This site now acts as an archive only. For the latest news, opinion, blogs and listings on disability arts and culture visit

Disability Arts Online

> > > Creative Minds South West one day conference

In spite of grisly weather, the turn-out for The Creative Minds Conference on 14th October at Bristol’s Harbourside was excellent with nearly 200 delegates arriving for registration. Tanvir Bush was there from the start, soaking up the palpable excitement, energy and general feeling of great warmth and camaraderie amongst the performers and organisers.

dramatic photo of a group of performers wearing black costumes

Firebird Theatre are an Associate Company of the Bristol Old Vic. They performed at the theatre with The Breadhorse in 2013. Photograph © Graham Burke

Creative Minds is led by learning disabled artists and performers. It is about, in their words, ‘...seeing, talking and questioning.’

With this intention at heart, the conference had an integral question to ask of its delegates. Why is the work of learning disabled artists nearly always seen as part of an education programme, outreach or community work or even more annoyingly – arts therapy? Why is it still not taken seriously?
The day was structured to give a broad view of current work in progress. There were exhibitions, live music, dance, theatre performances and film screenings. However, key to each element was the group discussion, where each of the presenting artists were invited to consider four questions and feedback to the audience.  

The questions were:
• What does quality mean to you in relation to learning disability-led arts?
• In what ways can the arts be beneficial for people with learning disabilities?
• What message are you trying to convey through your work?
• Could you tell us about feedback you have received about your work in the past? 

It was the first question that evoked the most complicated and occasionally confusing responses, in part because it is a very difficult question for anyone to answer. The others – beneficial arts, conveying messages, feedback – are immediately and more obviously answerable but ‘what does quality mean to you...?’ That is a tough one for any artist!

The conference kicked off with a welcome followed by a discussion with Firebird Theatre. Firebird have been taken seriously… very seriously.  Formed in 1990, they are now an Associate Company of the Bristol Old Vic. This partnership is symbiotic.

Firebird gain rehearsal and performance space, technical and design advice and importantly a mainstream audience. In turn, they provide a unique interpretation of text and perspective on performance and very importantly, an original take on the process of inclusive theatre.  Adaptive resilience is a key target now for any arts institution and diversity and inclusion has proven to be an essential element in this. ‘This is NOT therapy!’ said one actor. ‘We are passionate about theatre.’

This unique perspective on story and process was key to all the showcased work I witnessed.  As was ownership. ‘Only we can tell it this way. Only we can tell our own stories!’  was a constant refrain. It was clear that as the artists progressed with their careers they grew in confidence, and this in turn led to a proactive involvement with their art. ‘Anyone can make a change!’

Equally compelling was the level of support that each artist gave to the other, both on and off stage. Teamwork, feedback and encouragement underpinned the process of each performance and is often lacking as a priority in other groups, within and without the industry.

In one of my break-out groups, I watched a very powerful video dance piece by GDance, which was as moving and evocative as anything I have seen in this sector. Later, we were entertained by the Openstorytellers’ performance of the ‘Woodcutter’s Tale’ and I was fascinated by their abridged rendition of a work in progress which they are developing to inspire empathy in the medical and caring profession. This is another much needed method of reciprocity that disabled-led performance can inspire and innovate.

That interaction and feedback from audiences is essential was agreed by all of the artists. ‘We want to make connections with our audiences, connections that will ensure they want to know how we move forward, into the future and will come with us.’

It occurred to me; on watching the succession of filmed projects, including Jumpcuts, GDance and Oska Bright, that digital media is increasingly playing a vital role in learning disabled-led art, providing a control over both presentation and performance that is not possible on a live stage. I am very interested in how this evolves.

At the end of the day there was no denying the level of competence and quality both on stage and off. On occasion some artists had found it nearly impossible to articulate their responses or had been confused by the questions put to them. This felt, although obviously frustrating, perfectly alright. It is too easy for those of us without a declared learning disability to want to jump in and suggest ‘...this is what so-and-so is trying to say...’ or ‘...this is what they mean’.  The conversation must remain ongoing and open.

In short, the Creative Minds Conference was a success and as high a quality as any I have been to. Next time perhaps, a place could be reserved, right at the front, for Lord Freud.

Please click on this link to visit the Creative Minds website for further information about the project 

In March 2014 Creative Minds South-east took place in Brighton. Please click on this link for reviews by Bella Todd, Colin Hambrook and Kristina Veasey

Creative Minds South West: Theatre and Storytelling Presentations

1 November 2014


Creative Minds South West: Theatre and Storytelling Presentations

Katie Keeler, Co-Executive Producer of Theatre Bristol reflects on the Creative Minds conference in Bristol on Tuesday 14 October 2014 attended by learning disabled artists from across the UK, workers who support learning-disabled artists and a bunch of non-specialist industry types.