10 questions and answers…put to the producer/playwright/director

Vanessa Brooks at Salford Quays.

Tomorrow marks the final event day for A MAN WITH DOWNS SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY, at the Lowry theatre in Salford.

I asked ten friends to email a question about the kind of theatre I’m making at the moment and answered as honestly as I could…

1.What is integrated theatre?

For me its theatre, which is written, directed and cast to include actors with learning disabilities.

Its about learning disabled and non learning disabled actors working with equality, using a rehearsal process effective for all and, most importantly,  playing out to general audiences.

Its work made by everyone, for everyone, not existing in a ‘niche’.

2. Are you the only playwright and director doing it?

Currently yes, I think so, though I’d be delighted to learn thats not the case.

Mike Kenny wrote a couple of plays for Mind The Gap with integrated casting in mind but the climate changes and its harder and harder to get integrated work programmed; casts which are solely made up of actors with learning disabilities and which focus on issues are perhaps easier to place and to market as the assumption is that they will play out to a specific, disability-focused, audience.

A MAN WITH DOWNS SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY will be my third integrated play, production and tour (HYPOTHERMIA, SING SOMETHING SIMPLE 1 and 2 while I was Artistic Director at Dark Horse being the others).

Heather Dutton as Bonnie Dilnott in national tour SING SOMETHING SIMPLE

3. Is it the only kind of thing you write?

No, I write all sorts of things. It’s one of the areas I like to explore.

Years ago I wrote a commercially successful comedy called LOVE ME SLENDER which had an all female cast. After that people asked me if I only ever wrote for women.

I thought then that was a bizarre question to ask a writer and I think this one is too but it points to a tendency to pigeonhole difference.

4. You say you like to write roles for actors you know a bit, is that the same for the actors without learning disabilities in your casts?

Yes. It’s a real privilege to be able to do it and I couldn’t when I was starting out but now I find it really helpful and I’m usually lucky enough to get someone interested before I write the first draft.

I cast a play in my head before writing it, even if I end up not working with that actor in the final production it gives me a flavour and a voice to work with.

Faye Billing developing the role of SADIE in I LOVE YOU BABY

5. Why are you writing these plays? Isn’t it hard to do and to get them on?

Because I feel that there’s a need for people with learning disabilities to be represented in theatre (And elsewhere but this is my area) and that there are brilliant actors out there who deserve to work with narrative drama and high calibre casts and creative teams in venues, and to play in front of general audiences.

And I have something to say, and I want to say it strongly.

It’s hard to do but all plays are and you can never take for granted that something you write will be produced.

You recreate yourself every time and established and new writers fight for the same theatre slots- quite right too, that’s as it should be.

Theatre isn’t an arena for complacency, it all needs to be at maximum effort and commitment to stand a chance of working in a live space.

6. Is this about politics? Are you a political writer?

It’s very difficult to write about humanity and not write about politics.

I saw a friend in The Mousetrap last week. Agatha Christie is by no means construed as revolutionary or known for agitation but the argument she makes in that play about lack of early nurture leading to societal malfunction is both relevant and punchy. It surprised me, I had words with myself.

I’ve had at times to temper political argument or make the case through analogy, who wants, outside of STOMP, to sit in an audience and watched tubs being thumped? But there’s always a question I want to explore or answer and it’s informed by being alive and alive to concern in the world I’m living in at the time of writing.

Thats a dramatists job, if its not about wanting to change something, or change opinion, it doesn’t belong in a theatre.

Vanessa Brooks with participants at York Theatre Royal

7. You’re producing this project- what does that mean?

It means I’m working with partners, associates and much needed collaborators to get the work out in front of audiences!

Arts Council England have funded me to produce this project through their Grants for the Arts scheme.

In effect it means I’m managing the development process, engaging creatives and actors and hopefully finding a shape and home for the anticipated production and tour.

8. Apart from writing and casting actors with learning disabilities what is the difference between this way of working and any other way?

Two key ways of working are different for this particular play and production.

Firstly I’m experimenting with the writing process by recording sound bites from project participants which will then be inserted into the score and inform the second draft. This is very new and involves a direct collaboration with over 50 people with learning disabilities, genuinely informing the writing process, and working with the composer/sound designer to come up with a new innovative aural landscape for the play.

At the events (And the same will apply when we go into rehearsal) I’m working as a director with minimal speech, using the silent approach, to engage everyone in the room to the story and objectives, ensuring that language and decoding it, doesn’t act as a barrier to the work. Once in rehearsal the only words we’ll use will be the dialogue in the play- for now it’s a bit more relaxed than that due to sheer weight of numbers in the space!

Actor Tessa Parr and composer Loz Kaye chew over discoveries

9. Do you think more theatre productions should be integrated?

Yes absolutely and I’m working to raise awareness and create opportunities across the UK’s various theatre sectors and with drama schools, aiming to find ways to encourage more of the work to happen.

It offers something exciting and currently vital for audiences to see.

10. What are future plans for the play?

 I can’t reveal much at the moment but the aim is to tour in Autumn next year- and beyond.

More news here as it happens!

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Rebekah Hill developing the role of BABY






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