Theatres across the UK have been closed due to the C-19 lockdown. Performances require the assembly of groups of people and the rehearsal of theatre requires close proximity. All touring work has stopped dead. Drama school graduation shows have been cancelled. Some venue staff have been furloughed and some freelance creatives (the lifeblood of theatre) have received support from Rishi Sunaks Self-employment relief fund. Arts Council England has been swift and effective in supporting companies and individuals with emergency funding but still many creatives have no income whatsoever. Nuffield Southampton has closed; Birmingham Hippodrome has made redundancies and more than a few regional theatres teeter on the brink of collapse. The Young Vic has already used up half of its reserves. The National Theatre warns of imminent catastrophe. Theatres of all scales can’t bank on producing Christmas shows, most of which accrue 50% of annual income in the eight-week festive period. The impact of swingeing cuts in government and local subsidy over the past five years has led to an increased reliance for survival on ticket sales, which stand currently at zero.
This isn’t just an interval, it’s the final curtain because whatever happens next both micro and macro-economics dictate that ‘business as usual’- a picking up of the action in the second half after a hiatus- is impossible. Theatre as it was pre C-19 is gone.
And do we want a continuation of that first half anyway?Or can a revolutionised second half take us to a better place? A stronger show?
Prior to the crisis many theatres in the subsidised sector struggled to marry a healthy bottom line with a commitment to the fullest representation of humanity on stage. Studio and identity specific silo-ing of BAME, disability and LGBTQ+ focused work meant general audiences could have been deprived of seeing high quality diverse theatre. Main house programmes- in spite of diverse casting choices and disability specific initiatives such as Ramps On The Moon– perhaps leant into the bias of main house audiences, reinforcing the lived experience of affluent people who could afford high ticket prices. The classical canon may be re-interpreted to include diverse experiences, but the voices and stories and lives entire from those communities were not as well integrated into main house programming as they could have been.
Indicatively in recent years work featuring actors with learning disabilities – my area of specialism with Separate Doors – found itself labelled ‘community-focused’ and moved into the smaller spaces or became ‘event theatre’- where once actors with Down’s Syndrome and other neuro-divergences worked alongside other actors in the headline programme.
Pre the C-19 interval there was too often one show in the main house, for those able to afford the ticket price, and one in the community centre – for everyone else.
People have died and suffered immensely in this pandemic and continue to do so. The function of theatre and story is to make meaning, entertain and inform and it will be needed to both make sense of – and divert from – so much loss and hardship in the years ahead. It must, more than ever before, be relevant to all people emotionally and economically distressed.
Today statues of slave traders, racists and colonialists are being torn down and offensive TV comedy is being removed from view. Never before have we had the ability to witness the prejudice and verbal violence of previous generations on an endless digital loop. Theatre- with the exception of the classics- always reinvents and speaks to new generations, new thought, new debate and new world views. This is our strength and our possibility.
Theatre is now and happens live; my hope is that it re-imagines itself, ignited by a deeper commitment to diverse voices and stories.
In the middle of the Coronavirus story that has no end – this is a story which does have an end, and a beginning and a middle…No spoilers…Enjoy this story, this twenty odd minutes off worrying about the story we’re in – a story with no end…And take care.
George Costigan introducing ‘You’
Listen to to the final story in this first phase of the Separate Doors audio story appeal, a thrilling read by Johnny Vivash introduced by the wonderful George Costigan.
News and bigger stories are coming soon from Separate Doors featuring stories and performances from leading learning disabled actors from across the UK.
Available for a limited time do listen to all of the tales in this first phase of the work and, if you feel you can, donate using the button below.
In these physically restricted times the power of the imagination to transport us is more potent than ever. The significance of storytelling and the spoken word is intensified now.
Susannah Harker introducing ‘A Nonentity’
Have a listen to the next – and penultimate – story in this phase of the Separate Doors shorts appeal by clicking the link below and, if you feel you can, please donate to keep the stories of people with learning disabilities in front of general audiences.
My two favourite dictionary definitions of the word ‘story’ are – ‘A recital of events that have or are alleged to have happened/a series of events that are or might be related’ and – ‘A euphemism for a lie’.
Currently I watch the news as a game, spot the ‘euphemism for a lie’…
Bryony Lavery introducing ‘Statement’
Listen to his next story in support of Separate Doors by clicking the link below, donate if you feel you can- by no means obligatory!
Storytelling is how we make sense of our world and how we recognise our common humanity, that we’re not alone. Usually, in theatre, we bring people together into a shared space but at the moment we can’t do that – but we still have the stories – and we can still share them.
Mike Kenny introducing ‘Out Here’
Listen to this next story in support of Separate Doors by clicking the link below.
In a world where so little makes sense at the moment, stories can help us make some sort of sense, of something, for now. I love nothing more than hearing a story and going ‘oh that happened to me’ or ‘that happened to my mum.’ Stories help us through the hardest of times.’
Jonathan Harvey introducing ‘The Lagoon.’
Listen to the next short story in support of Separate Doors here…
Playwrights, actors and audiences can’t risk breathing the same air.
