The Magic of Theatre
Head2Head Sensory Theatre raised money in this year’s Candis Big Give to fund inclusive theatre productions. Kate Crockford from Kent has travelled across the country to attend shows with sons Xander and Rowan, and now volunteers as an ambassador for the charity. She explains why its work is so important
The pandemic has brought an abundance of challenges for many of us. For Kate Crockford, who has two sons – Xander, 8, and Rowan, 6 – with multiple disabilities, it has been an incredibly difficult time with no respite from their 24/7 ca
“It’s been relentless, as we didn’t have any professional help or support with caring for the boys. They couldn’t go to school or attend many of the activities they normally enjoy – such as horse riding with Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) – because they’re clinically extremely vulnerable.”
Kate and her husband, George, found out that Xander was severely deaf at nine days old during a screening. His hearing gradually worsened until he was profoundly deaf and received cochlear implants at four and a half. At three he was diagnosed with autism after deaf child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) flagged up his symptoms. “Everyone had been blaming his behaviour on him being deaf, so it was a relief to get the autism diagnosis,” says Kate.
In 2017, when Xander was five years old, he was also diagnosed with an eating disorder called Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), which means he won’t eat certain foods. Then, in 2019, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).
In the midst of this, in 2014, Kate and George became parents to Rowan. “Rowan seemed fine when he was born but over the next few months he wasn’t reaching milestones such as holding his head up and tracking things.”
In 2015, Rowan was diagnosed with an extremely rare genetic condition called Tubulinopathy B2B Mutation, which meant that his brain did not form correctly. “Over the next few years Rowan was diagnosed with autism, multiple learning disabilities, structural focal epilepsy, dysphagia and oesophageal dysmotility (difficulty in swallowing, disruption of the normal muscle motion of the oesophagus to take food to the stomach), hypotonia (decreased muscle tone), hyperkinetic movements (excess involuntary movement of muscles) and cortical visual impairment – all due to the damage the genetic mutation caused to his brain development. He is a wheelchair user, registered blind and struggles with his speech.
“MY SONS ARE SO DIFFERENT IN TERMS OF THEIR PERSONALITIES AND ABILITIES, BUT THEY APPRECIATE THE PERFORMANCES IN THEIR OWN WAY AND ALWAYS FIND SOMETHING THEY LIKE”
“It was all a complete shock and absolutely devastating. There’s a poem called Welcome to Holland that’s about when you’re pregnant it’s like being told you’re going to Italy – everyone tells you it’s going to be brilliant; you learn a bit of Italian; you get a guidebook and you know where you’re going. But when
you arrive – as the parent of a child with a disability – it’s like the pilot has suddenly announced, ‘Sorry, you’re actually in Holland.’ You’re like, ‘What? They don’t speak Italian. I don’t know my way around. I don’t understand.’ Everything is completely confusing.
“After a while you start to appreciate that, while it’s not where you expected to be, Holland has its own beauty. But it’s still a really difficult and confusing time. You are thrown headfirst into a very strange and unusual world full of different equipment, words and people.”
For Kate, activities most families take for granted are challenging. “We can’t leave the house without planning exactly where we are going, how we were getting there and what we might need (which usually includes heaps of bags for all our supplies and equipment) and many places are out of the question due to issues with accessibility.
“We also have dozens of hospital appointments and are always doing something – such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, annual reviews and team meetings with social workers.”
In 2015, Kate heard about Head2Head Sensory Theatre and took the boys to one of their productions, which are tailored to children with disability. “We absolutely loved it and immediately decided we would go to another. Since then, we have probably attended around four or five performances each year.
“My sons are so different in terms of their personalities and abilities, but they appreciate the performances in their own way and always find something they like. Rowan may not understand the story or speech, but he loves the sensory objects, so he might be beeping a horn around the actor’s neck, while Xander will be wandering around wearing one of the costumes.
“The actors are wonderful and will engage with the children as individuals, responding to what excites them to bring every child into the performance according to their capacity. It’s honestly the only place we have ever been that is completely suited to both my sons.”
