a production where all the senses are stimulated, from spoken and signed scripts to disgusting smells
A company specialising in performance for sensory-deprived children is developing a unique art form.
Giant Productions, a Glasgow-based company born of the city's Year of Culture (1990), responded to the political demand for inclusivity in the arts with absolute logic. It set about staging performances that could be simultaneously enjoyed by audiences of all ages, abilities, and sensory capacities.
Although at first sight this might seem like a dumbing down, it has driven them towards finding ways of enriching performance by making a "theatre of all the senses". While their sets are visually exciting and their scripts, whether spoken or signed or both, are lively, also important are those episodes where we need our senses of smell, touch and, yes, even taste.
This month, Giant tours Scotland and Northern Ireland with Up the Stairs and in the Attic, a production they have had in occasional repertoire since 2002. Repertoire is something children's theatre companies are beginning to develop; children are a renewable resource and a successful production, like a good lesson plan, has a shelf life.
New to the production is Erika - Rebecca (Bec) Phipps - the grand-daughter who pesters Grandad (Stewart Ennis) into playing her make-believe games in what he hoped would be his refuge in the attic. Because audience involvement is all-important, no distinction is made between set and auditorium; the audience are in the teasingly asymmetric "attic" with the actors, partners rather than watchers of the story in which action is interaction.
Because it is an attic, it can be filled with extraordinary objects, an eclectic mix of shapes, materials and colours that Phipps can invest with different kinds of life and purpose. We hear footsteps on the stairs, rain on the roof and the pair play and sing to guitar and a skiffle tea chest to add live music to David Topliff's stimulating soundtrack.
Halfway though the hour, the production jumps into a more fantastical mode. Closing down the acting space with curtaining, the actors press up against, and into, the audience as they take journeys into the depths of the sea and into the ether. Black theatre and puppets make the octopus and fish swim among us, inviting us to touch the soft tentacles and hard scales.
In the ether, we fly through the rainbow, each changing colour having its story. We share the aromas of flowers, revived by freely-administered miniature water sprays, and a foul-smelling box of unmentionables. Sadly, the production budget didn't run to indulging the taste buds in anything more vicarious than Grandad's chocolate bar. And there was a satisfying narrative thread.
I saw it in the company of a select (P2-7), 30-strong audience from Craigmillar Primary in Edinburgh, and headteacher Lindsey Robertson was in no doubt of the value of the experience. "The children were entranced from beginning to end," she said. "The wonderful thing is that they were part of the play. It wasn't something just to watch, they were involved, they could participate. It was absolutely magical."
This kind of encomium is not unusual for Giant, and it seems almost superfluous for the company to recommend the production as a contribution to A Curriculum for Excellence, specifically in the four capacities of successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens. To this end, every teacher is given a 20-page pack, with special help for teachers without a background in arts work.
As the tour began, the company learned of its omission from the Scottish Arts Council's "flexible funding" list. Although executive director Karen Shaw is disappointed that its uniquely inclusive children's theatre work has not been recognised, she is adamant that they will seek funding from other sources and "continue to deliver high-quality creative arts adventures to schools".
T 0141 334 2000; www.giantproductions.org
Aware that his Imaginate Festival, "the world's best theatre for children and young people", is too good to be confined to Edinburgh, Tony Reekie is striving to make the programme available to interested teachers in other parts of Scotland. After the Edinburgh bonanza of 15 productions in 10 days (May 24-June 2), four of the plays will hit the road. My House is Andy Manley's story for pre-school audiences at Glasgow Citizen's Theatre and Falkirk. Former children's laureate Michael Morpurgo has reworked three of Aesop's Fables for children aged five and over, at the Citizens. The Italian Rodisio company takes its Wolf and the Goat (6-plus) to six theatres from Dunfermline to Dumfries, and Fairplay Theatre from Denmark travels furthest, playing Next Door (8-plus) in Castle Douglas and Inverness, via Glasgow and Dunfermline.
The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow is making up its own mini children's theatre festival and calling it "Shine", adding two of its own shows to its imports from Edinburgh (May 21-June 7, then touring).
Liar, by Davey Anderson, is the story of Little Lizzie and her overactive imagination (according to her mother), and what happens when a weird old woman in a caravan appears on the other side of the canal. It is a tale of mystery and adventure, with live singing inspired by Scottish Traveller songs (eight to 12 years).
Little Otik (from Vanishing Point) is inspired by the cult Czech film-maker Jan Svankmajer's macabre and fantastical story of the tree stump carved to look like a baby, that grow, and develops a gargantuan appetite. Look for the tender human story alongside the dark humour and surreal horror, in a play for children aged 12 and over.
T 0141 429 0022.