2016, writing, theatre, diversity and work featuring actors with learning disabilities

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Jordan, a young man with Downs Syndrome, participating in the York Theatre Royal research and development event for A MAN WITH DOWNS SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY in the regency glory of the De Grey ballroom watched Dark Horse actor Toby Meredith work through the opening scene of the play with actor Tessa Parr, playing his sister.

CLARENCE had just arrived in his sister SAMANTHA’S luxury apartment carrying a suitcase full of his recently deceased mothers’ belongings; a tense, emotionally complex scene. Opening dialogue over I moved the room on to the next stage in the process, handing over to movement director Ita O’Brien who brought the 50 plus participants together to experience standing on SAMANTHA’S blustery fourteenth floor balcony.

Jordan however didn’t step into the turbulent air with everyone else, instead he pulled me aside and leaned in.

“I want to be Clarence. In the play. I’m going to be an actor.” he said, and clearly meant it.

It was an articulation of engagement with story, ambition and aspiration that encapsulated the aim of the work of the whole year for me. I hope one day Jordan will play Clarence, and other characters, and be in stories written by talented writers, directed by directors with vision and work in front of audiences made up of all kinds of people and find routes into that work.

That is the entire point.

It’s been an extraordinary 12 months.

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Tessa Parr, SAMANTHA and Jordan, in R and D at York Theatre Royal

2016 started with a serious commitment to developing my less than dazzling prose writing skills by setting myself a task, a discipline test, to write 31 short stories in 31 days, and only then to attempt writing Everest, a novel.

The latter sits, a daily electronic reminder of non completion on my desktop and the former, in its collected and edited form, lies, bloated with needless adjectives, in a long since unopened box file.

In  January, amid the figment 31 challenge, turning in my obligatory 2 hour long daily imagine in a hotel room in Manchester- I was there for a series of meetings but kept none the less on the story horse- it occurred to me that perhaps there was more to do, and more that should be done, out of the garret, in rehearsal rooms, and in theatres.

Two theatre trips, to THE GIRLS at the Lowry and INTO THE WOODS at the Royal Exchange Manchester compounded the solo writer doubts. Both Tim Firth and Gary Barlows’ musical, entertaining though it is, and Sondheim’s’ sublime INTO THE WOODS, left me questioning once again where actors with learning disabilities feature in mainstream productions, and perhaps more importantly just how general audiences are being offered opportunities to experience and explore diverse stories and life experiences, delivered by non white, non disabled, non standard, distinctly ‘different’ yet thoroughly brilliant actors.

The Royal Exchange has made great strides in diverse casting, INTO THE WOODS featured a deaf performer, but actors with learning disabilities simply aren’t getting the same degree of opportunity or representation in integrated work playing out to general audiences.

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Cover design for the SEPARATE DOORS report by Pip Leckenby

Producing theatre collaborators Access All Areas, Hijinx, Dark Horse and emerging company Hubbub and many community focused organisations across the UK prove the excellence that exists in training, performance and community engagement but unless doors continue to be knocked on, articulating the need for a place in programmes alongside other, and all kinds, of productions the work runs the risk of being silo-ed into ‘festivals of difference’ or specific disability focused programmes.

It can also be the case that in these segregated areas of artistic output work made by and with actors with moderate learning disabilities is less likely to see the light of day due to an inability of the artists themselves to articulate a case for their existence; currently favoured artist-led funding models don’t necessarily fit theatre work, an intrinsically collaborative form.

The influence learning disability focused theatre companies and makers have in the broader arts and media, in shaping societal attitude, cultural identity and combating the worst of regressive thinking is clear; for people with learning disabilities to slip out of general view in mainstream theatre would be a travesty, especially after so many years of effort and brilliance from many individuals and companies.

Chewing all of this over during the Manchester ovations and while typing THE END at the finish of story 31 the fantasy career as a very minor prose writer crashed and burned.

