Interview: 20 Questions with Concrete Youth’s Daniel Swift

Concrete Youth is an award-winning, Hull-based theatre company which creates multi-sensory theatre experiences for audiences living with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). Partnered with Artsmark, their education department provides bespoke workshops, weekly after-school clubs and private and group sensory stories. Having never had the opportunity to chat to someone representing this branch of the arts before, it was a real pleasure to catch up with Artistic Director Daniel Swift to talk about how Concrete Youth came to be, how the company creates its accessible, award winning work and the importance of keeping audience needs and accessibility at the very heart of all they do…

To begin, tell me a little bit about how your own relationship with theatre began and your route into the industry.

So, I started acting professionally from a young age and then got into teaching at local theatre and dance schools, before going into theatre production, with a little bit of writing on the side. I was really lucky, I had fantastic teachers, mentors and artistic people around me, so I learned a lot about the industry.

And as Artistic Director of Concrete Youth, can you tell me a little about how the company formed and its journey so far?

Sure, so as part of my Undergraduate Degree, I did a placement at a lovely little special needs school in Lincoln. I was really lucky, I was struggling to find a place that would take me, but the Drama Teacher at this school was going on maternity leave and they needed some extra support in their Drama classes whilst she was gone. So, I went and did that placement for around 4 months. That was the first time I had ever worked directly with people living with special needs at all. The second I started, I knew that was what I would spend my career doing – what a cliché! Anyway, I finished my Undergraduate Degree and the school asked me to stay on as Drama Teacher for a while, so I spent a long time there working with the most fantastic children and creating brilliant shows with fabulous people.

One Christmas, I wanted to take my students to the theatre to watch a panto or some form of Christmassy show, and I just couldn’t find anything for them that was accessible or that accommodated their needs. So, I looked into some companies that make inclusive work for people living with profound and multiple learning disabilities and found some fantastic companies (Frozen Light, Oily Cart, Bamboozle, among others). But one thing struck me – there are TONS of theatre companies for people like me, but hardly any for the people that I work with. I had always wanted to run a theatre company, so I sat with the idea for a while, did a lot of research and decided to take my experience with my students and my experience in theatre production and blend them together into a company – Concrete Youth.

I do love to learn about company names too, so how did the name Concrete Youth arrive on the scene?

It’s an interesting story! So, I was sitting with the idea for this theatre company in my head for a while. I was doing a Master’s Degree at the time, specialising in multi-sensory theatre for people living with PMLD. My other half was doing his year abroad in Paris, as part of his Music and French Degree. So whenever I wasn’t teaching or in Master’s lectures, I was hopping over to Paris once a month or so. Anyway, just down the road from his little flat, was a boarded-up barber shop with graffiti on it saying, ‘Concrete Youth’. So, I did a Google to make sure that it wasn’t some kind of Parisian gang that was spraying its name all over the city – and it wasn’t. So, the rest is history!

So Concrete Youth create multi-sensory theatre experiences for audiences living with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Can you tell me a little more about the makeup of your audiences and your approach towards catering to their varied needs?

Sure! So, we create our work for our audiences from the beginning. We’ll never write a show for ‘mainstream’ audiences and then throw on accessible methods of watching it. It has to be developed solely for this audience from the get-go. All of our casts are trained in Makaton – a vital language programme we use when communicating with our audience. We keep house lights on at all times. We never have any flashing lights or sudden bangs etc in our performances. Casts are briefed and trained in how to work with people living with PMLD.

We have a chill-out room nearby to every theatre space we work in so our audiences can pop out of a performance and visit the chill-out room if they become distressed at any point. We offer touch tours and meet and greets with the cast prior to each performance. We offer visual stories to each performance, so days and weeks prior to each performance, audiences can familiarise themselves with the cast, performance space, and what the whole experience will be like. Audiences can make as much noise and move around the space as much as they like – whatever they need to do to make themselves comfortable. That’s absolutely a non-exhaustive list – there’s so much more that I’ve either forgotten or that we just do sub-consciously that we don’t even consider it an access accommodation.

What would you say is the single most important consideration when beginning the process of creating accessible new work for those living with PMLD?

Always put the audience first. Everything Concrete Youth does is for our audience. We make theatre for our audience. We deliver stories and workshops for our audience. We deliver training, have conversations with tour venues, talk to students, post Makaton training videos – all to push awareness of our audience. When it comes to making theatre for people living with profound and multiple learning disabilities, it’s particularly essential. As our audience don’t have regular access to theatre, we have a huge responsibility to make our work comfortable and accessible to them. So, we work with specialists in sensory engagement and other professionals, as well as offering training to our collaborators to ensure everything is considered and accommodated for by the time our audiences enter the performance.

