Who is theatre with actors with learning disabilities for?




That’s my hope and plan…

In the new writing work and rehearsal room technique that I’m developing.

Making work for general audiences is not the main goal of everyone who makes theatre with actors with learning disabilities.

‘Serving an audience’ is intrinsic to what I’m aiming to do, other creators work in other ways successfully.

I may not succeed and my colleagues may not succeed in serving an audience (all theatre work of any worth can and often does fail) but it’s always the aim to nourish people with the work when it comes to performance.


Every second of stage time the playwright conceives, the actor inhabits, the designer sees and the director edits and channels is crafted to engage an audience.

Every member of the team, and especially the actors, know this.

An actor lives and dies on stage by serving the audience. The moment the audience is lost, they’re gone for ever.

And making each second of stage time serve an audience is the fundamental of this kind of theatre making process.

Serving an audience doesn’t mean compromising on challenge.

Serving an audience doesn’t mean creating a comfort zone where prejudices are reinforced and status quo is maintained.

Serving an audience means provoking, informing, wrong footing, thrilling and providing a shared experience of a compelling revelation.

I work with all kinds of different people from different theatre and actor training ‘worlds’.

People from the general theatre industry and people whose principal focus is diversity.

The work I’m developing with collaborators exists on the bridge between the two worlds where I believe the potential for real change is great.

It’s as easy to dismiss work which serves audiences as ‘bums on seats’ as it is to ignore learning disability-led and focused work as ‘preaching to the choir’.

All good theatre is very hard to make and the way its made is diverse.

There’s no ‘right’ way and serving audiences isn’t wrong, or easy.









Shilly shallying

A procrastinator

10 rules for planning and office bound activity

1. Never put off writing down an idea thinking that it will be remembered after you’ve done that very important thing that needs doing right now.

It will become a ghost ship in the mid brain.


Then gone.

2. Don’t half do the boring things, do them in full, however much it hurts.

After the ‘A bird in the hand = 2 in the bush’ saying the ancient proverb writers’ next greatest hit was…

A desk full of boring things half done is twice as painful as one boring thing completed.

Two box files
3. Remember that social media is not a child, lover or source of the meaning of life and therefore doesn’t need to be checked every ten minutes for happiness, attractiveness or revelation.

Other peoples’ holiday and wedding photographs don’t ease feelings of entrapment and dullness.

They compound them.

4. Looking at all news websites for the sake of a rounded world view doesn’t wash in the post truth age.

Its all lies.

Keep it honest and do the schedule instead.

5. Budgets do not justify themselves at the sound of a block of stilton being unwrapped.

Food is not the answer.

Barricade the kitchen door.

A fridge
6. The genius playlist that starts with Starboy and ends with a herd of cows from the SFX compilation doesn’t have to be listened to in full on headphones while staring out of the window before the next task.

Its 25 minutes long.

It takes five minutes to delete last weeks inbox.

Just saying.

7. It’s frankly unnecessary to take your own photo and try out all the effects in Photo Booth with different hairstyles and facial expressions.

Check the business bank account instead.

Ink cartridges
8. If you’d wanted to be the Marketing Director of an organic produce company in Slovakia you would have gained some experience in retail and farming by now. And speak Slovakian.

It’s easier to clear your desk top than change career.

Shut Google down.

Yes you can.

9. Having a lengthy conversation by email is tiring and makes your fingers ache.

Use the phone instead.

It means actually thinking and making decisions.

10. Nothing is more satisfying than a sense of completion.

Delete Civilisation 5.

Deny yourself all pleasure.

Just get it bloody done.

A keyboard
















SEPARATE DOORS 2: working with RADA

Actors Joe Sproulle and Toby Meredith (Dark Horse)

Enter upstage left. Objective? To lead

The New Year kicks off, and kicks in, with an exciting new project.

I’ll be working with RADA to develop the silent approach with an ensemble of actors with, and without, learning disabilities, exploring and expanding this technique which allows for real equality in casting.

The rehearsal room door will then be opened to producers, venues, drama schools, casters and people who can affect real change.

The aim is to shift the landscape for exceptional actors with learning disabilities, to encourage integrated work on high profile stages, and generate opportunities alongside non learning disabled casts, and creative teams.

