Bishop Grosseteste University (BGU) graduate Dan Swift is making real change in the world of theatre. In 2019, he founded Concrete Youth, a theatre company for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD).
A North Lincolnshire native, Dan enrolled onto BGU’s Drama in the Community degree in 2014. Following recommendations from friends and teachers, he knew BGU was a good fit for him. He said: “Coming from a tiny village, I didn't want to move to a huge city where I’d feel lost. Lincoln was the perfect size city and BGU had the friendliest campus. It was exactly what I needed.”
As part of his degree, Dan was given the opportunity to complete a placement in a community setting. After deciding to work at a specialist school he initially felt out of his depth. He said: "I was completely daunted by it at first, but I decided to give it a go.
“This might sound like a cliché, but within an hour I knew I would be doing this for the rest of my life."
While working in a full-time role at the school, Dan was faced with the impossible task of finding a Christmas theatre production for his students with PMLD. There were theatre shows for disabled people, but none that took into consideration those who might be non-verbal or have a cognitive disability.
This prompted Dan to set up Concrete Youth - a Hull-based charity. Now as CEO and Co-artistic Director, Dan has sent multiple shows on national tours reaching 4,500 audience members since the charity's inception in 2019.
Concrete Youth's touring productions start their lives in a research and development phase. Dan said: "I do not live with profound and multiple learning disabilities, so it is not for me to assume I know what is best for our audience.
"We work very closely with colleagues at hospices, schools, and care settings to develop our productions. Service users from these settings visit us very regularly in rehearsals to collaborate on the productions with us, and they attend rehearsal sharings so they are as involved in the process as possible."
The shows are inherently sensory and offer an immersive experience for the audience, normally of around six people and their carers. The company's current touring show, 'To the Moon and Back,' takes its audience on a journey through space. The lines are delivered through Makaton, and audience members can engage with sensory play. A 360-degree dome covered in sparkling 'stars' sets the scene, and when they arrive at 'Mars' the audience is invited to play with red, scented kinetic sand.
Rather than performing in care settings or schools, Concrete Youth visits theatres and arts centres. "There's no reason why PMLD audiences can't visit proper venues, like everyone else. They should be able to enjoy the full experience of going to the theatre,” said Dan.
“Taking the show to theatres also creates a trickle-down effect of awareness and promotes wider conversation. It prompts the questions: why aren't more performances like this available? What can venues do to better facilitate some of the often-overlooked members of our society?"
According to Dan, 92% of audience members who attended his first touring production, The Whispering Jungle, had never been to the theatre before. He said: "To produce the first show these people have ever seen is an absolute privilege.”
With big plans on the horizon, Dan hopes to begin touring internationally. Along with his Co-Artistic Director, Belle Streeton, he's delivering a talk at The Prague Quadrennial in June, titled 'Sound, Space & Stimulation. Exploring ASMR in the context of multi-sensory theatre.' Dan believes there is a distinct lack of provision for performance for PMLD on an international scale, and he hopes their talk with provoke productive discussion.
Since Dan launched the theatre company, he has completed his MA degree specialising in theatre for audiences with PMLD and is now working towards his PhD. He has also been awarded a fellowship for the Royal Society of Arts by the late Queen. He said: "I was nominated by a carer who had been to one of my shows. It was a huge honour to be recognised in that way.
"People might assume that was my proudest moment, but, for me, being able to reach thousands of audiences labelled with profound and multiple learning disabilities across the UK, some, for the first time, has by far been my proudest achievement."