In April, the world’s first arts festival dedicated to children on the autism spectrum launches in New York City — thanks in no small part to one pioneering Australian theatre company.
The Big Umbrella Festival is happening at the Lincoln Centre, home of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, and showcases a number of specialist companies — including Perth’s Sensorium Theatre.
“It is pretty bloody exciting,” says Sensorium’s founder and co-artistic director Francis Italiano.
“These little guys from the West, going to the Big Apple!”
Sensorium Theatre, founded in 2010 from a “very small seed fund” from Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre, is Australia’s only company making theatre specifically for children with complex learning difficulties and disabilities.
Sensorium’s creatives were part of the small collective of companies that co-founded Big Umbrella, alongside London company Oily Cart, industry leaders in this field, and Trusty Sidekick, a children’s theatre company from New York.
Italiano says it was “a conversation started by our producer, a couple of years back about how could we bring these companies together, to share and learn from each other and to look at our different approaches”.
The result is a festival that celebrates the immersive theatre that Sensorium specialises in.
“It is about being on an equal footing with our audience, because that’s a pretty rare experience for a lot of them,” says Italiano.
Finding alternative access points to narrative
Italiano says companies like Sensorium are a boon to institutions like the Lincoln Centre that are trying to increase their inclusivity.
“The kind of cultural products on offer for neurotypical children (children who aren’t on the autism spectrum) don’t necessarily engage our audiences enough. A lot of times things will still go over their heads,” he says.
This is true of audience members with disabilities other than autism as well, he adds.
“Traditionally in theatre it’s about the sight and sound … [but] some of our audience may access story and experiences differently, giving primacy to other senses. They might be someone who navigates the world much more through touch, for example.
“[In traditional theatre] there’s not necessarily the capacity to allow for the processing time to access a narrative that our audiences require.”
In contrast, Sensorium shows are totally immersive and engage all five senses — giving attendees the maximum opportunity to connect at a pace and in a style that suits them.
Take the Helpmann Award-nominated under-the-sea-themed adventure Oddysea: audience members are brought into a plush bean-bagged space with plenty of flowing fabric to touch and feel, evoking soft sand and undulating waves.
They’re led by friendly aquatic puppets, Turtle and Crab, down into the depths where they can touch crocheted reefs, get showered with real bubbles, listen to songs, and eat flavoured jellies in honour of Crab’s favourite food: jellyfish.
As with Sensorium’s other shows, Oddysea is restricted to small audience numbers (just 15 in this case), so that performers can focus their attention on each attendee and their needs.
“We often refer to our shows as having a jazz format,” Italiano says.
“We have a basic score, a through-line and a script … but there’s a lot of room to riff around that and improvise. Because there is the physical intimacy and proximity to our audience, there’s an opportunity for performers to connect one-on-one with each member of the audience, and tailor everything.”
Oddysea has been touring Australia since 2013 (including seasons at major arts institutions like the Sydney Opera House and the Arts Centre Melbourne), and has been performed to thousands of children, says Italiano.
“That’s no mean feat for a show that has a maximum audience of 15. But that’s okay for us, because each performance is so different.”
Italiano believes that Sensorium’s
“I feel like in our society we’re very aware about issues of universal access when it comes to architecture and design … now there are a number of us looking beyond that, to universal access to cultural products.
“I think the fact that a number of larger cultural institutions, like the Sydney Opera House and Arts Centre Melbourne and the Lincoln Centre, have been very keen to take this up and explore it, is very heartening.”
It is also a matter of meeting demand — with autism the fastest growing disability diagnosis in the world, companies like Sensorium and festivals like Big Umbrella are filling a gap for special-needs audiences.
For Italiano, the drive to produce accessible theatre goes beyond statistical imperatives: “These are experiences that are inherently human, the need to gather around the campfire and have story.”
The results speak for themselves, he says.
“We just continue to get feedback — from the circle of care around these kids, their parents, their families, their carers, their educators — about the unexpected responses that this kind of
“Often they are seeing kids communicate and respond in ways that they haven’t observed before — and therein lies the magic and the passion for us.”
Sensorium Theatre will appear at the Big Umbrella Festival in New York City which runs from 10 April to 6 May.