Commentary by Joel McGuinness (Director, JAM Creative and former General Manager at Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre)
I was properly introduced to the full production of Oddysea by Sensorium Theatre after a full week of the APACA (Australian Performing Arts Centres Association) Conference in Sydney. Like most Programmers and Presenters my head was full, my attention span short and I was ready for re-runs of trashy TV on the couch with no more interaction with anyone. Luckily for me, I had one of the best performance experiences I have had in a very long time, in Sydney, at the Opera House, with a friend and colleague who was feeling just as ‘jaded’ as I was.
Pictures by Jessica Wyld ‘
The show Oddysea by Sensorium Theatre created a magical place, under the sea, for children with high levels of special needs and their families, carers and/or teachers. The work creates a whole world of experience, with gorgeous songs, beautiful textures, accessible characters and a theatrical world that feels incredibly safe; and is made for children that are mostly forgotten about when it comes to live theatre. There were definitely tears from my theatre buddy and I, as it was so gorgeous to see parents of children with special needs, visibly, physically and emotionally relax and start to enjoy their child enjoying. It was magical and really humbling to experience.
Sensorium have largely based their practice in schools, usually working with students, parents and teachers over a two-week period, conducting workshops with the students and introducing the young people to the worlds they create over time.
One teacher in Safety Bay says: “It was a magical place to be and to see the delight on the faces of our students, and the expressive sounds they made, it was something I have not experience during my 10 years as an EA”.
These sentiments of witnessing joy in theatre goers is clearly a recurring theme for people who attend Sensorium’s work and the company exists to create and realise these experiences for their audience.
“Sensorium Theatre is dedicated to making magical, multi-sensory theatre for young audiences with disabilities. Fundamental to the integrity of Sensorium Theatre’s work is the belief that all children can be transformed and touched by exceptional theatre experiences.”
Francis Italiano and Michelle Hovane are the company’s founders and co-Artistic Directors. After success in taking works to numerous schools in Western Australia, the company have now partnered with Performing Lines WA with a genuine exploration of how the work can be presented in a more traditional theatre context, while still retaining its heart and integrity. At a recent catch up over a coffee in Bunbury, Performing Lines WA Senior Producer Fiona de Garis told me that “(Performing Lines WA) wanted to work with Sensorium Theatre as we really appreciated the rigorous approach of the company to their artistic practice and the way they work with such openness and self-awareness in creating their work”.
Their first major work “The Jub Jub Tree” was made under the auspices of Barking Gecko and was made along a model that sees the company in residence for two weeks in one place, which, though rich and rewarding for the company and the cast, is more problematic when looking at presenting the work in more traditional theatre spaces.
What really impressed me about the Sensorium and Performing Lines WA approach to exploring possibilities of touring this work nationally, was their genuine desire to engage with presenters in venues, to hear from them what the challenges might be, to go back to the drawing board and to come up with a model that works for all involved.
Performing Lines WA and Sensorium have attended numerous industry forums in recent years, including the CircuitWest Show Case and the 2014 and 2015 APACA Conferences where, through “Encounter Sessions”, the producers and artists were able to discuss the work and ask for input about the challenges of presenting the work in more traditional theatre spaces.
The company undertook a residency at Mandurah Performing Arts Centre (MPAC) to look at the best model for touring work to performing arts venues and created the current model that sees the company in residence for a minimum of one week per venue. Sensorium is also able to stage the work in non-traditional theatre spaces such as a foyer or large function room, which also makes it more viable to performing arts centres, as it means that their ‘main-stage’ is not out of action for a full week. The show now is bumped-in for a full week, and the company will work with up to three audiences of 30 people, preferably all with three workshops prior to the performance. The workshops introduce the characters, the themes and the experience in advance of the performance and this is an important part of the practice when working with children with special needs.
In 2015 the company presented the work at the Sydney Opera House and the Arts Centre Melbourne and is set to embark on a seven venue tour of Western Australia in August-September of 2016, including MPAC, Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre (BREC), The Cummins Theatre Merredin, Queens Park Theatre Geraldton, The Goldfields Arts Centre in Kalgoorlie, The Esperance Civic Centre and the Koorliny Arts Centre in Kwinana.
Given that the maximum number of audience members is 30 people for an early years audience or 14 people with disabilities and their carers per performance, then the box office for this work is surely not the ‘driver’ for anyone programming Sensorium’s work. For me, when programming Oddysea at BREC, it was after attending two Creative Encounter sessions at both a CircuitWest and APACA conference and understanding the beautiful, unique and informed approach of the company in creating the work and then witnessing the production at the Sydney Opera House, and being moved by the profound reaction of children and carers of kids with special needs as they relished in the show.
I was so glad to hear that Oddysea has been nominated for a Helpmann Award this year for best children’s work and I think it is a testament to both Sensorium Theatre and Performing Lines WA also, that the show will be heading out for a National Australian Tour in 2017.
By working with genuine passion and being open to presenting work with venues that are up for dialogue and real engagement, Sensorium are achieving awesome things and it gives me hope that live performance can actually change lives and be a meaningful experience for all involved.
ABOUT THE SHOW
Sensorium Theatre’s Oddysea is an immersive, multi-sensory theatre production designed specifically for children with special needs and their families, and for schools catering to children with disabilities. Set within an undersea installation, the performance unfolds around each audience member, with songs, touch, smell and taste used to tell the story of Crab and Turtle’s oceanic adventures.
For schools, children participate in workshops followed by a performance of the show. These workshops “embed” the characters, concepts and songs with all participants. For general admission audiences, you should have received the ‘narrative story’ and the Oddysea theme song prior to attending so you could familiarise your children with the characters and themes in the show.
Additional resources, including the audio disc of songs and narrative and social story books are also available for purchase. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to purchase any.
Sensorium Theatre are currently developing a website – http://sensoriumtheatre.com
You can also follow them on Facebook