Report released aimed at improving critical engagement with theatre made by learning-disabled practitioners

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Learning-disability theatre company Spectra commissioned arts journalist and theatre critic Bella Todd to write a report on improving critical engagement with theatre made by artists with learning disabilities, which has been published this week. The report is the result of more than 40 in-depth interviews with companies, artists, theatre critics and editors, including Disability Arts Online.

four performers in glitzy costumes pose with brightly coloured buckets, under bright stage lights

Not Your Circus Dog collective comprises of Steph Newman; DJ Hassan; Emma Selwyn and Adam Smith. Photo © Harry Elletson

The report is a response to a growing sense that theatre criticism is failing to keep up with the increasingly professional, interesting and artistically driven work being made by theatre companies working with artists with learning disabilities. The launch of the report and executive summary is an invitation to theatre critics, industry influencers, performance makers and neurodiverse artists to join in a wider conversation about how to shift the status quo.

Creative Director of Spectra, Kate De Right said:

“The need for improvement in critical engagement within our sector was a clear point of learning from Forge, a day of action and enquiry focussed on increasing programming of performances by artists with learning disabilities that was curated and hosted by partners Spectra, Open Theatre and MotherShip in May 2018. A desire to examine this issue more deeply in order to clarify potential paths for growth and advancement led to the development of the brief for this report, undertaken jointly with its author.”

The research took place between September and December 2019. It involved over 40 in-depth interviews and close reading of review archives. Theatre companies were asked to suggest key voices, and consideration was given to making the interview process accessible to artists with learning disabilities who wanted to participate directly or indirectly. The research participants included 16 professional theatre companies (all UK based with the excep9on of Blue Teapot from Galway, Ireland), and 19 theatre critics and commissioning editors from various titles and platforms including Disability Arts Online, Exeunt, A Younger Theatre, The Stage, Time Out, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, The Herald and The List.

Editor of Disability Arts Online, and contributor to the report, Colin Hambrook also commented:

“For disability arts in general, the push for critical engagement of the work being produced by our sector has been slow and hard-going over many decades. Disability is complex and personal but our relationship to it is a key, meaningful aspect of our lives – for we all become disabled people at some point in our existence! And perhaps this is at the nub of where giving critical analysis to disability theatre becomes a problem. Writing for the Guardian Michael Billington said of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis “How do you judge a 75-minute suicide note?” It’s disconcerting trying to relate to something so seemingly extreme. It’s that not wishing to offend or to make aesthetic or misplaced judgements and the lack of knowledge specific to disability that critics suffer from. And the fact that disabled people have been largely locked away and hidden from society for millennia – making our lives invisible.

‘The Egg Play’ was the first and last two-hander I had staged when in my early twenties and was a direct reflection on growing up in a psychotic household, with verbatim quotes. It was reviewed in a local London newspaper with a comment complaining that neither the characters nor the dialogue was relatable to ‘real-life’. But disabled people are real and our lives and art are as important as anyone’s.

Learning disabled people are often at the bottom of the pile, when it comes to valuing what their communities have to offer society. To this end learning disability performance, now, reflects a growing shift in how the theatre sector sees itself and how we are seen – and this report from Bella Todd commissioned by Spectra is set to open up beneficial conversations about addressing the stasis in giving learning-disability theatre its due.”

The report’s author, Bella Todd, added:

“I’ve worked as an arts journalist and theatre critic for 20 years. Over this time, mainstream, print-led arts criticism has plunged into ever-deepening crisis. This has had implications for all theatre companies. However, the lack of critical engagement with theatre made by artists with learning disabilities has struck me as conspicuous.

Events such as the groundbreaking series of Creative Minds conferences, initiated by artists with learning disabilities back in 2013, have given me opportunities to consider why this might be. Often via the support of Disability Arts Online, they have also enabled me to experience more of this work than I would have otherwise (as a commission-dependent freelancer writing largely for mainstream publications) – and to chat with many of the artists. But it became clear that companies would effectively be left guessing if we couldn’t find a way to bring more critics and commissioning editors in on this conversation.

I’m left feeling we have a real opportunity here, amid the huge changes in arts criticism, to draw new lines of connection between companies and critics, to engage new critical voices with this work, and to help reshape theatre criticism in the process. This can only happen if the perspectives of people with learning disabilities remain central to the endeavour.”

The report and its executive summary are available on the Spectra website. The PDF version of the report can be downloaded here.