And when it comes to storytelling, what kinds of stories are most popular and successful?

For me, I love a happy ending, combined with some good strong, but funny characters. We’re in rehearsals and filming for Shebaa’s Adventure to Jopplety How, our new show, at the moment and we’ve got some brilliant actors who are making hilarious characters in this show, but they’re also helping us put together a really heart-warming show that has a lovely happy ending about loving yourself and your differences.

That sounds pretty great! On a practical level then, you offer calm and immersive environments with limited capacity for your audiences – how do you go about creating those spaces and what sort of considerations are vital?

You just have to create an environment where the audience can feel like anything they do is absolutely fine. Our audience are so used to being looked at, marginalised and forgotten. This is a place which has been designed for them; everybody in the room is there to put them first and empower them as much as possible. So, whether it’s through sensory engagement, a chill-out room, a child running onto stage and sitting on a chair with a cast member or shouting at the top of their voice. We don’t only allow it, we encourage it!

Can you talk to me a little more about those chill-out rooms and how they benefit your audiences?

People living with profound and multiple learning disabilities, like everyone, are so different in their needs, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears. Our audience can, at times, become upset or distressed, especially when in a new location, like a theatre venue. So, if an audience member becomes distressed during any of our performances, they’re welcome to visit a chill-out room that we have at every venue nearby to the performance space. They can come and go as often as they please. We’d hate for a person to go to the chill-out room and feel like they can’t come back in – this is a space that we have created exclusively for people living with profound and multiple learning disabilities; they can do whatever makes them comfortable and happy.

I’m very interested in the workings of multi-sensory theatre work so can you give a little more insight into what you mean when you speak of multi-sensory experiences of theatre?

The term ‘multi-sensory’ in our work, is pretty much what it says on the tin. We engage with our audiences through one or more senses per show. I wouldn’t say there’s an emphasis on any specific senses in our work, we try to evenly select which senses we’d like to use in our show, so we can create a truly multi-sensory experience. During our sensory engagement or, as we call them, ‘sensory moments’, they’re always linked to the narrative. So, for instance, if we have a show set in the Arctic and the characters are walking through snow, we might put some cereal in a bag and encourage our audience to listen to the crunch sound as we scrunch the bag (to emulate the sound the characters hear whilst walking through the snow).

We did a show last year where our characters visited the moon, so one of our ‘sensory moments’ consisted of us taking nutritional yeast (all vegan and allergen free!) into the audience, as it smelt and tasted like cheese because, as we all know, the moon is made out of cheese! The audiences loved smelling and tasting the yeast during the show! Our audiences are so, so different, so there’s no way we would be able to amend each show for each audience member. So, in order to cater for specific audiences we have each day, we work with our casts to be adaptable to the way that each audience member would like to explore, react and communicate during the performance.

Music is also so central to accessible work, what would you say it is about music that proves so impactful for audiences?

Music, aside from sounding nice, can assist with the cognitive organisation of sensory systems for individuals living with PMLD and those living with autism, through its rhythm. Due to this, auditory processing, sensory-motor, perceptual, motor, gross and fine motor skills can be enhanced through the use of music. So we use music and other sensory stimulus in our productions and education schemes.

Both signing and Makaton are used in your work. In truth, I had to look up Makaton – what would you say are the benefits of using both modes of communication and would you like to see more theatres and companies using both rather than just BSL?

Makaton is a unique language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate. It supports the development of essential communication skills such as attention and listening, comprehension, memory, recall and organisation of language and expression. For those who have experienced the frustration of being unable to communicate meaningfully or effectively, Makaton really can help.

Most of our audience use Makaton rather than BSL and, thankfully, Makaton has, in recent years, gained a lot of prominence in the media etc, which is brilliant as it’s gaining more awareness in different languages for different people. And with this, I think more companies and theatres have started to integrate it into their work, particularly for children’s shows. I do, however, think that some venues and companies can do more to make themselves more aware of both Makaton and BSL so they can become more accessible to all audiences.

Do you feel that theatre is generally making enough progress when it comes toaccessibility and inclusivity?

I think that more venues and companies are integrating accessibility into their work, but I do think there is so much more to be done. Programming of work for neurodiverse audiences, opportunities for disabled audiences, more relaxed performances, BSL-interpreted performances, Makaton-integrated performances, captioned performances, audio described performances, and much, much more can be done to make theatre more inclusive.

