The Silent Approach

Increasingly I’m training directors and playwrights in the Silent Approach.

More and more theatres and producers want to cast actors with learning disabilities in work for general audiences.

The Silent Approach opens up opportunities for vocational actors with learning disabilities to work alongside non learning disabled vocational actors on main stages.

This means people and characters with learning disabilities can be represented more fully on stage.

It also means a dynamic rehearsal process and a richer and deeper theatre experience for everyone.



The Silent Approach is a rehearsal room methodology that grew out of a very clear objective, the need to work with an integrated cast (learning disabled and non-learning disabled actors) in a piece of general audience facing text based drama working to a three week rehearsal period.

The actors I was working with, and continue to work with, had/have Downs Syndrome and other moderate and severe learning disabilities, had limited speech, and weren’t able in most instances either to read or to understand the building blocks of Stanislavskian system (let alone directorial analogy, metaphor or out of moment jokiness).

I was aware that the energy some of my actors had to burn up deconstructing language, when this is a challenge to them, put them at an immediate disadvantage in a rehearsal room.

By removing the need to process all the extraneous explanatory and dead words around the vital words in the text these actors were liberated and so were, and are, we all.



Theatrical realism, working with character in text based drama is hard to reach for actors without access to mainstream training or mainstream directors, or playwrights, like myself, who can frame drama using devices that include learning disabled talent without expecting these actors to have the same kind of technical skills which non learning disabled actors have.

The approach means working physically, removing as much language as possible from the process and as a director shouldering more than usual levels of responsibility for the actors’ journey and an ensemble ethos.

The room is as spare as the process.

The clutter is taken away for everyone, physically and linguistically. It’s all about clarity. Person to person trust and genuine collaboration and the ability/desire to be led by a director, which of course is never guaranteed.



A set of key exercises form the fundamentals of The Silent Approach, physical, vocal and utterly collaborative, an ensemble is formed in a short space of time.

Music, sound, video and visuals support the actors journey through the work, everyone in the room is equal and everyone in the room is engaged to the work.

In a Silent Approach rehearsal room there are no observers, only doers.

Through a series of improvisations and active explorations of the drives in the scene being approached actors embrace character, given circumstances, action and objective and acquire dialogue without using scripts.

The work is accessible to all, no one is excluded from the process and the process belongs to everyone.

Directors and playwrights are learning the techniques, in the hope  that the next generation of vocational actors with learning disabilities will have opportunities to work on the same stages and with the same highly talented collaborating teams as their non learning disabled peers.






Writing warm up


10. Plan, make notes and find images for a time filling and not strictly necessary blog post like this.

9.  Check all email and social media accounts, retweet and post, change profile photos and edit personal info, scour photo albums of people you barely know. Join snapchat.

8. Look at the long range weather forecast in Mexico City.

7. Log out of Google and open the front page of the word document you need to work on, minimise it and open up Google again. Repeat process endlessly reading all breaking news, opinion pieces and comments on all platforms until you fall into a stare unable to open up the word document at all.

6. Turn off your phone. This is it. You are about to write. Turn it on again. False alarm.

5. Go to kitchen and make a pot of leaf tea and eat two unnecessary slices of cheese straight from the fridge. Stare at the rain in the garden.

4. Return to room with desk in.  Try on coats and scarves and look at self in mirror.

3. Tidy desktop and change desktop image, many times, before returning to blank and non distracting screen you had before.

2. Maximise the word document you need to work on. Ignore it, stand up and sing the entire score of My Fair Lady.

1. Write.



Debutantes caught in a revolving door



Chiffon scarf trapped in the mechanism, in one moment and out the next, always new and never seen before, learning disability in general audience-facing theatre is stuck in debut mode.

Watching Imogen Roberts, Dean Hallisey and Stephanie Newman, all actors trained and supported by Access All Areas theatre in Hackney, interviewed on Channel 4 this week promoting JOY, the production they’re opening at Stratford East Theatre, you’d be forgiven for believing that actors with learning disabilities and/or autism have never appeared in mainstream drama before. The edit of the actors’ interview with Cathy Newman articulated the ‘ground-breaking’ nature of their engagement to a mainstream text based production alongside an emphasis of the actor’s outsider experience and difficulties with bullying and depression.

