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> > > Open Theatre Company's 'Is That All There Is?' conference highlights work by young people with learning disabilities

15 March 2016

Where are the artists with learning disabilities in the debate about diversity? What does work by young people with learning disabilities have to teach the artistic mainstream? With a showcase of solo work including Vault Festival award-winner The Misfit Analysis, the 'Is That All There Is?' conference was all about inspiring new practice right across the arts sector: from the boardroom and rehearsal space right to the centre of the stage.

There’s a fresh acronym on the cultural block: YPWLD. Chances are you don’t know what it means yet. But if the organisers of the Is That All There Is? conference have their way, it will soon be tripping off our tongues and populating our tweets as readily as LGBTQ or BAME. 

Debate about diversity in the arts is currently raging, fanned by the furore over the Oscars. But one category consistently gets overlooked. The work of learning disabled artists – as distinct from artists with physical impairments – isn’t getting proportionate advocacy. The artistic validation promoted by the Arts Council’s Creative Case for Diversity is seldom extended to learning disabled work. Even in a climate of access awareness and committed aesthetic appraisal, learning disabled artists are being left out in the cold.

That explains the LD in the acronym. What about the YP? Held in Birmingham this week and culminating in a vibrant festival of solo work, Is That All There Is? was dedicated to work made by young people with learning disabilities. There are 7,000 in Birmingham. Only 5 per cent have something to do with the arts. You could say Birmingham has a particular responsibility, as the youngest city in Europe. But this issue is nationwide. Across the country, young people are missing out on art because of their learning disability. Just as importantly, art is missing out on them.   

Or, as organiser Richard Hayhow put it in his introductory address, to an audience that included representatives from New Vic Theatre, Nottingham Playhouse, Leicester’s Curve, Birmingham Royal Ballet and The Arts Council: “Let’s not do this because it’s an access issue, or because it’s worthy. Let’s do it because we’re inspired to do it, because it’s fundamental to the way we create art”.

Hayhow is the founder of Open Theatre Company, which runs theatre projects with YPWLD (let’s start getting in the practice with that acronym). Before their funding stopped, he ran The Shysters, a company of learning disabled actors whose bold, improvisatory process Hayhow once described as “a bit like Mike Leigh but without the words”. They won ‘mainstream’ acclaim with their portrayal of The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Is That All There Is? was also about how working with learning disability can enhance creativity in the arts sector as a whole. This applies whether we’re talking about emerging artists with Asperger syndrome, or workshop participants with “profound and complex needs”. There was an irresistible creative spur in Hayhow’s opening challenge: “We cannot assume that our conventional modes of leadership are going to work. In this field of work we have to break away from all our notions of what is normal. We have to find 100 million new ways of working”. 

Practical workshops doubled as case studies of companies who are breaking ground. LEVEL spoke about using video conferencing to establish a ‘virtual collaboration space’ for isolated individuals. Spectra looked at multi-sensory immersive performances. Bamboozle Theatre Company explored the production of ‘fear-free’ creative environments. Access All Areas, whose Cian Binchy has just won a Vault Festival People’s Choice Award for The Misfit Analysis, spoke about helping artists to shape autobiographical material. 

And Melissa Daly of Birmingham Repertory Theatre recalled the moment when conventional training failed her with a group of YPWLD. “I was moving them around and telling them what to do, and it wasn’t creativity at all,” she said. So she evolved a non-verbal, improvisation-based way of working more redolent of devised experimental theatre. 

Disposing with spoken English – or at least loosening the stranglehold it’s had on British theatre tradition since Shakespeare – was recommended. The issue of language is often missing from panel discussions about learning disability arts, heavily invested as they are in their own rhetorical eloquence. But you just had to watch the way actor Rishard Beckett, who’d deferred to his helper in the earlier round-table discussions, came alive in Daly’s workshop. Or the two silent performances by Jake Jarvis of One Of A Kind Theatre Company. These were sharp and edgy physical theatre skits in which Jarvis’ paranoid clown was persecuted by everyday objects, like Lee Evans teleported in to Kafka. 

Then again, a parallel lesson was to resist any assumptions about the modes in which YPWLD might wish to work. Yes, A Misfit Analysis sets out to antagonise assumptions about both autism and theatre, with its brash mash-up of live art and film, and its by turns thwarted and triumphant refrain of “fuck this shit”. But the performances also included a Michael Bublé-loving crooner and an unreconstructed ventriloquist. 

So much about the Is That All There Is? conference felt different, down to the chance to have a Henna tattoo of your own creative motto. But for me the most significant innovation was the showcase of solo work. Other learning-disabled arts conferences have tended to present pieces by integrated companies, where the learning disabled artists’ ownership of their work may be open to question. Compered by poet Sipho Eric Dube and Nicky Priest, a comedian with autism, the Is That All There Is? showcase proved many YPWLD have the talent and professionalism to hold the centre stage. 

So what’s standing in their way? A big one: the fact that increased ‘opportunities’ are often anything but. Cian Binchy spent three years working unpaid as autism advisor for The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time. He “told non-autistic people how to act autistic” but wasn’t allowed to audition himself. Access All Areas recently received four requests for learning disabled actors – the auditions were the following week, prohibitively short notice, and there was no access budget. Of the delegates responding to an advance survey, 66 per cent had no paid YPWLD trainees, staff or apprentices on their workforce. Rishard Beckett was included as a panellist at Channel 4’s recent diversity conference, but only received the questions one working day before. 

An opportunity isn’t an opportunity without access provision and awareness. Issuing an invitation to ‘come in’ has limited value without first unlocking the door.

But there was positive news from keynote speaker Ramy El-Bergamy, On Screen Diversity Executive at Channel 4 – and the way in which such a huge organisation embraces the Creative Case for Diversity has implications for the arts as a whole. El-Bergamy, tasked with doubling disabled representation within 20 of the channel’s biggest brands, said that, “conversations with casting directors are now happening at the point of inception”. In other words, there is a move to stop diversity being retro-fitted into programmes, to embed it in the original commission. 

Word is also spreading around the emerging role of the creative enabler – a sort of arty support worker who helps meet the learning disabled artist’s creative as well as practical needs. Cian Binchy has one. Conference co-chair Paige Holloway, whose (permanent) tattoo reads ‘autism is not a tragedy, ignorance is’, would like to be one. 

But to pin our hopes on the emergence of tailor-made trouble-shooters and facilitators for learning disabled artists would be to miss the conference’s underlying message: that the responsibility to YPWLD (there, you’ve got it) is universal, and so are the rewards. Introducing Jake Jarvis on to the stage, compere Sipho Eric Dube beautifully modelled the enabling attitude the arts could all do with a little more of. “Two chairs. Mic stand gone,” he said. “Anything else you need from us? Then the space is yours…” 

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