Aristotle wrote dramas for plebs and for patricians.
Blokes, women, the toothless, the young, and a wide swathe of Grecian population, in essence humans and OK, potentially the odd goat, came to the theatre to engage with and socialise around ‘the drama.’
Whizz forward a millennia and a bit and Shakespeare’s audience were as likely to be dung cleaners as High Court Judges and at the dawn of realism and under the cloak of house light dimmed darkness , toffs and peasants began to analyse themselves in and out of neuroses, albeit seated in different areas and drinking in different bars.
Disparate audiences have always watched the same live story, the same play, and experienced it in different ways but at the same time as other people. The best stories are universal and tell all of us something about the human condition that resonates or challenges, or both.
Some of those historic theatre audience members and some of the actors engaged in the work have always been people with learning disabilities.
Vogues in theatre move and change.
Recently, learning disabled led and focused work has come to the fore, work which finds learning disabled audiences and is received positively.
SEPARATE DOORS asks where this separation of audience and segregation of work and form leaves actor training for people with learning disabilities who want to work across theatre in all kinds of productions in all kinds of work (As most professional actors do).
SEPARATE DOORS also asks about future options for non learning disabled actors, producers playwrights and directors who want to collaborate with actors with learning disabilities on new pieces of theatre. And how about venues who want to programme work featuring learning disabled actors?
It feels important that learning disabled characters and skilled actors who can play those characters continue to be developed and promoted in an integrated context in theatre.
Actors with learning disabilities have been visible in new work in great venues in the past few years, a void will be left if they disappear from casts on main stages.
I’ve written and directed a handful of plays featuring central roles for learning disabled actors. Those plays have toured to theatres across the country, been published and played to general audiences. That doesn’t mean roles with lots of dialogue, or roles with no dialogue but a mixture of the two depending on the skillset of the particular actor I’m writing for and working with. I’ve also developed an actor training methodology, the silent approach, which enables actors with learning disabilities to work with parity with their colleagues.
But enough about me…
I’m interested in what peers are doing, in what collectively theatre is up to, what leading actors with learning disabilities want and need, the roles they want to play, who they want to work with and how they see UK theatre and what their ambitions are. I also want to know how actors with learning disabilities are being trained and to hear from the Directors who shape and deliver that training, and through these interrogations consider what we can do collectively to evaluate and disseminate what we do.
That’s the dry bit.
The more exciting part, the creative bit and the treat for those who like a bit of visual with their literal and their verbal, is a short film featuring four leading actors with learning disabilities talking about their work and training and interviews from four directors from four leading companies who work with them. Alongside that there’ll be rehearsal room footage from each company, giving an extraordinary view into various approaches and a report at the end of the journey featuring insights, observations and hopes for future progress.
The hope is for SEPARATE DOORS to provoke interest, challenge and debate and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.
I’ll be blogging regularly and welcome your inputs and comments.
Watch this space for details of participant actors and companies who will be announced over the next week or two.
I believe that learning disabled characters and actors need to continue be seen on main stages by plebs and patricians and goats alike, and to be given the opportunity to take their place in a theatre that represents all of society.
Actor one: CIAN BINCHY of ACCESS ALL AREAS
Not enough people know that exceptional companies in the UK train and make work with vocational actors with learning disabilities.
I want to shine a light on those companies, the way that they work and train and the actors themselves, the centre and beginning of everything, the performers who communicate with, engage and entertain audiences.
There are several talented and experienced actors with learning disabilities and autism working in the UK and Cian Binchy is one of them.
‘The Misfit Analysis’ sold out on the London Fringe and recently had a highly successful run at the Vaults in Waterloo.
I’ll interview Cian on film , talking about his training, process, work, ambitions, whose performances on screen and stage he admires and the kind of theatre productions and he’d like to work on in future.
Director of ‘The Misfit Analysis’ and Artistic Director of theatre company Access All Areas, Nick Llewelyn will also be interviewed on film about his company, his rehearsal and and production processes and give an insight into the work that he does and how he wants the work to develop and grow.
I’ll also visit Access All Areas and the Performance Making course for people with learning disabilities at my old alma mater, the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and film my rehearsal room work with some students there using the silent approach and other exercises.