“THEY HAVE ALREADY THOUGHT ABOUT THE DOORS BEING WIDE ENOUGH FOR A WHEELCHAIR AND HOW YOUR FAMILY IS GOING TO JOIN IN, AND NOBODY IS STARING AT YOUR CHILD FOR MAKING NOISE”
During the national lockdown in 2020, Kate was able to access Head2Head productions online. “They did a summer one and a pantomime in December, for which George obtained the services of a signing interpreter. The performances were all interactive, so they sent out a pack with materials and ideas for fun activities and things you could prepare.
“The charity also involved Xander in developing a game they now have online and he was really proud to be part of it. During that difficult time they provided some fun when there was nothing else, and that was incredibly important.”
Kate is looking forward to attending future performances from Head2Head with her family. “It’s a couple of hours of stress-free fun, which is so valuable for a family like ours. They make you feel completely welcome, which is very rare. Normally we can’t go anywhere without being stared at, whether that is through pity or interest, but being around other families with children with disabilities lets our sons know they’re not weird and normalises their life experience.
“We can just turn up to a performance and know all the challenges we normally face won’t be an issue. They have already thought about the doors being wide enough for a wheelchair and how your family is going to join in, and nobody is staring at your child for making noise. The actors love their responses, they welcome them and even incorporate them in the performance, and everybody is enjoying your child’s interaction just as much as you are. They are treated just like any other child who deserves to have fun, and that really means the world to us.”
HEAD2HEAD SENSORY THEATRE
TOTAL RAISED: £9,945 (BIG GIVE 2021)
Head2Head Sensory Theatre is using the money it raised in the Candis Big Give to continue to provide accessible and sensory theatre for children with disabilities. They will use some of the money to film three interactive shows and activities to entertain children with disabilities at home, which will allow them to reach them during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as those in different parts of the country who would not otherwise be able to access their performances in person. The online performances will be as interactive as possible, and families will be sent a pack of costume ideas and crafts they can prepare beforehand.
The charity hopes to use some of the money to also continue its in-person productions, which take place at local special schools and are fully immersive
and suitable for all. Each member of its experienced acting team is trained in Makaton signing and the use of communication aids to ensure each drama experience is fully accessible, and the actors put their audience to the forefront of each performance, offering opportunities for the children and families to get involved in the storyline.
The money will also help the charity to provide theatre work experience for disabled students who will act in some of their productions. This gives the students a chance to do something they’re passionate about, boost their self-esteem and gain experience to help them obtain future acting roles.
Visit h2hsensorytheatre.com for more information and details of the charity’s upcoming productions.
What Head2Head means to me
Sara Cole, Artistic Director for Head2Head Sensory Theatre, tells us why she loves working for the charity
“I met Anni, the founder of Head2Head Sensory Theatre, nearly 20 years ago when we were both studying drama as mature students at university. After she set up the company in 2006, I came onboard as an actor then segued into my role as Artistic Director.
I really love the variety of my work, which not only involves writing and directing the shows but doing the casting, researching sensory moments, writing lyrics for the songs, liaising with the props maker and sourcing all the props and items for the show. Quite often I also perform in the shows, which I very much enjoy! It is wonderful meeting with families and getting direct feedback from them.
There is a definite lack of accessible theatre for children with special needs, with many of them finding it physically hard to even go to a theatre because they need changing facilities, hoists or even beds if they can’t be in chairs. We wanted to provide an environment completely geared towards them, where their needs would be met and everyone was from a similar background so would understand each other. One of the families actually coined the phrase that our shows are a ‘tut-free zone’, as that is so important to families who often feel judged or like a burden.
We have sensory areas and use Makaton signing and our shows are interactive, immersive and adapted to the audience. We make sure it is fully inclusive and everyone can enjoy themselves – including the parents, carers and siblings. It’s great to see everyone getting involved just enjoying theatre together and to see the benefits that has for the children’s confidence, social interaction and self-esteem. We have families telling us they never knew their child could join in in that way, or it’s fantastic to see them so confident, and that’s what our work is all about. I may be tearing my hair out trying to finish something to a deadline or worrying about some part of the production in the weeks before, but then I hear those comments and it’s like ‘Wow!’ It just makes it all so worthwhile”.