In a dark room, two arms come into shot from the right. The top arm has a small bright light strapped to the underside of the wrist, which is pointing down towards a kaleidoscopic, geometric matrix of mirror shapes held up by the other hand. Yellow and green coloured light reflects off the mirrored shapes onto the wall behind.

Space To Be by Oily Cart at MIF21 Image Suzi Corker

There were lots of ways to experience MIF this July, as 3 million people did, from attending some of the first major live events since the UK lockdown eased, to seeing open-air artworks, watching live streamed shows and playing games online. But perhaps the most unique part of the programme was an immersive theatre production called Space To Be, which ten shielding families experienced in their own homes.

MIF partnered with the immersive theatre company Oily Cart to bring Space To Be to families in Manchester with one or more children who are disabled and/or neurodiverse. Inspired by space, the production considers the family as a constellation of individuals who are connected, and seeks to ‘fly the family audiences through the universe in their imaginations,’ says lead artist and director of Oily Cart Ellie Griffiths. The experience took place over five days, with a box of props and a binaural soundtrack guiding the family through each day’s performance.

A cosmic guide named Polaris led each family on their journey through the daily boxes, which contained audio, light, scents, shapes and textures that the members of the family could play with and experience individually and together. Created in collaboration with consultant families and disabled artists, Space To Be made use of sensory objects including embroidered pillows with speakers inside, a planetarium tent and a kaleidoscopic mirror matrix that reflects colours around the room when a light is pointed at it.

An image taken from inside a planetarium tent, which is made of gauzy blue fabric with black lines marking star constellations on it. A box on the ground glows blue and has patterns where light escapes, projecting green and blue dots of light onto the tent.

A planetarium tent in Space To Be Image Suzi Corker

The soundtrack of Space To Be included the sound of real stars, inspired by the work of NASA scientists – including the pioneering blind astronomer Wanda Díaz-Merced – who translate data about stars into sounds, a process called sonification. ‘The sounds of the individual stars and star systems were distinctive and characterful,’ writes Oily Cart’s Music Director and Composer Jeremy Harrison in a blog post. ‘A world of whooshes, deep humming and rhythmic crackles, that took the music of Space To Be into new and unearthly territory.’

This isn’t the first time Oily Cart and MIF have worked together. Something in the Air at MIF09 saw audience members lifted up into the air among aerial performers from the company Ockham's Razor in a show dubbed a ‘kinaesthetic adventure’ by the Guardian. And at MIF11, Gorgeous revealed a world of scent and colourful transformations led by singing and dancing beauticians.

A performer on the far right of the image shines a light from their right wrist down at a kaleidoscope mirror matrix held up in their left hand. The yellow, orange and green reflected light from the kaleidoscope mirror matrix can be seen on the wall behind the performer; the shadow of their hands can also be seen.

A kaleidoscope effect in Space To Be by Oily Cart Image Suzi Corker

‘Oily Cart are one of the most experienced companies making work for young audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities and autism/neurodiversity,’ says Tracey Low, Executive Producer at MIF. ‘Space To Be provided the opportunity for MIF to engage with an audience who might not be able to come to a more traditional show or experience the festival in the city. Particularly in light of COVID it felt important to bring this work to families still shielding at home.’

Space To Be has been described by families who took part as both fun and relaxing, and as a ‘wonderful sensory experience’. ‘Children with complex learning difficulties are usually excluded from so many activities, they feel left behind and forgotten about,’ one family said, adding, ‘You have shown such a beautiful understanding of what will engage and delight our children.’

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