For today wild optimism, the concept of the pandemic being an ‘interval’ and a focus on digital revivals keeps many theatre makers sane but tomorrow has never been more unpredictable; values in the face of global economic collapse will adjust and theatre will likely never be as it was, as it has been, as we have known it because the audience will be much changed – and may not be there at all for a very long time, if ever.
For the first time since Oliver Cromwell no theatres are open in Britain, housing dramatic voices of dissent and challenge. New TV production has also been halted. Finding a different and engaging way to fulfil the role that new plays and drama provide in the national psyche and debate will be a challenge for all playwrights in the months and years ahead.
For now, all we have is the words.
The root of theatre is story – and stories are what writers can give.
I’m offering some new stories I’ve written below, in audio format, introduced by playwrights, directors and actors in support of Separate Doors, the company I lead which focuses on the lives and theatre work of people and actors with learning disabilities.
Please listen and if you feel you can donate then search the Just Giving site for Separate Doors or donate via the PayPal button below- but don’t feel obliged in any way.
Words and imagination are free.
As Timberlake Wertenbaker says in her introduction to the first story I’m uploading below…
“In these dark and frightening times, the telling of stories is more important than ever. It is through narration that we try to make sense of the chaos around us, that we select what matters and that we even find a thread of hope, not necessarily because the story ends well but because it allows us to understand ourselves, to see our habits and perhaps even to change the patterns of our thoughts and our emotions, in other words to make new stories- what could be more hopeful than that? The story that follows couldn’t come at more opportune time, you will see why, I won’t wish you happy listening but attentive listening, yes”.
“Corona virus may force doctors into deciding who lives or dies.”
New York Times
“We are making difficult choices.”
“Many loved ones will die.”
The plan this weekend had been to visit my sister Fiona, a 55-year-old woman with Downs Syndrome, at her residential care home in Kent. These visits have taken place once or twice a month for the past 35 years and the format I undertake with my 91-year-old mother is a well-oiled routine, a sequence of familiar actions punctuated by stress relieving rows. A standard Sunday pick up – these days – shapes up thus; I drive us both through winding B roads, bickering with ascending intensity until muted by Elaine Paige’s romp through the musicals on Radio 2. Wine gums are chewed, pedestrians along the route doing out of the ordinary things are remarked upon, houses for sale are noted, houses desired smiled at, driving choices criticised and news bulletins tuned into on the hour. Eventually, with loosened fillings and raised blood pressure, we swoop down a twisting lane which opens out into a stunningly beautiful valley, a garden of England picture postcard arrangement of oaks and dirty sheep and rhododendrons and we arrive. The care home has 70 plus residents with severe learning disabilities, living in groups of between 6 and 8, in an assortment of 1970’s chalet style bungalows, most named after a bird and a couple named after trees- perhaps after all the accessible bird names had been used up, the kind of distracting rumination I’ll use to diffuse the inevitable pre doorbell argument and in we go. Over the three decades that Fiona’s been resident in the house there have been countless carers on the staff, some brilliant and some appalling, a couple of eye wateringly successful thieves who helped themselves to residents’ money and belongings but in the main hard working, poorly paid and undertrained people who want to do the right thing. Fiona is found either in the living room or conservatory, she grunts an acknowledgement, her cheek is offered and kisses given, fellow residents either ignore or ferociously engage me in conversation and after some encouragement we all make our way into her bedroom. Medication is signed for and I pack her bag while my mother converses with a carer, enquiring after activities undertaken, pottery, trips to the pub, her weekly attendance at a group in a neighbouring town and whether Fiona needs anything to be purchased. Invariably there is something required and this younger sister groans at the idea of wandering around Matalan resulting in another row as we leave the house. However, Fiona gets to spend time with Mum and for both of them this is precious and for me it’s precious too in a slightly different way because in between the rows and the reluctance love exists and there’s always a hollow feeling on the return journey and on leaving her again. It’s painful and it takes trust, which walks hand in hand with its darker companion – fear.
Last Wednesday, which already seems an epoch ago in terms of the coronavirus crisis, it had become clear that the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions and, like my sister, with severe disabilities, were most vulnerable to infection. I had a cold and knew that both my sister and my mother needed to be protected from my germs but, more crucially I was concerned about my sister becoming ill while at home with us both. She’d be unlikely to co-operate with medical intervention, could deteriorate very quickly and then wouldn’t be able to return to her care home. Although my mother is a robust and pretty healthy 91-year-old I was aware that the ‘risk’ box in this particular swat analysis – headlined the pros and cons of Fiona coming home for a weekend – screamed in a bold red font.
I emailed the care manager and suggested that we postpone our planned trip this weekend, that Fiona stay where she is and that we would re-arrange at a later point. I asked if perhaps we could Skype or What’s App video call so that vital contact can be maintained. Fiona’s limited communication and speech means that without contact and re-assurance she can quickly fall into a very lonely and lost place. Her understanding exceeds her ability to express but how could she possibly understand that her mother and sister have just disappeared? Except to imagine the worst, she has like all of us experienced death and deep grief but to go through that due to a lack of contact is a horrific thought. The reply to my email came quickly, I’d pre-empted the home’s plans to lockdown which it then proceeded to do and we were assured that Fiona’s safety was a priority.
