Writing about what you don’t know and being who you’re not


A Man with Downs Syndrome talks about Love and Tells a Story is a piece of narrative drama.

This much I know now that the first draft, the research and development blueprint, lies on the desk, approximately 1.5 cm deep and weighing in at the equivalent of two packets of biscuits, rather than floating about in the ether, a formless, weightless promise.

There’s a story, a plot, characters, conflict and a resolution.

Its the start of something, a shape to enable the deeper digging to begin. The rough spade work before the team comes in to fully excavate.

First drafts, for me, are a pleasure and a pain, a battle with inner whispers that the idea’s a bad ‘un and a real difficulty on concentrating on one thing solely for such a long time.

Well, a week, but thats a long time inside your own head, in the company of the demons that whisper ‘you know nothing and what’s a schmuck like you doing thinking you can write a play?’

Soon the neurotic playwright will disappear and won’t be seen or heard during the research and development phase when the director takes over.

She’ll receive her notes and a gentle nudge towards a workable draft in the wake of everyone’s findings through the events coming up.

However, before the director takes over a small observation by the playwright who read an article last week by Lyn Gardner  (Guardian theatre critic) re: a production of a new play featuring a character with autism, surprisingly played (I believe) by a non-autistic actor. Lyn made her usual well formed critique of the drama and also expressed a wish for work written by playwrights with autism to be seen on stages, suggesting that this kind of authorial integrity can only add value to the work.

Food for thought.

Whilst a totally valid ambition for equality of representation in the theatre making crafts it potentially calls into question the role of the playwright as someone who absorbs, filters and through ‘wroughting’ the emotion and ideas of others into action crafts the start of a piece of theatre.

To suggest that only people with direct experience of a state of being can write about that state discounts most of the work of most playwrights dead and alive.

An emphasis on a ‘real’ voice for fictional work featuring actors with learning disabilities, for the sake of not being accused of cultural appropriation, could result in segregation from the wider industry.

These are interesting times for theatre featuring the talents of actors with learning disabilities. Mind the Gap has this week premiered new work MIA,  devised from the direct experience of people with learning disabilities, Access All Areas is working with direct experience in its new MADHOUSE project and Hijinx’s MEET FRED, a collaboration with Blind Summit theatre uses biographical material from its’ actors to directly feed into an allegorical piece about the learning disability life experience.

A cruratorial/editorial role is taken by the director/dramaturg and devised material is formed into an audience facing piece of ‘real’ theatre.

This form is now so much the norm for work featuring actors with learning disabilities that the work I’ve written, as a non disabled playwright, for actors with learning disabilities, a team of non learning disabled creatives and a general audience feels revolutionary.

Verbatim and biographical forms are most potent when directly exploring issues rather than themes.

Drama wrought from research and experience and then hewn from a writers imagination offers something else for audiences. It offers the opportunity to absorb paint splattered on a huge canvas, to explore worlds and characters utterly and joyously non-authentic, to see characters being and doing what they authentically simply cannot be and really shouldn’t do, to make a leap beyond the real into fiction and story, to feel imagined places, bigger, more flawed, more dramatic, to experience the past, the present or an imagined future and to ride on the thrilling dips and troughs of a dramatists imagination as it tantalises, surprises and throws questions out into the world.

For actors to collaborate with a playwright and develop work through narrative drama takes craft.

Actors with learning disabilities can master this craft too, as the outputs of the excellent Dark Horse theatre demonstrates. Work on new writing processes opens doors into the broader profession and access into a world where skills beyond devising are required.  All working TV and theatre actors need some technique to work with scripts and given narrative and its very evident when these skills aren’t in place.

The vanguard of acting talent with learning disability breaking through and working in high profile productions need to demonstrate these abilities for the sake of keeping the door open for those coming up behind.

Its too easy for producers to find excuses not to employ, the same skills as everyone else rather than an isolated way of working will progress the equality agenda in theatre and lead to more integrated work.

We narrative proponents are currently extremely niche, which is just fine, being different is a very good thing…

As is the freedom for any writer to write about anything and for any actor to play any character they can…



















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