Writing roles for learning disabled actors

It’s a writing cliché that you should write about what you know and, in common with most playwrights, a chunk of my own experience makes its way into the work, usually heavily disguised, or so oblique even I don’t notice it at the time. Direct biography makes for very tedious storytelling (And sometimes dazzling verbatim theatre) but playwrights are people and informed by their own experience. My desire to extend the theatrical repertoire for learning disabled actors is certainly informed by my own life.

F and V

This is a photograph of me and my sister Fiona lounging about in our garden in Wilmslow when we were kids. What I later came to understand as a minority experience, growing up with someone (Who I was, and continue to be, very close to) with a learning disability, Downs Syndrome, for me was normality. Like all siblings my view of the world was formed not only by my own interactions, successes and challenges but also by my sister’s and I was aware from a very early age that although the terrain was identical we both had different versions of the human road map, and different obstacles to overcome. I knew we shared the same emotional spectrum; a capacity to make ourselves cry by pulling sad faces in the mirror, to laugh uncontrollably, that we both had an insatiable desire for chocolate, a love of music and that the Dr. Who theme tune kept us both behind the sofa for the whole episode. I also knew that some functions I mastered were impossible for my sister, especially using language, and that she’d always need assistance to get through each day, for all of her life. When I was growing up there was little representation of learning disabled people on film and TV and none at all in the theatre so my ideas about my sister, and her ideas about herself, were developed in complete isolation.

If the purpose of the arts and literature is to hold up a mirror to the human condition, in terms of learning disability there was just a blank space on a wall.

In the 70’s and 80’s where disability was examined at all it tended to be ‘issues-based’, pointing up (Quite rightly) social inequality and injustice and appalling prejudice (Marginally better today though lets not kid ourselves, any internet search around learning disability will throw up vile commentary and imagery).

The incarceration of people with all kinds of disabilities in large institutions was then the norm. It was the case, all the way up to the late 80’s, that people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and learning disabilities like Downs Syndrome would be ‘treated’ together. The use of drugs and restraint as means of control in these large institutions was commonplace.

70's horizon I remember watching a seminal documentary on BBC’s Horizon when very young, ‘Tongue Tied’ about the experience of a man in a mental hospital (Joey Deacon) who couldn’t speak, he had cerebral palsy. Because of his lack of speech it was ignorantly assumed that he had a learning disability until it was discovered he was of ‘normal’ intelligence and was assisted to write a biography by using a pointer attached to his forehead. He bashed out his life story on a typewriter, letter by painstaking letter and his text revealed an acute intelligence and observation of the imprisoned life he’d led in the instutution.

The world for learning disabled people has changed for the better in recent years and most of the large ‘hospitals’ (Learning disability can’t be ‘cured’ its present from birth) have closed but it’s as well to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that people with all kinds of disabilities- usually on the pretext of economics- were dispatched to a second-class existence, out of sight and voiceless, where the most appalling abuses were able to take place.

The idea however, even in the changing 80’s and even 90’s, of people with Downs’ Syndrome being represented in the cultural sphere as anything other than the total manifestation of their disability- invariably depicted as a ‘problem’- was still considered difficult and it’s only been in recent years that writers have begun writing for extraordinarily talented actors with Downs Syndrome- and that compelling dramatic characters with learning disabilities have started to be written and developed in film, TV and theatre. Finally performances are being created in new drama that allow learning disabled people to take their place in stories for general audiences- rather than being seen solely as models for societal education in inclusivity. At the same time exceptional actors with Downs Syndrome have benefited from increased access to vocational training (The kind of training non learning disabled professional actors receive at drama school) via forward thinking companies like Dark Horse Theatre.

Sarah Gordy in Upstairs Downstairs

Sarah Gordy is a talented actress who’s appeared in Upstairs Downstairs and recently featured in an episode of Call The Midwife, a role written specifically for her by Heidi ThomasJoe Sproulle has toured nationally twice to theatres including The Stephen Joseph Theatre and The Lowry Salford in comedy Sing Something Simple and with several other learning disabled actor colleagues worked on an episode of Shameless for Channel 4 written by Ian Kershaw and produced by Lawrence Till .

Joe Sporulle

Joe Sproulle in Sing Something Simple

Ben Langford played Oskar in major theatres across the country- a role written especially for him in Hypothermia (Published by Josef Weinberger) and talented young actor Ruben Reuter is carving out a TV niche for himself and is currently playing a leading role in CBBC’s Dumping Ground.

ben Langford.59.42 2

Ben Langford in Hypothermia

These actors are just part of an extraordinary, in many instances vocationally trained,  cohort of acting talent rising up which deserves material to support its work. In pockets in film and TV doors are opening for actors with Downs Syndrome and I’m very happy to be assisting that representation in theatre. It’s only by more and more writers and directors- and drama schools- commiting to take the leap and broaden their palette that actors with learning disabilities in general and Downs Syndrome in particular will be more readily seen- and learning disabled people in auditoriums and in living rooms will see themselves in plays and on TV- not as saints or victims but as people with all the failings, ambitions, and character quirks that make drama compelling.

The character of Clarence in I Love You Baby is a man with Downs Syndrome at a crossroads in his life and the aim is for the play to provide another- extraordinary, surprising and central- leading role for an actor with a learning disability, which plays out to mainstream audiences across the UK…And hopefully inspires, entertains, and represents.

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