Learning disability arts and activism – the rising tide of art challenging stereotypes


Joy, sexiness and a slap in the face: Kate Lovell talks to the creative collective Not Your Circus Dog and explores the rising trend of arts activism by learning disabled performers

cabaret production photo

Not Your Circus Dog perform Not F**king Sorry. Photo © Harry Elletson

On a crisp, cold afternoon, Soho Upstairs became a hot-box of pulsing energy, charged with rampant raunchiness and righteous rage. Four learning disabled artists threw the wildest performance party of Not F**king Sorry, an edgy cabaret which served the audience stories of sexual adventure, followed by sober, funereal readings of the names of learning-disabled people who have died under austerity.

The show was conceived of and created by a collective of learning disabled artists under the title of Not Your Circus Dog, and directed by neurodiverse artist Liselle Terret. This new-born company are part of a burgeoning surge of arts activism: a leadership revolution sweeping through the learning disability arts world. Not F**king Sorry was a co-production, supported by Access All Areas: but on this occasion, learning disabled artists formed their own company, allowing them to take the lion’s share of artistic authorship. This is an exciting and potentially revolutionary step forward for the learning disability arts scene.

Not Your Circus Dog is made up of four graduates from the Central School of Speech and Drama and Access All Areas’ Performance Making Diploma: Emma Selwyn, Adam Smith, DJ and Stephanie Newman. Selwyn explains that one of their end of year festival pieces whilst studying for the diploma was the “embryo of Not F**king Sorry”, then becoming “Phoenix-like”, appearing in different forms, until the final iteration landed at Soho Upstairs.

Smith states the reason for the provocative content was that “we wanted to get our voices heard and say that we are perfectly entitled to speak about taboos. Just because we’re disabled, doesn’t mean we have to be shut away. No, we’re perfectly entitled to speak about sexual fantasies and relationships.” Particularly resonant is Smith’s reference to being shut away: this show, with learning disabled performers in the creative driving seat, starring in a show that they also wrote, is a joyous fuck you to a society that is painfully continuing to institutionalise learning disabled people in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) and continues to ghettoise people in day centres and segregated spaces.

The show is uncompromising and riotous, with lascivious dance routines and no-holds-barred sexual confessions. But at times, it’s also incredibly uncomfortable to watch. The audience are confronted with watching learning disabled performers lip sync to sound bites of world leaders and comedians making learning disabled people into the ‘other’, mocked and derided. An energetic dance routine that morphs into a performative re-enactment of a grotesque hate crime. It’s the juxtaposition of “the fury and the joy and love”, in Selwyn’s words, that gives the show its power. Selwyn describes this artistic approach as “the seduction and the slap”. The cabaret is effective in its activism precisely because of keeping the audience on a precipice: it’s not a show where, ten minutes in, an audience can think “I know what this is”, recognise its familiar form, and relax. It is a genre-defying piece.

Particularly unique is the show’s exploration of queerness from a learning disability perspective. Selwyn reveals how in a post-show workshop, a room of learning-disabled people all stated that they didn’t think they were capable of having a relationship. And it is this state of affairs that motivates the cast, Newman says: “We love the sexiness, the authority of the programme. And that is why we’re doing it right now.” In a world where learning-disabled people are constantly labelled as asexual, innocent, childlike, conversations about sexuality are never put to seed, let alone allowed to take root and flourish.

The learning-disabled performance of queerness is a revolutionary statement that desperately needs to be heard. And in a society where learning-disabled people are entirely excluded from contributing to mainstream media – name one learning disabled journalist working regularly for a national, one learning-disabled film director – theatre is the natural home for these necessarily dissenting voices. As DJ astutely says, the aim of a show like Not F**king Sorry is for the audience to “never forget what they just saw and witnessed and believed”. DJ’s hope is “that it would stay in their heads forever.” And the searing, provocative images and words of the show are resounding in their radicalism.

Riding the same wave of arts activism as Not Your Circus Dog collective are the performance troupe Drag Syndrome, a drag collective of kings and queens with Down’s Syndrome. Formed in 2018, Drag Syndrome have toured the UK, Europe and the USA, including a performance at Glastonbury Festival, to wide critical acclaim. Both audiences and reviewers love Drag Syndrome.

But you need only to click on Drag Syndrome’s Instagram page to bear witness to fears being expressed by non-disabled people and the non-issues they project upon proudly Down’s Syndrome performance artists; statements like “it’s exploitative” and “It’s too much stress for one person to be both Down’s Syndrome and genderqueer”.

And this is, perhaps, the most revealing comment: because it is society’s discomfort with Down’s Syndrome people breaking into a world of sexual energy, queerness and fabulousness, as it uncomfortably grinds against the prevailing view of a cute, cherubic bunch of people who shuffle on and off coaches for their seaside breaks or bob sweetly to S Club 7 at 9pm curfew discos. It’s mind blowing for people to see Drag Syndrome because it creates an uneasy cognitive dissonance.

portrait photo of an artist

Horrora Shebang from the troupe Drag Syndrome. Photo © Damien Frost

Learning disabled people in the disability arts world are now taking on leadership positions backstage as well as on it. Learning-disabled artist Paul Wilshaw recently became Assistant Producer at Mind the Gap, and in recent years the company have begun supporting learning-disabled artists to find external producers to work with on solo and small-scale touring shows, to spread their wings beyond the company’s Bradford base.

Disability Arts Online are working alongside Access All Areas after winning a significant grant from the Arts Council’s Transforming Leadership fund to create a career development and coaching programme to develop learning-disabled leaders in the cultural sector. One strand of this programme is Disability Arts Online’s recruitment of a learning-disabled Digital Influencer, who will be mentored by an arts communication professional.

There are radical shifts occurring. Learning disabled artists have, rightfully, spent time being nurtured and cultivated as artists by companies who have offered long-withheld opportunities to train, to experiment, to professionalise, to find an artistic voice. It appears now that learning-disabled artists are entering the beginnings of an artistic renaissance, leading on creative initiatives and making their voice heard, uncensored. Learning disabled artists are no longer invitees at the party: they’re throwing the shindig and doing it with style.

For more information about Not Your Circus Dog you can find the company on Facebook or via Access All Areas

For more information about Drag Syndrome go to www.dragsyndrome.com | https://www.instagram.com/dragsyndrome | https://www.facebook.com/dragsyndrome