Theatre venues in the UK have made progress in widening the representation of diverse people on stages, in high quality work with impact which plays out to general audiences.
Black, gay, transgender, deaf and disabled and mental health focused work has been commissioned and supported by venues and by Arts Council England initiatives.
Intersectionality informs a thirst to break traditional silos and open doors to dramatic experiences of all of the human condition.
New stories, new voices and new experiences are being heard on main stages but one group continues to be unseen and unheard…
Separate Doors 1 and 2 highlighted the experiences of leading actors with learning disabilities, the integrated companies they train with, casting, representation and the wider landscape.
Separate Doors 3 will explore the work itself.
How do you approach writing drama featuring learning disabled characters? How do you effectively direct actors with moderate learning disabilities? How do you manage an integrated rehearsal room? Is devising or writing best or a mixture of both forms? What are the creative pitfalls and bonuses? How can vocational actors with learning disabilities be included in standard programmes and processes?
I’ll be looking at my own and others’ artistic processes, directorial choices, rehearsal room practice and playwriting craft in the development of new high quality integrated work featuring actors with moderate learning disabilities.
Key participants will be leading actors with learning disabilities, established playwrights, Artistic and Associate Directors of producing venues, theatre makers and practitioners, devising companies and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Master classes in my Silent Approach, rehearsal room analysis, interviews with leading creatives and the outcome of a forum event in London in Summer 2019 will form the backbone of the third Separate Doors report.
There’ll be regular updates here and you can follow the progress of the project- and read reports 1 and 2- by clicking this link to the Separate Doors website.
There’s never been a greater will to include exceptional actors with learning disabilities in general audience facing work.
Separate Doors 3 will go beyond the will, and find the creative way….
Participation is a bugle call, excellence is dynamite
Gifted actors with learning learning disabilities have a right to access acting and rehearsal craft and audiences benefit from the characters and stories trained actors with learning disabilities bring to general audience work.
Sue Emmas, Associate Artistic Director at the Young Vic Theatre in London asked me to deliver a day long Silent Approach master class for up to 60 directors and theatre makers.
I accepted the challenge and approached the work with three objectives in mind:
To offer a hands on ‘doing it’ experience of Silent Approach ensemble, physical and vocal exercises.
To showcase Silent Approach non verbal directing technique
To inspire interest in and commitment to this kind of inclusive approach and integrated theatre and casting.
The Silent Approach is an equaliser.
It unlocks standard rehearsal process by removing the need for speech (Apart from the play text) and it allows vocational actors with and without learning disabilities to work together with equality.
The foundation of the approach is Stanislavsky’s system.
Actors with and without learning disabilities trained in this way can readily access the technique.
It gives directors a non verbal map to get scenes up and work them and run them to production readiness.
No actor is excluded from the rehearsal process on the grounds of verbal or cognitive ability.
It works for text based, standard ‘written’ plays as well as working for physical and devised work.
I chose to work on the day with Dark Horse actors Toby Meredith and Rebekah Hill, both trained and experienced actors with Downs Syndrome. I also cast non-disabled actor Johnny Vivash who I worked with on two national tours of my play HYPOTHERMIA.
The Silent Approach is dynamic.
Asking a large roomful of people who you’ve never met before to trust, follow and go with you on a silent journey is a big ask.
Thankfully, they came with me.
I score the days activity. Music and sound effects shape a narrative and emotional pathway we can all follow.
I started the warm up by communicating physically with Toby Meredith then gathered up and collected everyone in the studio, working through the kinesphere and at different paces, returning many times to breath, inhabiting the space, working with its energy.
We then moved on to a vocal warm up, working with breath, sound, laughter, tuts and shushes, vowels and lamentations.
An hour and a half later, no one had a said a word but a lot of information had been exchanged.
We had a shared vocabulary and shared knowledge.
We were an ensemble.
The Silent Approach is effective.
I moved into scene direction, establishing given circumstances and character with video files I’d edited together for the purpose, sound cues established place.
Actors understood where they were, a little of what they wanted from their scene partner and then played off each other.
Lines were fed in.
Three lengthy scenes were directed and on their feet within an hour and fifteen minutes.
Its possible to direct a two act, two hour fifteen minute production in two weeks using the Silent Approach.
I’ve done it. Several times.
The Silent Approach is for everyone.
After lunch six directors stepped up and directed a further three scenes.
We used the same given circumstances and the same cues and the action took place in the same location as the morning scenes but the dialogue and the activity was new.
In each of the scenes an actor without learning disabilities and actors with learning disabilities delivered the kind of theatrically realistic performances you’d expect to see on a main stage.
All the directors did brilliantly. They said they’d picked up some tools which will hopefully have influence moving forwards and perhaps create some change too. And change any perception about work featuring learning disability having to happen at participatory level…It can happen at all levels, and should.
ITV flirt and pec fest LOVE ISLAND has been accused of undiversity, its stars drawn from too small a pool of ‘talent’, unrepresentative of the viewing public.
The indictment is that the narrow field of potential lovers negates the real life multifariousness of sexual attraction, reinforces body fascism, ableism, and a pecking order of desirability based on conventional looks…. And yet millions watch it, in spite of not being represented on the screen.
Listening to the panel on Radio 4’s Moral Maze tie themselves in knots over the issue last night- especially in relation to the BBC- its clear that theatre as a sector has done comparatively well in terms of diversity representation via Arts Council Englands’ initiatives, support for black theatre companies and writers, a new Spotlight style casting system birthed at the National Theatre for disabled actors and portfolio funding for a fistful of diversity focused companies but putting all things considered nonstandard (pale, male and stale is the on trend phrase) into the same pot leads to an odd homogenisation.
