Directors, leadership and integrated theatre

What does a theatre director do exactly?

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Theatre director (noun); A creative collaborator, guide and conduit between a writer*, production team and performers and an audience.

*or not if the work is devised.

Who the director is informs the outcome to an extent, just as any other creative and production team member influences a show.

How the director works, who they cast, how they communicate, how they brief, manage people, run rehearsals, steer marketing and shape the final production for people is perhaps more important than who.

The role is as important as the person.

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Joe Sproulle and Lisa Howard in Sing Something Simple (Dark Horse, national tour 2)

There’s a highly positive drive for change in UK theatre to recruit theatre directors from under-represented demographics.

Disability-led work is thriving but actors with moderate learning disabilities struggle to lead and manage projects- and many trained actors don’t want to, they want to focus on acting as the hard-learned theatre craft it is-  and this is where integrated theatre (= casts and companies of creatives with and without learning disabilities) offers genuine equality for these performers.

People with moderate learning disabilities without literacy or verbal skills are barred from leadership roles in theatre.

But…

Actors with moderate learning disabilities aren’t barred from playing leading roles in general audience facing work when working in integrated casts with the Silent Approach.

 

The Silent Approach is a non-verbal rehearsal room method which supports actors with and without learning disabilities, in integrated general audience facing productions. Its proven, tried and tested in national touring, TV and film and its being shared widely via the Separate Doors project.

Separate Doors 3 aims to encourage theatre directors to increase the representation of people with learning disabilities in general audience, text based and venue theatre.

The project offers key tools for directors to make working with actors with learning disabilities as desirable and creatively expanding as it can be including casting/working with creative enablers and supporters/financial considerations, rehearsal room processes/ ensemble development/communication tips, management during the run and language and targets for marketing and promotion.

Get in touch and be a part of Separate Doors 3 at www.separatedoors.org

(We’re working with theatre makers and playwrights too…More soon…)

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Vanessa Brooks and Dark Horse actors- Young Vic Silent Approach master class

Master class at the Young Vic

Participation is a bugle call, excellence is dynamite

 

director 5Gifted actors with learning learning disabilities have a right to access acting and rehearsal craft and audiences benefit from the characters and stories trained actors with learning disabilities bring to general audience work.

Sue Emmas, Associate Artistic Director at the Young Vic Theatre in London asked me to deliver a day long Silent Approach master class for up to 60 directors and theatre makers.

I accepted the challenge and approached the work with three objectives in mind:

  • To offer a hands on ‘doing it’ experience of Silent Approach ensemble, physical and vocal exercises.
  • To showcase Silent Approach non verbal directing technique
  • To inspire interest in and commitment to this kind of inclusive approach and integrated theatre and casting.

 

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Dark Horse actors Toby Meredith and Rebekah Hill (Me in the middle)

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.

 

 

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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.

 

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Directors, Johnny Vivash and Toby Meredith

 

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.

 

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Joy

 

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.

Job done.

 

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Undiversity

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ITV flirt and pec fest LOVE ISLAND has been accused of undiversity, its stars drawn from too small a pool of ‘talent’, unrepresentative of the viewing public.

The indictment is that the narrow field of potential lovers negates the real life multifariousness of sexual attraction, reinforces body fascism, ableism, and a pecking order of desirability based on conventional looks…. And yet millions watch it, in spite of not being represented on the screen.

Listening to the panel on Radio 4’s Moral Maze tie themselves in knots over the issue last night- especially in relation to the BBC-  its clear that theatre as a sector has done comparatively well in terms of diversity representation via Arts Council Englands’ initiatives, support for black theatre companies and writers, a new Spotlight style casting system birthed at the National Theatre for disabled actors and portfolio funding for a fistful of diversity focused companies but putting all things considered nonstandard (pale, male and stale is the on trend phrase) into the same pot leads to an odd homogenisation.

How can black representation be the same as learning disability representation in the arts? The obstacles for each contingency are very different.

Is the diversity label a way of ‘othering’ anything ‘non-standard’- a badge of difference, a silo?

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Sarah Gordy and Nikki Priest in JELLYFISH by Ben Weatherill

JELLYFISH recently premiered at the Bush theatre, a witty and sparkly play  by non disabled writer Ben Weatherill about the life experience of a woman with Downs Syndrome, played by the ever watchable Sarah Gordy. Joined onstage by a mesmeric Nikki Priest this work kept the idea of mainstream work featuring non mainstream actors alive, an important influence that its vital not to lose in the rush to label all work with nonstandard themes and characters as ‘diversity’ and therefore other and to happen somewhere else, with its own form, format and audience.

Bravo Artistic Director Madani Younis at the Bush Theatre for recognising this, its to be hoped that this hit production marks an active resurgence in the casting of learning disabled actors in general audience facing work.

Giving a play like JELLYFISH a ‘diversity’ label seems wrong. A piece of traditionally formatted theatre it defies labels as the best work does. Diversity as a branded position risks the groan, the perceived worthiness and at worst a dangerous invitation to reactionary politics.

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The composition of the cast of LOVE ISLAND is perhaps less shameful than its content, dumb, bland and reductive as it is.

The specific shape we make in the world and the words other people use to describe us and our existence is not the stuff of great art.

Being human is, the state we all share.

 

The Silent Approach and ambition

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Silent Approach workshop at Salisbury Playhouse from a series of photos by Jo Newman

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.

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Me and Nathan Bessell

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.

