Come to the cabaret...
Su Carroll meets a very special group of people planning a night out with a Funky Llama.
Luke loves the theatre, but it's difficult for him to enjoy performances. "I have a startle reflex, I've had it since birth. It's part of my cerebral palsy," he says. "In a wheelchair you're forced to sit right at the front and if there's a loud bang, I jump. I can't help it and it makes me feel self-conscious."
Luke and many other disabled people find themselves disenfranchised from so many areas of life. Access to the arts is just another obstacle for them.
The Theatre Royal in Plymouth is working hard to make it less of an issue – for people in wheelchairs, those with learning disabilities or the blind or deaf.
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The theatre reopened this month with improved access for all – a level entrance, ramps etc.
But sometimes, with the best will in the world, that's not enough for people like Luke. What he needs is a llama... and a funky one at that.
Funky Llama started out as a one-night cabaret in The Drum in 2010, but four-year funding of £269,000 from the Big Lottery's Reaching Communities fund has given it a longer life.
With huge support from the theatre and its staff, there will be a whole night of music, comedy, dance and surprises next week.
The Funky Llama Cabaret Night is the culmination of a lot of hard work.
"It's a much bigger project and there are lots of different strands to it. The event strand is the cabaret night," says Funky Llama project producer Becky Chapman.
"Part of the purpose is to offer a platform for artists with learning disabilities. We are trying to start to build a national network of performance artists and develop facilities for training our crew, front of house, stage management and backstage.
"We've also got a team doing marketing – making posters and running our Facebook campaign.
"We've got Too Hot for Candy coming from London to perform at the Funky Llama Club Night, alongside local group Samba Roc and our very own Funky Llama dancers and singers."
The cabaret evening, at the Theatre Royal Plymouth's production facility TR2, will be hosted by adults with learning disabilities who promise a friendly welcome to guests.
The Funky Llama project has also delivered a benefit to the theatre – a way of training staff to help people with disabilities enjoy their visits to the theatre more.
"That's another strand – to support professional development for services to deliver performing arts activity," says Becky. Partners in Funky Llama are Attik Dance and Plymouth Music Zone and Becky has been working with other groups including Dame Hannahs at Ivybridge and Seale Hayne, the Wheelfever community dance project in Plymouth and the charity Scope.
"It's also about educating people who have control of budgets so that they understand what is possible," says Becky. "Part of the Funky Llama experience is about training for support workers, care staff and parents about how the arts work."
For Luke, it's a way to express himself through the music he loves. "It's really helped me in a big way," he says. "It started with the music, but then I got involved in the management of the project. It's really helped to improve my skills.
"I'm lucky. I'm quite good at communicating my ideas and stuff. I don't really have any issues regarding that.
"I hope the project improves people's understanding of disability. I hope it won't just get the support of the disability community, but also integrate with able-bodied people.
"It's about integration and I'm very impressed with the way the Theatre Royal has been attempting to embrace disability."
Chris, who is on the autistic spectrum, says there should be more understanding about disability. "Funky Llama enables people to become people," is how he puts it. Both he and Luke say Funky Llama has helped them feel more confident.
The staff at the Theatre Royal are benefiting too. House manager Helen says they will be making sure everyone has a really good evening in a safe environment.
"The Funky Llama crew have been absolutely brilliant. We're really looking forward to the event. For the staff it will be a chance to put what they've learned into practice. We're building an audience for the future who wouldn't have access otherwise."
"It's a great project to get involved in," says Luke. Chris agrees: "There will be lots of surprises... And a lot of smiling faces..."
The Funky Llama Cabaret Night is at TR2 in Cattedown, Plymouth, on Thursday, October 17, from 7pm to midnight. Tickets can only be booked by phone on 01752 267222.