Casting a learning disabled actor? No need for a meltdown…

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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…




Time scales

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.

Separate Doors allies Access All Areas, Dark Horse, Hijinx and Hubbub all train and develop the skills of vocational learning disabled actors and have a wealth of experience.

Collaborating at the story development and production planning points can pay dividends.

Many of us want your work to be the best it can be, let us help you….



A credo for human being led theatre

Dusk by Daniel Graves

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?


amana daniel graves
Amana by Daniel Graves


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.


Daniel Graves Tutt'Art@ (23) 2
Portrait of old man by Daniel Graves

Age is valued.

New talent is developed.

Contradiction, disagreement and debate is  encouraged.

All reasonable needs are met to enable all to work.


Brazilian by Daniel Graves


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.


Explorer by Daniel Graves


Pie charts

Draft two of the long story is finished and I’ve sent it out to my five beta readers.

I can’t mess about with the words for a while…

Instead I’ve looked at word counts specific to areas of interest/concern and have come up with these pie charts…


objectsThis pie chart (all stats are based on number of references throughout the whole 88,000 words) proved a suspicion to be true.

I use the word door more than any other when referring to things in rooms.

I do a lot of setting up/or describing places and the exit and entrance way seems for me to be a narrative anchor point.

In the next draft I’ll check for necessity. Do we always need to know where the doors are to engage with a scene? Can people already be in the room rather than walking through a door?

Doors just can’t be that interesting…Can they?


Male vs female protagonist

I have dual protagonists and hoped that they were more or less equally name-checked throughout the draft (as this means more or less equal narrative significance).

Hurray they are…

In fact the female character is slightly bulkier, hard to see in this graphic.




Look at all that sea!  Very good. Its a salty tale.

The sun is boring to write about but sometimes has to be referenced and can’t really be called anything other than the sun.

Sky is sky is sky, glad its the smallest. Its blue. End of.


Verbs of feeling copy


OK lots of love and feeling going on…

Hate can be more entertaining, perhaps a character or two needs to be a bit angrier in the next draft…

Oh hang on…


Verbs of violence copy

Lots of old school thwacking, especially heading towards the climax.

The amount of shooting is a total surprise though, must be threats or reported action…

One to watch…


Swear words

And anglo saxon is the clear winner.

Perhaps by too far a margin.

Some expletive imagination required in the next iteration…









Page 1 2018

write my own rules


Work on draft two of my first serious attempt at long form fiction starts on New Years Day 2018.

I’ve tried to absorb all the helpful prose writing tips I can find.

I’ve scoured the net, picked writer friends’ brains, been to a conference and come up with 6 key rules I want to stick to, both with this long story and the next long story in the pipeline.

In a years time I’ll measure success.


Leave the first draft for two to four weeks before returning to it with a fresh eye.

This was very hard to do but I can see the value in opening up the hard copy for the first time in 21 days, on January 1st.

During this hiatus, plot and character holes have become clear in dreams, while walking and when reading and watching comparative genre fiction and drama.


Write a one page synopsis of the first draft.

I had a rough shape in my head before writing draft 1.

I knew my principal characters, what would happen to them and how the story ended.

I’d sketch notes for each ‘block’ of action (about 4-6 chapters) but didn’t want to be bound to a rigid outline, I needed some creative slack, to go with the flow of my people and places as they appeared.

However immediately post draft 1 writing a synopsis offered a great snapshot of the structure and shone a light on some creaky scaffolding.

The synopsis showed that the arc of the story and the shape (point of attack, rising and falling action, climax and twist) were OK but it also highlighted some character inconsistencies, offered clarity around the themes I’m shooting for and flagged a section which needs cutting.

I can’t wait to make the changes.


Read a lot of books.

I’m currently looking at Paul Auster, Anthony Horowitz, Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler and a doorstep of contemporary writers in the genre I’m writing in.


Long stories take a long time to write. Keep going.

As a dramatist I white heat the first draft of a play.  Ten days feels like a long time to spend inside two hours of stage time.

It took a year and a half to write this first long story draft. I had other, consuming, work to do.  I had to keep stopping to do the other stuff.  At one point after three months of not writing a word I nearly shelved it, then came to my senses. I won’t do this again.

Write everyday, even if its just twenty words and DO NOT STOP.


Choose beta readers carefully and listen to their collective likes and dislikes.

My five first pairs of outside eyes are lined up ready to read the second draft.

They’re all very different people, men and women with all kinds of reading tastes.

I’ll ask them simply to read and react to the story, in the same way they would if they’d picked up the book at WH Smiths at the airport.

Their idiosyncratic reactions will be interesting and their converging criticisms will be acted on.

I trust them to be honest.


Work at being the best editor you can be.

By the time the long story is ready to send to the next filter, the literary agent, the manuscript needs to read perfectly, contain no spelling or grammar errors, be structurally sound and above all be engaging and compelling to read.

The editor, banished to the back brain on draft 1, will come further and further forward until she has full control.

Wish me luck!





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.


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