Earlier this year, Julia became a Sensory Ambassador for Circus Starr. If you don't know this company, then they are a charity providing free circus shows across the country for children and young people with complex needs, young carers, children and young people living with life-limiting illnesses, mental health challenges, or other factors that may impact on their quality of life. Their performances are Relaxed, inclusive, signed and audio described, and they also have a Changing Places approved toilet.
Building on foundations developed by sensory engagement expert Joanna Grace of The Sensory Projects, Circus Starr commissioned some new sensory story writers and tellers to develop the range of Sensory Story resources available to audiences. Joanna wrote a gorgeous story introducing a circus performance in the Circus Starr Big Top, from the smell of the popcorn to the feel of the grass underfoot, to the sound of clapping and the spectacle of the high wire, to help manage audiences' anticipation and expectations, as well as to relive the magic afterwards.
The Sensory Ambassador project has led to the development of two new sensory stories to accompany Circus Starr's winter season, and next week I get to visit two special schools in Milton Keynes to share what I've developed.
For me, the aspect I most wanted to explore is how a Sensory Story can place the experiencer in the heart of a performance so they can try on a character role and feel part of the circus, and not just part of the audience. So, my story is 'Ringmaster For A Day', a tale where the experiencer takes on the role of Circus Starr's own brilliant Ringmaster, Joel Hatton, from his jacket, to his microphone, to his responsibilities, as well as exploring what it's like to be a clown, to be an aerialist, or to be a low wire walker.
From my experiences of therapeutic performing arts, I have come across so many people with PMLD that have enjoyed being in the spotlight - I'm reminded of the sensory tour I ran for 'Let Me In' festival at Rose Theatre Kingston earlier this year, where participants spent time trying on costumes and looking at themselves in the mirror, being on the stage, and engaging with the special effects and lights with such curiosity and joy - so I wanted to create something that offered an opportunity for the experiencer to become the subject of the story and that made space for the experiencer to control and lead the pace, and to step into another character.
Taking that performance angle further, I will be conducting my visits in costume as a Ringmaster (I've always wanted a tailcoat) hoping to be led into as much as to lead an outreach circus before the children and young people visit Circus Starr for real. Can't wait!
For more information see: www.circus-starr.org.uk/news/2018-09-21/the-wonder-of-stories/
Have we found the ultimate distraction game?
Going on a long car journey can be tough for young children or anyone with high anxiety, however one of my twins has recently started finding even short journeys a bit of a challenge, especially if we hit any sort of traffic jam.
His anxiety means he needs to focus on completing the car journey as quickly as possible so he can get to the next thing, and he experiences it as a long transition towards or away from an activity rather than an activity in its own right - he's very much about outcomes, rather than processes. This means that traffic jams are especially hard. He's now old enough and imaginative enough to know that when traffic starts to slow down this means his discomfort is going to be prolonged too, and the anticipation of a delay - which is pretty likely on the motorway - is ever-present for him.
I do get it: it's pretty horrid to have those worries and the accompanying bodily sensations. It does make for some quite jittery journeys for us all as we struggle to help him stay regulated and to cope with sitting still, waiting, and trying to be patient. His dysregulation then affects his brother, who resorts to loud screeching and silly behaviour, and that then usually results in both of them thumping each other! We have had to stop a lot on recent journeys to help them both calm down, and have sometimes only been able to continue our journey if a grown-up sits between them to be a physical presence for co-regulation.
Like most parents, we've tried all the usual tactics to distract him, however toys to fidget with often turn into missiles that get hurled into the front of the car when his frustration and anxiety get too much, or become weapons with which to bash his brother; crunchy foods are helpful, but only on short journeys; screen time numbs him down but can then mean he needs more processing time at the end of the journey, which can manifest as demand avoidance at best, aggression at worst! All of these solutions don't help him sit with the journey, they distract him from what is happening, and actually the thing we need most to work on is how to be 'in the moment' rather than worrying about what comes next.