Cian Binchy, Nick Lewellyn and Access All Areas will give some fantastic insights into the work thats being done and share ideas about good next steps to keep learning disabled actors where they belong, in great venues and on visible stages, playing out to rich and broad audiences.
Watch this space for news about actor and company 2.
1 in 10
I want people with learning disabilities to be represented fairly in drama and in theatre (and other media too but let’s focus on the stage for now).
When I say represented in theatre I mean in all kinds of theatre on all sizes of stage, the big national companies like the RSC and the National, in regional theatres, in touring theatre and in small scale theatre, in new work, classical texts, physical theatre, devised work, experimental….
The whole shabangerooni. All of it.
Quite simply because theatre will then be made by individuals who are representative of the whole of the population, popularly known as ‘people’.
1 in 10 people in the UK either has a learning disability or has a family member who has a learning disability or works with someone with a learning disability.
That’s a whopping two tiers in the seating plan of the peoples theatre of tomorrow (above).
These people are sitting in auditoriums right now but it is very rare that they will see a story, or an actor, reflecting a significant part of their life experience back at them.
An audience isn’t currently being served and a rich seem of drama, in both the contemporary and classical canon isn’t being explored.
There’s an exciting opportunity here to transform and re-invigorate story telling, playwriting, theatre production and actor training and serve the audience in tiers 1 and 2, who’ve always felt that something’s been missing.
1 in 10 = 1 character in 10 played by an actor with a learning disability.
That’s the aim.
The how comes next.
Exploring the how and making it happen is what SEPARATE DOORS is all about.
Actor two: JOE SPROULLE of DARK HORSE
Joe Sproulle is the second actor who will be filmed and feature in this project.
Joe works with Dark Horse theatre.
He’s an experienced actor who’s toured all over the country in new work and he’ll talk about his vocational training, rehearsal room process and ambitions.
While Artistic Director at Dark Horse I directed Joe and wrote several roles for him, in touring premieres which played main houses all over the UK, at theatres like the Stephen Joseph Scarborough, the Lowry and the Cockpit London and I look forward to chewing over some of the work we’ve done in the past and some of the future work that’s being planned.
I’ll be asking Joe about his ambitions, the kind of theatre he likes, and the kind of work he’d like to be a part of.
I continue to work with Joe and his Dark Horse ensemble colleagues on development around my new play I Love You Baby, and both Joe and Dark Horse, as a unique actor trainer and integrated theatre company will be a key part of this project.
In recent years while at Dark Horse I developed a Stanislavski based system and the silent approach, training actors in the craft of creating characters in narrative drama, the same skills non learning disabled actors have and use, so that all actors can work with parity with directors, writers, actors and production teams in all scales and forms of theatre; alongside Tony award winning designers and seasoned actors. The emphasis in this training ethos is on full integration in a vocational and professional context.
I’ll be exploring and sharing this methodology through this project, on camera,working with the Dark Horse ensemble on a filmed model workshop, which I’ll also explore and film with each of the other partner companies too.
Dark Horse Executive Director Lynda Hornsby will also be interviewed on camera, offering the company’s insights into the landscape and futures for theatre featuring vocational actors with learning disabilities.
The actor training at the company is affiliated to, and endorsed by, leading drama school ALRA.
The opportunity to film and explore the process and methodology with Dark Horse with the aim of sharing a remarkable practise is a very exciting prospect indeed.
That’s two exceptional actors and companies so far, two more to come…
Ask anybody what acting is and they’ll talk about being in the school play and learning words, or both.
Theatre and plays equal lots and lots of lines, said in a certain order as this is the way that everybody understands the story.
Not really, and I say this as a playwright who has written thousands upon thousands of words to be said on stage.
Words are the least important part of plays.
Plays are people and situations and ideas in conflict.
Watch a cracking performance on TV, film or theatre without its soundtrack, and the drives of each scene will be clear via the movement in space and expressions of the actors involved.
Some of the best denouements and climaxes of dramatic work take place with little or no text at all.
The dynamics of the characters and the arc of the story are what counts.
Words are the icing on the dramatic cake.
