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Features/Music/Theatre

Creating a wonder-filled world for kids

19 May 2022

Sensorium Theatre has been making work for young people with disability for 12 years, and now the zeitgeist is finally catching up, writes Varnya Bromilow.

My first question to Sensorium Theatre’s Francis Italiano is, admittedly, stupid.

But I have, after all, spent the last two years in Canada, where artists have either had a pandemic-imposed period of creative isolation or been rendered jobless.

“Ah. No,” he says, laughing at the idea of a reclusive pause.

“It’s been an awesome couple of years, but also slightly insane. Because it’s been basically business as usual in Western Australia, we’ve been either performing or producing regional shows, doing online shows, writing grants to keep our artists alive or developing new ensemble work. We’ve been incredibly lucky here, but yeah, it’s also been pretty relentless!”

‘Sensorium really is its own beast now.’ Pictured is a scene from the company’s show ‘The Jub Jub Tree’

And now, with life returning to a semblance of normal, there are tours to reschedule. “We have a national tour of our show Whoosh coming up and a rescheduled collaboration in Singapore this year too,” Italiano explains.

“Sensorium is really its own beast now. I looked around the other day, at all these amazing artists and the work going on and for a minute there, I just sat back in amazement.” He laughs.

It’s a far cry from the company’s beginnings as a tiny, Freo-based outpost of participative theatre. Created with Italiano’s partner Michelle Hovane back in 2010, Sensorium Theatre is the only company in Australia making works principally for young audiences with disability.

Over the last 12 years, the company has garnered a strong reputation for creating award-winning shows that put sensory immersion and collaboration at the forefront of its process. It’s this reputation and enthusiastic following that has secured Sensorium a finalist position in the inaugural grants round of new philanthropic collective ARTS Impact WA. The winners will be announced at Freo.Social, 24 May 2022, with $100,000 grants up for grabs.

“This could be a real game changer for us,” says Italiano. “We’ve applied to ARTS Impact to develop Wonderbox, which is this super-immersive, carnivalesque experience revolving around the concept of magical things in boxes. It’s about rewarding the choice to be curious. It’s our most non-linear work to date and incorporates these really gorgeous projections – both small scale and large scale. Imagine these fantastic clouds of butterflies escaping large boxes, zooming in to dioramas within tiny boxes. The whole thing is this big, evocative, beautiful discovery of the micro and the macro.”

A group of children and adults clustered inside what looks like a spaceship. Everyone's hands are stretched over a brightly lit hub.
Sensorium Theatre’s ‘Whoosh’ is about to take off on a national tour. Photo: Christophe Canato

Like all Sensorium works, the first phase of Wonderbox’s development took place in close collaboration with their principal audience – children with disability.

“We spent 14 weeks in residency with the incredible kids at Kenwick School,” explains Italiano. “Kenwick caters to kids with different educational needs – you have kids with physical, intellectual, sensory and other challenges. It’s an awesome place and we were just so lucky to be there for such an extended period. We were able to co-create the first phase of this work with a group of multidisciplinary artists by doing workshops in the classrooms.

Imagine these fantastic clouds of butterflies escaping large boxes, zooming in to dioramas within tiny boxes. The whole thing is this big, evocative, beautiful discovery of the micro and the macro.

“Our audience is always instrumental in the formation of each work and this was just a wonderful opportunity for that.”

Wonderbox also marks a return to live music for the company.

“Our last show, Whoosh, had this beautiful recorded score by Jamie David but this time we wanted to get back to having live musicians there with us. So we’re joined by this bunch of wonderful musicians, as well as one of our new performers, Crystal Nguyen, who has this incredible voice.

Nguyen, who mobilises in a wheelchair, is one of several new Sensorium artists who have disabilities. I ask Italiano if this had been a conscious decision, to make the company more inclusive?

“Absolutely,” he says.

“It was something we had always thought about. Then, we had been invited to New York for The Big Umbrella Festival – the first arts festival for children with autism. We saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with the title role performed by Mickey Rowe, an actor with autism. Even though the lead character of that book/show has autism, it was actually the first time the lead role had been played by an actor with autism. So, at a talk afterwards, Mickey really threw the gauntlet down. We were sitting there with these two other companies that create work for kids with disabilities and we thought – we have to actually do this!

Children and adults swirl around a room in Wonderbox. There are unlit chanderliers and cloud-filled windows. The adults wear giant ruffs.
The first phase of ‘Wonderbox’ has been developed in close collaboration with Sensorium’s principal audience: children with disability. Crystal Nguyen is front right.” Photo: Tim Grant

“So now we have Crystal, who is this incredible performer and singer who also happens to be in a wheelchair, and Mike Moshos, who is a person of small stature, as well as being just an awesome performer.

“It opens up new worlds, new possibilities for these kids – to see themselves reflected in the performers. It’s so wonderful to witness.”

“It is a truly incredible thing – to see our audience members engaging with Mike and Crystal on this whole different level. It opens up new worlds, new possibilities for these kids – to see themselves reflected in the performers. It’s so wonderful to witness.”

Although ARTS Impact WA originally expected to offer one award of $100, 000, it has recently been announced that two $100,000 grants will be awarded, courtesy of increased donations to the program. For companies like Sensorium, the burgeoning interest in philanthropy in WA couldn’t come at a better time.

“It’s really exciting,” says Italiano. “Better odds than arts funding! For us, growing as quickly as we are, this hope of new funding comes at a critical time.”

“It’s a bit of zeitgeist thing, I guess. There’s genuine interest in creating works that cater specifically to people with disability, creating these child-led works, where everyone has the best seat in the house, regardless of your disability. We’ve been doing this a long time now but it’s really having its moment. We feel really honoured to be part of it.”

The ARTS Impact Grant Evening, at which the winners of the $100,000 grants will be announced, takes place at Freo.Social, 24 May 2022.

Pictured top: Sensorium Theatre bringing wonder to young audiences with their Helpmann Award-nominated show ‘Oddysea’. Photo: Jessica Wyld

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Author —
Varnya Bromilow

Varnya Bromilow is a happy dilettante who has worked as a journalist, advocate, oral historian, teacher and train driver. She spent 15 years with the ABC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The West Australian and enjoys writing fiction. She loves guinea pigs and the thrill of a good slide.

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