Most working actors in the UK train on practical, vocational courses at Drama Schools, learning the core technical skills needed for general audience-facing theatre, film and TV.
Actors with learning disabilities can learn exactly the same skills through the Silent Approach.
Most actors with learning disabilities can’t access Drama School training and the opportunities for work this affords.
The Silent Approach offers integrated companies collaborative equality and increases casting possibilities.
Rehearsal periods for text-based plays usually range between three to five weeks. Its assumed that casting actors with learning disabilities will mean extending rehearsal periods.
A two-week rehearsal period for a two hour, two act play is standard using the Silent Approach.
Actors in a space, aware of given circumstances and objectives, simply listening and reacting to each other will find the truth of each moment.
No words are used in rehearsal, apart from the words in the play text, using the Silent Approach.
Once Directors and actors own the power and the ending of the story, the superobjective, most of the work is done.
In the Silent Approach a rehearsal process starts with a full run, off book.
Removing the work involved in deconstructing language in a rehearsal room, opens up the creative process for everyone.
1 in 10 people in the UK have a learning disability, are related to someone with a learning disability or work with someone with a learning disability.
The Silent Approach moves the statistic into real representation on stage in general audience facing work.
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.
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.
As a director, my ambition for the Silent Approach continues…
I’ve recently led Silent Approach workshops at the National Theatre Studio and at Salisbury Playhouse in collaboration with the Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme (RTYDS), working with vocational actors with learning disabilities, actors without learning disabilities, directors and practitioners.
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.
Arts Council England initiatives Ramps on the Moon and Unlimited have offered opportunities to deaf actors and actors with physical disabilities and this has had a positive effect and influence on theatre making as a whole.
With some exceptions, via my own and others’ plays and general audience facing work, actors with learning disabilities haven’t reached the same platforms or audiences.
Tools and confidence are needed for directors to make these casting choices alongside access to quality vocational training for non-verbal actors with moderate learning disabilities.
Training a new generation of directors in the Silent Approach ready to take this challenge on fuels the potential for positive change on UK stages and beyond.
A casting director called me this morning looking for an actor with Downs Syndrome to take part in a TV pilot workshop.
Happily, I could point her in a positive direction.
More and more writers and producers are choosing to create characters with moderate learning disabilities, indicating real progress in terms of representation.
The tips below may be helpful for the casters and directors making this new explosion of artistic diversity happen…
If you plan to engage an actor with moderate learning disabilities you will need to book them further ahead than is usual.
Experienced and trained actors with moderate learning disabilities like Downs Syndrome need extra time to learn lines and understand your plans for your audition/workshop/rehearsal because they have difficulties with reading (many of these actors don’t read and learn dialogue in different ways).
A call on Wednesday for a spot on Saturday isn’t enough time.
At least two weeks is reasonable.
Support needs and costs
Actors with moderate learning disabilities will need a creative enabler, or supporter.
When budgeting, aside from paying your actor, you will also need to find appropriate fees to cover an enabler and then to negotiate the role you want that person to have in your process/rehearsal room.
All disability is different
Actors who are deaf/physically disabled often have the same cognitive abilities and linguistic skills as non disabled actors.
Actors with learning disabilities usually work and communicate in different ways from non disabled actors.
Working with deaf/physically disabled actors is not the same as working with actors with learning disabilities, who usually need very specific routes into access (communication style and pace, assistance with line learning and understanding story, character and scene, navigating the rehearsal/studio space and relationships with team and crew).
Not all learning-disabled actors are in London.
Sometimes you will find the talent you’re looking for in the provinces.
This will cost you more but offer you more choice.
Involve the inspiration from the get-go.
You’re doing a great thing by casting a learning disabled actor.
Being a pioneer isn’t easy, why not gain knowledge at the start of the journey?
There are very few actors with moderate learning disabilities in the UK working professionally and most of those that do are supported by specialist companies.
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….
Pressed at an event, a well known theatre director isolated ‘class’ as a possible driver behind his premature departure from a high profile post.
An inability to understand a Latin word used during a board meeting marked his card, denoted his rank and, he suggested, may have started a process which led to the door.
A producer, known for excellent work in promoting diversity and with a desire to represent people with learning disabilities, posited casting actors with mild learning disabilities .
‘Learning disability lite’ as she put it, meant minimal or no adjustments to text or issues with on set communication but meant she was still ‘ticking the box’ by ‘cheating a bit’.
An award winning actor with a non R.P. accent, waits for a resurgence in Irish writing on the London stage to secure employment, knowing that casting directors won’t see her for roles unless they are specific to her dialect.
Is it time to break the tyranny of words and language in theatre?
“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”
The Silent Approach offers a route into accessible, universal theatre for playwrights, directors and actors, making work which includes the talents of actors who aren’t verbal or cognitively usual and mines a rich seam of story telling offered by exploring characters and worlds invisible.
If words create hierarchies of sound and language then why not leave them at the door?
No theatre maker I know works to a process where one collaborator is afforded more artistic value than another but we let the language we use and the way it sounds determine status.
A highly accomplished verbal athlete working the most complex of text needs another actor to listen to him, both actors are in the scene, one can’t exist without the other.
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
For many years Arts Council England has encouraged board diversification for theatre companies and although progress has been made there’s still some way to go.
Formal language can act as a major barrier to the advancement of individuals not versed in the (usually archaic) lingo of the board.
How about re-thinking governance, aiming for accessible language and removing linguistic signifiers constructed to seek out and define social status?
“Silence is so accurate.”
And finally, must all roles be cast according to an idea of acceptable accent?
We’re all accustomed to bumping into people from all over the UK and all over the world in many different contexts.
Its dramatically unnecessary to explain why the guy running the corner shop is Welsh when the soap is set in Newcastle or why a character in the Cherry Orchard has a Ghanaian accent (Does everyone else sound like Putin? No).
Can we give actors a break and move our imaginations in tandem with their talents?
The world may suddenly look a lot more interesting, and realistic, on stage.