Tea break chit-chat, long-winded explanation by directors (I’m as guilty as anyone), self-narration and verbal diarrhoea create a sea of words and confusion for many actors with learning disabilities and an ocean of displacement for actors without learning disabilities.
By removing the great divider, language, from the rehearsal room, everyone can work together equally, speedily and clutter free.
I aim, as far a possible, to use only the dialogue in the play while rehearsing.
No other words get in the way of the work.
The process is physical, objective based and about characters in space, now, nothing else.
This is the silent approach.
I’m going to visit each of the four, very different, companies involved in this project and deliver an identical workshop using this approach.
The workshops will be filmed and process discussed with the actors and artistic directors of each company.
Actor Three: RICHARD NEWNHAM of HIJINX
Richard is the third actor who will be interviewed for the project and he works with Hijinx Theatre, based in the Millenium Centre, Cardiff, Wales.
Richard recently toured in Hijinx’s highly successful collaboration with Blind Summit theatre, MEET FRED, and he will talk on film about that production, his training and experience to date as an actor and his hopes for future work featuring actors with learning disabilities.
Hijinx is an inclusive theatre company, working with people with and without learning learning disabilities with equality.
Touring small scale theatre productions, training actors with learning disabilities to professional readiness and collaborating with other innovative theatre companies, Hijinx are also experts in forum theatre, a means for problems to be explored and solved in a dramatic context.
Hijinx also runs the Unity Festival every year, a large event with global reach which showcases the best of international inclusive theatre at their home base, the Cardiff Millenium Centre.
Hijinx Artistic Director Ben Pettitt-Wade will talk on camera about what makes the company tick, their rehearsal room processes and training ethos and give an insight into the recent tour of MEET FRED, the Unity Festival and his thoughts about inclusive theatre work in the UK featuring actors with learning disabilities, where it’s been and where it could go next.
I’ll also work with the Hijinx actors in their rehearsal room, filming exercises and discoveries as we explore the silent approach.
Three terrific actors from three great UK companies and one more actor and company to announce.
Its a fascinating line up of talent, well placed to offer insights into work that deserves to be heard and seen far and wide…Watch this space!
Doing it for fun
Acting is about the only profession I can think of which has an amateur version of itself.
Performing as an activity is hugely enjoyable, offers windows into different worlds, is social and develops all kinds of skills.
People perform in all kinds of contexts, for their friends and their families and gain a lot from the experience.
It’s joyful to explore drama.
It can offer insights into life and help to solve problems. It gives access into stories and experiences.
And you get clapped at the end. What’s not to love?
It’s mind expanding, and fun.
When it comes to filling in a tax return or getting our teeth fixed it’s to the trained and knowledgeable accountant or dentist that we go.
You may know a couple of people (Unlikely but bear with me) who love working through profit and loss accounts or filling teeth in their spare time but if you want guaranteed delivery of a product or an outcome, and possibly redress in the event of losing all your gnashers, you’ll choose the known expert.
When we want to see a piece of theatre we often choose to watch it being delivered by professionals.
Professional actors are bound by a sometimes real and sometimes unreal contract with you, the audience member, which means they will deliver to a certain standard.
When we turn on the TV or pay a chunky sum of money to go to the theatre we want our drama to be delivered enticingly, we want to be able to follow the dialogue and plot, to see movement in space that resonates and to invest in the characters and story we’re watching.
In the theatre we want to be transported, to have our disbelief suspended and to enjoy work effectively served up, whatever we think of the content.
Separate Doors aims to define professionalism, excellence, and theatre work featuring actors with learning disabilities.
There’s a difference between community focused work and that which faces towards a wider and demanding general audience and delivers to those expectations.
Its a misconception that all work featuring actors or artists with learning disabilities is the same and this misconception is as detrimental to the community performer as it is to the professional.
Both kinds of work have value but defining the difference and being clear about its content to theatre venues and audiences can only be helpful.
An actor with a learning disability isn’t necessarily always aiming for community focused work.
Actors with learning disabilities benefit from vocational standards, if that’s the path they want to follow.
Separate Doors examines potential routes into the best training and specialist input for people with learning disabilities who want to approach acting as a career.
