10 myths and truths about theatre and casting actors with learning disabilities…

Truth and lies by Bennett


“There aren’t that many people out there with learning disabilities so what’s the big deal? You can’t represent everyone in a theatre space and we don’t all need to see ourselves on stage do we? “


One in ten people in the UK have a learning disability, or are related to someone with a learning disability, or work with someone with a learning disability. That’s a big percentage. For these people and characters not to be seen on stage is odd, unrepresentative, and means an audience misses out on some great talent and great stories.


“Employing actors with learning disabilities is just too costly, they need support so it’s two people for the price of one before you’ve even started, no production budget can cope with that.”


There are companies out there who train and assist professional actors with learning disabilities in theatres, film and sound studios including Mind the Gap, Hijinx, Dark Horse and Access All Areas. They have a full understanding of the support needs of their actors and are experienced in finding ways to cost effectively enable people to work with equality and to offer employers and colleagues tips and information on how to make the process work for everyone’s benefit. In the UK subsidised sector there are ways of accessing funding to cover support costs, where needed; some actors with learning disabilities are able to work autonomously or with slight adjustments.



“Actors with learning disabilities can do Elvis impressions and join in with stuff and be quirky and have a good time which is great,  but I’m not going to be able to direct them into a show without being really horrible to them and stifling that authenticity and making demands. It’s better that they do their community thing and we keep what we do over here. I’m a nice person, I don’t want to be accused of being mean.”


Professional actors with learning disabilities, and there are increasing numbers of them out there in the industry, expect to be challenged and tested in the same way as any other actor, most have trained and relish the standard collaborative pressures that drive any rehearsal room where a cast is working to scene and play objectives. If actors are non professional, untrained community performers then naturally different expectations apply so at the casting stage being sure of an actors’ skill level will indicate the ability of any individual to engage with the process.  Being mean doesn’t come into it unless you are usually considered mean in which case who’d want to work with you anyway you tyrant? Adult professional actors with learning disabilities put themselves out there like anybody else.


(Related to 3) “Actors with learning disabilities are angels. I’d just want to hug them all day and it would make me so tearful.”


Actors with learning disabilities are not angels. They’re actors like other actors.  They have good days and bad days especially when engaged to a difficult artistic process. All actors are sometimes truly horrible and sometimes a hoot and may not take kindly to uninvited hugging. And stop crying you big baby.


“Casting a learning disabled actor means a really REALLY looooong rehearsal period.”


This used to be the case, the expectation being that people with learning disabilities could only acquire and retain a performance by working very slowly. Advances in formal training, expectation level and action research with processes (I’ve rehearsed a two hour long main stage integrated show in two weeks with no difficulties at all experienced by the leading actor with Downs’ Syndrome) mean this excuse not to employ just doesn’t hold water. Top flight actors with learning disabilities are prepared for speedy work by their companies and working quickly, and with minimum down time, can actually assist with role development; it encourages other cast members to work at pace too, which is never a bad thing.




“Actors with learning disabilities can’t play characters, only themselves.”


An actor with a learning disability is only ever going to play a character with a learning disability but why does that mean he/she can’t play someone with a learning disability who is different from them? Many of the best in the field do just this,  actively working on the differences between themselves and this person they’re playing in a story. Many accomplished actors with learning disabilities have trained and have technique, some working through Stanislavskian method and/or Laban and physical transformation. The key is preparation and this may happen pre rehearsal process but it certainly happens and there are no limits to the extremes of character people with learning disabilities can play, and want to play- like any other actor.


“There aren’t any parts for actors with learning disabilities.”


Is a bit like saying there aren’t any parts for women who are five foot one and a half with brown eyes. A bit of imagination applied to casting choices in soaps, serial drama, classic plays, Shakespeare and new work and wow what an extraordinary new landscape would open up when audiences come to a theatre. It’s all in the casting and risks taken by directors and writers but the experience could be extraordinary. Think of your favourite classic play and then think of the character list. Now cast an actor with a learning disability as one of those characters and think about the impact and resonance of their presence through the narrative…See what I mean?


“Audiences don’t want to see ‘real’ people with learning disabilities on stages, it’s too challenging, better to have non learning disabled actors playing those parts.”


Not better, simply unacceptable given vocational actors learning disabilities are available for work. Where new roles are written in a way which is considered ‘too complex’ for someone with a learning disability to deliver, then writers and directors have a responsibility to re-draft or adapt with an actor with a learning disability in mind. Expertise is out there to draw on and there’s no excuse at all for this kind of casting choice in 2016.


“Actors with learning disabilities are unpredictable, they could do anything on stage.”


In my experience actors with learning disabilities tend to be the most solid and reliable members of casts during rehearsals and out on the road. While colleagues have run the gamut of extremes of behaviour and on stage off piste excesses actors with learning disabilities have been consistent and rock solid. Interestingly a dry or fluffed prop moment from an actor with a learning disability can be a cause for amplified alarm from other cast members and I’ve been secretly delighted when its sometimes happened ‘accidentally on purpose.’


‘There aren’t any actors with learning disabilities out there.”


There are, there are quite a few of them actually and many of them are very good indeed and benefit from finely tuned training and exceptional back up from teams of experts.

Find them, take the risk and move your work on to new territory.

You won’t regret it.

(No theatre professionals were harmed in the making of this blog but many were directly quoted).













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