Cross the Sky are a Barnsley based theatre company for adults in South Yorkshire with Autism and learning disabilities. The company has been a permanent feature of Barnsley’s disability arts landscape for over fifteen years. Now an integrated part of The Civic’s theatre and community offer, the company is lead by three artists; Becky Newbould, Cathy Smart and Simon Grainger, supported by volunteers and carers. Cross The Sky are home to thirteen regular members, who write, develop and perform new theatre productions informed by personal experiences.
The last 18 months has drastically changed the lives of the company’s members and like all other theatre companies, they have had to adapt to a life of lockdowns and social restrictions, with a move online. In March, we caught up with Cross the Sky member Matty Gamble to talk about his Cross the Sky experience.
Matty Gamble is 28 and has been a member of Cross the Sky since 2016. He is Autistic and has been diagnosed as being on the Autistic Spectrum since a young age. He has always had a firm interest in theatre and performing, having previously studied performing arts at Wakefield College.
When recalling his time at college, Matty says: “I definitely struggled with the written work and still do struggle with writing. That’s the type of person I am, but I had a helper to support my writing. I really like drawing and performing though.”
Matty had spent his teenage years masking, which means trying to blend in with neurotypical people and act like he wasn’t Autistic. This can have a detrimental affect on an Autistic person’s mental health and Matty explains that this happened to him, making him depressed while he was at college.
Matty was told about Cross the Sky by a college friend. Matty enthuses that even after just one session, he felt at home. He explains: “I felt wow! This is great. Before Cross the Sky, I felt really ashamed of who I was and my disability. I tried so hard to be like my family, but I ended up getting more stressed. After my first session there, I had never felt so at peace in my life. Everyone was so friendly and I finally felt like I could be myself.”
Being around other people that were also on the Autistic spectrum, or who had other types of disabilities had a positive affect on Matty’s wellbeing.
“At college, they understood that I was Autistic, but I tried to blank out as much as possible. At Cross the Sky there are people like me. Not only could I be myself, but it was also good to learn about things like Makaton and Cerebral Palsy. I had no knowledge of these thing before but now I have thanks to other Cross the Sky members.”
Matty lists some of the highlights of his last five years at Cross the Sky. They include being asked to perform in a show for the first time, getting to meet Kylie Minogue when she visited the company in 2019 for a TV programme about superfans, and performing in Up In the Attic in front out a sold-out audience of 320.
“There was a lot of my family in the audience that night and to be honest, I’ve never actually managed to fully express myself in front of my family before. It has been one of my biggest struggles. So, performing in front of everybody that night was an amazing experience.”
Since April 2020, Cross the Sky have not been able to meet for their weekly sessions, as members and their families have been either shielding or at home in one of a number of local lockdowns. The company should have been touring their production Up in the Attic throughout the year and while that show has been indefinitely postponed, the group have been able to meet each week over Zoom. It has been a life-line for some members, with traditional theatre classes replaced with visual art and a focus on wellbeing and mindfulness.
However, a shift to digital has meant that unfortunately some people have not been able to take part. The last year has seen a quarter of the group unable to join online sessions for a number of reasons. Video conferencing is not easy for someone with sensory processing issues and technology isn’t accessible to everybody. However, Cross the Sky have seen new members join their ranks; three in the last six months.
Matty says: “I’ve been glad to see some of the group again. But then there are others that don’t have a computer or aren’t able to use one. It’s a real shame. I miss them. I can’t wait to get back to being able to perform with each other again.”
I ask him about the future and what he hopes will happen once we are all vaccinated and can meet again. What does he look forward to? Matty remains optimistic about what the future holds.
“To be honest, I’ve spent a lot of time on my own drawing and inventing characters. I’ve kind of gone back into my ways where I just want to be by myself, so I can’t wait to see everyone at Cross the Sky again. But I also want to go out on day trips. I can’t wait to get back to York Railway Museum or visit Snowdon Mountain Railway. I like heritage railways and that is my favourite.”
In the future, Cross the Sky hope to diversify the way they engage with audiences online, with online Q&A sessions and once they are able to meet together again, they hope to film Up In The Attic and make it available for more audiences to view.
However, once everyone is vaccinated and social distancing restrictions are no longer in place, we cannot assume that everyone will be ready to return to in their droves to live performances and on-site theatre classes straight away. The last year has taken its toll physically and mentally. The theatre industry has long since said that while many will be chomping at the bit to return to our theatres, some audiences may not feel safe enough to return for quite some time. It will most certainly be a gradual return to what many refer to as ‘the new normal’, especially for disabled performers, audiences and their families. In the meantime, let us do our best to ensure that both our performance and sharing spaces, both in the real world and online, are entertaining, safe, nurturing, and mindful that some of us may take longer to come round than others.
You can see the trailer for Up in the Attic here:
To find out more about Cross the Sky here.