Ellie Griffiths: What does an inclusive theatre space look like?

Last week we started rehearsals for Sound Symphony – a sensory performance made specially for and with young people on the autistic spectrum. It’s been exciting getting in the room with a group of exceptional musicians and creatives to start to create the world of the show. Among other things we have been playing with live orchestral instruments, sound funnels (a phrase I think we made up!) and a range of everyday objects selected for their weird and wonderful sound-making potential.

Greg Sinclair playing the marimba while Shiori listens whilst lying down under the instrument.

As well as developing the artistic content of the show, we have been thinking a lot about our approach with our young autistic collaborators and audiences. We are keen to think about the person with the most profound needs first, not last in the creative process, so that the show is as artistically accessible as possible.

A highlight of the week was training with Max Alexander, an inclusive play consultant and writer of the inspiring blog Play Radical https://playradical.com/

Max talked about creating a space where different ways of being hold equal value.This made me think about how theatre is rooted in this idea of a ‘communal experience.’ Built into this is an assumption that everyone experiences the work in a similar way – facing front, being quiet, laughing at jokes. With our audiences it is common to have each person in the audience reacting in extremely different ways at any given point. One person might be orbiting the space, one person picking carpet tape, one person vocalizing repeatedly.

When performers are new to this work it can really throw them as they are used to validating what they are doing with reactions they recognise. Although in sensory shows the hierarchy is flipped from stage to audience, there is still an inbuilt expectation that the audience will interact with the sensory elements in a way that shows pleasure. This is the measure of success. I like Max’s provocation that an authentically inclusive, communal space means that no one has to mask who or how they really are and that there is no hierarchy of how they should interact. (Easier said than done, but we’re going to give it a good go!)

In rehearsal: Matt Padden, Shiori Usui, Ellie Griffiths, Greg Sinclair & Sonia Allori

As we start to focus on characters in rehearsals next week, I also want to make sure we represent a range of perspectives, so it is never modelled that everyone has the same way of being in the world or finds joy in the same things. To see a character content in their own world amongst the chaos of others feels relevant to some of our audience members, and important to make space for. I’m looking forward to starting to put these ideas into action next week.

Ellie Griffiths
Director and Lead Artist of Sound Symphony

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