Bringing young children with disabilities onto the stage and immersing them in the journey of a story using all five senses is spreading joy far beyond the theatre walls.
The multi-sensory performance created by Sensorium Theatre elicits joy from its young audience in unexpected ways, lasting well beyond the final curtain.
Getting lost in a story is one of the greatest experiences of being human, whether it’s a novel keeping you up way past bedtime, the latest hit on Netflix or a friend sharing their news over coffee. According to Sensorium Theatre Co-Artistic Director and Founder Francis Italiano, despite being integral to human nature, storytelling isn’t necessarily an experience that is easily accessed by all.
So in 2010, inspired by a young woman from UK telling stories from her backpack, Italiano and his wife Michelle Hovane created Sensorium Theatre, which provides a multi-sensory theatre experience for children with disabilities. “We make really highly interactive, immersive shows for young audiences living with disabilities, who are literally on stage with us,” Italiano explains. “It’s multi-sensory theatre, so we use touch, taste, smell, live music and puppets and highly visual theatre to bring the story to life around the kids and enhance their understanding and enjoyment of the experience as much as possible. It’s something that gives these kids an experience that I believe is pretty universal – to get caught up in a story and really enjoy it.”
Catering for an array of disabilities means Italiano and the Sensorium performers and crew tweak and change each show depending on which senses connect best with the audience.
“For many of the children, they don’t physically move much in their day, if at all, so we take them out of their wheelchairs and place them on satin sand dunes with bean bags, changing the set around them and moving the puppets around them so they feel a part of the story,” says Italiano. “If we have an audience with more kids on the autism spectrum, then we might signpost things a lot more, giving them time to process things and know what’s coming because that works better with these kids that might not like a whole lot of surprises.” Using theatre regularly uncovers alternative ways for communicating with the children, with carers (from parents to teachers) delighting in unexpected positive responses to the shows.
“The beauty for us is not just in that moment, but it’s also in the ripples that flow on after that, that maybe the people in the child’s world discover new ways to work and interact with them,” Italiano says. “With a lot of these kids, they don’t communicate in ways most of us do so often the jury is out on how much is getting through to a child. So when you see a child really invested in the story, maybe they’re outraged at the villainous donkey in the forest, and responding in classic ways mainstream children do, the people around them often realise their child has greater cognitive understanding that they’d previously given them credit for! That’s not to discredit the carer of the child at all, but sometimes it helps see you can have a greater connection when you’re not as reliant on words to communicate.” While Italiano recognises the social impact Sensorium is having on their young audiences and their carers, he’s quick to point out the joy is definitely not one-sided.
“As a parent, I know caring for children is hard work full stop let alone the hard yards people put in for a child with high needs, so to be able to come in and be the fun guys, using our creativity to stimulate positive responses from these kids and encourage the people in their lives to encounter a bit of joy themselves in using similar ways then we feel great and we feel a lot of love coming back at us,” Italiano says. “What we do isn’t rocket science or curing cancer, but hopefully we’re just spreading joy and encouraging people to find that joy for themselves as well.”
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