All actors with talent learn from exceptional peers, tutors and directors, and all talented people need to be able to develop their skills and test themselves by working with the best.
Actor Four: AMY CROFTS of HUBBUB
Heading the charge for female actors with learning disabilities (And there are many out there!) is founder member of Hubbub Theatre Amy Crofts.
Amy’s filmed interview will focus on her recent regional tour with the company’s production of KESSOKU, her work to date, ambitions for future actor development and the kind of skills she’d like to add to her performance toolkit.
Hubbub is a company at an interesting point in its evolution. Offering a broad range of theatre and based activity for the community in Derby, the company runs a range of projects, encompassing work with children and young people, entry level access to the arts for people those to explore theatre, street performance and devised work.
Recognising the value of vocational training for actors with learning disabilities Hubbub wants to being develop this side of the work and a key aim is to mount a brand new training offer in the region.
With the exceptional Hubbub we’re meeting a company at the beginning of a journey into ongoing actor training.
Artistic Director and founder member Jen Sumner will talk on camera about her work, aesthetic, hopes, challenges and aspirations as Hubbub moves forwards with its work.
The performers will also be filmed as they participate in a workshop with me in their rehearsal room, dipping toes into the silent approach and feeding back on the process post the event.
And thats our four key actors and companies.
The process starts in earnest next week as full interviews and workshops begin with actors, directors and ensembles.
I’ll be recording progress here and on twitter and facebook.
Its going to be fascinating to open the doors on these rehearsal rooms.
Lets hope it opens further doors for the actors, and for the work.
Collaboration? Theatre? Yes please, three scoops
Theatre as I know it (and I imagine the same goes for most production work in the UK at all scales) is a collaboration.
An art form (if you’re lucky) arising as a consequence of the labours and craft of a group of creatives and technicians, exploring an idea, taking risks and riding inspiration, with the aim of serving an audience.
People have specific job roles, they’re specialists, many have trained in their area of expertise and everyone is heading in the same direction: the show.
A writer (or other creative/s) comes up with the germ of an idea, a seed, and develops it from the moment of disclosure onwards in collaboration with others.
Plays and scripts grow and change through experiment and exchange, before and during rehearsal and often during runs of shows.
A play is a mutable thing.
A production of a play is never the same twice.
A writer is both originator and editor of ideas and a moulder of form and structure who coheres the story into a shape and provides a vehicle for the collaborators to ride on and for the audience to understand.
Actors interpret the story through character and action. They own the play while on the stage. Throughout the rehearsal and production process they are also both blotting paper and sieve for their collaborators thoughts and ideas.
Designers (set, costume, lighting and sound) create contexts which shape an actors and audiences understanding of imagined spaces. They interpret and grow ideas from the writer’s work, actor’s essence and the pragmatics of space, aided by the input of the stage manager/s who are part of everyone’s process and a glue in a teams communication.
Producers, administrators, marketeers, venues, the guy who sets the chairs out, box office staff, ushers, the youth theatre, the cleaner, the designers Mum who came in on Thursday with cake and shared her memories about war/disco dancing/rivets or whatever it was that happened to be being grappled with in the rehearsal room when she walked in, are also a part of the collaborative process.
A director (usually one) pulls the ideas together, has some of his/her own, acts as unifier, throws out and extracts, keeps to the schedule (or not), is an ogre or a saint, whipping boy or warrior queen and steers the whole noisy, colourful, buzzing hive into position to show its face in front of an audience.
When theatre works well collaborators are equally valued, equally necessary and equally respected.
The best shows are built on the best flow of ideas.
For a single collaborator in this melange of creativity to be in the driving seat, for a piece of work to become ‘designer-led’ or ‘composer-led’ changes the dynamic in the collaboration.
‘Actor-led’ work, when actors don’t want to shape the work, or draw on their own direct experiences can be problematic; many actors are trained specifically to explore and exist within stories not to conceive and develop the content themselves, or make themselves the content, and many don’t particularly want to.
Much good theatre work featuring actors with learning disabilities is currently framed as artist-led.