I want also to encourage access to high level vocational training for talented students with learning disabilities and to ignite bold representation in impactful new integrated work, written and directed by innovative theatre makers, work which plays out to general audiences, with the potential to make a big impact.

Here’s how…

I’ll direct a masterclass and a series of scenes with an integrated ensemble using the silent approach; focusing on action, objective, character and the method.

Collaborating with a RADA Associate Director and a team of movement, voice and acting tutors the approach will develop and grow as skills are shared.

At the end of the rehearsal process I’ll host a showing and panel discussion with some key speakers at RADA for an invited audience.

Finally I’ll write and publish a working toolkit for theatre makers who want to work with actors with learning disabilities in their casts, including interview panel transcripts, actor interviews, opinions from project partners and impressions from audience members.

Partnership with leading conservatoire RADA has unparalleled potential to develop and share the silent approach and to raise the profile of the work of vocational actors with learning disabilities.

We want to inspire real change, to encourage playwrights and directors, venues and producers, to cast bravely, and to take risks,  in an era where seeing diversity fully represented in quality drama is absolutely vital.
Actor Rebekah Hill (Dark Horse)

We’re leaping into a bold 2017…follow the journey…



2016, writing, theatre, diversity and work featuring actors with learning disabilities


Jordan, a young man with Downs Syndrome, participating in the York Theatre Royal research and development event for A MAN WITH DOWNS SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY in the regency glory of the De Grey ballroom watched Dark Horse actor Toby Meredith work through the opening scene of the play with actor Tessa Parr, playing his sister.

CLARENCE had just arrived in his sister SAMANTHA’S luxury apartment carrying a suitcase full of his recently deceased mothers’ belongings; a tense, emotionally complex scene. Opening dialogue over I moved the room on to the next stage in the process, handing over to movement director Ita O’Brien who brought the 50 plus participants together to experience standing on SAMANTHA’S blustery fourteenth floor balcony.

Jordan however didn’t step into the turbulent air with everyone else, instead he pulled me aside and leaned in.

“I want to be Clarence. In the play. I’m going to be an actor.” he said, and clearly meant it.

It was an articulation of engagement with story, ambition and aspiration that encapsulated the aim of the work of the whole year for me. I hope one day Jordan will play Clarence, and other characters, and be in stories written by talented writers, directed by directors with vision and work in front of audiences made up of all kinds of people and find routes into that work.

That is the entire point.

It’s been an extraordinary 12 months.

Tessa Parr, SAMANTHA and Jordan, in R and D at York Theatre Royal

2016 started with a serious commitment to developing my less than dazzling prose writing skills by setting myself a task, a discipline test, to write 31 short stories in 31 days, and only then to attempt writing Everest, a novel.

The latter sits, a daily electronic reminder of non completion on my desktop and the former, in its collected and edited form, lies, bloated with needless adjectives, in a long since unopened box file.

In  January, amid the figment 31 challenge, turning in my obligatory 2 hour long daily imagine in a hotel room in Manchester- I was there for a series of meetings but kept none the less on the story horse- it occurred to me that perhaps there was more to do, and more that should be done, out of the garret, in rehearsal rooms, and in theatres.

Two theatre trips, to THE GIRLS at the Lowry and INTO THE WOODS at the Royal Exchange Manchester compounded the solo writer doubts. Both Tim Firth and Gary Barlows’ musical, entertaining though it is, and Sondheim’s’ sublime INTO THE WOODS, left me questioning once again where actors with learning disabilities feature in mainstream productions, and perhaps more importantly just how general audiences are being offered opportunities to experience and explore diverse stories and life experiences, delivered by non white, non disabled, non standard, distinctly ‘different’ yet thoroughly brilliant actors.

The Royal Exchange has made great strides in diverse casting, INTO THE WOODS featured a deaf performer, but actors with learning disabilities simply aren’t getting the same degree of opportunity or representation in integrated work playing out to general audiences.

Cover design for the SEPARATE DOORS report by Pip Leckenby

Producing theatre collaborators Access All Areas, Hijinx, Dark Horse and emerging company Hubbub and many community focused organisations across the UK prove the excellence that exists in training, performance and community engagement but unless doors continue to be knocked on, articulating the need for a place in programmes alongside other, and all kinds, of productions the work runs the risk of being silo-ed into ‘festivals of difference’ or specific disability focused programmes.

