Last weekend I went with a group of deaf and hard of hearing friends to see an accessible performance of ‘Peter Pan’ at the Chickenshed theatre in North London. We were all really excited to see this Christmas show and it was the first time that I had ever seen a performance at the Chickenshed.
Two of my friends, Lizzie and Sarah, have a personal connection with the Chickenshed theatre company, since they have both been involved in it since they were young children and their mother works as the in-house captioner there, having been trained by STAGETEXT. Sarah now works as the Assistant Sign Director there too.
It is a fairly small, intimate theatre, but that night it was absolutely full. The stage set was beautiful, and it felt like you were walking into a children’s magical dream, complete with fairies and Neverland adventures.
Once the performance started, I was immediately struck by how accessible and inclusive the whole experience was for everyone, deaf and hearing. The live captioning above the stage was faultless and for those people who preferred to read the captions up close or who were visually impaired, they were seated next to the stage and given hand-held tablets to read the captions from their own devices.
But what I was really amazed at was that throughout the performance, some of the actors were signing in BSL. This was different to anything I had ever seen before on the stage because they were not just interpreting it in BSL for the other actors, but it was immersed into the performance as a fundamental part of telling the story. Loren Jacobs, who played Peter Pan’s Shadow and Georgina Jacobs, who played Tinkerbell the fairy, signed on the stage most of the time. As I watched them signing, I found it incredible that they could to this as well as act in their characters. They signed so clearly, in a very beautiful way.
It seemed to add a whole new dimension to the performance, which was captivating and very visual. It also meant that it was inclusive for all deaf people, not just those who can read English well and follow the captions.
Afterwards, as I was in the bar chatting to my friends, I discovered a bit more about the Chickenshed, their ethos and values. One of my friends very kindly gave me a book about them as a present, which has recently been published to celebrate the fortieth year since the company was founded.
Through my friends and the book I found out that the Chickenshed was founded in 1974 by Jo Collins and Mary Ward. In those early days they literally met for rehearsals in a chicken shed on a farm owned by a local landowner and big fan of theirs. Since these humble beginnings, the company has expanded a lot until now it has over 800 members, and a waiting list twice that long. They moved into their new purpose-built theatre in 1994, where they have been ever since.
They also have 260 regular volunteers and admin staff working there. They run educational and outreach programmes across the country, including offering a BA degree in Inclusive Performance in partnership with Middlesex University, as well as having 9 satellite ‘Sheds’ around the country and 2 in Russia.
The thing that has really impressed me about the Chickenshed more than anything is its inclusive ethos. Over the years they have worked with hundreds of people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Their ethos is about not labelling anyone, and bringing out the creative potential within everyone. This feeling of being valued and part of a family brings out the best in people and it has changed many people’s lives.
I thought it was wonderful that night to see the stage full of children of all ages and abilities. Everyone was included. In some of the pirate scenes with Captain Hook, there didn’t seem to be an inch spare on the stage as it was packed with children looking like punk pirates in their costumes, jumping around the stage energetically in their excitement and enthusiasm. They seemed to be having such a great time.
The Chickenshed goes to great lengths to make sure that their performances are as inclusive and accessible to everyone as possible. My friend Sarah explained the process of how they went about interpreting the script of ‘Peter Pan’ into BSL and integrating it into the performance. It is a painstaking process, which takes many months of preparation beforehand and working closely with the actors to allow the characters to shine on stage through their signing. They work very hard to ensure that through the actors’ signing, the right mood, intensity and emotions are evoked, as well as making sure the signing is clear, concise and accurate. I found it totally amazing to watch and I surprised myself that I could follow it.
My friends and I all thought that this production of ‘Peter Pan’ was really fun to watch. I loved seeing the actor who played Peter Pan flying around the stage with Tinkerbell, Wendy and the other characters, and I thought all the acting and singing was brilliant.
I also really enjoyed watching Joseph Morton, who played Captain Hook, acting in such a dramatic, villainous manner. He was brilliant. I am really looking forward to my next visit to see another wonderful, inclusive performance by the Chickenshed. I’m hooked!
Merry Christmas everyone!