I interviewed Amy Cunningham, artistic lead for Dark Horse Theatre, about how the company put on innovative and powerful shows by learning-disabled actors that reverse audience expectations. Amy also talked about her work as a trustee of Theatre in Prisons and Probation (TIPP), making “People who are perceived to be less valuable become more valuable.”
Leslie: As an organisation that trains actors with moderate learning disabilities, what’s ‘The Silent Approach’, and what other methods do you use?
Amy: The training we offer is based on a drama school model and is validated by ALRA (Academy of Live and Recorded Art). We ensure that the students and actors that train with us are prepared for a professional career in the arts industry whether that be working in TV, film or theatre. The training is comprehensive and rigorous, covering movement, voice, a wide range of acting techniques, stage combat and more. We draw on all sorts of practices like Laban and naturalism.
The silent approach was developed with the Dark Horse company by Vanessa Brooks. The basic idea is that any unnecessary talking is removed from the rehearsal room, for example when the company actors arrive for rehearsals, they enter the room and immediately start physically warming up. We don’t chat about what we did last night or how the journey to work was, we just say, ‘Good Morning’ and be present, concentrating on the work. The silent approach is an effective tool to ensure that verbal language and the processing of words is not a barrier to anyone training to be an actor or making work with us. Different people learn in different ways and this model focuses on people who learn experientially (learn by doing). This is how we ensure people with more moderate learning disabilities have the chance to contribute meaningfully and ultimately lead the creative process. It’s about equality of opportunity and that is what we offer.
Leslie: Can you give us examples, please, of how your learning-disabled actors have contributed to & steered productions.
Amy: Our work is always found in the rehearsal room and creative choices on content and style are made by the actors in the space. The first production I made with the company was called ‘Stir’. We wanted it to be a short performance that we could set up with very little notice, something we could perform as a piece of street theatre, at a festival or in a school assembly hall if we were asked. We wanted to ‘stir’ things up a bit, change perceptions and beliefs, the kind of thing we’re always aiming to do. We weren’t sure what it was going to look like – that’s up to the company actors. On the first day of rehearsals, I gave each actor a big golf umbrella and a space to work in and put on a playlist of music and asked them to explore working with the prop. Twelve weeks later, we had a stunning 10-minute physical piece that has since toured the streets of Huddersfield, Town Halls, schools and university fairs.
Here’s a rehearsal you can watch:
A more recent example would be the trilogy of short films we made for Huddersfield Literature Festival. Like most films, they were written 3 times – in rehearsals, when shooting and when editing. Rehearsals took place on zoom and began with a selection of poems and a playlist of music that represented the mood and character of each poem, so the company actors had something tangible to work physically from. The playlists are of course edited and added to as we increase collective understanding of the poems. From physical exploration and some discussion around everyone’s own interpretation, we made decisions about what looks good. It’s a devising process essentially. The actual shooting of the films was done independently by the company actors themselves, locations, angles and any other creative choices made by them. Of course, there was guidance and we had rehearsed on zoom but ultimately, it was over to them for the actual shots. Penny (digital producer) and I then put together the final cut of each film using shots and voice recordings sent over by the company actors. #OutBreakOut is available to watch here:
Leslie: Can you tell us any more about the making of #OutBreakOut?
Amy: When we were asked to make some work for the online festival, we were adamant that it needed to be something more than rehearsed readings. We thought about how you can deliver poetry in a film without speaking it e.g. text messaging, placards, magnets on a fridge. How can we use that to integrate captioning? We also had to think about how the work would be relevant to now with everything that’s going on and with disabled and learning-disabled people being disproportionately affected, it seemed like a good time to make a statement about that. The theme was ‘escape’ and as most of our actors have been shielding for the last year, it certainly resonated.
For the company actors, I think shooting these short films has been a significant part of their CPD (Continuing Professional Development). Having to self-manage their energy and focus on a film set, acting whilst also directing themselves and being in charge of cinematography. Are there many actors who can do that?
Leslie: Can you tell us about what went into the #FutureLoading video with Arjun, Ellie and Firielle, please? What did you learn from doing it?