Lisa Evans ONCE WE WERE MOTHERS, directed by Gwenda Hughes at the New Vic Stoke at the turn of the millennium featured an early central role from Sarah Gordy (Call The Midwife and other leading TV and film roles), Mind The Gap toured Tim Wheelers’ productions OF MICE AND MEN and a raft of text based integrated work to general audiences over a span of two decades, with Dark Horse I wrote, directed and toured HYPOTHERMIA and SING SOMETHING SIMPLE on the mid scale across the UK and Hijinx recently took MEET FRED out nationally with an integrated cast to great success.

Many learning disability theatre focused companies including Access All Areas (who trained the actors in the Channel 4 interview on their course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) and Dark Horse who train actors who want to work professionally have successfully supported actors with learning disabilities to step into general audience facing theatre work for some considerable time.


A growing canon of narrative drama exists alongside the handful of accomplished companies and producers championing the development of integrated theatre featuring vocational learning disabled actors.

In fact, contradicting a message from the interview, there’s never been greater opportunity for exceptional learning-disabled actors thanks to the drive of many initiatives, casters and influencers.

That’s not to say there couldn’t and shouldn’t be a whole lot more done to redress the lack of representation but suggesting that progress hasn’t been made at all in training or employment may stall recognition for actors currently doing great work and building CV’s.

In theatre, the readily communicable learning disability ‘coming out’ fairy tale is attractive and has a tendency to parade itself into the foreground, in spite of its sketchy veracity.


Is this why every new theatre production with actors with learning disabilities in the cast is flagged as ground-breaking and why its necessary to forget the history of a small but influential group of companies, directors, playwrights and venues? Some significant pieces of integrated theatre work have been produced over the past thirty years.

Its great that JOY is happening and writer Stephanie Martin, director Melanie Fullbrook and the programmers at Stratford East are to be wholeheartedly congratulated, but isn’t it the case that outside of commercial theatre general audiences are as likely to be attracted by a new take on a story or a brilliant piece of drama as they are by the constituency of the actors in the cast?

Maybe success will equal the day when learning disabled actors cease to be promoted as inspirational success stories (with tough back stories) and instead the work is sold as artistically excellent and as part of a training discipline and artistic continuum that feeds into a bigger ‘whole’, the work itself.


bow 1

Bottom drawer

Definition: The place where a writer stores drafts of work which isn’t ready, didn’t catch fire or anyone elses’ attention and which may be returned to at a miraculous future date which never seems to come.

Here are five from mine….



During the tallships era the depressed Captain Hamilton is lured back to a tropical island by a captivating and mysterious pink animal left on his doorstep in a tea chest in the middle of the night.

Post an eventful sea voyage he’s back on the island which inspired his melancholia and re-discovers his lover Louise who he thought had died but who had instead been captured by rogue pink animals. He frees her. He emancipates the pinks (the non nasty ones, the bad ones get their comeuppance). Happy ending.

Joseph Conrad meets a politically correct Enid Blyton and shares an espresso martini and goat curry pasty. Adventure, fighting, sailors and quirky characters in period costume this novel for 7-10 year olds may become a musical with animatronic characters.

And may not.



The play I half wrote before I wrote another play entirely with the same title because it had already gone to brochure and this one wasn’t working.

An over ambitious piece featuring mistaken identity, burglary and child abduction (not the best thematic choice for a comedy) it strangled itself to death with plot twist bind weed just before the end of act one and has thrashed about in uneasy half life next to the blue tac for over 20 years.

A dark, pretentious and confusing surburban fable playing on fears of loss and exploring greed and status, in need of far superior craft and care than that evidenced up to the point where I gave up and did something else instead.

Perhaps when old enough to have any idea at all of the central characters I’ve written I’ll give it another shot or it may just lie permanently in the folder marked ‘too clever for its own good’.

Or be burned, this may be best.



Historical stage drama, jam packed with ambassadors and trumpets and castle battlements and paranoid  schizophrenia.

Joanna La Loca climbed the curtains and ended her days incarcerated in a nunnery, its a great role and a great story, so great that another writer and company beat me to production but hey we can never have too many epic dramas featuring powerful women can we?

Nearer the front this one, next to the Polos.



A commissioned sit com pilot for a series which never got made about a family with a gadget fetish.

Quirky, three gags a page, about aquisition and definition through objects without stating this in any way which meant anyone would understand it to be in any way about that, obscure and vaguely charming.

Comedy ages badly. Funny then. Not now. Birdcage or litter tray lining.



