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Actor and writer Terri Donovan: ‘Graeae’s Ensemble scheme is transforming the industry’

Actor and writer Terri Donovan, now studying at the Lir Academy in Dublin after applying and being accepted while still studying with Graeae’s Ensemble programme. Photo: Oliver Cross

The Stage is supporting Graeae’s fundraising efforts to ensure that a third year of its Ensemble training programme can go ahead. We talk to past student Terri Donovan about how the scheme is making a difference for young D/deaf and disabled performers

Actor and writer Terri Donovan has had to work hard to get to where she is today. As a dyslexic, dyspraxic and hard-of-hearing performer, she has faced challenge after challenge in building a career in theatre.

“It felt like I was always on the back foot,” she says. “There was always a part of me that couldn’t get involved. I was forever worrying about how to negotiate situations. Should I pretend that I’ve heard everything? Should I pretend I’ve read this fast enough? Should I pretend that I haven’t knocked half the things in the room over?”

Donovan started making theatre from a young age. She grew up in Stockport, joined a local drama society aged five to improve her speech, then got involved in making shows with Manchester’s youth-oriented theatre Contact as a teenager. She applied to drama schools, but she found the audition process tough.

“Negotiating those auditions, especially if you don’t have experience, and if you haven’t been told how to work the system, can be quite difficult,” she says. “And especially if you are a disabled performer.”

She completed RADA’s six-month foundation course, but it wasn’t until she found Graeae, the UK’s leading D/deaf and disabled theatre company, and its unique artist development programme Ensemble that she finally got the confidence she needed to aim high.

Ensemble was launched in 2015, and has run two courses already, training a total of 14 participants in the performing arts. It is entirely funded by charitable donations from trusts, foundations and individuals, and Graeae is currently raising money to run the programme again in 2019.

The comprehensive, innovative programme offers young D/deaf and disabled performers the opportunity to work with professors, experts and acting coaches from some of the UK’s leading drama schools, including RADA, LAMDA, Rose Bruford College and the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, at Graeae’s east London home.

Donovan completed the six-month course in 2018. “It was such a joy,” she says. “The course was tailored to us, to the needs of that specific group of people. The whole team at Graeae really listened to what we needed as a group, as an ensemble. The improvement was just incredible with everyone.”

Part of what makes the course so special, says Donovan, is that it helps participants understand themselves and their disability better. “Graeae was the first place I was ever asked what my access needs were,” she says. “That had never happened before. Graeae really sat me down and asked me what I needed to do this to the best of my ability. It was slightly mindblowing that people were prepared to do that for me. It shouldn’t be, but it was.”

“Now, whatever environment I’m in, I know exactly what I need,” she continues. “I can say to people that I need large-print scripts, that I need this, and this, and this. Before Graeae, before taking part in Ensemble, I would not have been able to do that.”

‘I wouldn’t have got into drama school without it. Graeae made me believe I could succeed’

D/deaf and disabled actors are drastically under-represented in the performing arts, both in training institutions and across the wider industry. An exclusive 2017 survey by The Stage revealed that of 2,274 students polled from eight leading drama schools, just 28 – only 1.2% – identified as having a physical or sensory impairment. And according to Arts Council England’s published data, while 16% of the working-age population is disabled, just 1.6% of staff in arts organisations are.

Graeae is trying to change that. Through Ensemble, it is working with drama schools to improve access across the industry.

Participants get to work with top-class acting coaches, who learn how to best provide for D/deaf and disabled performers and take those skills back to their establishments.

“It’s a way of transforming the industry,” says Donovan. “All the drama schools are learning from it, and from each other.”

Donovan is currently studying at the Lir Academy in Dublin, Ireland’s National Academy of Dramatic Art. She applied and was accepted while she was still studying with Graeae, and puts her success down to the confidence she got from Ensemble.

“It helped my confidence so much,” she says. “I wouldn’t have got into drama school without it. It put a seed into my body that said: ‘You can do this.’ Graeae made me believe I could succeed, and that’s a great gift.”

Thanks to Ensemble, Donovan feels like her ambitions in theatre are achievable. Not only that, she’s determined to share what she’s learnt through Ensemble with everyone she works with.

“My dream is to become a Shakespearean actor, working at the Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Almeida or the National Theatre,” she says. “I don’t want fame or glory or anything like that. I just want to act. And I want to bring the attitude that Graeae has, its insight and its knowledge about D/deaf and disabled performance, into all the work I do.”

The Stage is supporting Graeae’s fundraising campaign for Ensemble. For more information about Ensemble, visit graeae.org/our-work/ensemble

How to donate to the Ensemble programme

To donate*, please visit easydonate.org/STAGE

Alternatively, to donate* £5, text STAGE to 70970. To donate £10, text STAGE to 70191.*

* Your donation will be processed and administered by the National Funding Scheme, operating as DONATE. Texts will be charged at your standard network rate. For terms and conditions, see easydonate.org

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