It can also be the case that in these segregated areas of artistic output work made by and with actors with moderate learning disabilities is less likely to see the light of day due to an inability of the artists themselves to articulate a case for their existence; currently favoured artist-led funding models don’t necessarily fit theatre work, an intrinsically collaborative form.

The influence learning disability focused theatre companies and makers have in the broader arts and media, in shaping societal attitude, cultural identity and combating the worst of regressive thinking is clear; for people with learning disabilities to slip out of general view in mainstream theatre would be a travesty, especially after so many years of effort and brilliance from many individuals and companies.

Chewing all of this over during the Manchester ovations and while typing THE END at the finish of story 31 the fantasy career as a very minor prose writer crashed and burned.

It occurred to me that as an independent I am perhaps well placed to draw collective learning’s together from a notional learning disability theatre ‘sector’ and to wave a multi-lateral flag for the great work that’s being done by so many.

SEPARATE DOORS seemed a fine way to start.

Jen Sumner, Artistic Director of Hubbub during SEPARATE DOORS film shoot

A curiosity about the processes, practises and rehearsal room techniques of leading companies with a learning disability focus led me to approach Nick Lewellyn, Artistic Director of Access All Areas, Ben Pettitt-Wade, Artistic Director of Hijinx, Lynda Hornsby, Executive Director of Dark Horse and Jen Sumner, Artistic Director of Hubbub theatre with an idea for a project which explored, celebrated and promoted the work of these producers and influencers as broadly as possible.

The aim was for me to shoot and edit a thirty minute film featuring rehearsal room footage, interview the directors and key actors from each organisation and to write and publish a report which would be sent to decision making individuals, programmers, venues and influencers.

All directors generously let me loose in their rehearsal rooms to explore the silent approach and I had four fascinating days with four very different and very talented ensembles, working non verbally.

Actors Richard Newham, Imogen Roberts, Joe Sproulle, Beth Gardner and Amy Scott spoke on camera about their training, work and hopes for future opportunities and the finished report and film met with interest and engagement in pockets of the wider theatre industry totally unfamiliar with the level of acumen, ability and focus on excellence that there can be within companies in this field of work.

Dark Horse actor Joe Sproulle during his interview. Teeth marks on paper Directors own.

Casting, production and further opportunities are developing as a direct result of the project, the film is viewed frequently and the report has reached significant areas.

It became evident from early in in the year that a second project, the development of a new piece of integrated (Featuring a cast of learning disabled and non learning disabled actors) text based theatre, a new play, could be of value moving forwards.

In my own theatre writing, at Dark Horse in recent years, I’ve developed and written roles for actors with learning disabilities, the aim being to generate working opportunities in the context of general drama that plays out to audiences in theatre venues.

I’ve also been instrumental in developing actor training opportunities that enable integrated casts to work together, using the silent approach as a technique and incorporating Stanislavskian/Strasbergian method so that everyone can work in the same rehearsal room, on the same play, for the same audience.

The aim has been and continues to be to create a means for a new generation of actors, directors and writers to work together with equality, to make new high profile, high quality pieces of new writing and to be excited and interested in engaging with this work.

Access All Areas actor Imogen Roberts and Artistic Director Nick Lewellyn


I wrote the first draft in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in a coshed England and at its heart is a dark howl. And that’s enough of that for now.

It’s a drama, pitched towards a general audience with leading roles for actors with learning disabilities and a female actor in her thirties and this autumn I ran three research and development events at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, York Theatre Royal, The Lowry Salford.

Working with Dark Horse theatre, their ensemble and leading actors Joe Sproulle, Toby Meredith and Rebekah Hill the events pulled an exciting creative team together for the first time. Composer Loz Kaye, Designer Pip Leckenby and movement director Ita O’Brien worked with actor Tessa Parr and the ensemble to engage over 75 people with learning disabilities in the three locations, exploring the story and characters and, vitally, recording the voice and opinion of everyone who attended for insertion in the production score.

The results are absolutely stunning and the play will tour nationally next year.

Movement director Ita O’Brien at the Lowry event

There have been some fine pieces of work made by companies which work with actors with learning disabilities this year and some fine performances also by the actors themselves on stage, television and film.  However as challenging times challenge more than ever before to assume that previous wins and progress already made will guarantee ongoing visibility may be unwise.