You also provide a variety of services in your partnership with Artsmark, from bespoke workshops to weekly after-school clubs and private and group sensory stories. What would you say makes access to the arts for people (and particularly young people) living with PMLD so important?

In order to offer education services for people living with PMLD, we need to be truly bespoke and centre it around the individual’s or group’s needs. When somebody books a sensory story, we give them a form and have a follow up phone/Zoom call so they can give us as much information about that child/group as possible, so we can not only plan the story around their interests, but also avoid sensory stimulus that they may not enjoy. It also makes our jobs more exciting and interesting, as we’re constantly writing new sensory stories, planning different workshops and classes, so it’s not the same everytime!

And how is lockdown impacting on the company and its work?

Our audience are very vulnerable to pandemics like COVID-19, and most have spent lockdown shielding – obviously meaning we have had to suspend all of our in-personactivity for the foreseeable future. We’re really lucky to have a close connection with much of our audience, so we’ve been able to keep chatting about their lockdown and offer any support we can. We’ve been working with She Productions to deliver a sensory story as part of their SheFestDigital2020 event. We’ve also posted a range of sensory activity suggestions on our social media platforms and put a new show into development.

And with your live work on hold, you’ve adapted to the circumstances to create the online multi-sensory show Shebaa’s Adventure to Jopplety How, written by Elle Douglas. What can you tell us about the show and how you hope it will help your audiences while they’re in lockdown?

As soon as Lockdown hit, we were forced to suspend all of our in-person activities quite quickly – this included all of our education department’s projects and two new shows. But, we’re a theatre company, and we make theatre. So, we put a new, online show into development. We spent a lot of time exploring how we can create and deliver a multi-sensory show, without being in the room with our audience. We looked into how our audience do sensory engagement themselves at home and found it’s very often with things from around the house – and that’s where the idea came from!

So, Shebaa’s Adventure to Jopplety How will be an online, multi-sensory show for young audiences living with profound and multiple learning disabilities. It will be a pre-recorded video that international audiences can access at any point after its release on 31st July and will use items from around the house to act as the show’s sensory items. So for example, as our main character is a sheep, we have some cotton wool as one of the sensory items.

When the instructions come up on the screen, the parent/carer will explore the cotton wool with the person that they support. This is also going to be really useful for our audience, as they will be able to access this show whenever they like – after their breakfast, in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep, after lunch, or scattered across all three – it’s entirely up to them! We’re really excited about this new way of engaging with our audience – something that we didn’t think was going to be possible under these restrictions, and we really hope everyone enjoys it!

It’s important to note that all facilitators with Concrete Youth are DBS-cleared, qualified, industry professional with specific qualifications and expertise in sensory play and special arts education. What would your advice be to anyone looking to pursue a career in your particular area of the industry?

Talk to people. This is a very specific, but fantastic sector within a very large industry. Fantastic companies and artists are always willing to meet for a coffee or Zoom meeting or even just answer a few questions via email. There’s such a lack of artists and companies working in this field of theatre, so the more the better! Get as much experience and training as you can. There is lots of research and tons of online courses available – use them!

And what would you say to anyone who might be uncertain about engaging with your events and work?

Send us an email or give us a ring! We’re always more than happy to have a chat and answer any questions you may have. You can email us at info@concreteyouth.co.uk or call us on 01482 961005.

Are there ways to support your company and work during lockdown?

Just engage with us! We always love new Facebook, Twitter and Instagram followers, a good’ol ‘like’ here or there, too! You can also spread the word about us.

To be both topical and political for a moment, the future of the arts and theatre work in general is incredibly uncertain. What would be your central argument in fighting for the future of theatre?

Thankfully, the arts rescue package has been announced by the government recently, which I think will be a relief to tons of venues and organisations throughout the country. I think, moving forward, it’s really important to think about theatre companies, supporting them and giving them as many opportunities as possible to work with venues and continue making work. This will keep theatre moving, help venues to continue being used, and to ensure that all audience groups continue to be catered for.

And finally, for you, what is the greatest marker of success in the work you create?

I think it has to be the responses we get from audiences. Our audiences won’t always be able to give us the biggest reactions, but that doesn’t mean they’re not loving the experience. However, we often get lots of clapping, smiles, laughter and so much more and it’s just so special. I think that always has to be the marker for us, as the audience has always been and always will be the priority.

So there you have it! You can keep up with the adventures of Concrete Youth via their website and their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages.

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