We then came across the Mini Cheddar game.
It's a very simple game for car journeys, though we've also been using it on our walk to school too, and features the iconic Mini car. As a big fan of 'The Italian Job' (thanks Mum!), I really love these little cars.
It works like this:
If you spot a Mini, then that's 10 points.
If you spot a yellow car (not a van or lorry), then that's 5 points.
If you spot a yellow Mini, that's a Mini Cheddar and earns 25 points.
You can play the game open-ended and see what the score is by the time you finish your journey (our current record for a 35 mile journey is 350 points), or you can set a target e.g. can we get to 100 before we arrive at school? Today, we reached 70 thanks to a Mini in the staff car park.
While it's a simple game, it has a lot of content to it: you need to be able to recognise a Mini and scour the roads and driveways for them; you need to spot yellow cars and intentionally exclude yellow vehicles that aren't cars - not easy when you're desperate to reach a target; you need to keep adding on your score, which means holding on to what your current score is first, and then adding on differing amounts; and, everyone needs to see the car too - you can't pretend you've seen something, your 'spot' needs to be validated by others for it to count.
The beauty of this game is that it's very distracting indeed. For my sons, it turns their attention during car journeys towards observation - they are looking out at the world, turning their attention to what is happening around them rather than focusing on their thoughts and feelings about being stuck in a car on the way to something; they find the anticipation of beating a top score or hitting a target an easier form of anxiety to cope with - they are experiencing progress through the journey as their score changes and, even in a traffic jam, there are Minis to spot; they enjoy the maths challenge too, and can both hold onto their current score and add on in 5s, 10s, and 25s. It's also very fortunate that one of my twins' favourite colour happens to be yellow.
It may be that it's just working for now because of the novelty, so I'm thinking about ways we can extend and flex the game to increase the difficulty, or to add a different challenge. It may be that it's the simplicity that is the most helpful thing, but until we experiment it's hard to say.
However, it's having a great impact for us...and it's fun too! So, if you're off out and about, why not try your own game of Mini Cheddar: can you beat our score of 350 in one journey?
Ready, steady, go! And try not to blow the bloody doors off, eh?
We've been thinking for some time that we would like to be able to offer children and their families more opportunities for engagement and play in and around our performances, and the natural solution is to provide Sensory Story sessions in our local area. We conducted a little bit of market research via some local social media groups for parents and could quickly see that some provision specifically for 0-5s with any form of special need, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed would be welcome.
Via the market research, Thrift Farm in Milton Keynes got in touch to offer their Food 4 Thought cafe as a free venue! So, the plan is now to test out a short series of free sessions over three months and then, if successful, seek funding to continue the provision. Twinkle, Twinkle, Christmas Star will be our first event, with additional sessions running in January (themed around snow, ice and cold) and February (themed around warm, fuzzy and love) 2019.
Each session will include a 30 minute Sensory Story where we will support and model to parents/carers how to deliver the story themselves, and we'll also provide them with a copy to take home and repeat. Following the session, families are welcome to stay on to play and chat. The session will be signed, Relaxed so children are able to join in however they need to in order to feel safe, and are designed to support calm and wellbeing for both children and their grown-ups.
Since opening up booking today we have been overwhelmed by the response, to the point where we've put on a second session as well as receiving enquiries about bringing the sessions to other groups, venues and locations throughout December! We're so looking forward to seeing what the future holds for this strand of work.
Huge thanks to Nadine and all at Thrift Farm for their support: you are so brilliant and so positive, and we love and appreciate that!
Julia went to the BBC 3 Counties studio on the 9th August 2018 to chat with Nick Coffer about Crabby, with big shout outs for Dave Benson Phillips and Justin Fletcher (Mr Tumble). Click on the link below to listen....
We are exceptionally honoured and excited to be part of this year's #LetMeIn Festival at the Rose Theatre Kingston.
