The final Separate Doors 3 silent approach master class focuses on playwriting, building roles and stage drama for actors and characters with learning disabilities.
To spend a whole day in the rehearsal room with six exceptional writers (who work in all kinds of other media too) is a spectacular treat and there’ll be great learnings attached to the forum at the end of the day.
Many have already written roles for actors with learning disabilities and all are committed to exploring the craft and process in order to encourage greater representation for actors and people with learning disabilities in general audience work.
We’ll be focusing on scene building, collaborative story development and writing roles for actors with moderate learning disabilities- looking at the creative potential of placing non verbal characters in the centre of the action.
The discoveries we make will be widely shared; with the aim of igniting new text based plays for general audiences which include the lived experience of people with learning disabilities.
Theatre maker (noun): A creator of live performance, sometimes across art forms and, often, challenging established theatre formats.
Theatre makers are changing the landscape and shaking up the standard practices of a known kind of venue theatre, bringing hidden lived experiences into view and onto stages.
Recent work from theatre maker Bryony Kimmings confronted mental illness and cancer and has inspired a new wave of voices who craft performance from biographical material, challenging the ‘sit back and watch’ status quo and the sometimes distancing effect of the established form.
Theatre makers also include devisers and devising companies like Told By An Idiot, bringing a distinct physical style to stories which pack a punch.
And increasingly actors with learning disabilities who want and are able to make build and manage their own theatre projects are theatre makers. Mind the Gap has supported the theatre making of playwright Daniel Foulds and actor Alan Clay.
The Silent Approach offers theatre makers a window into a different way of working and creating.
Separate Doors is hosting a day long master class specific to artists who are theatre makers at the Lawrence Batley theatre in February with project allies Dark Horse.
We’ll be working with an ensemble of actors with and without learning disabilities, exploring non-verbal ensemble building exercises, story-building and performance style.
At the end of the day there’ll be a forum to look at the different ways we all work and the applications and the change that’s possible when words are left out of the equation and this kind of revolutionary inclusive practice becomes part of everyone’s toolkit.
Theatre director (noun); A creative collaborator, guide and conduit between a writer*, production team and performers and an audience.
*or not if the work is devised.
Who the director is informs the outcome to an extent, just as any other creative and production team member influences a show.
How the director works, who they cast, how they communicate, how they brief, manage people, run rehearsals, steer marketing and shape the final production for people is perhaps more important than who.
The role is as important as the person.
There’s a highly positive drive for change in UK theatre to recruit theatre directors from under-represented demographics.
Disability-led work is thriving but actors with moderate learning disabilities struggle to lead and manage projects- and many trained actors don’t want to, they want to focus on acting as the hard-learned theatre craft it is- and this is where integrated theatre (= casts and companies of creatives with and without learning disabilities) offers genuine equality for these performers.
People with moderate learning disabilities without literacy or verbal skills are barred from leadership roles in theatre.
Actors with moderate learning disabilities aren’t barred from playing leading roles in general audience facing work when working in integrated casts with the Silent Approach.
The Silent Approach is a non-verbal rehearsal room method which supports actors with and without learning disabilities, in integrated general audience facing productions. Its proven, tried and tested in national touring, TV and film and its being shared widely via the Separate Doors project.
Separate Doors 3 aims to encourage theatre directors to increase the representation of people with learning disabilities in general audience, text based and venue theatre.
The project offers key tools for directors to make working with actors with learning disabilities as desirable and creatively expanding as it can be including casting/working with creative enablers and supporters/financial considerations, rehearsal room processes/ ensemble development/communication tips, management during the run and language and targets for marketing and promotion.
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.