Written by Francis Italiano, Sensorium Theatre – Australia
Sensorium Theatre is Australia’s premiere theatre company making work specifically designed for young audiences with disabilities. When we actively ask questions about our intended audiences’ particular needs, interests, preferred modes of engagement, cognitive strengths and receptive communication abilities we can end up expanding the parameters of the kind of theatre we offer them and how they might interact with it. When we add access and inclusion considerations for young people with disability as creative prompts, we can actually help generate whole new forms of performance with potential application for all sorts of audiences.
Our audience members are typically neuro-diverse. Some of them may have difficulty moving and communicating independently. For many of them, a Sensorium show might be their first experience of theatre. Taking up the challenge to create quality performances that engage and connect with this specific audience continuously prompts us as artists to re-configure how we tell stories, how we stage them, and how we can assist programmers to present them.
Working with a multi-sensory palette, using touch, taste, smell, live music and a highly visual theatrical style, we use the sensory elements in our immersive installation-based shows (where the children are onstage with us) as cognitive “access points” into the narrative for our neuro-atypical audiences. So for example, if it rains in a forest story, the audience literally gets wet. If an audience goes deep-sea diving in an under-the-ocean adventure, they all take flashlights. When it’s time to co-pilot a spaceship each child pushes their own button to blast-off. Finding new ways to engage a new kind of audience offers new discoveries about what might constitute a “performance” for any young person.
Such a rigorous approach to creating transformative theatre-going experiences for our intended audience has brought about a paradigm shift for ourselves in terms of letting their responses to sensory stimuli inform our ideas of what a “show” can be and, importantly, prompting us to enlist young people as active participants in, rather than passive recipients of, the theatre experiences we create for them. Transforming our notions of what a theatre performance might entail allows us to witness transformation in our audiences. Time after time the parents, carers and educators of these children are struck by the unexpected creative responses that are sparked by their immersion in the sensory worlds Sensorium creates. While our work is targeted specifically at young people with neuro-diversity and disability, the elements of immersion, interactivity and agency have resonance for all sorts of young audiences.