This is a festival presenting work by, for, and young people with a range of physical, learning and sensory needs. Now in its 6th year, the Rose's inclusive festival will involve our personal heroes: Oily Cart, as well as Turtle Key Arts, and students from the The Orpheus Centre.
We will be performing both 'Little Meerkat's Big Panic' and 'You, The Loo, And Nappy-Nappy Noos', as well as creating a bespoke sensory tour of the theatre!
Things don't really get much more awesome than this!
For more info, click the link: https://www.rosetheatrekingston.org/whats-on/let-me-in…
We're just home from our first run with Crabby at Brighton Fringe, beautifully hosted by The Warren.
This was our fourth year at the Fringe, and the fourth new show we've premiered...but, this is the first time we SOLD OUT! One more show to go on the 3rd of June and there are only 2 tickets left for that at the moment.
The feedback has been amazing, and we had such a fun time. One parent left us a 5 star review on our Facebook page:
"My little one and I thoroughly enjoyed the Crabby show - it is pitched perfectly for the age group and the message definitely sank in - my little one is still talking about how Crabby ‘uses his magic words’ when he feels angry. The performers did such a thoughtful job of putting together a productionthat is entertaining, educational, interactive, and sensory. It’s a very inclusive show with makaton signing, and it goes at a gentle but engaging pace. The children were mesmerised and felt safe to join in, and really enjoyed all the inventive props and songs. There’s a sensory play session straight afterwards to help the little ones release energy and process what they’ve just seen. The whole show is so well thought out and delivered. We’ll make sure we catch as many Collars and Cuffs shows as we can in the future. Thanks for bringing us a really fun and helpful show!"
We know we've been shortlisted for the Primary Times Children's Choice Award for both Crabby and Nappy Noos. We now have to wait until the final day of the Fringe to find out the result.
So, Crabby works! And it's now officially available for bookings!
2018 has been a roller coaster so far, packed with performances for Little Meerkat's Big Panic, development of our two new productions - premiering at Brighton Fringe in a couple of weeks time - and planning our work for the autumn season and beyond.
We were very excited to discover that we had been nominated for a National Diversity Award in the Community Organisation category, and the vote endorsements we have received so far have been nothing short of proper tear-jerkers. Here are some highlights:
"Collar and Cuffs make work that opens up theatre and performance to all, regardless of background, ability or prior experience. Her focus on creating experiences that engage all the senses ensures that everyone can benefit from the vital work they make. On top of that, there is a focus on creating work that explores important themes for parents and young people, so that the young people are entertained and the parents learn more about what may be happening in the minds of their children. This balance of useful scientific knowledge (drawn from research and partnerships with scientific professionals) with an engaging entertaining experience is vital. A further commendation must be made for the way Collar and Cuffs create work that is so engaging on such a tight budget. Showing that good planning and creative use of materials is just as valuable in creating an inclusive environment as spending money on expensive items."
"I was thrilled to hear that Julia has been nominated for this award. To say the recognition is well deserved is an understatement. A “Community Organisation Award” couldn’t be given to a better person because "Community" has been at the heart of everything Julia has done for as long as I've known her. Before "Collars and Cuffs", I have seen Julia create platforms for the LGBTQI Community. I have seen her supporting disadvantaged and vulnerable teenagers through Youth Work. I have seen her campaigning for equality for those whose voices, too often, aren't heard. Now, through her multisensory musical theatre company, Julia continues her campaign for inclusion and a sense of community for all. The work has an incredible impact on those who experience it. Julia has taken personal trauma and her own experiences of social injustice and turned them into positive learning resources for others. Having to manage her own mental health on a daily basis feeds into her shows and gives them an authority that comes from personal experience. She has taken what the ill-informed describe as a 'disadvantage' and shaped it into something that is of incredible advantage to others who are struggling. As Julia now focuses on supporting children with disabilities and complex needs I, again, find myself in awe of this woman's resilience, inner-strength, determination and unshakeable vision. There is a beautiful truth and understanding at the heart of every show she creates and shares. Julia levels with you. Not only with the children in the Audience, but with the Adults too. The Mothers, the Fathers, the Carers, the Sisters, the Brothers, the Grandparents, the Friends. She creates something that we can ALL learn from. You will hear Julia talking about delighting and enthusing children, but I can assure you that her magic works on everyone who is watching. Julia is an inspirational force that I am incredibly proud to call my colleague and friend. I am an Actor and freelance Arts Worker and so Julia and I work in the same industry. I have been lucky enough to watch Julia working and creating for well over a decade. I find myself smiling, as I write this, because I know that there is still so much more to come. "
Wow. Humbled to be recognised in this way.
