Leeds-based Interplay Theatre are conducting their first Sensory Theatre Symposium, which will be hosted and supported by Leeds Playhouse next month. We spoke to their newly appointed Artistic Director, Kirsty Pennycook, about why they’ve organised the event, how they’ve ensured it’s accessible and how the landscape of sensory theatre has evolved.
Why did Interplay Theatre organize the Sensory Theatre Symposium, and what unique perspectives do you hope it brings to discussions about sensory theatre for learning disabled audiences?
Interplay Theatre have been making theatre for people with learning disabilities for over 40 years, and we are keen to share our learning and connect and collaborate with other organisations doing the same. We hope to generate discussion about how important the perspectives and experiences of our audiences are, and how this approach is beneficial across the theatre sector.
As an advocate for accessibility, how did Interplay Theatre work with Leeds Playhouse to ensure the Symposium is accessible to people with learning disabilities, both in-person and through the digital platform?
It has been incredibly important to us to include people with learning disabilities in every aspect of the symposium, with a keynote presentation from people engaged in the Playhouse’s Beautiful Octopus Club festival. Tying into this festival throughout the week of the Symposium ensures that delegates can see the breadth of work that happens in Leeds, and nationally, to engage audiences with learning disabilities. Our panels will include artists and audience members with learning disabilities, and we are ensuring that there is a sensory approach to the day, with visual, physical and audio ways to engage with the ideas and panels.
Can you tell us about the process of selecting artists and representatives for the Symposium and what qualities or experiences were sought to ensure a comprehensive exploration of sensory theatre?
Curating the panels around topics of conversation has been a priority for us, to generate interesting discussion for those established in this area of the sector, but also to welcome in supporters and theatre-makers new to sensory theatre too. Interplay Theatre will have the current creative team of our show My Life With The Wave on one panel. Another panel will explore the endless possibilities of sensory work for artists with Ellie Griffiths, Artistic Director of Oily Cart, who tour Sensory Theatre nationally and internationally; Jeremy Harrison, Artist and Researcher from Rose Bruford College; and JoAnne Haines from Mind The Gap, who has recently created a sensory show, Dancing with Colours. We think a balance of a practical, academic and audience perspective will give a comprehensive view of sensory work.
In your role as the Artistic Director, what do you believe is the most rewarding aspect of creating performances that cater to diverse audiences, particularly those with learning disabilities and sensory needs?
As an artist, I find this work rewarding for many reasons. To watch ideas and creations come to life, to collaborate with other artists, to provide wonder for an audience in your telling of a story; a dream job! I have always been driven by people and who the audience are, so to make work accessible for those with learning disabilities, and differing sensory needs, is a great motivation and source of creativity for me. It’s a joy to focus on what our audiences’ enjoy, how they most want to engage, and how to tell stories through every single sense to reach as many people as possible, as meaningfully as possible.
Considering Interplay Theatre’s history in Sensory Theatre, how has the landscape evolved, and what challenges and opportunities do you see for the future of creating engaging theatrical experiences for diverse audiences?
I think we’re all aware of the financial instability of the arts that has followed the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sensory Theatre is no exception. Our work costs more money, because our audiences’ numbers are smaller to ensure access for people with lots of differing needs. Despite this challenge though, companies making this work like ourselves, Frozen Light, Concrete Youth and Oily Cart, are having a brilliant impact for audiences in our regions, and developing engaged and loyal audiences across the UK. However, I see more and more artists adopting the flexible and open approach to making work tailored to their audiences, and the profile is raising of accessible work thanks to trailblazers in the disability theatre world, including organisations like Mind the Gap, Graeae and Ramps on the Moon.
The symposium takes place on the 1st February both in-person and via a monitored Zoom stream. More information and tickets can be found here