Outside their comfort zones

14th October 2005 at 01:00
The demands of drama are often watered down for pupils with learning disabilities. Elaine Williams talks to a theatre-in-education company that believes in exposing them to the full range of emotions.

Charlotte is holding her head and moaning. "It's too upsetting," she intones over and over again. Her teachers expect the distress to overwhelm her and all hell to break loose.

What she is witnessing is undoubtedly disturbing. A man is drowning before her, thrashing in the water until his body is stilled by death. Her clothes are damp from the splashes of his death throes. Her fellow pupils are throwing flowers onto his lifeless corpse; his lover is lamenting her loss.

Charlotte, who is autistic, is being stretched to her emotional limit.

She is one of an audience watching Daughter of the Wind created and performed by Interplay, a theatre company in Leeds which specialises in productions for children with profound and multiple sensory impairment. The play, inspired by the tales of Ovid, presents the drama of Alceyone and Ceyx, a tragedy in which Alceyone's husband drowns at sea on a quest to save his country.

Interplay has been developing theatre for young people with learning disabilities for the last 30 years, but when Steve Byrne took over as director six years ago, he was determined to move away from "happy clappy performances" and to produce full-blooded pieces of drama to give disabled children the emotional range experienced by everybody else.

"I felt that theatre in special schools was in danger of becoming ghettoised," he says. "Sensory experience has to be more than wafting bits of cloth around."

Interplay has thought long and hard about what is accessible to those with profound and multiple sensory impairment.

"I think it means bringing the audience into the drama as much as possible," says Steve Byrne. "I think it means bringing children as close as possible to actors who are going through very powerful emotions."

Daughter of the Wind is staged in a unique portable dome which allows for intense theatrical experiences. Charlotte, 14, is one of 20 pupils from St Giles special school in Retford, Nottinghamshire, invited into the dome, which is parked in the middle of the school's assembly hall, by actors dressed as gypsies.

The audience surrounds the tiny stage in the dome's intimate setting. The pupils from St Giles are transfixed as musicians and actors take them through the narrative, inviting them to hear, touch, smell, taste the action. The stage is transformed into a marriage bed before their eyes then the bedclothes are pulled away to reveal a wooden boat beneath.

They are transfixed as the sail is raised and the wind blows, as Ceyx sets out on his sea journey and Alceyone is consumed by grief. Although the pupils are clearly shaken by unfolding events, they are completely held by the spectacle.

"To experience story is a human right," says Steve Byrne. "Until I joined Interplay, I had always worked in mainstream theatre and I had no idea that so many children were cut off from literature, from the great, consuming narratives."

He felt that many productions for children with disabilities lacked rigour and that audiences were often too large so that some were excluded from the narrative altogether. The dome, he says, is a way of bringing the otherness of theatre into the school. It creates a magical space totally divorced from everyday school life.

Last year Interplay worked with Creative Partnerships, the government organisation promoting the arts in schools, to take Daughter of the Wind into schools in Yorkshire. They are also working on a drama about migration and transit camps drawing inspiration from Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the music of Woody Guthrie and Dorothy Lang's photographs of migrant labourers in the Deep South of the United States in the early 20th century.

John Hastings-Thomson is key stage 3 co-ordinator at St Giles. He believes his pupils should have access to the range of experiences available to children in mainstream schools. "Good education is about learning as a life experience," he says, "which means sometimes that you have to operate outside your comfort zone. If we didn't challenge these children we would be letting them down."

He had taken digital images during the performance of the play which he would use, he says, to explore with pupils emotions like love and loss.

"It's about facing up to what life throws at us." A young woman like Charlotte, he says, would obviously be disturbed by the turbulence of such a theatrical performance, but her seeing it through to the end was a fantastic step forward, a milestone in her emotional journey.

Interplay plans a second tour of Daughter of the Wind this academic year.

For further details, tel 0113 263 8556 or go to www.interplaytheatre.org

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