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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.

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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.

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…

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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).

 

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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….

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Debutantes caught in a revolving door

 

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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.

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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.

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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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Writing roles for learning disabled actors

It’s a writing cliché that you should write about what you know and, in common with most playwrights, a chunk of my own experience makes its way into the work, usually heavily disguised, or so oblique even I don’t notice it at the time. Direct biography makes for very tedious storytelling (And sometimes dazzling verbatim theatre) but playwrights are people and informed by their own experience. My desire to extend the theatrical repertoire for learning disabled actors is certainly informed by my own life.

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This is a photograph of me and my sister Fiona lounging about in our garden in Wilmslow when we were kids. What I later came to understand as a minority experience, growing up with someone (Who I was, and continue to be, very close to) with a learning disability, Downs Syndrome, for me was normality. Like all siblings my view of the world was formed not only by my own interactions, successes and challenges but also by my sister’s and I was aware from a very early age that although the terrain was identical we both had different versions of the human road map, and different obstacles to overcome. I knew we shared the same emotional spectrum; a capacity to make ourselves cry by pulling sad faces in the mirror, to laugh uncontrollably, that we both had an insatiable desire for chocolate, a love of music and that the Dr. Who theme tune kept us both behind the sofa for the whole episode. I also knew that some functions I mastered were impossible for my sister, especially using language, and that she’d always need assistance to get through each day, for all of her life. When I was growing up there was little representation of learning disabled people on film and TV and none at all in the theatre so my ideas about my sister, and her ideas about herself, were developed in complete isolation.

If the purpose of the arts and literature is to hold up a mirror to the human condition, in terms of learning disability there was just a blank space on a wall.

In the 70’s and 80’s where disability was examined at all it tended to be ‘issues-based’, pointing up (Quite rightly) social inequality and injustice and appalling prejudice (Marginally better today though lets not kid ourselves, any internet search around learning disability will throw up vile commentary and imagery).

The incarceration of people with all kinds of disabilities in large institutions was then the norm. It was the case, all the way up to the late 80’s, that people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and learning disabilities like Downs Syndrome would be ‘treated’ together. The use of drugs and restraint as means of control in these large institutions was commonplace.

70's horizon I remember watching a seminal documentary on BBC’s Horizon when very young, ‘Tongue Tied’ about the experience of a man in a mental hospital (Joey Deacon) who couldn’t speak, he had cerebral palsy. Because of his lack of speech it was ignorantly assumed that he had a learning disability until it was discovered he was of ‘normal’ intelligence and was assisted to write a biography by using a pointer attached to his forehead. He bashed out his life story on a typewriter, letter by painstaking letter and his text revealed an acute intelligence and observation of the imprisoned life he’d led in the instutution.

The world for learning disabled people has changed for the better in recent years and most of the large ‘hospitals’ (Learning disability can’t be ‘cured’ its present from birth) have closed but it’s as well to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that people with all kinds of disabilities- usually on the pretext of economics- were dispatched to a second-class existence, out of sight and voiceless, where the most appalling abuses were able to take place.

The idea however, even in the changing 80’s and even 90’s, of people with Downs’ Syndrome being represented in the cultural sphere as anything other than the total manifestation of their disability- invariably depicted as a ‘problem’- was still considered difficult and it’s only been in recent years that writers have begun writing for extraordinarily talented actors with Downs Syndrome- and that compelling dramatic characters with learning disabilities have started to be written and developed in film, TV and theatre. Finally performances are being created in new drama that allow learning disabled people to take their place in stories for general audiences- rather than being seen solely as models for societal education in inclusivity. At the same time exceptional actors with Downs Syndrome have benefited from increased access to vocational training (The kind of training non learning disabled professional actors receive at drama school) via forward thinking companies like Dark Horse Theatre.

Sarah Gordy in Upstairs Downstairs

Sarah Gordy is a talented actress who’s appeared in Upstairs Downstairs and recently featured in an episode of Call The Midwife, a role written specifically for her by Heidi ThomasJoe Sproulle has toured nationally twice to theatres including The Stephen Joseph Theatre and The Lowry Salford in comedy Sing Something Simple and with several other learning disabled actor colleagues worked on an episode of Shameless for Channel 4 written by Ian Kershaw and produced by Lawrence Till .

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Joe Sproulle in Sing Something Simple

Ben Langford played Oskar in major theatres across the country- a role written especially for him in Hypothermia (Published by Josef Weinberger) and talented young actor Ruben Reuter is carving out a TV niche for himself and is currently playing a leading role in CBBC’s Dumping Ground.

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Ben Langford in Hypothermia

These actors are just part of an extraordinary, in many instances vocationally trained,  cohort of acting talent rising up which deserves material to support its work. In pockets in film and TV doors are opening for actors with Downs Syndrome and I’m very happy to be assisting that representation in theatre. It’s only by more and more writers and directors- and drama schools- commiting to take the leap and broaden their palette that actors with learning disabilities in general and Downs Syndrome in particular will be more readily seen- and learning disabled people in auditoriums and in living rooms will see themselves in plays and on TV- not as saints or victims but as people with all the failings, ambitions, and character quirks that make drama compelling.

The character of Clarence in I Love You Baby is a man with Downs Syndrome at a crossroads in his life and the aim is for the play to provide another- extraordinary, surprising and central- leading role for an actor with a learning disability, which plays out to mainstream audiences across the UK…And hopefully inspires, entertains, and represents.