To say Ben has a mixed relationship with theatre would be generous. There are numerous examples of him hating theatrical outings and our success ratio is pitifully low.
We have had reasonable success with productions by Oily Cart, who produce theatre specifically for disabled children which is inventive, imaginative and brilliant. They often adapt their shows for mainstream audiences, and even when we have taken Ben to these more hectic performances he has enjoyed them (or at least bits!).
In March this year I took Ben to a production of Not Now, Bernard at the Unicorn Theatre. We had been to productions there before – it is a lovely theatre with accommodating staff. We had a wheelchair seat at the front of the theatre space – right next to the stage with its bright lights and in front of about 60 excitable (noisy) children.
Ben struggles with this kind of thing – he is nervous in unfamiliar environments with bright lights. He still has a startle reflex so loud noises make him physically jump. The sensory overload of unexpected music and people leaping about onstage can be a bit much. And so it proved: the show started, a man came on to the stage just in front of us and there were some loud noises and that was it – Ben in tears and me unable to bring him back from the brink. I decided we had to leave.
Unfortunately our proximity to the ‘stage’ (white painted floor) meant this involved me carrying a long, sobbing 4 year old while carrying two coats and a bag – and pushing a wheelchair ON to the stage thereby causing maximum fuss and creating some inadvertent audience participation. We had lasted five minutes in the theatre and then went home. During a tearful phone call with my husband in the car, we agreed I wouldn’t take Ben to the theatre on my own again.
Of course one solution would be to not take Ben to the theatre, but this seems too depressing a conclusion. It would be to give up on something that I though I would do with my children. Broadening horizons and facilitating new experiences is stressful and often a disaster, but we have to keep trying. Ben loves stories and melodramatic performance in familiar places so there must be shows he would enjoy. Surely!
One of Ben’s most favourite things to do is to watch videos on YouTube of Michael Rosen reading poems and stories from his books. He’s enjoyed these videos for over a year and we must be responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of views. He particularly likes this one about bending a toothbrush which is from the book Michael Rosen’s Big Book of Bad Things. There are many reasons why one might be a fan of Rosen, he has written loads of books. We have a family tradition of singing Ben a song based on his book, Little Rabbit Foo Foo, which last Christmas was staged as a play by his granny and uncle.
I found out that Michael Rosen would be reading/performing from this book in London. I booked for us to go.
We were nervous and excited, really hoping Ben would enjoy it but ready for the moment when he lost it halfway through and we all had to leave. In order to maximise the likelihood of success, we arranged to drop Max off with his uncle down the road and spent a lot of time telling Ben where we were going. So much in fact, that on anyone saying ‘Big Book of …’ Max would shout, ‘BAD THINGS!’ at us all. Ben thought that was amusing.
Our seats were right at the back of theatre (good) and at some distance from the stage (good) and we were let in to the auditorium first so we watched everyone else come in (mainly kids older than Ben) and Ben had time to get used to his surroundings. James read him poems from the book while we were waiting.
Then Michael Rosen came on stage. As he spoke loudly into microphone for the first time, we held our breath. But Ben was fine. More than fine, in fact. He smiled, he listened. Michael (is that too familiar?) told lots of stories – many with loud noises and audience participation – and Ben was happy. James and I sat on tenterhooks, laughing at the jokes but poised for the moment that Ben wasn’t enjoying himself any more. But it never came. Ben just watched over an hour of performance – smiling a lot, giggling occasionally, totally focused for 60 minutes. It was totally bloody brilliant. The boy loves a story, and Michael Rosen is really good at stories. And apparently if Michael Rosen makes sudden, startling noises in a theatre, that’s okay.
When it finished we queued up with loads of other kids to get our book signed. In the crush of us all pursuing the author, Michael walked past us and stopped to say hello to Ben. As we queued, Ben was squashed between loads of older kids and he was unperturbed and patient (occasionally accidentally kicking some kids but that’s inevitable when you can’t really control your legs; they were very tolerant). Our book was signed: ‘Michael Rosen was here’, and off we went. Everyone on Facebook was jealous.
So that’s what it’s like to take your child to the theatre and them enjoy it. It’s fun! Ben loves hearing language and words and rhymes. I am fascinated by how that really works – when a typical child learns to speak they learn the sound of letters by saying them. How does a child who can’t speak learn sounds? Who knows. But for now, we’ll do our best to stalk Michael Rosen.