Instinct, experience and some insight suggests the opposite may be true and that consistent and constant championing of excellence, quality, training and opportunity will be crucial in the year ahead.

I’ve worked with some brilliant people this year, thank you, and some fantastic venues and Arts Council England have supported the work.

One day I’ll finish the novel.

But not yet.

Version 3


A manifesto for artistic diversity in the age of closing minds



choices, opinions and beliefs based on fear and difference


community, social and state level structures and systems which result in injustice and inequality


the motives of leaders and the promises they make


alternative actions, states and outcomes


difference of all kinds and the value, learning and interest it brings to the human experience


as many differing life experiences as you can in your work and seek out people of opposite opinion and attitude to witness, participate or actively disapprove.


light, life, challenge, warning, hope and caution, freely.


us of catastrophic past human actions which we need to learn from and offer other paths to choose


faith in humanity


ignorance, prejudice, fear and persecution



















10 questions and answers…put to the producer/playwright/director

Vanessa Brooks at Salford Quays.

Tomorrow marks the final event day for A MAN WITH DOWNS SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY, at the Lowry theatre in Salford.

I asked ten friends to email a question about the kind of theatre I’m making at the moment and answered as honestly as I could…

1.What is integrated theatre?

For me its theatre, which is written, directed and cast to include actors with learning disabilities.

Its about learning disabled and non learning disabled actors working with equality, using a rehearsal process effective for all and, most importantly,  playing out to general audiences.

Its work made by everyone, for everyone, not existing in a ‘niche’.

2. Are you the only playwright and director doing it?

Currently yes, I think so, though I’d be delighted to learn thats not the case.

Mike Kenny wrote a couple of plays for Mind The Gap with integrated casting in mind but the climate changes and its harder and harder to get integrated work programmed; casts which are solely made up of actors with learning disabilities and which focus on issues are perhaps easier to place and to market as the assumption is that they will play out to a specific, disability-focused, audience.

A MAN WITH DOWNS SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY will be my third integrated play, production and tour (HYPOTHERMIA, SING SOMETHING SIMPLE 1 and 2 while I was Artistic Director at Dark Horse being the others).

Heather Dutton as Bonnie Dilnott in national tour SING SOMETHING SIMPLE

3. Is it the only kind of thing you write?

No, I write all sorts of things. It’s one of the areas I like to explore.

Years ago I wrote a commercially successful comedy called LOVE ME SLENDER which had an all female cast. After that people asked me if I only ever wrote for women.

I thought then that was a bizarre question to ask a writer and I think this one is too but it points to a tendency to pigeonhole difference.

4. You say you like to write roles for actors you know a bit, is that the same for the actors without learning disabilities in your casts?

Yes. It’s a real privilege to be able to do it and I couldn’t when I was starting out but now I find it really helpful and I’m usually lucky enough to get someone interested before I write the first draft.

I cast a play in my head before writing it, even if I end up not working with that actor in the final production it gives me a flavour and a voice to work with.

Faye Billing developing the role of SADIE in I LOVE YOU BABY

5. Why are you writing these plays? Isn’t it hard to do and to get them on?

Because I feel that there’s a need for people with learning disabilities to be represented in theatre (And elsewhere but this is my area) and that there are brilliant actors out there who deserve to work with narrative drama and high calibre casts and creative teams in venues, and to play in front of general audiences.

And I have something to say, and I want to say it strongly.

It’s hard to do but all plays are and you can never take for granted that something you write will be produced.

You recreate yourself every time and established and new writers fight for the same theatre slots- quite right too, that’s as it should be.

Theatre isn’t an arena for complacency, it all needs to be at maximum effort and commitment to stand a chance of working in a live space.

6. Is this about politics? Are you a political writer?

It’s very difficult to write about humanity and not write about politics.

I saw a friend in The Mousetrap last week. Agatha Christie is by no means construed as revolutionary or known for agitation but the argument she makes in that play about lack of early nurture leading to societal malfunction is both relevant and punchy. It surprised me, I had words with myself.

I’ve had at times to temper political argument or make the case through analogy, who wants, outside of STOMP, to sit in an audience and watched tubs being thumped? But there’s always a question I want to explore or answer and it’s informed by being alive and alive to concern in the world I’m living in at the time of writing.

