First impressions

A few early feedback quotes from the Separate Doors 3 forum at RADA

Imogen Roberts, Nathan Bessell, Rebekah Hill and me

It was such a fantastic event. I learnt a huge amount and it made me go away and think about my own practise in great detail. 

I feel like the best way in for future progress is to do with writing – new work is always financially risky for theatres, but new work written with this in mind is going to offer the best opportunities for incorporating actors with learning disabilities in “mainstream” work.

As a practitioner I feel that it would be wonderful to have the opportunity to do a practitioner workshop on the Silent Approach with you.

Separate Doors Apprentice Director Bethlehem Wolday-Myers

I reflected that stories shared generation to generation, culture to culture, person to person, have the power to challenge our prejudices – the heroes of those stories challenging our understanding of the individuals telling them.

The platform for integrated theatre needs to find its own voice to connect with the wider public by finding the right projects in which to champion its importance. 

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I feel as though the industry is in danger of hamstringing risk and imagination by creating a climate of fear around misappropriation, so to hear the playwrights speak so candidly about it was refreshing and required.

What is the necessary action that follows these conversations? What changes have to be put in place for a genuine shift in our understanding of how true inclusivity can be achieved more broadly? 

Talking about it

Next week the Separate Doors 3 project reaches phase 2, the forum at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

70 people from UK theatre will come together to explore integrated theatre, discussing the will and the way, and most importantly the how of making general audience theatre that includes actors with learning disabilities.

Venues and companies in the room include the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal National Theatre, York Theatre Royal, The Young Vic, The Stephen Joseph Theatre and the New Wolsey, Ipswich.

We have Artistic and Associate Directors, established playwrights, theatre makers, actors, movement directors, an agent, a designer, two academics and a film director.

We have our four ally theatre companies which work with actors with learning disabilities, Access All Areas, Dark Horse, Hijinx and Hubbub and we also have Diverse City and Ramps On The Moon.

Its going to be noisy.

And sometimes quiet.

Geoff Bullen, Emeritus Director of Acting at RADA will welcome us all and reflect on the Separate Doors 2 project on which we collaborated.

I’ll talk to the room about my thoughts on identity, writing, integrated theatre and the silent approach and then…

Nathan Bessell, Rebekah Hill, Nicky Priest and Imogen Roberts

A panel of leading actors with learning disabilities will discuss ambition, training and the kind of theatre they want to be part of.

A panel of writers will discuss writing for and with actors with learning disabilities and a panel of Artistic and Executive Directors will discuss including exceptional talent with learning disabilities in general audience work.

We then go into dynamic forum.

Provocations, in between the chatter, will come from three theatre makers who attended Separate Doors 3 silent approach master classes.

Provocateurs Abigail Clay, Alan Mandel and Heather Dutton

We’ll all reflect.

And then everyone in the space will have 60 seconds to feedback.

And if something doesn’t shift as a consequence of that…I’ll eat my hat!

My thinking

Last week as part of the Separate Doors 3 project I shared my silent approach methodology with directors, theatre makers and playwrights.

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Up to 30 theatre professionals with and without learning disabilities came together for a day of intensive no speech rehearsal process in each master class.

This is what I did and this is what I was thinking…

Activity: Opening. (Starting soundtrack, setting up the space, watching actors do their personal warm up, opening the rehearsal room door to guests).

I’m thinking: Do I know anything at all about anything? Do not run away. Breathe. Why am I doing this? What am I trying to do? What are my objectives? What happens next? 

Activity: Flocking. (Bringing people together without speech. Establishing an ensemble).

I’m thinking: Please please please come with me.  Will you trust me and go with it? Do you want to connect and be? Can you come along with me through key movement patterns. Can 25 people become 1? Can we all relish the common condition of being human and move together in space?

flocking

Activity: Greeting. (Handshakes and emotional connection).

I’m thinking: Is the pacing right? Is anyone dropping out, are there any lapses in focus? When shall I risk a shift in activity, guide the next stage of movement/breath.  Offer eyes, take what comes back, accept. 

Activity: Sounding. (Ensemble working through breath and onto voice with feeling).

I’m thinking:  Be bold. Do it. Keep it interesting, keep changing it up, improvise. Push energy out and bring it back to quiet, to silence, to being. Does everyone want this? Are we all in this together? Can we experience air, energy and be in the same moment together?

Activity: Making (On text, directing actors in character within given circumstances).

I’m thinking: Do the video and audio cues show where we are? Do we all feel and know where we are? Can the actors feed off each others emotional states and move?Can we endow objects, silently? Can I add some dialogue- without it ruining things? Can we keep the physical shape, the action and reaction within the activity and not care about the lines? Am I serving the play? Am I serving the actors? Are we serving the audience? Is everyone authentically being in this space. Right now. Am I holding the rest of the room to the work? Is this drama? Does it make people feel? Do we care? Does it work? Does it matter?

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Activity: Ending (Moving out of scene and character dynamics).

I’m thinking: We’re all back in the circle and breathing, have we all come back to neutral, do I need to extend? How long can I hold this silence for? How long do people want and need? Have I got it right? How do I quantify this method? How do I explain it? How do I share this philosophy, this technique and its application?

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Did you know…

Race to the top

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.

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Richard Maxted and Joe Sproulle in rehearsal for SING SOMETHING SIMPLE

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.

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Rehearsals for HYPOTHERMIA

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.

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Development workshop I LOVE YOU BABY

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.

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Silent Approach Master class

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Its all about the work.

Theatre venues in the UK have made progress in widening the representation of diverse people on stages, in high quality work with impact which plays out to general audiences.

Black, gay, transgender, deaf and disabled and mental health focused work has been commissioned and supported by venues and by Arts Council England initiatives.

Intersectionality informs a thirst to break traditional silos and open doors to dramatic experiences of all of the human condition.

New stories, new voices and new experiences are being heard on main stages but one group continues to be unseen and unheard…

 

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Separate Doors 1 and 2 highlighted the experiences of leading actors with learning disabilities, the integrated companies they train with, casting, representation and the wider landscape.

Separate Doors 3 will explore the work itself.

How do you approach writing drama featuring learning disabled characters? How do you effectively direct actors with moderate learning disabilities? How do you manage an integrated rehearsal room? Is devising or writing best or a mixture of both forms? What are the creative pitfalls and bonuses? How can vocational actors with learning disabilities be included in standard programmes and processes?

I’ll be looking at my own and others’ artistic processes, directorial choices, rehearsal room practice and playwriting craft in the development of new high quality integrated work featuring actors with moderate learning disabilities.

Key participants will be leading actors with learning disabilities, established playwrights, Artistic and Associate Directors of producing venues, theatre makers and practitioners, devising companies and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Master classes in my Silent Approach, rehearsal room analysis, interviews with leading creatives and the outcome of a forum event in London in Summer 2019 will form the backbone of the third Separate Doors report.

There’ll be regular updates here and you can follow the progress of the project- and read reports 1 and 2-  by clicking this link to the Separate Doors website.

There’s never been a greater will to include exceptional actors with learning disabilities in general audience facing work.

Separate Doors 3 will go beyond the will, and find the creative way….

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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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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.