Gordon Hewitt from The Monthly speaks with Andrew Stanford, the Inclusion Lead Artist with Replay Theatre

Replay is a Children’s Theatre Company which creates theatre for younger audiences; the company has been doing this since 1988. Andrew Stanford is the Lead Inclusion Artist who manages the inclusive programme known as the Up! programme. The Up! programme creates bespoke theatre productions for young disabled audiences.

The funding for this programme comes primarily from Children in Need, ACNI and Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and the programme has been in existence for 6 years. Andrew has been fulltime since 2016 and was a freelance artist from 2012.

There will be a new show “Tribe” designed for autistic and neurodivergent audiences which will tour in September and October this year.

What exactly do you do?

Replay has four streams of work. We have work for our early years audiences, our work for primary school age audiences, and our work for teenagers or post primary children.

The work that I am responsible for, the fourth stream, is called the UP! Programme, which works across all the age groups, and is where we create unique, bespoke, sensory theatrical adventures for disabled audiences, such as autistic and/or neurodivergent young people or children with Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD).

Is the work specifically for disabled children and young people?

Yes. It would be reasonable to say that the children we design our inclusive productions for would never otherwise have access to more traditional forms of theatre.

As well as the occasional visit to theatre venues, the work we create is mostly toured to special schools, to disability centres, to hospices, to settings that are familiar to the intended audience.

You create the shows and tour them?

I started work with Replay way back in 2012 on a show called “Bliss”, which was Replay’s first major production developed for an audience with PMLD; it was a pirate adventure set out at sea, and we toured that show with a professional set to various settings.

We have toured more and more productions specifically tailored for that type of audience as we have progressed; we are continually learning and developing our practice.

We will be touring our new show, “Tribe” this year, the show has been designed especially for autistic and neurodivergent audiences. This show will open in The Lyric in September.

Photo – Neil Harrison – Tribe

What makes this type of theatre unique?

I think we have to explain firstly that the inclusive theatre we are creating is designed specifically for a particular demographic. It is designed for disabled young people and so we cater for their needs, how they experience things, how we have to convey ideas, experiences; it has to work purely for them.

On that basis our work is inclusive because it targets an audience who require a particular approach in order to access theatre. I don’t think we are at the stage socially, societally, whereby everyone would be able to participate in this type of theatre without sacrificing the quality of the engagement, as you attempt to accommodate a wider range of audience. This is why each show we make is designed for a specific group of young people, to better meet their creative needs in a more accessible way.

In order to produce this type of theatre, we spend a lot of time developing techniques, doing evaluations, working with and listening to our audiences and then developing our shows accordingly.

Our process of creative consultation enables us to work alongside the audience to learn what it is that they need. We believe this offers an empowering experience to our audience, as the young people we work with significantly and directly influence the theatre we create.

And how would you describe the theatre you create?

We create sensory theatre, so a lot of our work uses music, movement, light and smell. Many of our inclusive productions are nonverbal and every one is delivered with at least a 1:1 ratio of performer to audience member. In other words, in a show for 6 audience members, there will be 6 performers. It is a very intimate experience.

So each audience member is engaged with by this type of approach?

Yes and this allows the actors to connect closely with the audience member they are performing for.

We are offering an intensive interaction with one to one engagement which produces substantial results. It improves communication skills, it increases happiness, it empowers the children we work with, as well as improving their social development. These are the objectives that we set ourselves and we relate that to our funders so that they are clear what it is that we achieve.

Would these techniques be used elsewhere?

It isn’t dissimilar to the methods teachers use to communicate with young people with PMLD or those who have other disabilities. We use similar strategies and add to that with our experience as well as our own observations in delivering the work.

How do you go about designing this type of theatre?

If we look at “Tribe”, our latest production, from the first stage of development, it took maybe 18 months to work with the potential audience to work out what was needed to deliver the concept.

After that first phase, we would work with actors, and again the audience, to develop the show further. We emphasise the quality and the depth of our engagement with the audience members. In this case, with Tribe, the ratio is one audience member to three actors.

And the aim of this production is to create an immersive environment where the audience member can actually direct the engagement. The communication by the audience member is incorporated into the show and the performance. That audience member has to be a bridge to the performer.

So, if there is a section of the show which is going to be sung, that can be manipulated by the audience member, the song can be made louder or quieter, more lively or more subdued, depending on the engagement.