Thats a dramatists job, if its not about wanting to change something, or change opinion, it doesn’t belong in a theatre.

Vanessa Brooks with participants at York Theatre Royal

7. You’re producing this project- what does that mean?

It means I’m working with partners, associates and much needed collaborators to get the work out in front of audiences!

Arts Council England have funded me to produce this project through their Grants for the Arts scheme.

In effect it means I’m managing the development process, engaging creatives and actors and hopefully finding a shape and home for the anticipated production and tour.

8. Apart from writing and casting actors with learning disabilities what is the difference between this way of working and any other way?

Two key ways of working are different for this particular play and production.

Firstly I’m experimenting with the writing process by recording sound bites from project participants which will then be inserted into the score and inform the second draft. This is very new and involves a direct collaboration with over 50 people with learning disabilities, genuinely informing the writing process, and working with the composer/sound designer to come up with a new innovative aural landscape for the play.

At the events (And the same will apply when we go into rehearsal) I’m working as a director with minimal speech, using the silent approach, to engage everyone in the room to the story and objectives, ensuring that language and decoding it, doesn’t act as a barrier to the work. Once in rehearsal the only words we’ll use will be the dialogue in the play- for now it’s a bit more relaxed than that due to sheer weight of numbers in the space!

Actor Tessa Parr and composer Loz Kaye chew over discoveries

9. Do you think more theatre productions should be integrated?

Yes absolutely and I’m working to raise awareness and create opportunities across the UK’s various theatre sectors and with drama schools, aiming to find ways to encourage more of the work to happen.

It offers something exciting and currently vital for audiences to see.

10. What are future plans for the play?

 I can’t reveal much at the moment but the aim is to tour in Autumn next year- and beyond.

More news here as it happens!

Version 2
Rebekah Hill developing the role of BABY






8 days in the early life of a new play

Composer Loz Kaye edits voices into draft score

Day 1/Thursday/Travel from South to North

Southern rail and the RMT are at deadlock and all trains from my current spot on the South Coast to London are cancelled.

Laden with image cards, sound recording and photographic equipment and a bulging suitcase a journey by National Express coach to London begins at dawn.

Cruising over the misty South Downs in blue leatherette comfort a nostalgic coach travel charm descends.  This is actually very pleasant and relaxing, alright I can’t read due to the risk of motion sickness but look at that view and there’s even a metal thing to rest your feet on…

Two hours later, static in a coffee shop/tattoo studio, the charm evaporates.

The wait for the Victoria connection at Brighton is endless.

I sip bitter coffee and stare at a skeleton dog.


A coach pulls in.

Euphoria engendered by the idea of any kind of momentum sees me barrel onto the London bound express like a projectile.

Bisecting London on the tube feels like supersonic travel and the Virgin East coast to Huddersfield is warp factor 9.

I arrive at dinner time with the wind in my hair.

Day 2/Friday/Rehearsing the Dark Horse ensemble

Actors from project collaborators Dark Horse are part of the large creative team for the play and production development process and are facilitators at the events this week, introducing the narrative to up to 40 people in each location, and leading and contributing to voice, movement and relationship exercises.

Ben Langford in front of the scene dock door

On arrival at the Lawrence Batley Theatre I check that the external door stage left hasn’t been painted.  Backdrop to a sequence of initial marketing shots for the work, I want to shoot a couple more, a lick of paint would be a disaster.

Thankfully it’s still in its shabby, peeling,  textured state.

In the rehearsal room I tell the actors the story of the play for the first time.

I talk it through scene by scene, with visuals.

The actors pick up the planned shape in the space, moving around the room, one actor communicating plot per scene, Alice Rogers nudging creative team and participants around the large spaces we’ll be working in, directing the movement of people.

Joe Sproulle, playing THE MAN, has learned some opening dialogue and I direct him and Toby Meredith, playing CLARENCE, loosely into the first scene, ready for Tessa Parr, playing SAMANTHA to walk into on Monday.

A couple of runs, some revised warm up exercises and clarity on who’s doing what and we’re done.

A good days work.

Days 3/Saturday drone activity


Final pre event communications with team and venues, scheduling and planning in the Premiere Inn Central Huddersfield with its view over the canal.

Premiere Inns are my temporary residence in towns and cities across the UK over the next few days. They’re identical.  One purple strip of branded fabric across the bottom of a bed is exactly the same as another and at least twice I wake up without being entirely sure of where I am.

