The Launch Of The Foundation: Speech By Jeremy Harrison (Jeremy White)

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The Margot Florence Foundation has been set up to enable children to share the sort of art experiences that so obviously enriched Margot’s life. Much of this work falls broadly under the definition of theatre or performance-based art directed at children, who like Margot have profound and multiple learning difficulties or PMLD for short.

But first I think we need to pause and consider what we mean by the word theatre in this context. For most of us the word, I assume, conjures up images of foyers, dress circles, proscenium arches, interval drinks. Shakespeare, Chekhov, opera. At this time of the year perhaps even the pantomime. The smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, as the saying goes.

But picture the PMLD child in this context. For most of these children the world is a very small place. Many PMLD children have sensory impairments. They may not be able to see beyond a few centimeters. Their hearing may be limited. They will more than likely, like Margot, be wheelchair users or reliant on others for any sense of movement. For them the traditional theatre experience is more or less meaningless, they may enjoy it as a family outing, perhaps some of the sounds and smells, the atmosphere. But as with much of their experience of the outside world it will largely pass them by.

Theatre made with PMLD children in mind, by contrast, is an intimate affair. Personalised and responsive to their needs. It has to not only be seen and heard if possible, but be a kinetic experience. It must be smelled, tasted and felt. PMLD shows are often performed to very small audiences. Perhaps as few as 5 or 6 children and their carers or family. There may well be a story or dramaturgical shape, but for these children narrative can be expressed in many ways. Moving from one space or material to another, for example, or from one sense to the next.

They are, however, recognizable as theatre experiences. Though they may have therapeutic outcomes, they are not intended to operate solely as therapeutic interventions. Like all art works, they are made to be shared and interpreted. By families and carers, by the artists themselves and by the other audience members. At their best they are aesthetically rich, beautiful events. Like all theatre experiences they are enticing, enriching, engaging and promote communication and shared understanding.

Work made specifically for PMLD children is disappointingly rare. But there are companies and artists who specialize. Frozen Light and Bamboozle in England and Replay in Northern Ireland are some of the better known. What connects these companies, is not just the fact that what they do is shaped by the needs of this very particular audience, but by the influence of three extraordinary people, whose 35 years of experience in this sector has made them world leaders in this field. Tim Webb, Claire De Loon and Max Reinhardt are the founder members of the Oily Cart theatre company. Their exceptional arts practice, has evolved over what must be one of the longest examples of collaboration in the theatre world. Each has their own discipline. Tim is the writer, director and dramaturg, Claire the designer and creator of their multi-sensory aesthetic. Leaving Max to create the music, for this most interdisciplinary work, where music is theatre and theatre is music. Oily Cart are supporters of the Margot Florence Foundation and as you can see from the examples of their work around us, they are keen to help us realise our ambitions.

Tim describes their work as making theatre for ‘impossible audiences’. Whether babies, autistic children or those like Margot, with profound and complex needs, the Oily Cart audiences have required very specific approaches and working methods. They have blazed this trail and as mentioned in the video it was my desire for Margot to experience their work that led me to instigate the first of the artist’s residencies that took place at Ashford’s Wyvern school. This year will see residency number 4 and so far 62 artists from all over the world have been trained to work in this way.

There are examples of Oily Cart’s work available for you to see around the room tonight, but I would like to share with you one project in particular which perhaps best captures the scale and reach of their artistic ambition. Something in the Air was a piece made in 2009 for the Manchester International Festival. A collaboration with aerial specialists Ockham’s Razor it had all the hallmarks of an Oily PMLD show. A multi-sensory experience made for a small audience of children and their family or carers.

Something in the Air is an example of how bold one can be when approaching these audiences. But the work of the company and that done by many of the artists we would like to work with and encourage, is much smaller in scale. Taking place in classrooms, community centres and even in children’s own homes. The ambition of the foundation is to support and train artists who wish to work with these most rewarding of audiences. To build a community of practice in this area that can enrich and engage the many children, who like Margot, can benefit so much from this sort of experience. As the Foundation’s film reminds us, this work is not only for the benefit of these children and their families but for the enrichment of the artists themselves. Alex and Kelly are both examples of people whose work has been augmented and changed by engaging with Margot and those who share her very particular perspective. Many artists are afraid of these audiences, or simply do not know how to approach them. The Foundation aims to offer them the training and support they need. It aims to connect artists with companies like Oily Cart, with therapists and health professionals, with educators and families who can help them create arts experiences that are truly inclusive and responsive.

Watching that deeply moving film is a reminder of a number of things. Firstly it is a testament to the impact the arts can have on individual lives. A reminder that art is not yet another addition to today’s disposable culture. It is not a luxury, but a fundamental part of the human condition. From cave paintings, to the daily presence of TV, books and music in all our lives. Art is part of being human. We need it. We crave it. And if it is not there, we create it.

But the film also reminds us that everyone has a right to the dignity and delight that engaging in art can offer. Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Right of the Child states that all children have the right to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and encourages the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity for all children. Margot reminds us of how fundamental this right can be for children with these sorts of disabilities.

I would like to finish with another example of just how much impact this work can have on children and those who share their lives. It comes from one of the artist residencies that took place at Wyvern School just a few miles from where we are now.

We were working with children from Margot’s class with their wonderful and inspirational teacher Frances, who I know is in the audience tonight. Oily Cart use a technique in their work called the ‘name song’. This is a musical event that they regularly use to close their performances. It involves the cast gathering round each child in turn to sing and play a song, which contains their name as the only lyric. The performance is repeated and adapted to the needs of each child. The performers were working with a young PMLD girl with a particularly debilitating and life-limiting condition. The girl was in the late stages of the disease and although still attending the school she was spending most of the time lying down, her eyes closed, locked-off from the rest of the class, her teachers, her family the world. The group began performing a name song for the girl. The intensive nature of the multi-sensory experience and the presence and responsiveness of the live music-making began to connect with the girl and as her teachers and carers looked on, her eyes opened, her facial muscles began to respond and she experienced what would be one of the few moments of engagement with others and the world around her that she was to have.

I have certainly never experienced a moment that so powerfully illustrates the unique power and visceral impact of this work. It is the right of children like Margot to access it, and it is this Foundation’s aim to provide it.

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