Concrete Youth: Multi-Sensory Theatre for Audiences with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities

“One Christmas, I wanted to take my students on a Christmas theatre visit, but I couldn’t find any productions that would be accessible to them. So, I searched for theatre companies that do make work exclusively for audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities. I found one. It was then that Concrete Youth was born.”

Daniel Swift FRSA, MA Theatre Making, 2019

In this interview we meet Daniel Swift FRSA, the Founder, CEO and Co-Artistic Director of Concrete Youth, a Multi-Sensory theatre company that works with audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). Daniel established Concrete Youth after a placement in the Drama Department of a specialist education setting as part of his final year at Bishop Grosseteste University. He then went on to study for an MA in Theatre Making here at the University of Hull, graduating in 2019.

Daniel’s contribution has already been recognised after he was awarded a Fellowship by the Royal Society of Arts. Concrete Youth is one of only two theatre companies in the UK that works with an audience for whom there is very little artistic provision. 

“I was shocked when I found out I’d been given a Fellowship by the Royal Society of Arts. I couldn’t believe it. I just walked into my living room and told my partner with a baffled look on my face. Dame Judi Dench has one, Stephen Hawking had one, Charles Dickens had one, and now I have one. It probably won’t sink in for a long time.”

Daniel Swift FRSA, MA Theatre Making, 2019

You can find more information about Concrete Youth by visiting the website at www.concreteyouth.co.uk. Or you can get in touch by emailing info@concreteyouth.co.uk or by calling 01482 961005. 

You can support Concrete Youth by visiting 
https://www.concreteyouth.co.uk/support-us


One of the first things that becomes clear when talking to Daniel is his understanding of and his care for his audience. They are at the forefront of his thinking and the drive for everything he does with Concrete Youth.

“There are so many ways that people with profound and multiple learning disabilities are exclude from the arts,” says Daniel. “Physical barriers include lack of ramps, doors being too narrow, not enough wheelchair places in theatre venues, lack of Changing Places toilets, and many others. 

“There’s also a severe lack of provision for the arts for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. We and one other theatre company, Frozen Light, are the only organisations touring theatre exclusively for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. When there are thousands of theatre companies for other audiences, it’s safe to say that is a huge issue. Of course, this causes our audiences to suffer a severe lack of access to the arts, but it also leads to venues not wishing to programme this work because there’s such a severe lack of understanding of the work, the benefits of it and the audiences themselves.

“I would love to see a world where all theatre companies make considerations for learning disabled audiences and embed them into the work, rather than having the odd accessible performance. For example, rather than having a signed performance, our casts are taught Makaton and those signs are integrated into the language they speak on stage. I’d also love for accessibility to be properly represented in theatre programming, more multi-sensory shows for audiences with PMLD need to be programmed in venues so those with PMLD have more regular access to the arts. 

“Our shows use sensory engagement throughout to make the show as accessible for our audience as possible. For example, in our first show, To the Moon and Back, our cast landed on The Moon, so audiences were able to feel, look at and explore a moon rock that lit up, had bumps and edges and other features for our audiences to explore during the show to heighten their experience of the show and make the production inclusive of their sensory needs.”

With Covid, lockdowns and all the disruption of the last two years, there has been a lot of disruption for the arts, in particular audience focussed arts like theatre. As always, Concrete Youth’s response to the crisis has been a focus on reaching out to their audience.

“It’s been an awful couple of years for the arts industry across the globe. We’ve been very lucky to have received support from funders and audiences to help us remain resilient throughout the pandemic. However, throughout COVID, our main concern was our audience. Already extremely immunocompromised, our audience were extremely vulnerable to the virus and was shielding for months on end – this only made them more invisible to society.

“We were lucky enough to secure funding from Two Ridings Community Foundation to develop a new online, multi-sensory theatre show called Shebaa’s Adventure to Jopplety How by Elle Douglas, in partnership with The Lowry, Stratford Circus Arts Centre, Poplar Union and Show Face Festival. Then, in December 2020, we worked in partnership with Hull New Theatre to present Winter Wonderland, a snowy, multi-sensory theatre show, supported by Arts Council England and Hull City Council. 

“Both of these shows were digital shows that were available for audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities online. Audiences received a list of items to source from their homes or the supermarket to explore as sensory stimulus when instructed to do so in the show. We sent cameras, lighting, costumes, green screens, make up, microphones and everything else needs to the actors houses for them to film their scenes for the show. Then, the footage was sent to our editor to pieced it all together and made it look like the actors were in the same room together, when, in actual fact, they have never met!

“We developed and presented these shows to continue offering cultural provision for our audience at a time when they could access the arts even less often they can in ’normal’ times. We reached hundreds of audiences across five continents.”

And it is his audience once again that Daniel turns to when asked to consider what he considers to be the achievement he is most proud of.

“I think it has to go back to the audience. Every time I watch an audience member enjoying one of our shows, I can’t help but get emotional. These people are some of the most invisible people in society and rarely are able to attend the theatre (92% of our last show’s audience had never attended the theatre) and finally they are able to experience the joy of theatre that is designed exclusively for them.

“During our first show, To the Moon and Back, there was a little boy who screamed (his way of expressing joy) while exploring an asteroid that rattled and edges with felt and velcro and other tactile features. He loved it, and I just burst into tears. It was a mixture of joy at his reaction, relief that our first show was a success after so much work and probably tiredness of non-stop work for weeks on end in the lead up to the show!”

You can find more information about Concrete Youth by visiting the website at www.concreteyouth.co.uk. Or you can get in touch by emailing info@concreteyouth.co.uk or by calling 01482 961005. 

You can support Concrete Youth by visiting 
https://www.concreteyouth.co.uk/support-us

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s