Separate Doors explores the challenges of moving theatre into an artist-led form for actors with moderate learning disabilities, actors often without the verbal or cognitive ability to frame narratives or didactic but actors with talent and training in interpreting narrative work alongside non learning disabled actors to mainstream audiences.
Alongside artist-led theatre work, where it happily works for some performers, can trained learning disabled actors also continue to make work as collective collaborators?
Offering integrated processes and equal input from all members of a team, very much including actors with learning disabilities without expecting them to lead and write their own material, especially where that ability doesn’t exist but other valuable skills do?
Why change the recipe for a fantastic dish?
When it works each component compliments the other and tastes delicious.
Time for an ice cream…
Variety is the spice of theatre life
“Know yourself” could be a spiritual mantra or a line shouted at closing time from the doors of the Queen Vic.
Either way the message is clear, working out who you are is a good thing to do.
Separate Doors aims to look at the rich and diverse range of work on offer in UK theatre today featuring learning disabled actors and finding a clear vocabulary and set of definitions for exactly what it is that we all do.
We can all be very clear about our own vision but communicating it to people without knowledge of the landscape is a challenge.
In the UK there are learning disability focused companies working in theatre…
- Offering national touring of new plays to mainstream venues for general audiences
- Delivering work to audiences consisting of people with severe and complex needs
- Making artist led self produced work
- Offering community activity for people to enjoy and benefit from in their spare time
- Making ensemble theatre with community based groups of people
- Producing Shakespeare adaptations
- Creating site specific work
- Offering therapeutic exploration
- Devising and delivering Narrative theatre
- Generating theatre activities for children and young people
- Delivering forum theatre training
- Running drama school modelled vocational training
- Providing multi-arts experiences
- Giving circus and physical theatre skills training
and no doubt lots of other engaging, important and valuable things too…
However when it comes to touring to theatre venues this plethora of activity can cause confusion when programmers consider work featuring learning disabled actors.
It can be challenging to work out what the work is and who it’s actually pitched towards.
Most non learning disability focused companies are clear about their touring work and their community offer, having equal pride in each but marking the difference.
This blurring between the two is particular to the learning disability sphere and it’s unhelpful.
Not all work made by learning disability focused theatre companies is professional and not all of it is community focused either.
Being honest about each can only help both.
Increased visibility for work made with and by learning disabled people is to be celebrated, making sure that all strands of the work get a fair and appropriate outing in front of audiences is the responsibility of the makers.
Lets celebrate the fantastic community focused work thats done and lets also promote the professional success of vocational actors with learning disabilities.
Being honest about definitions, and not mixing our turmeric up with our cinnamon will help us all.
After three months the Separate Doors project is complete.
The report is now with, or winging its way to, the Arts Council, national portfolio theatres, drama schools, theatre companies with a learning disability focus, practitioners, university drama departments and all kinds of interested individuals.
Keys findings include:
- A frustration for all participant companies with blurred definitions for work featuring actors and performers with learning disabilities resulting in community and participatory activity being confused with professional product and therefore a lack of clarity for venue programmers.
- A desire among participating companies and directors for theatre featuring vocational actors with learning disabilities to be defined as such, not as part of the broader disability arts movement but as a distinct entity.
- A query about the suitability of the artist-led funding model where it applies to actors and performers with learning disabilities and a call for a specific and bespoke advocacy led model for theatre work.
- A call for a national initiative for actors and performers with learning disabilities, akin to or perhaps attached to the Ramps On The Moon project to ensure high level production work meets general audiences. (As it has done in the past).
- A recognition of the value of actor training for vocational performers, its’ role as a definer of professionalism and the need for better access to top end skills acquisition for vocational students with learning disabilities.
For a digital copy please make contact via email.
The Separate Doors film features filmed interviews with leading actors, directors and rehearsal room footage from each of the participant companies .
You can watch it here.
It’s been an extraordinary process with so many valuable learnings, it will take a while for it to filter through.
I’m left with a great sense of privilege for having been able to work with so many talented people, to learn from some brilliant directors and explore the silent approach with different companies.
Thanks to everyone who took part and to the Arts Council for supporting the work.
It feels like a beginning, rather than an end, as all the best projects should.