The actors that you work with must be specially trained?

We are very lucky that now we work with actors who have been through productions of this type of work and are highly experienced regarding sensory theatre.

We are very careful about who we choose to work with, and we would be one of the few possibilities that professional actors would have to do this sort of work, so we regularly offer opportunities to local performers to train with us and enhance their inclusive performance skills.

Just recently we held Inclusive Performer training which lasted for 1 week and it was free. We had 23 actors, 8 disabled and 15 non-disabled actors, none of whom had worked with us on an inclusive production before.

I facilitated that training with 2 very experienced inclusive actors and at the end of that week the participants had an opportunity to perform their work to an audience.

Replay is the only place that offers training like this?

We would be one of the few places actors could receive this training.

They get trained in our techniques and our approach, and we take great care to create a safe environment for the actors to introduce their work to an audience and for the audience to be introduced to the actors.

It probably takes, for most of our productions, the best part of 3 years to create and develop a show. There are a number of phases that we have to go through.

For Tribe, we spent a week long residency in an Autism Residential School called Priors Court in Reading in England. We observed the classes, the techniques, the strategies, the methods used to communicate ideas and we looked at that to see if we could learn useful strategies for us to use.

After that we spent a week here in Belfast with the same creative team who went to the residential and we worked on the show. We worked on creative development, on how we would convey the key ideas of the production and we would test those ideas with the intended audience so we could start to shape the piece of theatre.

I would expect that this would be quite expensive?

It is true that this requires funding and we put a lot of effort into explaining what it is that we do and why it matters.

We have primary funding for this work from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Children in Need and ACNI, and of course we have to search for funds from other avenues.

We are recognised as specialists in the area that we work in. Because of that we are in a reasonably good position to argue our case, but it’s always a fight to secure the future of our inclusive work, especially considering the crisis our arts industry is experiencing here in NI.

Do the funders have to be well-versed in the areas you are working in?

Yes and no. As I said we are good at explaining to funders what it is we do. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland declares that everyone should have the right and provision to access suitable arts experiences.

The demographic that Replay work with in the UP! programme need special consideration, and it’s imperative that we, as a sector, continue to make that argument to people who fund arts organisations.

It is true that Replay has to look further afield to access funds just like all arts organisations do given the present funding climate.

The kind of theatre you produce would seem to have wider applications?

As I’ve said, we are the only theatre company that does this sort of work here in Northern Ireland, and one of just a handful globally. While we continue to explore how we can make this work more universal, our main focus will always be the audience that we work with and cater for in Northern Ireland. That is what I am primarily responsible for.

I would like to see us continue to develop more material and broaden our provision to a wider range of audience, which would give disabled children and young people a much greater choice than what they have now.

When you or I go to a movie, or engage in other arts experiences, we have a lot of choice. We pick the movie, or the theatre show, or the band we think will interest us, what we think we might enjoy, but for our audiences this choice is very limited.

Do you also try to develop your sector?

Yes. My goal is, and I am very lucky that as a full time practitioner I can think through things and can explore ideas that might lead to building new audiences, that I want to see multiple practitioners delivering inclusive arts projects. We hope that in a few years from now it won’t be the case that Replay is the only professional theatre company offering inclusive shows. I want to see more provision for the audiences that we cater for.

With regards our sector, we have a dedicated sectoral advancement programme called the Adventure Collective. Our performer training that I mentioned before falls under that banner, and a couple of years ago we held a large scale Inclusion Conference pulling together key artists, organisations and practitioners from across the UK and Ireland to share their practice with people in Northern Ireland.

That seems like you feel a responsibility to improve the present situation?

Yes absolutely. There have been some positive developments. You do see autism friendly film screenings, and you see more and more theatre companies putting on relaxed performances but what we do is specifically designed for those audiences and is created with their particular creative needs in mind, so while it is good that there is some recognition that we have to cater in different ways for some audiences, we need to go much further.

What we do is give our audiences something that is special, something exclusive to them. Any arts experiences our audience members typically encounter are usually an adaptation of work that has been designed for traditional audiences and that I think is where we have an obligation to do better.

Our brilliant sector should be a vibrant, trail-blazing industry, working towards a vision where everyone in society is being catered for in a way that is appropriate to their individual tastes, preferences and needs, regardless of ability.

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