What are the opportunities for actors and theatremakers with learning disabilities?
Learning-disabled theatremakers have long struggled for recognition in the industry. John Byrne learns how neurodivergent performers are making strides and what challenges they still face
Visitors to Madhouse Re:exit at Shoreditch Town Hall are promised a “disruptive and fantastical adventure”. For the performers bringing this immersive theatrical production to life, all of whom are learning-disabled, the fantastical elements are grounded in real-life experience.
One of them is Cian Binchy, who was autism consultant on the National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and is now appearing in Madhouse.
“The biggest challenge I face is that people with learning disabilities just aren’t seen as eligible to perform in theatres,” says Binchy. “People with learning disabilities aren’t listened to. We used to be locked away in institutions for life. Now, we’re just stuck at home. We’re not given the opportunities. Neurodivergent characters are still so often played by neurotypical people. I first got involved professionally four years ago through Access All Areas’ performance-making diploma at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.”
Award-winning company Access All Areas was founded in 1976. In addition to delivering training and mounting professional productions, it works in partnership with agency Simon and How to provide representation for actors with learning disabilities and autism.
“From our perspective, the largest challenge is a lack of training opportunities, awareness and investment,” says the company’s executive producer Patrick Collier. “Funding for this kind of high-level training is hard to secure but essential for developing creative voices from the learning-disabled community. In the absence of well-trained learning-disabled performers, some organisations maintain that ‘cripping up’ is acceptable.”
Away from Madhouse Re:exit, the practice of non-disabled actors being the industry’s ‘go-to’ option to play disabled characters was a frustration echoed by every disabled actor interviewed for this piece.
“The main challenge disabled artists face is an unconscious bias that we are somehow less competent,” says disability media consultant David Proud. He is also an actor, writer and producer who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.
Proud’s first professional acting role was as a wheelchair basketball player in the children’s TV series Desperados, going on to become the first regular disabled cast member in EastEnders.
“I think this bias is due to a legacy of seeing disability as a negative, as a weakness, not seeing the strength and value of disability diversity,” he says. “If we do not have access to paid work then we cannot live. I had one producer assume I lived on benefits, so he didn’t think he needed to pay me. That kind of thinking is dangerous. If the industry doesn’t give us work, we cannot pay the bills and in the end will leave the industry. It’s time for people to take responsibility – it’s not just an issue that would be nice to solve. Real artists are suffering financial problems due to a lack of work.”
Proud’s advice to disabled actors considering entering the industry is to be ready to deal with harsh reality from the outset. “Sadly we are still at a point that the industry does not generate enough work to sustain even 10 disabled artists. I would stress the need to find supplementary income and that they will need to work harder than non-disabled artists even to get a foot in the door.”
Now an acknowledged expert in his field (his handbook on representation, The Art of Disability, was published in 2016), Proud says his own journey was made easier by people who had gone before and were generous with time and advice. He advises newcomers to seek out similar support. “This is a collaborative industry, so surround yourself with people you can learn from. You are not alone and there are people who can point you in the right direction.”
Mountview graduate Beth Hinton-Lever still considers herself a relatively new entrant to the industry. Roles in shows such as Graeae Theatre Company’s Reasons to Be Cheerful have already shown her the importance of finding supportive collaborators.
“Know what you want to say with your work, find your own voice within the fray and hold on to it. Be brave, be bold and be sure of the messages that you find important. I’ve found my voice reflected in wonderful companies like Graeae, Fingersmiths, and Amplified Theatre. Their work has taught me to seek out companies and projects that resonate with and inspire me. Find the stories that you want to see told, and if you can’t find them, make them yourself.”
Julie McNamara has spent several decades doing just that. Currently artistic director of Vital Xposure, one of the UK’s leading disability-led theatre companies in Arts Council England’s national portfolio, she is a prominent voice as an artist and activist on international stages. She agrees that being proactive is vital for disabled theatremakers: “If training courses are not accessible and you are being squeezed out of educational routes to the industry, research the companies nearest to you who offer workshops, training opportunities and on-the-job experience. Do not take no for an answer.”
“Make your own showreel,” she adds. “Take time to find three good monologues that give us the best of your talent, skills and ability. Choose breadth and range: drama, comedy or mainstream newsreader. Film them on your mobile phone. If you don’t have a steady hand, use a tripod. Make sure the lighting flatters you. If you can’t find an accessible rehearsal space, then take to the parks.”
McNamara wants the casting world to be proactive when it comes to inclusivity. “Use your imagination. Hire a step-free studio with accessible travel routes. Access to your casting room starts right there. Put the information out in disability-led press, put it on Disability Arts Online. Expect to be surprised. There’s remarkable talent out here pushed into the margins.”
Madhouse Re:exit runs at Shoreditch Town Hall from March 13 to 28