Then, following that, we heard that we'd been shortlisted as a finalist for The Small Awards in the Sole to Sole category! The awards ceremony is on the 17th of May, and we're very much looking forward to attending.
We're very pleased to be able to confirm that we've received a mini commission from Luton Culture to develop a new piece of multi-sensory storytelling as part of their new monthly sessions for families at Central Library.
This is a concept we have been seeking opportunities to develop for some time as it very much responds to needs identified both by early years and primary school staff working in the town, but also contributes towards wider agendas around ensuring children receive 'enough' movement and physical experience in early childhood. Movement builds brains. And, movement is vital for ensuring children have strong vestibular systems, sound proprioception, core and neck strength, and good eye tracking skills; all these elements enable children to be able to self-regulate, to read, write, concentrate, and be able to sit comfortably without fidgeting or slumping. There is a direct correlation between poor literacy skills and a lack of appropriate or sufficent movement in early childhood.
Through our love of Rhythmic Movement Therapy, as well as general fine and gross motor play, Dance Movement Therapy, and multi-sensory resources, we have a vast amount of skill, knowledge and curiosity to play with, and our chosen route for exploration is the concept of a 'hidden' river.
Luton's Central Library is built over the top of the river Lea, which rises near Marsh Farm and meanders its way down to London to join the Thames, and then to finally merge with the sea. Taking this concept of a river hidden beneath our feet, we aim to use a variety of movement opportunities and sensory experiences to bring the river and its inhabitants to life.
While we will be entertaining children with tales of the riverbank and the ancient Celtic history of Luton's earliest communities, we will also be modelling for grown-ups a range of movement strategies and play experiences that support regulation, encourage and enhance crawling, work with balance and core strength, and that also build connection and communication.
We're really looking forward to offering a taster session to work with the concept and, hopefully, if successful, we can then look at developing this into a new touring piece for 2019.
Due to popular demand, here are some new Day Planner sheets for you to download and use, plus the ones linked to our productions Little Meerkat's Big Panic (African animal themed) and Crabby (sea themed).
Please note: these are not gender-specific or prescribed - anyone can enjoy any sheet they like! These design themes have been requested by children and/or their grown-ups. If there's a specific theme you would like, then don't hesitate to drop me a line and I will do my best to create it!
As always, files are available a jpegs for you to copy and paste, or as Pdf files.
Inclusive and accessible theatre for children has a long way to go...Part One: Equating high spend with high quality
,As any early years practitioner or parent/carer will know, when you build something yourself from the very little you have, you make sure it's the best it can possibly be because it has to stand up to rigorous use by little hands, mouths and bodies, and because you can't afford to replace it! We use low cost/no cost and recycled materials to inspire the settings and families we work with. We show what high quality and robust resources we can create from materials our audiences may already have at their disposal in the hope that they will go away and make their own, and they do! For example, we created our egret puppets for 'Little Meerkat's Big Panic' with less than £2-worth of bin bags, wire and sticky tape; these have been handled by over 2000 children to date and are still going strong! They have been built with children in mind and can cope with rough handling, though we always offer a learning opportunity about 'gentle hands' and social skills i.e. being careful with other people's property, letting go when asked, being led in play with items that are unfamiliar or 'special', and so on. Settings have gone on to make their own birds...but also butterflies, caves, lizards, and more! This is an affordable creative activity with a high-impact visual and tactile outcome that has robustness and play potential built in.