How can black representation be the same as learning disability representation in the arts?The obstacles for each contingency are very different.
Is the diversity label a way of ‘othering’ anything ‘non-standard’- a badge of difference, a silo?
JELLYFISH recently premiered at the Bush theatre, a witty and sparkly play by non disabled writer Ben Weatherill about the life experience of a woman with Downs Syndrome, played by the ever watchable Sarah Gordy. Joined onstage by a mesmeric Nikki Priest this work kept the idea of mainstream work featuring non mainstream actors alive, an important influence that its vital not to lose in the rush to label all work with nonstandard themes and characters as ‘diversity’ and therefore other and to happen somewhere else, with its own form, format and audience.
Bravo Artistic Director Madani Younis at the Bush Theatre for recognising this, its to be hoped that this hit production marks an active resurgence in the casting of learning disabled actors in general audience facing work.
Giving a play like JELLYFISH a ‘diversity’ label seems wrong. A piece of traditionally formatted theatre it defies labels as the best work does. Diversity as a branded position risks the groan, the perceived worthiness and at worst a dangerous invitation to reactionary politics.
The composition of the cast of LOVE ISLAND is perhaps less shameful than its content, dumb, bland and reductive as it is.
The specific shape we make in the world and the words other people use to describe us and our existence is not the stuff of great art.
Each workshop offered an opportunity to experience the approach, work non verbally on forming ensemble, to use key exercises and to explore the direction of text based scenes without using speech.
There’s also been a chance to look at an idea for a new piece of work.
Silent Approach workshops aren’t for the faint-hearted.
Briefing actors and directors to come along open and ready for anything but robbing them of the power of speech establishes either trust or resistance.
As a director I’ve been struck by the enormity of the ask and a terror that I’ll receive no answer.
I’ve been fortunate to date; everyone’s gone with me on the daylong silent journey.
I’ve particularly enjoyed working with leading actors with learning disabilities who are new to me, Nathan Bessell (of Myrtle theatre) at Salisbury Playhouse and Imogen Roberts (of Access All Areas) at the National Theatre Studio as well as working with established collaborator Joe Sproulle (of Dark Horse).
Directors engaged to the processes have said they’ve learned from the non-verbal format, felt liberated from chatter and white noise and that the clarity of the technique offers razor sharp application to audience facing objectives. Actors have said full immersion in the moment is freeing and that the connection with other actors and director is extraordinary.
A lot of work gets made in a very short space of time and everyone likes this.
My aim for the workshops and for this teaching is for it to not just be experiential but to offer solid tools to advance the creation of more general audience facing integrated theatre.
I want to ignite new casting choices and offer actors with learning disabilities routes into text based and interpretative theatre form, the theatrical realism that underpins general audience facing theatre, TV and film performance.
The concept of a different and other ‘learning disabled’ type of theatre can act as a barrier to integration in high profile work.
A casting director called me this morning looking for an actor with Downs Syndrome to take part in a TV pilot workshop.
Happily, I could point her in a positive direction.
More and more writers and producers are choosing to create characters with moderate learning disabilities, indicating real progress in terms of representation.
The tips below may be helpful for the casters and directors making this new explosion of artistic diversity happen…
If you plan to engage an actor with moderate learning disabilities you will need to book them further ahead than is usual.
Experienced and trained actors with moderate learning disabilities like Downs Syndrome need extra time to learn lines and understand your plans for your audition/workshop/rehearsal because they have difficulties with reading (many of these actors don’t read and learn dialogue in different ways).
A call on Wednesday for a spot on Saturday isn’t enough time.
At least two weeks is reasonable.
Support needs and costs
Actors with moderate learning disabilities will need a creative enabler, or supporter.
When budgeting, aside from paying your actor, you will also need to find appropriate fees to cover an enabler and then to negotiate the role you want that person to have in your process/rehearsal room.
All disability is different
Actors who are deaf/physically disabled often have the same cognitive abilities and linguistic skills as non disabled actors.
Actors with learning disabilities usually work and communicate in different ways from non disabled actors.
Working with deaf/physically disabled actors is not the same as working with actors with learning disabilities, who usually need very specific routes into access (communication style and pace, assistance with line learning and understanding story, character and scene, navigating the rehearsal/studio space and relationships with team and crew).
Not all learning-disabled actors are in London.
Sometimes you will find the talent you’re looking for in the provinces.
This will cost you more but offer you more choice.
Involve the inspiration from the get-go.
You’re doing a great thing by casting a learning disabled actor.
Being a pioneer isn’t easy, why not gain knowledge at the start of the journey?
There are very few actors with moderate learning disabilities in the UK working professionally and most of those that do are supported by specialist companies.
Theatre companies are led by disabled people, black people, people with mental health issues, cis and transgender people, older people, people with all kinds of sexualities and people with intersectional identities.
All of these people are human beings, making theatre for audiences comprised of other human beings.
The universals of human life, pain, love, death, work, conflict, desire and creativity are experienced by us all.
So how about human being led theatre?
Heres an idea of how it could be…
No two people must look or sound similar, have a similar history or political stance.
Failure is prized.
Difference is sought after.
Risks are taken.
Age is valued.
New talent is developed.
Contradiction, disagreement and debate is encouraged.
All reasonable needs are met to enable all to work.
The criteria for leadership is the ability to lead, the ability to inspire those being led and the ability to serve an audience.
Roles are allocated according to suitability and skill.
Excellence and quality in artistic work is an expectation for artists and a right for audiences.