Or ignorance. You decide!  Yeah! Whatevs!

Play for radio. Girl next door gets accelerated into superstardom via a TV talent show. Fame followed by destruction followed by spiritual awakening followed by loss of faith followed by a return to base.

Unoriginal rock myth given uplift by virtue (possibly) of entirely made up vocabulary/language which made for an interesting exercise but a suspiciously odd read and probably a very hard listen.

In the drawer for a reason.

Whats in yours?











…Doodling ideas in anticipation of the pre rehearsal draft of A MAN WITH DOWNS SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY, with apologies to designer Pip Leckenby who will ultimately interpret and wave her far superior visual wand over the story.

Its a writing thing…

I find it helpful at this point to have an idea of how the play might work in a theatre space, or spaces of various sizes and shapes, as is the case with a tour.

In the later stages of crafting a play for an audience, the ‘wrighting’ (manipulating the emotional centre of the characters and the plot) happens in tandem with the pragmatics of space and time.

Having a really bad drawing to refer to actually helps…


Have a word theatre


A really interesting diagram about words


Pressed at an event, a well known theatre director isolated ‘class’ as a possible driver behind his premature departure from a high profile post.

An inability to understand a Latin word used during a board meeting marked his card, denoted his rank and, he suggested, may have started a process which led to the door.

A producer, known for excellent work in promoting diversity and with a desire to represent people with learning disabilities, posited casting actors with mild learning disabilities .

‘Learning disability lite’ as she put it, meant minimal or no adjustments to text or issues with on set communication but meant she was still ‘ticking the box’ by ‘cheating a bit’.

An award winning actor with a non R.P. accent, waits for a resurgence in Irish writing on the London stage to secure employment, knowing that casting directors won’t see her for roles unless they are specific to her dialect.

Is it time to break the tyranny of words and language in theatre?


“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

Samuel Beckett


The Silent Approach offers a route into accessible, universal theatre for playwrights, directors and actors,  making work which includes the talents of actors who aren’t verbal or cognitively usual and mines a rich seam of story telling offered by exploring characters and worlds invisible.

If words create hierarchies of sound and language then why not leave them at the door?

No theatre maker I know works to a process where one collaborator is afforded more artistic value than another but we let the language we use and the way it sounds determine status.

A highly accomplished verbal athlete working the most complex of text needs another actor to listen to him, both actors are in the scene, one can’t exist without the other.


“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

Aldous Huxley


For many years Arts Council England has encouraged board diversification for theatre companies and although progress has been made there’s still some way to go.

Formal language can act as a major barrier to the advancement of individuals not versed in the (usually archaic) lingo of the board.

How about re-thinking governance, aiming for accessible language and removing linguistic signifiers constructed to seek out and define social status?


“Silence is so accurate.” 

Mark Rothko


And finally, must all roles be cast according to an idea of acceptable accent?

We’re all accustomed to bumping into people from all over the UK and all over the world in many different contexts.

Its dramatically unnecessary to explain why the guy running the corner shop is Welsh when the soap is set in Newcastle or why a character in the Cherry Orchard has a Ghanaian accent (Does everyone else sound like Putin? No).

Can we give actors a break and move our imaginations in tandem with their talents?

The world may suddenly look a lot more interesting, and realistic, on stage.

language difficulty and diversity

Some languages and how long on average it takes to learn them (as a non native speaker)


Ten tips for theatre makers


1. Collect data.


Aside from evidencing everything you do, numbers of creatives, participants, audience etc. related factoids and statistics from trade papers, general media and specialist organisations can be helpful. 

Its neither interesting to write about nor fun to do but nothing values your proposed work better than a clear need for it evidenced by a percentage.


2. Compare and contrast


Learn about the work of peers in your field, make friends, have coffee, share experiences, tips, support and mutual respect.

You can then ensure that all of your planning and output clearly defines your differences and flags your USP. 


3. Make facetime meetings


Being in the same real world space with another human being is invaluable, theatre is a people-focused creative process and the dynamics between people at each point in the journey to the work inform the work itself.

4. Learn to predict

Design Buch von Condé Nast International für Mercedes-Benz

It takes a long time for any theatre project to reach the stage. Content is anticipated months or years before its delivered.  Research current and upcoming productions for trends, consider the world and politics and anticipate, as best you can, the space your target human psyche is likely to inhabit at this future time.

