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> > > Theatres of Learning Disability: Good, bad or plain ugly

24 September 2015

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, Matt Hargrave’s is the first book to focus exclusively on theatre and learning disability from an artistic perspective. Over five years Hargraves researched the work of several companies and artists giving detailed analysis of work by Back To Back, Mind the Gap, Dark Horse, the Shysters and Full Body and the Voice. Review by Gus Garside

the book cover shows actor/ musician Jez Colborne wearing a wide-brimmed hat, dark glasses and an American badge on his lapel

Theatres of Learning Disability is the first book to critically analyse theatre made by actors with learning difficulties from an artistic perspective

A complaint I hear from learning disabled artists and performers is that when anyone writes about their work (which isn't often) they "sit on the fence" and offer no real critique. This book addresses that very issue. In the words of the author it "seeks to open a new critical space in which the work of learning disabled artists and their collaborators can be evaluated and appreciated as art, rather than advocacy or therapy".

Matt is a senior lecturer in drama and applied theatre at the University of Northumbria, so it is no surprise that the book focuses on theatre as an art form. But note the plural in the title. He avoids the trap of treating the work of learning disabled actors as an homogenous mass.

Indeed he explores in fine detail radically different ways of making and presenting theatre using five productions as source material. He offers detailed analysis and robust critiques of  Back to Back's Small Metal Objects, Dark Horse's Hypothermia, Pinocchio a collaboration between the Shysters, Full Body and the Voice and the Theatre Royal York and two shows from Mind the Gap - Boo and On the Verge (the latter being a one man show featuring Jez Colborne).

This is first and foremost an academic work and, as such, it references a wealth of literature. And many will, like me, find it hard going though immensely rewarding. It is a stimulating and vital work.

It tackles the question about the role of a non-disabled writer offering strong and in-depth opinions on the work of learning disabled people written in a style that is almost certain to be inaccessible to them. But there can be no doubt about its inherent value. Matt argues that it is essential that we all treat the work with the seriousness it deserves and that it requires us to make judgements. In the words of learning disabled dancer Housni Hassan (aka DJ) “Not all learning disabled work is great and it doesn’t help if people say it all is”.

But the work of learning disabled actors and theatre-makers should be valued and judged as theatre. The limitations of viewing it through the social model is explored. He argues that if we view it this way we can miss the deeper forces at play, forces that in the work of the highest quality offer potent social and political impact.

He suggests that some learning disabled actors bring a transgressive quality to the stage that offers an opportunity to re-examine what theatre and our relationship to it is. Perhaps even go further and reassess identity in a broader sense. He talks a lot about dualities - us/them, good/bad, amateur/ professional. 

In one chapter he looks at the labels we psychologically place on learning disabled people –  the outsider, the feral, the freak and the fool. The section on freak shows examines how easy it is to misread what is happening if we view it on a superficial level. I found aspects of the book where he talks about our roles as audience members participating in the process of theatre really interesting.

This isn't a book to go to  if you are seeking information about the current situation of learning disabled actors and theatre. If it were the range of work looked at would be insufficient. Rather it is to stimulate how we ourselves assess the work. He doesn't ask you to agree with his opinions but he does ask you to think and make judgements. To not hold back from treating the work with the rigour it deserves.

The book asks questions of those who work as collaborators in the arts with people with learning disabilities – acknowledging the collaborative nature of theatre-making. And if it does little to directly address the needs of learning disabled actors themselves in challenging the collaborators it seeks to raise the game.

There is room to create platforms whereby learning disabled actors themselves can become reflective practitioners. And there is a need for a dialogue between learning disabled artists and performers and the wider arts world to be conducted in a manner that is accessible to the former and challenging to the latter.

The rather clumsy attempt at an "easy read" summary appendixed to the book demonstrates that challenge. It illustrates how hard it is to capture such weighty and intellectual matter in easy read. But this is not a reason to undervalue what is attempted here.

There is no doubt that this is an essential and long awaiting addition to the library of work on theatre itself. Let's hope that the "critical space" it opens up becomes populated by others. ---
Theatres of Learning Disability is available in Hardback for £55 from the publisher Palgrave Macmillan. 

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