Are we ‘on the verge’ of a breakthrough for learning-disability theatre?

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Birmingham Hippodrome will play host to an event on 4 July entitled ‘On the Verge: a symposium on learning disability and the main stage,’ which aims to assess where the industry is at in terms of supporting learning-disability theatre and how it can move things forward. Organised in concert with Open Theatre Company, Joe Turnbull speaks to the latter’s Richard Hayhow and Birmingham Hippodrome’s Andy Reeves about their intentions and aspirations for the day.

On the Verge

On the Verge. Photograph © Stuart Hollis

Andy Reeves and Richard Hayhow have both been working within the world of learning-disability theatre for years. Reeves ran Leicester’s Speakeasy Theatre Company for 18 years, which spawned learning-disability theatre company, Movers. He took up post as Head of Creative Learning at Hippodrome last year.

Hayhow has been working with learning-disabled practitioners since 1985, cutting his teeth with The Shysters Theatre Company. He now runs Open Theatre Company, which has been working with Birmingham Hippodrome for 12 years, and has been based there since 2011. Both Reeves and Hayhow share a frustration with how little progress has been made in the terms of greater exposure and support for learning disability theatre in the mainstream.

As Hayhow explains:

“After 25 years work, where are the performers with learning disabilities recognisable in the mainstream? There are literally a handful. If you look at physical impairments then things have moved forward incredibly; people are actors and performers in their own right even in mainstream TV and theatre work. Mat Fraser played Richard III in a UK City of Culture production to amazing acclaim.

But the same is not happening for performers with learning disabilities. You can name a few people like Sarah Gordy, who is one of the only people you can see and recognise in her own right on TV. But where are the others? I think we’re facing not a crisis, but a turning point; we need to address this in a big way.”

Reeves was keen on coming into post at Birmingham Hippodrome to look at delivering an event that could move the conversation forward.

“What I’ve inherited is an organisation which is aware of what it needs to do in this area and growing activity. I’ve tapped into that but I’m also hoping to contribute further. On the Verge will build on previous symposia we have held at the Hippodrome, as part of an established but growing programme of, broadly access-related events in the theatre.”

Is That All There Is? conference

Last year’s Is That All There Is? conference

Hayhow expands:

“We talked a lot about where the movement is at now and wanting to make a big impact. A lot of the discussion we had was around The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and how do we get young people with learning disabilities who are really skilled performers to be ‘mainstreamed’; collaborating and contributing to the wider arts world through their performance work, rather than doing it in isolation.

One of the early conversations we had was who is doing this work already and how do we bring people together to look at where we’re at and how to move things forward quickly instead of taking a long time.”

Unlike last year’s conference organised by Open Theatre Company, Is That All There Is?, On the Verge will be aimed more squarely at the industry and the big players within it. As Hayhow clarifies:

Is That All There Is? was a bit of a provocation. For On the Verge, Birmingham Hippodrome are leading on the event because it is about big mainstream theatres taking up the challenge. If a very small organisation like Open Theatre does that, we don’t get heard. Whereas the Hippodrome, as it says, is the biggest theatre in the country in terms of audiences, it has much more power and prestige.

It’s aimed at a very different kind of audience. Is that all there is? was more of an internal debate for those already working in the field to say ‘come on let’s up the stakes together’. This is about the mainstream talking to itself about where things are at.”

Reeves expands:

“We’ll be starting from the point of view that we’re all here for the right reasons, but be honest about the challenges that face us. It will address how we read the work and what quality looks like. But also, what structures of support do we need to be aware of in helping the work to grow and receiving it. It’s not an easy answer and it’s not a one-size-fits all solution.”

Crucially, Reeves and Hayhow are determined for concrete outcomes to flow from the day, and to facilitate this they are asking for each attendee to make a pledge.

“We’ll be asking people throughout the day to say what their next step is and asking for them to make commitments and publishing those; they might be organisational or personal things. We’re aiming for a bunch of honest conversations but that have some outputs from them. Part of the reason for going public with these declarations is to see what can come out of it.”

Is That All There Is? 2

Is That All There Is?

Both Reeves and Hayhow are fierce advocates of learning-disabled theatre makers, and both speak eloquently about what they have to offer which the theatre world is, by and large, missing out on.
Reeves tells me:

“In my experience of working with learning-disabled artists, they are often highly creative in very individual ways. When we frame something as Avant Garde art, we are ready for difference. When we frame something as learning-disabled theatre, we’re kind of not. We have a culture of a certain sort of theatre that we’re comfortable with and other stuff often doesn’t fit into that. Learning-disabled people might do things that those of us who aren’t wouldn’t come up with, because they make connections that others wouldn’t.

When the work is really good those moments are encouraged and grown and harnessed and what you get is something really engaging and interesting. It’s about allowing those people to develop into who they want to be and what they want to say. That doesn’t always easily fit into a commercial theatre world. So, in a way it’s about risk-taking and how we read the work.”

Hayhow adds:

“This isn’t just about inclusion and seeing that performers with learning disabilities get in on the act. This is about saying what has to change artistically, structurally, administratively, in all sorts of ways, in order to support the involvement of people with learning disabilities. The most challenging territory is to say, ‘maybe we need to create theatre in a slightly different way’, to make sure that becomes effective, which is a creative challenge, not an access challenge.

It’s the whole argument behind the Creative Case which says by truly working in this way you of necessity, will challenge your preconceptions of what theatre is. If you look back in history a lot of the significant changes you see in theatre have come from the fringes.”

Amongst the attendees will be a representative of the National Theatre, who previously came under criticism for not casting an autistic actor – instead using an unpaid consultant – in its production of A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Both Hayhow and Reeves believe there is an appetite to do things differently. Hayhow concludes:

“There is a growing awareness that things need to change. We are in that time of change in a very big way. And On the Verge will hopefully be one of the catalysts for that.”

On the Verge takes place at Birmingham Hippodrome 4 July, click here for tickets.