Breaking down elements of story and place for examination in the events I venture into town with head buzzing.

Drones feature in the narrative. Drones are on my mind.  I spot and buy a mini drone with camera. The idea is to a) shoot some marketing film and/or b) take it for a demonstration flight in the spaces we’re working in.

Back at the purple ranch I discover I’m a terrible drone pilot. Heavy handed, all lift no pitch, license clearly revoked. My aircraft crashes into the ceiling, then plummets and lies on it’s back on the purple carpet whining.  I lose rotors behind the purple chair. I can’t get the camera to work. I think I’ve broken it.

I put it away and pick up the notebook again.

Day 4/Ipswich bound

(Left to right) Actor Tessa Parr, Composer Loz Kaye, Dark Horse team Lynda Hornsby, Paul Williams, Alice Rogers, Steph, Rebekah Hill, Designer Pip Leckenby, Toby Meredith, Me, Joe Sproulle, Movement Director Ita O’Brien

It takes four and a half hours to drive to Ipswich from Huddersfield in a minibus on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I’ve hitched a ride with Dark Horse to avoid another potentially snail paced journey, engineering work this time.

Lynda and Steph take turns with the driving while five actors and me alternately talk through the work to come, and reminisce about work done in the past.  Actors are very good at reliving their greatest hits and we’ve all worked together a lot on productions in the past so a shorthand of songs, insect impressions and gags about orange peel and cross dressing come thick and fast.

Only time for one rendition of ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ and we arrive by a beautiful marina at Regatta Quay, Ipswich.

It feels spookily appropriate as SAMANTHA’S apartment, location for much of the action of the play, overlooks a harbour full of luxury yachts.

A wonderful meal this evening as the full creative team meets for the first time.

And what a great team we are.

Day 5/New Wolsey- Event 1

The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and the Ramps On The Moon project and their agent for change Jamie Beddard have been terrific supporters of this project from the off.

Arriving at the High Street Exhibition Centre early Tessa, Loz, Pip and I are oddly excited by the huge rocks outside aware of Ita’s work to come with earth and air and inspired by the idea of using their weight and shape to inform movement.

Thankfully the rocks outside are too heavy for us to lift.

The clock ticks towards the start, Dark Horse arrive and post rigging sound system and sweeping the floor (Pip in full ‘designer prepares’ mode) we’re ready to welcome participants.

Razed Roof theatre and their Artistic Director Annette Lidster, representatives from Freewheelers theatre, playwright Judith Johnson, community drama group CoCocare and various interested individuals fill the huge space with diverse, energetic and enthusiastic energy.

Toby Meredith and Tessa Parr developing brother and sister characters CLARENCE and SAMANTHA

A total blast of a day covers narrative, characters, voice (Over 30 people record sounds and opinions for the score) and movement.

At the end of the process participants say the day has been ‘powerful’ and ‘intense’ and that they can’t wait to see the play when it goes on tour.

Once participants leave and the creative team reflects its clear progress is  marks  in the two key areas we’re aiming for 1) play and production development and 2) active engagement with a target audience.

Job done.

A happy producer playwright director and team.

Day 6/To York

The land is flat between Ipswich and York

A day to travel up to our next destination, York Theatre Royal.

The view from the train window offers a moody sky and resolute flatness for most of the journey.

A day to reflect on progress and areas to push at during the next event.

Emails and ideas fly between the team, as they have for some time now, all aware of the need to make the most of limited time and inspired by the possibilities evidenced at the New Wolsey and the extraordinary levels of engagement of people in a dark, contemporary story.

Day 7 and 8/York Theatre Royal

Loz Kaye setting up the De Grey ballroom at York Theatre Royal

A catch up day poring over a Macbook in a room in the Premiere Inn and trying to locate compost and pots for movement director Ita O’Brien in Central York- not easy- Barnets’ hardware store is the answer…

And then a phenomenal day in a huge beautiful space, the De Grey ballroom at York Theatre Royal.

Over 50 people work at terrific pace on narrative, sound and movement.

Hubbub theatre company and Artistic Director Jen Sumner join us from Derby, the full Dark Horse ensemble facilitates, the new York Theatre Royal learning disability group Access All Areas is here, as is Blueberry Academy and some extraordinary individuals.