Amy: #FutureLoading was only a fully formed idea about 2 months before it was released. It began as a set of research questions that the company used to interview as many adults as possible. We had a collection of around 50 recordings of interviews. The company were using the interviews and other stimuli to develop content for a show pre-pandemic. We’re interested in definitions of adult and how that relates to people with learning disabilities. Fast forward to summer 2020 still in lockdown and still unable to physically rehearse in a room together; so we decided to use the interviews to further refine the production’s aesthetic and content as part of a process with the cast and director. As we already had an animator on board for the making of this production, it seemed a good time for him to really contribute to the creative process, especially whilst the company were working online. The animator used images, concepts and ideas found in the rehearsal room to develop the animation for #FutureLoading and the sound design is very much rooted in the music playlists collated by the company actors and used to anchor ideas in rehearsals.
I could talk for a long time about what we’ve learnt from making #FutureLoading but one thing for me was around how our work is used once it’s been released into the world and that is something we don’t control. A close friend of mine who is training to be a nurse had been in a seminar just the day before learning about the importance of a person-centred approach, listening to the patient and respecting their wants and needs. After watching #FutureLoading, she was thrilled by how much of the teaching from the previous days’ (much more time-consuming) seminar was understood by a 13-minute short film. She immediately shared it with her course mates who agreed that it absolutely explained most of the theory they had been learning the day before. Though it is not our intention to train NHS staff, this is an unforeseen positive consequence of this work. Equally, I’ve heard from parents and people who work in social care about how this short film has helped them to explain themselves and the people they support better. Again, it was never our intention but it’s still brilliant. Art has so many uses and the makers probably only know a couple of them when they start. I have more thoughts on this on my blog if anybody wants to know more.
Leslie: What are the different approaches used by Dark Horse in workshops – e.g. working with S. Yorks Police Force compared with working in schools?
Amy: The work we do with South Yorkshire Police is for their complex and vulnerable witness training programme to develop advanced interview technique. It’s about ensuring that police officers have the relevant skills to interview someone with a learning disability, so the statement taken is credible in court. It’s really valuable work.
When we go into a high school or work with young people, the company usually start by giving a short performance and then the workshop is based around those themes, usually including exercises that we used in the creative process for that performance. That way, students have hands on experience of how we work, how we train and how we create.
Leslie: What does TiPP stand for? As a trustee, can you give examples, please, of successful initiatives and how they’ve changed the lives of offenders.
Amy: TiPP stands for Theatre in Prisons and Probation. I could give lots of examples as a trustee of how TiPP regularly support the rehabilitation of people who have been in the criminal justice system and offer them creative opportunities which they thrive on, raising their self-esteem, ambitions and aspirations. However, I think it might be more interesting to hear my experience as an alumna of the TiPP course that I completed as a University of Manchester student. There were around 25 students who undertook a practical module (which TiPP run every year) that ends in a 3-day residency delivering workshops with a group of people in prison. In my year group, there were a range of people from different backgrounds but as you’d expect from a class of drama students at a Russell group university, mostly middle-class and white and had led very privileged, very sheltered lives. TiPP exposes students to people whose lives have had an entirely different narrative to their own and asks them to work together to make something. The learning and experience that TiPP offers students changes prejudice beliefs and attitudes towards people who have experienced the criminal justice system and increases understanding and empathy. These students may not go onto facilitate drama workshops in prison, but they may be the CEO of a company that starts an employment programme for ex-offenders because of this understanding. My patterns of thinking were entirely changed by TiPP and I wouldn’t be the person I am without that learning.
We’ve been socialised to pigeonhole minorities whether that be prisoners, gay people or people with learning disabilities. There are sets of myths held up by society for all minority groups that continue to dehumanise them. By training privileged university students and exposing them to people who are not like them, TiPP are showing young people what the world actually looks like. People who are perceived to be less valuable become more valuable and we become a more accepting, understanding and compassionate society which benefits everyone.
Next week, Hannah McNamara, LGBTQ+ campaigner and Green activist, talks about growing up as bisexual in Northern Ireland, coming out, winning a diversity award at work, and coping with major physical conditions during a pandemic.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.