A “noticeable gap” in critical coverage of theatre made by artists with learning disabilities is highlighted in a new report, which claims a lack of diversity among reviewers is compounding the problem.
The study, researched by arts journalist Bella Todd, argues that critics are failing to show up to productions made by artists with learning disabilities in the first place or properly engage with the work.
Commissioned by theatre company Spectra with funding from Arts Council England, the research involved 40 interviews with theatre companies and artists, critics and commissioning editors.
The key points include:
• Factors contributing to a “noticeable gap in critical coverage” include a crisis in mainstream arts criticism, a lack of diversity within mainstream theatre critics and a reluctance to be critical when it comes to artists with learning disabilities.
• Artists with learning disabilities often battle to be regarded as professional.
• Mainstream criticism favours normative theatremaking models such as text-based work.
• Where reviews do exist, there is a tendency to describe rather than critique and to focus on the social or political aims of the work rather the art.
The report urges theatremakers with learning disabilities to look beyond conventional critics to generate critical conversation, but also concludes that there is “real scope” to improve connections between artists with learning disabilities and reviewers.
It adds that many of the organisations featured in the report are working to address the issue, including theatre company Blue Teapot’s festival Crossing the Line, which celebrates artists with learning disabilities.
The report also references that new learning-disabled digital influencers, appointed through a partnership between Disability Arts Online and Access All Areas as part of the Arts Council-funded Transforming Leadership programme, will have a part to play in improving critical engagement with theatre made by learning disabled artists.
Writing in the report, Todd said: “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.”