Vanessa Brooks works with a participant to record his voice for the production score


Toby Meredith does some exceptional improvisation with Tessa Parr and Ita O’Brien excites the whole room with her hairdryer experience.

A fantastic way to explore the height and airiness of character SAMANTHA’S fourteenth floor apartment.

Ita O Brien and ‘air’


Loz incorporates recorded voices from Ipswich into the draft score and an eerie evocation of a dystopic future, and peoples predictions for it, fills the room.

Designer Pip talks us through the contents of CLARENCES suitcase and finally Tessa and Toby improvise SAMANTHA and CLARENCES final scene at the end of the play with great impact.

The whole team feeds back in the cafe bar at the Theatre Royal and ideas form for the final event at Lowry. There are explorations of the writers vision. Some answers are found. The physical world of the production is coming to light.

One thing is very clear.

Something extraordinary and exciting is being made by exceptional talents,  collaborating.

Actor Tessa Parr working through ideas with Movement Director Ita O’Brien









10 myths and truths about theatre and casting actors with learning disabilities…

Truth and lies by Bennett


“There aren’t that many people out there with learning disabilities so what’s the big deal? You can’t represent everyone in a theatre space and we don’t all need to see ourselves on stage do we? “


One in ten people in the UK have a learning disability, or are related to someone with a learning disability, or work with someone with a learning disability. That’s a big percentage. For these people and characters not to be seen on stage is odd, unrepresentative, and means an audience misses out on some great talent and great stories.


“Employing actors with learning disabilities is just too costly, they need support so it’s two people for the price of one before you’ve even started, no production budget can cope with that.”


There are companies out there who train and assist professional actors with learning disabilities in theatres, film and sound studios including Mind the Gap, Hijinx, Dark Horse and Access All Areas. They have a full understanding of the support needs of their actors and are experienced in finding ways to cost effectively enable people to work with equality and to offer employers and colleagues tips and information on how to make the process work for everyone’s benefit. In the UK subsidised sector there are ways of accessing funding to cover support costs, where needed; some actors with learning disabilities are able to work autonomously or with slight adjustments.



“Actors with learning disabilities can do Elvis impressions and join in with stuff and be quirky and have a good time which is great,  but I’m not going to be able to direct them into a show without being really horrible to them and stifling that authenticity and making demands. It’s better that they do their community thing and we keep what we do over here. I’m a nice person, I don’t want to be accused of being mean.”


Professional actors with learning disabilities, and there are increasing numbers of them out there in the industry, expect to be challenged and tested in the same way as any other actor, most have trained and relish the standard collaborative pressures that drive any rehearsal room where a cast is working to scene and play objectives. If actors are non professional, untrained community performers then naturally different expectations apply so at the casting stage being sure of an actors’ skill level will indicate the ability of any individual to engage with the process.  Being mean doesn’t come into it unless you are usually considered mean in which case who’d want to work with you anyway you tyrant? Adult professional actors with learning disabilities put themselves out there like anybody else.


(Related to 3) “Actors with learning disabilities are angels. I’d just want to hug them all day and it would make me so tearful.”


Actors with learning disabilities are not angels. They’re actors like other actors.  They have good days and bad days especially when engaged to a difficult artistic process. All actors are sometimes truly horrible and sometimes a hoot and may not take kindly to uninvited hugging. And stop crying you big baby.


“Casting a learning disabled actor means a really REALLY looooong rehearsal period.”


This used to be the case, the expectation being that people with learning disabilities could only acquire and retain a performance by working very slowly. Advances in formal training, expectation level and action research with processes (I’ve rehearsed a two hour long main stage integrated show in two weeks with no difficulties at all experienced by the leading actor with Downs’ Syndrome) mean this excuse not to employ just doesn’t hold water. Top flight actors with learning disabilities are prepared for speedy work by their companies and working quickly, and with minimum down time, can actually assist with role development; it encourages other cast members to work at pace too, which is never a bad thing.




“Actors with learning disabilities can’t play characters, only themselves.”


An actor with a learning disability is only ever going to play a character with a learning disability but why does that mean he/she can’t play someone with a learning disability who is different from them? Many of the best in the field do just this,  actively working on the differences between themselves and this person they’re playing in a story. Many accomplished actors with learning disabilities have trained and have technique, some working through Stanislavskian method and/or Laban and physical transformation. The key is preparation and this may happen pre rehearsal process but it certainly happens and there are no limits to the extremes of character people with learning disabilities can play, and want to play- like any other actor.


