The Twelve Days of Christmas at the Chickenshed: a magical, inclusive adventure

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I never imagined that the Twelve Days of Christmas carol could take on a whole new meaning until I saw the Chickenshed theatre company’s performance of it in North London last week.

I went with a group of friends to the Chickenshed to see this captioned and BSL interpreted Christmas play. The storyline focuses on four children’s quest to find the fifth gold ring in the Twelve Days of Christmas carol, and during their journey, they come across all the characters from the carol in various scenes, such as two turtle doves and three French hens, in a crazy Alice in Wonderland type of adventure.

The performance was so colourful and surreal that at times I felt like I was in the middle of a gigantic bizarre Acid trip. The sheer energy and powerful emotion shown by the actors on stage and their huge supporting cast was electrifying and thrilling to watch.

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The set was also highly creative and magical. It was designed like a giant Willy Wonka-type slot machine, with the different numbers for the Twelve Days of Christmas flashing up to let the audience know when we had reached a specific number from the Twelve Days of Christmas.

This was definitely a unique production with a twist. None of the characters in the carol were how I remembered them or imagined them to be. For instance, the two male French hens spoke English with a French accent and confessed that they couldn’t speak French. The ’eleven pipers piping’ were shown as eleven plumbers dressed in boiler suits fixing the pipes in someone’s bathroom while he sat in his bathtub. Hilarious!

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I loved the crazy singing and dancing too. In one scene there was a ‘Strictly Formation Dancing’ ballroom dancing contest going on where the contestants were all amateurs and none of them could dance very well, so it all looked messy and chaotic, but very funny. Other scenes had circus acrobats, beautiful singing and fast, energetic dancing as the cast threw themselves across the stage.

What the Chickenshed really excels in though and makes them truly unique, is their totally diverse and inclusive ethos, which came across in bucket-loads in this production. Careful planning and attention to detail ensures that everyone in the audience and cast are included and made to feel part of their unique community.

They have a cast of more than 800 people in four different rotas, which includes children and adults of all ages, disabilities and ethnic backgrounds. No-one is excluded. In some scenes I saw about a hundred children, teenagers and adults crammed onto the stage. They all looked like they were having a great time. It was brilliant to watch and feel part of it.

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As well as being captioned in-house by the excellent captioner Beverley, there were two BSL interpreters on stage the whole time, who integrated their signing fully into the performance and interacted with the actors to tell the story in an effortless, seamless way. Their signing was beautiful to watch and because it is such a visual language, it added something extra to the performance, as well as making it totally accessible to the deaf people in the audience.

The show built up to a fabulous, show-stopper of a finale involving all the members of the cast on stage singing and dancing along to the lyrics of the Twelve Days of Christmas carol. The Rayne theatre, which was packed that night, was rocking as the audience clapped along to the lyrics of the song with the cast. At the end the entire cast were signing the words ‘A Partridge in a Pear Tree’ and as I looked around me, I saw children and families in the audience copying them and signing the lyrics. It was a heartwarming experience.

As I left the theatre that night, I had the lyrics ‘And a partridge, a partridge, a partridge in a pear tree’ ringing in my ears. Like a constant earworm that refused to go away, I had that tune ringing in my ears for days afterwards. That carol will never sound the same again.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Latitude 2015: much more than music!

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The last music festival I went to was Glastonbury in 1997. I went camping with a group of friends and despite being covered in mud and not being able to have a shower all weekend, we had a fantastic time.

I was a lot younger then with a lot less responsibility and a bit more stupid! I’ll never forget my excitement at watching Radiohead and The Prodigy playing live to thousands of people and having a really great time.

But after I lost my hearing a few years ago, I couldn’t see any point in going to a festival anymore. I thought that if I can’t hear the music, it would never be the same again. I still had the memories of the bands and songs I loved in my head though even if I couldn’t hear them anymore.

Since I had my cochlear implant operation a year ago, I was wondering what it would be like to go to a festival and hear live music again. A friend of mine, Carole, then told me about Latitude Festival in Suffolk, which was held every July. She also told me that she would be involved in working with the BSL access at the event.

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The festival was made accessible for deaf and disabled people by the organisers, Festival Republic. Also a charity called ‘Attitude Is Everything’ were involved in making the festival accessible and inclusive.

As well as access rate tickets, there was an accessible camping area and volunteers there to support disabled people when needed, providing information and recharging points for mobile phones, cochlear implant batteries and wheelchairs. There were also accessible viewing platforms provided for disabled people and their PAs/carers to watch the performances.

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So, I decided to go there with my wife Joanna. It had been a long time since either of us had camped and we didn’t know what to expect. But we were well looked after right from the minute we arrived, with an accessible check-in area and disabled parking close to the camping area. Two friendly volunteers even carried our stuff for us and put our tents up!

Latitude Festival is set in the stunning Suffolk countryside with a beautiful lake, acres of wild woods and open fields with sheep painted bright pink especially for the festival! It is a much smaller festival than Glastonbury and it had a very creative, colourful vibe to it, with lots of different stages, bars and tents spread around the whole site, which took on a magical appearance at night.

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There was also a huge diversity of music, literature and performance art on offer. It had a really wacky, unpredictable feel to it. We often stumbled upon some really random, crazy stuff going on in the woods or by the lake. I loved it!

Some of the musical performances and comedy acts were interpreted into BSL. I saw a BSL interpreted performance of a live band playing on my first night, which was good, although I think it would have been better if the interpreter had been allowed on the main stage instead of on the viewing platform in the middle of the field. I also wish that there had been more BSL interpreted performances as they seemed to be quite limited.

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I enjoyed listening to the writer Hanif Kureishi reading out one of his entertaining short stories in the Literature tent, followed by a Q&A session with the audience there about creative writing. I have always enjoyed his novels and films ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ and ‘My Beautiful Launderette’. The tent was packed with people but I was really disappointed to discover that the hearing loop there was not working so I had to rely on my cochlear implant. I managed to catch the gist of what he was saying but had to ask my wife to fill in the gaps.

It was also a shame that there was no speech-to-text reporting or captioning provided at Latitude at all for deaf and hard of hearing people. I think a talk like this and some of the live comedy shows would have been much more accessible with speech-to-text reporting, so I hope STAGETEXT will consider providing this access next year.

I was really looking forward to seeing The Charlatans, one of my all-time favourite Manchester bands. Well they definitely didn’t disappoint! I watched them from the viewing platform in the BBC Radio 6 music tent and they were fantastic. They played all their old songs and sounded just like I remembered them from twenty years ago!

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It was great to be amongst lots of disabled people in wheelchairs or mobility scooters all letting their hair down and enjoying themselves with their families, friends and PAs on the viewing platform.

My other musical highlight was watching The Vaccines play live on the Saturday night. This is a fairly new band I’d never heard before but they were fantastic! The atmosphere was electric in the music tent with the lead singer throwing himself frenetically around the stage and into the audience at one point. I could feel the energy and intensity of the band’s performance, as well as sense the vibrations of the drums and guitars from the viewing platform.

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One of the best things about the weekend for me was meeting lots of disabled people there, who were just enjoying themselves without having to worry about barriers to access or discriminatory attitudes from some other people. I met a great bunch of people and hope to keep in contact with some of them.

I was so glad I decided to go to another festival again after all these years. Latitude was brilliant! I don’t think I would have gone without the great access and support provided there though. The diversity and inclusion was great. I’m already looking forward to going back next year and will hopefully bring some more deaf friends with me too!

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Peter Pan at the Chickenshed: a magical, inclusive adventure

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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