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> > > DIY Theatre: In Other Words

By Harry Matthews

Young man and woman against a backdrop of a large painting

Joan Lavin and Sarah Aspinall from DIY Theatre. Photo © Nigel Hillier

The theatre is quickly filling with groups from schools and supportive theatre goers. Josie Brown pulls up beside me and says: ‘Well you know me don’t you? I’m always in the way.’

There is a lot of local support for DIY Theatre Group who are putting on two plays this afternoon, under the banner ‘In Other Words’. ‘It is the result of a successful bid to make acting more accessible for people with learning disabilities’, says Josie, who also reveals she is the Chair of the Salford Disability Forum.

The shows represent a glorious flowering for DIY Theatre Group, who not only display both vision and technical ability, but are also embarking on an ambitious future of theatre and school projects.

DIY are 13 actors with learning disabilities who have found ways of turning these into their own distinctive theatrical style and language. They will perform two plays this afternoon at the Salford Arts Theatre.

The new works, developed by playwrights Danny Start and Aelish Michael, feature the group, successfully creating new theatre, under the artistic direction of Sue Caudle and drama worker Jenny Harris.

The artistic directors encourage the actors to work within themselves, as they reject traditional forms of directing in favour of a less prescriptive approach. Under their guidance, the company has deliberately moved from preconceived notions of naturalism, of theatre as dialogue, to representing everyday life.

This vision for their work has opened doors into each individual actor’s creativity. You can see they instinctively trust the direction, and also the input of playwrights, in this unique devising process.

DIY have succeeded in raising the standard, innovating in community theatre to a level where it can be taken much more seriously. ‘DIY give a theatrical experience born out of their own unique honesty and ability to perform’, says Sue Caudle, artistic director.

The play gets underway as Anthony and Samuel (played by Martin Riley and David Austin) take to the stage: ‘we’d like to take you to different places around the world,’ say the pushy travel agents before cracking a few jokes. ‘I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China.’

The opening of 'Don’t Call Me Babe' raises much laughter for the comic duo; and judging from the reaction of the lady next to me, there is much passionate interaction in the room between actors and audience. That is rare in theatre these days, and speaks for itself.

A restaurant scene follows as the rest of DIY arrive on stage. Ravel’s Bolero plays, as the actors use movement to convey the story, in simple focused gestures.

The music has a filmic quality to it, which liberates our imaginations, before Kevin (played by Robert Chadwick) and Adele (played by Joan Lavin) take to the stage; Adele sells her silver shoes to the waitress in a farcical moment.

The second play is Ellie’s story, with Cathy Rothwell and Anna Ward playing the lead roles. Ellie eventually uses the remote control to reclaim her peace of mind. Such a cathartic transformation take place live on stage. Such personal honesty gives them their unique power.

The two playwrights, Aelish Michaels and Danny Start, ran skills sessions with the group and director and drama worker, through a process of collaborative devising of the shows.

Danny says, ‘DIY are fantastic, especially how they are able to get into character quickly and with all their heart.’ Aelish says ‘a theme is not imposed or forced. There is music, voiceovers, scenes inspired by music. So music is also a channel they use to explore deeper emotions.’

Sue Caudle adds: ’the actors simply use music to ‘imagine things to do.’ I am beginning to understand the meaning behind their company name - Do It Yourself - the implication being, they just ‘do’, and in this way have a certain freedom that is intuitive.

The music and movements both have a meaning beyond words - 'in other words'. The journey they take leads to a theatrical form that is often surreal, comic, and bitingly cathartic and serious.

There is a charm and inexplicable appeal in it. The beauty and unpredictability of DIY’s creativity ultimately means I leave the theatre a little changed from when I went in. This new mode of theatre will undoubtedly play a part in the theatre of tomorrow.

Watch out for DIY in Autumn 2010 and Spring 2011, when they are planning to develop 'Ellie's Story' as a regional tour and accompanying workshop.