Lyn Gardner on Theatre and Performance: Diversity as Opportunity

To a large degree, it feels as if the arguments about the strength, value and creative advantages of diversity are beginning to be understood and acted upon in British theatre. That’s not to say that there isn’t a very long way to go.   

Key shifts in artistic leadership at a number of leading theatres and companies that have seen more women and artists of colour starting to run theatres is encouraging, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Senior management in arts buildings often remain predominantly white. Putting a Black or disabled actor on stage makes diversity immediately visible, but it means very little if there is no real cultural change within the organisation.   

Nonetheless, the success of shows such as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles at the National Theatre and on international tour, and of Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night and Arinze Kene’s Misty in the West End has proved that there is not just a large Black audience for plays and performances created by artists of colour but a significant white audience hungry for this work too. Work which until far too recently was – mistakenly – seen as a risk, is increasingly seen as bringing box office benefits. Programming is no longer just an exercise in box ticking.  

Similarly, work made by disabled and Deaf companies and artists is also receiving a much higher profile with tours by companies such as Graeae and Ramps on the Moon bringing shows by disabled, Deaf and integrated casts to much wider audiences and getting widely reviewed. The RSC recently announced that 3 out of a new ensemble of 27 actors are disabled, a percentage of just over 11%. Around 20% of people in the UK have some kind of disability, sometimes a hidden or neurodivergent one.

Nonetheless, neurodivergent characters are often portrayed by neurotypical actors. The central character, Christopher, in the hit West End show, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has autism, but no actor with autism has ever been cast in that role in the UK, although in the US, Mickey Rowe was the first openly autistic actor to assume the role in a production in Syracuse in 2017. When Jess Thom, who has Tourette’s, first tackled the role of Mouth in Samuel Beckett’s Not I in 2017, she said she was drawn to the role because she recognised in Mouth’s trains of thought and speech patterns a character who was neurodivergent like herself.

But there is one area of diversity that is too often overlooked, and that is in the casting of learning-disabled actors and the programming of work made by learning-disabled companies within the main programmes of theatres. We would be shocked by the idea of a white man in blackface to play Othello now, but frequently the roles of learning-disabled characters are played by actors without a learning disability.   

When learning-disabled actors are cast, they are often limited to roles in which they depict their disability. Mainstream venue productions such as Ben Weatherill’s Jellyfish at the Bush, in which Sarah Gordy who has Down’s syndrome played Kelly, a young woman growing up in a seaside town and who has a properly developed story arc, tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The brilliance of Jellyfish is that it makes the audience re-evaluate their own perceptions about disability not through lecturing but through storytelling.  

The UK is increasingly at the forefront in producing high-quality learning-disabled productions and providing training opportunities for learning-disabled performers who both want to act in other people’s plays and also create their own performances. Like Jellyfish, shows such as Daughters of Fortune and Contained made by Mind the Gap (which last year celebrated 30 years of creating learning-disabled shows and training learning-disabled artists), are helping to shift the attitudes of both programmers and audiences. But it is a slow process, in part because when we talk about excellence and quality they tend to be still very bound up with notions of high art and well-made theatre.    

A show like Contained is radical both in content and form, redefining conventional ideas of quality and affirming that, while we tend to value virtuosity in the theatre, there are other things that the learning-disabled can bring to the table that are equally interesting. It may indeed be excellent, but it can also offer something potentially more exciting too: disruption, difference, irregularity and surprise.   

It’s something that Cardiff’s Hijinx theatre has also demonstrated in its collaborations with both Blind Summit on Meet Fred in 2016 and Spymonkey on The Flop in 2018 – both big hits at the Edinburgh Fringe. 

 Success can change perceptions of theatre created by learning-disabled artists. Prior to taking Meet Fred to Edinburgh, Hijinx struggled to book a tour, but the exposure at Edinburgh had them receiving offers to tour both nationally and internationally.   

But would the reviewers who gave Meet Fred such glowing reviews have turned up to see it in the first place if it was not for the association with Blind Summit? Possibly not. Should we worry about this? I think not, because the collaboration helps to change the profile of learning-disabled theatre, and everyone benefits. Those who make the work reach a wider audience and those who watch the work get to see something different from what they might normally choose.   

What all these shows belie is the idea that theatre made by learning-disabled artists might be of lower quality than that made by those without disability. It is not lower quality; it is just different in the way my scrambled eggs will taste different from your scrambled eggs. Companies such as Hijinx and Mind the Gap, and the Australian company Back to Back – whose work is programmed at international festivals around the world – simply create great work. Audiences do not come out saying “didn’t they do well – for a learning-disabled company” but “wasn’t that a great piece of theatre.” The changing ambitions for the work and greater visibility of learning-disabled-made theatre are helping to shift the response to it.  

But despite the success of Hijinx, there is nowhere near enough work being programmed, and many learning-disabled artists find it difficult to access high-quality training. The Performance Making Diploma for Learning Disabled Adults at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama is the exception rather than the rule. Other drama schools need to think more deeply about being more inclusive around disability.   

Only when learning-disabled theatre is programmed, experienced, reviewed and valued as widely as a Shakespeare revival at the RSC, a new play by Simon Stephens or Ivo van Hove’s latest production will learning-disabled-led theatre get out of the ghetto and onto our main stages. It’s time for theatres to stop ticking boxes and start being genuinely inclusive.   

Who knows, just as they have discovered that there is a wide audience for plays by Black playwrights or shows such as Ramps on the Moon’s revival of Tommy, they may well discover that there is an untapped audience for learning-disabled-led theatre who are looking for work which is aesthetically adventurous and offers something different. As Sarah Gordy said when picking up her MBE in June 2018: “Diversity is an opportunity, not a problem.” It is, and it is time that theatres see that embracing learning-disabled theatre brings benefits to all.