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Mind the Gap: the company that’s raised the bar for theatre with learning-disabled artists

Liam Bairstow in Mind the Gap’s Contained. Photo: Tim Smith / MindTheGap Liam Bairstow in Mind the Gap’s Contained. Photo: Tim Smith / MindTheGap
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Mind the Gap has become a world leader in creating work with, and not just for, learning-disabled actors and theatremakers. Lyn Gardner finds out how diversity can benefit collaborators beyond just ticking boxes

Jez Colborne (right) in Of Mice and Men. Photo: Tim Smith / Mind the Gap
Jez Colborne (right) in Of Mice and Men. Photo: Tim Smith / Mind the Gap

For Jez Colborne, Mind the Gap theatre company offers “the opportunity to be me and become the best artist I can be”. A resident artist at the company, he says: “It has challenged me and given me the chance to create.” Colborne is just one of an increasing number of learning-disabled artists who have been trained by the Bradford-based company, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer.

There is plenty to celebrate as Mind the Gap sets out on tour with Mirror Mirror – a new street arts show jointly commissioned by Without Walls, Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Hat Fair.

It’s also basking in the success of a string of hit productions including last year’s Edinburgh hit Mia: Daughters of Fortune, and the touring show Contained. Both have helped shift perceptions about theatre made by learning-disabled artists.

Like Colborne’s solo show, Irresistible, which has toured internationally, these ensemble pieces challenge not only those making the work but also audiences to rethink the dominant narratives around disability. The shows are theatrical questions that ask who is and isn’t allowed to take centre stage, and what happens when learning-disabled people and performers are given real agency?

Mia: Daughters of Fortune review at Summerhall, Edinburgh – ‘packed with ideas’

Mind the Gap has always put these questions at the heart of its work. Back in 2000 it staged the first production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to feature a learning-disabled actor in the role of Lennie. The company has constantly explored different theatrical forms – including multimedia – from the naturalism of Mia to the more contemporary performance-based techniques of Contained.

Julia Skelton. Photo: Les Parkinson
Julia Skelton. Photo: Les Parkinson

Yet, executive director Julia Skelton, points out there is still a long way to go, and while there has been a big growth in the amount of work made by learning-disabled artists, the current climate is unhelpful.

“There has been so much progress,” she says, citing the Equal Opportunities Act, the funding opportunities brought by the National Lottery, and the impact of the Creative Case for Diversity (Arts Council England’s initiative) that have all helped Mind the Gap’s 30-year journey. “But it sometimes feels as if we are swimming against a strong current of austerity that brings with it hostility to anyone who needs welfare support having a productive and meaningful existence.”

Senior producer Lisa Mallaghan has been active not just in enabling the work and opening up training and performance opportunities for learning-disabled actors, but also in ensuring that the conversation around quality is a loud one.


5 things you need to know about Mind the Gap

1. Ten years ago, Mind the Gap had an acting company and one training course; today it has more than quadrupled in size with 15 artists, 45 students and six courses.

2. Over the last few years Mind the Gap has been visited by organisations from America, Australia, China, India, Korea, France, Switzerland, Germany and Ireland wanting to learn from their work.

3. Resident artist Jack Riley is the brother of Hollywood star Sam Riley – Jack is currently starring in Mirror Mirror.

4. Mind the Gap’s acclaimed adaptation of Of Mice and Men was the first to star a performer with learning disabilities in the role of Lennie.

5. Around 50% of Mind the Gap’s staff started life with the company as volunteers, and many more volunteers have gone on to have successful roles in the arts industry.

“There is,” she says, “a societal issue that includes low expectations and prejudice that can lead audiences to take a ‘didn’t they do well’ attitude. What we’re trying to do is reset the bar and at a very high level.” That requires new ways of thinking not just from audiences, but also from the industry itself.

Lisa Mallaghan. Photo: Les Parkinson
Lisa Mallaghan. Photo: Les Parkinson

As a show such as Contained demonstrates, the disruptions and difference that trained learning-disabled performers bring to the benefit of other artists and venues is a potent argument for diversity as a necessary part of creativity. Anyone who saw Meet Fred, the 2016 collaboration between the Cardiff-based learning-disability company Hijinx Theatre and puppet company Blind Summit, will know just how rewarding such partnerships can be in creating different and distinctive shows.

Even so, many venues and potential collaborators still hold back, protesting that working with learning-disabled artists is too challenging, too hard and too difficult to facilitate.

Mind the Gap is currently in the very early stages of exploring a possible piece with Gecko, which is proving rewarding. But Skelton says they still regularly have to challenge the notion with some potential collaborators that “learning-disabled people are participants and the subjects of other people’s practice rather than full collaborators”.

Venues can be equally difficult to convince of the value of working with learning-disabled artists. When they do make approaches, it can sometimes be because they want to tick boxes on Arts Council England forms and not because they see the creative potential of working with Mind the Gap.

Working with learning-disabled actors can take time and money, and as Skelton says, when the funding gets tight “all forms of diverse arts practice are vulnerable”. But the company is managing to build meaningful relationships with venues including the Square Chapel in Halifax, West Yorkshire Playhouse (recently rebranded as Leeds Playhouse), the Albany in London and the Gulbenkian in Canterbury.

Mirror Mirror. Photo: Tom Woollard / Mind the Gap
Mirror Mirror. Photo: Tom Woollard / Mind the Gap

“It’s about making long-term relationships with the venues and also with their local communities,” says Skelton, who believes that real change won’t come in venue attitudes towards learning-disabled artists and productions until there’s “a genuine embracing of a culture of learning-disabled diversity which is deeply embedded throughout an entire organisation. These things don’t happen overnight”

Mallaghan agrees, saying there is still a long way to go in terms of sector development and an industry that still sometimes sees learning-disabled artists as a problem that must be solved, rather than artists and performers who should benefit from the same opportunities that are offered to any others.

“Mind the Gap is a world leader. People travel from all over the world to learn from the ways that we train, support and develop learning-disabled artists. It’s easy to say we are doing great, and we have produced so many exciting artists. But what we are really trying to do is get to a situation where once we have developed their talent they can go out into the world and get work elsewhere. The industry needs to provide those opportunities because our artists are ready and waiting.”

They are. As Colborne says: “I want people to see us for who we really are and what we can really do. I want them to think big so I can make bigger shows.”

Profile: Mind the Gap

Executive director: Julia Skelton ( right )
Artistic director: None
Resident director: Joyce Nga Yu Lee. Mind the Gap also collaborates with guest directors and companies.
Year Founded: 1988
Number of performances in 2017/18: 54
Audience reach last year: 9,099
Turnover: £629,000
Funding levels: ACE NPO: £246,000. Local authority: £57,000

Mirror Mirror is touring the UK until July 28. Visit mind-the-gap.org.uk for full details

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