Is that low quality?
So, this low cost/ no cost approach is an artistic value for us, but it also supports our sustainability and enables us to keep our work as not-for-profit, which means we can continue to offer settings with very little spare budget affordable high-impact performance experiences, and opportunities for extension work afterwards too.
Is that low quality? If so, for who?
In addition, when we recycle things, often we end up with very high quality materials for free. We couldn't afford to buy them new, but by asking for donations we end up with exceptional materials that, if money was no object, we would have loved to have commissioned for ourselves.
Recently, for example, high street retailer Next had big sequin panels in their window displays for Christmas; these sequin panels fluttered in the breeze creating a beautiful visual effect, as well as a lovely rustling noise. Each of these sequin tiles costs approximately £10 new. I asked my local branch of Next if I could have some of the tiles when their window display was dismantled and they agreed. So, just after Christmas, I was invited to the store by the manager and he had put aside 80 sequin tiles - enough to cover two stage flats, plus spares for repair - for me! So, £800 of tiles for nothing. They're good as new.
Is that low quality? If so for who? Is this not high-value 'Support in Kind' for my company and our audience? Would this not score well on an ACE funding application?
Just to add, the Next store in question told me they have previously donated window display items to local preschools and nurseries who've asked them for them; for example, their summer display using hundreds of artificial flowers went to a local nursery in a disadvantaged area to enable them to create a 'Secret Garden' outdoor role play area. Is that low quality for that setting?
Even with the most expensive set in the world, there is no guarantee that what takes place in and around it is any good theatrically, or in terms of accessibility and relevance for children. The only 'good' is perhaps that an expensive set is impressive, and may look better in production shots and PR exercises. Early years children and those with complex needs don't look for the financial investment in a production's visual images; they most usually find magic, curiosity, and stimulation through the least expensive, least technologically advanced, and least obvious things. But, to see what the priorities are for children regarding the visual aspects of a production, you need to see the world through their eyes, understand their developmental stage, and be sensitive to their needs.
Joanna Grace, leading academic and activist in sensory approaches for people who have profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), presents an activity in her training sessions where participants are invited to create high-impact sensory resources from a single piece of plain white paper. And they do! Joanna has so many wonderful 'Mannequin Challenge' style videos on her social media feeds showcasing practitioners' responses to this exercise: see www.twitter.com/jo3grace, search Joanna Grace on Facebook or www.thesensoryprojects.co.uk/
Imagination from the practitioner is the only limit, and the only true assessment of quality can come from the effect the resource has for the person it is being shared with. An expensive and clever set is something that is only truly an essential quality mark for some grown-ups, and you do have to wonder what the agenda is because, if it truly was about ensuring quality for children, the amount of money spent on the design and build would come very, very low down the long list of things that do ensure high quality theatrical experiences for the target audience.
So, who owns this low quality? Do commissioners feel they are advocating for the children in their audiences by equating high spend on resources with high quality? Are they advocating for the grown-ups who buy tickets for these experiences and want to see how high ticket prices are justified?
It is very unclear, though it's probably something to do with the conflation of cost with value: my sets may cost less than £500, but the value they yield for children is priceless, and I need no more and no less than I have to be able to tell stories effectively. A £4,000 set may cost more, but does it yield higher value for audiences? Does the audience feel 'more' has been put into a production, and therefore it will be better, if funding (from the public purse) has been lavished in the creation of an experience? Is there a real artistic and 'quality' difference between the vintage step ladder I use in my set that's been in my family since I was a child, and the one bought for £300 from a reclamation yard?
I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts....
In Part Two, I will look at the tension between creating theatre for art's sake, and creating theatre that's truly accessible, relevant and inclusive for children. Quality is also being linked by commissioners with commitment to conventional artistic processes and the employment of traditionally trained performers; I will explore what this means for early years children and those with complex needs, and why there's another way.