“There aren’t any parts for actors with learning disabilities.”


Is a bit like saying there aren’t any parts for women who are five foot one and a half with brown eyes. A bit of imagination applied to casting choices in soaps, serial drama, classic plays, Shakespeare and new work and wow what an extraordinary new landscape would open up when audiences come to a theatre. It’s all in the casting and risks taken by directors and writers but the experience could be extraordinary. Think of your favourite classic play and then think of the character list. Now cast an actor with a learning disability as one of those characters and think about the impact and resonance of their presence through the narrative…See what I mean?


“Audiences don’t want to see ‘real’ people with learning disabilities on stages, it’s too challenging, better to have non learning disabled actors playing those parts.”


Not better, simply unacceptable given vocational actors learning disabilities are available for work. Where new roles are written in a way which is considered ‘too complex’ for someone with a learning disability to deliver, then writers and directors have a responsibility to re-draft or adapt with an actor with a learning disability in mind. Expertise is out there to draw on and there’s no excuse at all for this kind of casting choice in 2016.


“Actors with learning disabilities are unpredictable, they could do anything on stage.”


In my experience actors with learning disabilities tend to be the most solid and reliable members of casts during rehearsals and out on the road. While colleagues have run the gamut of extremes of behaviour and on stage off piste excesses actors with learning disabilities have been consistent and rock solid. Interestingly a dry or fluffed prop moment from an actor with a learning disability can be a cause for amplified alarm from other cast members and I’ve been secretly delighted when its sometimes happened ‘accidentally on purpose.’


‘There aren’t any actors with learning disabilities out there.”


There are, there are quite a few of them actually and many of them are very good indeed and benefit from finely tuned training and exceptional back up from teams of experts.

Find them, take the risk and move your work on to new territory.

You won’t regret it.

(No theatre professionals were harmed in the making of this blog but many were directly quoted).













Writers rights and wearing lots of hats.

Lots and lots of hats

As producer for this research and development phase of A MAN WITH DOWNS SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY, working to a schedule, budget, and outcomes agreed with funders Arts Council England I am my own Chief Executive, Marketing department and Outreach Director.

Lines of communication are clear and in spite of occasional altercations with an internal 70’s throw back with ‘time and motion‘ written on her overall all areas of operation click along fairly smoothly.

This isn’t the first project I’ve produced by any means and I’ve ridden many large and small headed monsters when in post as Artistic Director at Dark Horse and in other past roles but it is complex in terms of new relationships and developing audiences all over the UK, and, fundamentally, working with a new play.

My play.

The writer coughs. Apologetically.

Not that she should. But she knows what a precarious position the writer can sometimes find herself in where ethical processes aren’t followed (As can the designer, composer and the rest of the creative team) in a theatre collaboration.

A typewriter

Increasingly playwrights, where they have the skillset, fulfil an ‘Independent producer writer director’ role, the hat I’m currently wearing, in Arts Council funded research and development processes, and beyond.

The reasons for this are many but are in part due to a reduction in financial support for literary departments in theatres with a new writing remit;  where once there was a Literary Manager and budget for new work development now there’s a nudge towards project/play specific funding for individual writers via the Arts Councils Grants for the Arts scheme.

For me, as someone who has produced and written my own work before, this provides a fluid movement from original idea (The writers voice, script, play and vision) to other voices (Creative team) to production (Solo or with others, co-production, and the retention of control over vision that allows).

Producing my own written work, not to mention being a theatre committee member of the Writers Guild of Great Britain,  makes me I hope very aware of the creative inputs of others and the risks of ‘artistic material theft’ or the erroneous assumption of ownership.

Where processes are devised completely different sets of rules apply (Though the editors and writers of these pieces of work also deserve acknowledgement for the highly skilled job they do).

A MAN WITH DOWNS SYNDROME TALKS ABOUT LOVE AND TELLS A STORY is a major collaboration with a big team of exceptional creatives, ethical company partners and co-producers and venues, developing their work and ideas through a vehicle, which is very much a play, written by me, the writer.

The original and first hat.

Worn with pride. No apology.

Writers hat