The concern for Fiona and her fellow residents is twofold. One is of direct infection with Covid-19 and the other is the fallout from staff sickness. The doors have shut to the outside world in terms of family visits but care staff are people too and it’s likely that at some point the virus will enter this enclosed population. In common with many people with Downs Syndrome Fiona has always struggled with colds, with breathing and the Coronavirus might affect her very badly. She needs twenty-four-hour care, help to dress, eat, wash, go to the toilet and make choices. In an emergency situation, if staff numbers fall drastically and residents are also ill then what happens? What choices are made and by whom? Has all contact with the outside world and all activities stopped for all residents and what’s the effect of that? Do doctors come into the home? Do residents go into hospital? Are we freeing up ICU beds in order to treat people with severe learning disabilities?
I don’t want to ask those questions because I fear the answers.
Reports over recent days suggest care homes being given ‘emergency’ powers to make decisions for their residents, in camera. Where once there was scrutiny and transparency with regard to the care of the most vulnerable members of society now the drawbridges have come up and the curtains have been firmly closed, so how do we trust the right decisions to be made?
I’ve written about the Nazi holocaust of people with disabilities in my play Hypothermia and find the parallels in language and inaction of that de-sensitising process with our current crisis chilling.
What we can do…
Individual and collective action may help.
I’m formulating a letter and mechanism which means all relatives attached to residents at my sister’s care home have at least the means to communicate with and see their loved ones via the internet and suggest that this is rolled out wherever it’s helpful – even if it’s just using someone’s mobile to make a What’s App call to the outside world, it will make all the difference to my sister and may well do to others.
We need to make people aware of what’s going on in residential care homes, that there are whole communities which are being cut off and finding digital ways to reach these people. My Separate Doors project has involved face to face contact but it can work just as well virtually, providing people with learning disabilities with a means to meet and connect and I hope Arts Council England will support this work in this way moving forwards, its so needed.
With whatever democratic tools are left and to hand we need to make sure the right to life of people in care homes is articulated and upheld and we must keep the voices of the voiceless heard.
I don’t know when or if I’ll see my sister again.
Right now, a bad-tempered drive through the Kent countryside with a grumpy mother, followed by a reluctant shopping trip with a sister in tow, would be absolutely wonderful.
Separate Doors aims to encourage the representation of the lives of people with learning disabilities in theatre for general audiences.
Last year the Separate Doors project worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, six theatre companies, twenty theatre makers and actors, six playwrights and fifteen vocational actors with learning disabilities.
We explored the Silent Approach, a non verbal rehearsal method, in master classes.
We hosted a forum at RADA for fifty industry influencers and published the Separate Doors 3 report, distributed in print format to producing theatres in the UK.
The Separate Doors 3 report will be available soon in digital format via http://www.separate doors.org as will audio recordings of interviews and panel debates.
Our aim for next year is to encourage the training, casting and engagement of more actors and people with learning disabilities in our theatre and our performance culture.
We’re looking for new partners, do be in touch if you’d like to be involved.
Here are some quotes from the report.
The issue today is with disabled artists themselves blocking out non-disabled performers. You’ve got to get people working together, people with all different kinds of diversities. All different backgrounds, viewpoints, races and abilities and disabilities working together.
Nicky Priest, actor and stand up comedian with Asperger’s Syndrome
I hope more and more directors, working across the country in different companies, at different scales, feel confident to cast an actor with learning disabilities.
Hannah Miller, Head of Casting, Royal Shakespeare company
The kind of expertise Separate Doors offers needs to be rolled out and be made more accessible to people making integrated work.
Ben Weatherill, writer (Jellyfish, Bush Theatre and National Theatre)
I thought the Silent Approach master class and method was truly democratic and taking away language really interesting because I’m always questioning how you can make high quality theatre with actors with learning disabilities.
Nathalie Carrington, Artistic Director, This New Ground.
The Silent Approach has given me a lot to think about in my own practice.
Nickie Miles-Wildin, Director.
The Silent Approach is a dynamic method, it may have been non verbal but it certainly wasn’t silent, it was speaking very profoundly.
Amanda Whittington, Playwright.
Separate Doors shines a light on the many different ways of working within our very niche sector and its so important to keep learning disability on the agenda in the way that it does. Its also so good to challenge people, especially around language, in the way that the Silent Approach does.
Nick Llewellyn, Artistic Director, Access All Areas.
Its important to feel connected to the sector. Separate Doors helps to bolster that and to ground that and so it’s really useful.
Ben Pettitt-Wade, Artistic Director, Hijinx.
I think all of us felt deeply moved and changed by the Silent Approach.
Geoff Bullen, Director Emeritus of acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
The Silent Approach works because all of the actors, with and without learning disabilities, have equality – because its our way of working, without words.
Rebekah Hill, actor with Downs Syndrome, Dark Horse