It occurred to me that as an independent I am perhaps well placed to draw collective learning’s together from a notional learning disability theatre ‘sector’ and to wave a multi-lateral flag for the great work that’s being done by so many.

SEPARATE DOORS seemed a fine way to start.

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Jen Sumner, Artistic Director of Hubbub during SEPARATE DOORS film shoot

A curiosity about the processes, practises and rehearsal room techniques of leading companies with a learning disability focus led me to approach Nick Lewellyn, Artistic Director of Access All Areas, Ben Pettitt-Wade, Artistic Director of Hijinx, Lynda Hornsby, Executive Director of Dark Horse and Jen Sumner, Artistic Director of Hubbub theatre with an idea for a project which explored, celebrated and promoted the work of these producers and influencers as broadly as possible.

The aim was for me to shoot and edit a thirty minute film featuring rehearsal room footage, interview the directors and key actors from each organisation and to write and publish a report which would be sent to decision making individuals, programmers, venues and influencers.

All directors generously let me loose in their rehearsal rooms to explore the silent approach and I had four fascinating days with four very different and very talented ensembles, working non verbally.

Actors Richard Newham, Imogen Roberts, Joe Sproulle, Beth Gardner and Amy Scott spoke on camera about their training, work and hopes for future opportunities and the finished report and film met with interest and engagement in pockets of the wider theatre industry totally unfamiliar with the level of acumen, ability and focus on excellence that there can be within companies in this field of work.

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Dark Horse actor Joe Sproulle during his interview. Teeth marks on paper Directors own.

Casting, production and further opportunities are developing as a direct result of the project, the film is viewed frequently and the report has reached significant areas.

It became evident from early in in the year that a second project, the development of a new piece of integrated (Featuring a cast of learning disabled and non learning disabled actors) text based theatre, a new play, could be of value moving forwards.

In my own theatre writing, at Dark Horse in recent years, I’ve developed and written roles for actors with learning disabilities, the aim being to generate working opportunities in the context of general drama that plays out to audiences in theatre venues.

I’ve also been instrumental in developing actor training opportunities that enable integrated casts to work together, using the silent approach as a technique and incorporating Stanislavskian/Strasbergian method so that everyone can work in the same rehearsal room, on the same play, for the same audience.

The aim has been and continues to be to create a means for a new generation of actors, directors and writers to work together with equality, to make new high profile, high quality pieces of new writing and to be excited and interested in engaging with this work.

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Access All Areas actor Imogen Roberts and Artistic Director Nick Lewellyn

A MAN WITH DOWNS’ SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY is a new play.

I wrote the first draft in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in a coshed England and at its heart is a dark howl. And that’s enough of that for now.

It’s a drama, pitched towards a general audience with leading roles for actors with learning disabilities and a female actor in her thirties and this autumn I ran three research and development events at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, York Theatre Royal, The Lowry Salford.

Working with Dark Horse theatre, their ensemble and leading actors Joe Sproulle, Toby Meredith and Rebekah Hill the events pulled an exciting creative team together for the first time. Composer Loz Kaye, Designer Pip Leckenby and movement director Ita O’Brien worked with actor Tessa Parr and the ensemble to engage over 75 people with learning disabilities in the three locations, exploring the story and characters and, vitally, recording the voice and opinion of everyone who attended for insertion in the production score.

The results are absolutely stunning and the play will tour nationally next year.

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Movement director Ita O’Brien at the Lowry event

There have been some fine pieces of work made by companies which work with actors with learning disabilities this year and some fine performances also by the actors themselves on stage, television and film.  However as challenging times challenge more than ever before to assume that previous wins and progress already made will guarantee ongoing visibility may be unwise.

Instinct, experience and some insight suggests the opposite may be true and that consistent and constant championing of excellence, quality, training and opportunity will be crucial in the year ahead.

I’ve worked with some brilliant people this year, thank you, and some fantastic venues and Arts Council England have supported the work.

One day I’ll finish the novel.

But not yet.

Version 3

 

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