You can then generate work appropriate for this imagined future.


5. Chase the dream, not the funding


Projects cost what they cost to realise.  Hitting a figure because its available reads to a funder like hitting a figure because its available.  It needs to feel important and stimulating enough to do without any money being involved at all.

Its art, not a transaction.


6. Know the difference between persistence and being a pest



Not everyone wants to work with you. Read the signals. Stop just before someone is likely to give you a definite ‘No’. Keep doors open for next time.  Don’t be irritating. Radiate happiness and positivity.  

You’re privileged to be doing something you love as your job, most people aren’t.


7. Expect timelines to stretch


Time gives air and space to projects, new collaborations form and artistic content gets richer.  Fight any urge to do anything quickly and relish time taken thinking strategically, its never wasted.


8. Offer something


In kind contributions and cash investments are of great value to projects, clarity about what you’re offering and what value you’re bringing in return is vital.

Your theatre work has to give something useful, enriching and unique, know exactly what it is and be ready to make that case.


9. Review sent and received email

The Letter

There may be a positive response you’ve forgotten, an invitation to be ‘updated’ or an email you sent which was never replied to which warrants a follow up.

Your future may lie in your past.


10 .Embrace the long term view


None of it is now, its all tomorrow and beyond.





Risk, theatre and a divided nation

risk versus opportunity


Opportunities to make theatre are rare.

In the realm of venue-based work the theatre maker needs to dive into a commitment to a vision, attract allies with an original idea and then push up and through a series of waves to eventual production.

A show is the consequence of persistence and alchemy, the right idea plus the right money plus the right people at the right time.

It’s a long game.

Where the aim is to reflect our society dramatically (as it most usually is in theatre which speaks to general audiences) prediction of zeitgeist, and hitting that trend before its passé, or before its even happened, requires almost psychic levels of precognition.

And luck.

And courage. Or lack of a fear of failure. AKA taking a ‘risk’.

woman diving

Painting by Eric Zaner

There are two main areas of risk in theatre, financial and creative.

Common sense dictates that high financial risk equals bad and that high creative risk equals good but both come with modifiers.

Some financial risk, for investors from funders through to ticket buyers is desirable. The unknown’s of a theatre experience make for excitement, the more intriguing the concept and story, the ‘what if?’ the surprising casting and the buzz around the show the more risks investors will take.

Conversely all creative risks need parameters; who wants the play to not speak to anyone in the audience at all or for the stunningly designed glass set to dazzle the audience when lit?

Finding the boundaries for both kinds of theatre risk is hard right now.

Money for most people is very tight and opinion on virtually everything is unpredictable, party lines no longer apply, bigotry calls itself patriotism. The choice feels like put up and shut up or risk approbation but the consequence of rattling cages and challenging the status quo is rarely empty houses.

eric zener 1

Painting by Eric Zaner

Theatre history indicates that agitation and dissent in dramatic format has acted as focus and catalyst for change, provoking it or mirroring and amplifying movements in society.

Ibsens’ DOLLS HOUSE, questioning female subjugation caused outrage but lit fires, THE CHILDRENS’ HOUR, TORCH SONG TRILOGY and ANGELS IN AMERICA addressed injustice and drove gay rights forwards and BEHTZI questioned abuse and violence veiled by religious impunity.

In an era where much that is progressive in terms of equality and emancipation is in jeopardy drama representing the journeys, status and values of people with learning and other disabilities can speak volumes to people of all kinds trying to make sense of a skewed current reality.

Funding cuts and Crowdfunder fatigue don’t have to equal a retreat into known theatrical formulae. Creative risks can get bigger.

If the fields are on fire why not bet the farm? Why not spit in the eye of political meltdown with a pot boiling musical about a modern day UKIP voting Boadicea and her daughters?

In an uncertain and volatile political climate, when we’re aiming to make work for a society split in two, its vital that theatre deals with contemporary UK life, with its division, prejudice, shocking poverty, nostalgic self-delusion, neglect, resurgent class distinction and simmering anger and ensure that people with vastly different opinions are able to sit next to each other and consider alternative stories, with cathartic endings, offering views which lead to a vision for a better future.

If theatre of contemporary societal and political relevance becomes too hard to countenance for fear of upsetting one side or the other then we’re all the poorer.

The loss of an agitating and provocative theatre experience for a disparate and diverse audience is the biggest potential risk of all.

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