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Why is the work of learning disabled artists under-represented in the wider arts world – and why does this matter? This was the question driving the Creative Minds conference on October 28th 2015, a gathering of artists, programmers, funders, academics, participatory organisations and professional companies organised and presented by people with learning disabilities. Bella Todd reports.

A photograph of two performers taken from Corali Dance Company's production Origami Atoms

Corali Dance Company's Origami Atoms. Image © Tony Nandi

While the first part of the question kept us debating all day, there was a clear answer to the second. This matters because arts practice thrives on diversity, and because the arts are at essence about different ways of experiencing and being in the world. A significant cross-section of human experience is currently going uncharted. A rich source of raw artistic impulse, with fascinating implications for how we create, develop and critique art in the future, is going untapped.

You might not have got this impression going solely by the work presented yesterday in Ipswich. The programming took in all art forms, but blurred the line between professional and participatory arts projects in a way that muddled social and artistic value – possibly underselling both as a result. The performing arts element was dance heavy, with work from Corali Dance, DanceEast and ActOne ArtsBase’s Freedom Dance that, for the most part, followed classical patterns. This was a shame, because it was so engaging to watch dancers whose postures and expressions – if not their movements – broke the conventional dance mould.

On the theatre front, inclusive group Razed Roof Theatre presented scenes from current show Lusitania: The Floating Palace. Razed Roof are based at Harlow Playhouse, whose Director Scott Ramsay spoke persuasively about the “thrill” of watching learning disabled and non-learning disabled theatremakers work together; of “a dynamic you don’t see in any other mainstream rehearsal room”.

For me this dynamic didn’t translate into the performance, a costume drama set aboard doomed Edwardian passenger ship HMS Lusitania. It was the kind of traditional British theatre in which no actor has much freedom (very much ‘wear that, hold this, stand there, say that’). The learning disabled group members mostly entered and moved on the arms of non-disabled colleagues. It felt as though they were working through managed appearances rather than delivering creative performances.  

One performance did shine, taking us straight into the artist’s unique reality. This, unsurprisingly, came from artist and musician Jez Colborne of the acclaimed Mind The Gap, England’s largest learning disability theatre company, whose multi-voiced show Contained is currently on national tour. Colborne is a captivating performer, howling the blues from behind a grizzled beard and executing keyboard breaks with one hand. He also has more motivation biting at his heels than most drama-school grads put together.

His inspirations, he told us: Bob Marley’s Get up, Stand Up; being “picked on and bullied and judged”; and all the times he’s been told “you’re not an actor, you’re just pretending to be an actor”. Oh, and the street preacher who shouted in his face that he was a devil from hell and should never have been born – “So I thought, ‘Oh well, I’ll write a song about it’”. Colborne has that simultaneous ability of true artists to hold self-awareness and a total lack of artifice in delicate balance.

A photograph of Jez Colborne in Mind the Gap's production of Container, he is holding a microphone with projected pictuyres of himself in the background

Jez Colborne in Mind the Gap's production of Container. Image © Tim Smith

Visual art has the category of Outsider Art, by which work created on or beyond the boundaries of ‘official’ culture has been recognised, responded to, respected. Popular music understands and embraces this idea too, while its live stage has always celebrated the natural vocal, physical and temperamental idiosyncracies of rock’s most interesting frontmen and women. But when it comes to theatre and dance, there seems to be a dominant tendency to tutor learning disabled artists in convention rather than encouraging them to shape their own work – and revel in the often brilliantly irregular results.

Significantly, companies often describe themselves as theatre or dance projects ‘for’ people with learning disabilities, rather than ‘with’ or ‘by’. Speaking later in the day, Ellie Stout of Arts Council England made a crucial bid for a more equal relationship between learning disabled and non-learning disabled artists in their work together. “It’s not about one mentoring the other on what’s right,” she said, “it’s about the two coming together”.

As a mainstream arts critic, invited to Creative Minds to speak about reviewing learning disabled work, I have an agenda. I see a lot of work. I see a lot of dull, derivative, lifeless work made from the same privileged perspective. I want to be challenged by art that has a different voice and a creative edge. I want ‘truth’ at all costs – and those costs may be too high for many.

Literally too high, for the countless ignored or under-funded companies who underpin the sector, and too high in personal stakes for some individual artists. How hard it must be to be that honest, and to make yourself that vulnerable, in front of an audience – especially if you’ve always been made to feel you have something to prove. Like all developing artists, learning disabled performers need the opportunities to experiment and the freedom to fail until they find their true artistic voice and form.                   

But in Ipwish I got a timely reminder that, just as there are as many ways of seeing the world and making art as there are people, there are as many different ways of responding to art, too. A learning disabled visual artist in the audience had been loudly enjoying the work throughout the day. But he became especially vocal during Razed Roof Theatre’s performance, when a learning disabled actor cast as a lively character dressed in a child’s frock and bonnet was admonished by her stage mother.

The audience member, whose own companion had been gently hushing him all day, was clearly delighted. “Dorothy that’s very, very naughty!” he joined in, and continued until the lights went down. True to his own experience and tickling his sense of humour, the scene had really spoken to him. 

Creative Minds Ipswich wasn’t a one-off. This was the third in a series of conferences about learning disabled arts, with a fourth sketched in for a format shakeup in 2017. For the sake of the performing arts world in general, I hope the movement continues to gain momentum – and that the next gathering can find a way to embrace our different ways of both making and engaging with art.

To read the review of Creative Minds South East conference (March 2014) click here. To read the review of Creative Minds South West Conference (October 2014) click here.