“I always wanted it to be about dance, drama, feelings”, said actor Nathan Bessell recently of the new play he has inspired and collaborated on.
The 31-year-old stars in Up Down Man, at the Salisbury Playhouse until March 12. The play, as I explain in this piece on the Guardian’s social care network today, is about Matty, a young adult with Down’s syndrome. Bessell, who plays Matty, has influenced the script, which also draws on stories from families of people who have a learning disability.
To explore the issues raised, there will be three discussion forums for professionals in health or social care, theatre managers and families, with the first of these happening this weekend.
The show, by Bristol-based Myrtle Theatre Company, involves dialogue, original music and dance, and is a sequel to the company’s Up Down Boy, which I featured on the blog some time ago. The original play, also starting Bessell and written by his mother, Sue Shields, was performed in 2013 at the National Theatre and toured the country. The sequel, written by Brendan Murray, is not autobiographical, but follows the same character into adulthood and is presented from his perspective.
The two years of research and development involved in the new play currently running at the Salisbury Playhouse Murray involved the views and experiences of families and carers, with the process tailored to enable Bessell, who has limited vocabulary and a hearing impairment, to contribute.
Heather Williams, the artistic director of the Mytrle Theatre Company, has known Bessell since she began working with him when he was 16. Williams
Williams says her fellow actor’s influence has led to a more thoughtful, and gradual method of making theatre. However, as she stresses in today’s piece, the aim is also to produce a high quality piece of entertainment: “I hope people won’t think, ‘I’m going to see an issue-based play’, but come and see a damn good piece of theatre that changes the way they think.”
A Bristol-based dance project is spreading its inclusive arts campaign, training teachers to run ballet sessions for disabled children and their non-disabled counterparts.
My piece on the Flamingo Chicks dance school, which launched two years ago as a community interest company, is on the Guardian site today. Its weekly classes in Bristol, Leeds, York and London reach 1200 three to 19-year-olds with or without disabilities, and those with illnesses such as cancer. Classes offer access to mainstream dance activity (often, such classes are segregated), develop confidence, social skills, co-ordination, communication and concentration.
Now, the sessions are launching in Ghana – dubbed “the worst place in the world to be disabled” – sessions reaching 200 children and training 10 teachers to put on classes. Founder Katie Sparkes has contacts in Africa thanks to her work supporting charities with corporate social responsibility.
Sparkes says of the work in Ghana earlier this month: “We did lots of workshops with children aged two to 25 and also did a teachers’ training session where teachers and childcare workers from a variety of schools and orgs attended. We left them with lesson plans, equipment and a host of ideas. We’ve also set up an online ‘Global Chicks’ group where we can provide on-going outreach support. Any questions, ideas or motivation they need, our teachers will respond and coach them, also providing video tips or tutorials.”
Ballet, with its discipline and formal image, might not seem an obviously accessible art form, but Sparkes says it can improve body awareness, muscle strength and core stability. Its storytelling aspects and focus on character are also accessible.
The school has eight teachers who focus on trips and performances as goals and benchmarks, instead of exams. The 45-minute or hour-long sessions include drama, dance and yoga using sensory equipment like feathers, dance ribbons, scarves and flashcards for deaf children, or hula-hoops to teach arm movements to a blind child. The relaxed atmosphere means children may wander around or makes noises without fear of flouting any rules.
There are an estimated 770,000 children with disabilities in the UK. Three quarters of families with disabled children feel so isolated that it has caused anxiety, depression and breakdown, according to charity Contact A Family. Four in ten (38%) parents of disabled children say their child ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ have the opportunity to socialise with children who aren’t disabled, according to a 2014 Mumsnet and Scope survey.
A poetry exhibition opening today aims to challenge attitudes about learning disability and mental ill-health.
The learning disability poems are partly a tribute to the late Kim Wolf, who had Down’s syndrome; the collection includes writing inspired by her and which reflects her perspective on life.
A collaboration between Kim’s brother, former mental health social worker and poet Rogan Wolf, and disability charity United Response, the exhibition, entitled Dignity and Light, aims to “address and challenge the stigma and stereotypes and fears still associated with learning disability and – even more – with mental ill health”. As Rogan explains: “If I can see what life is actually like for you, then I am more likely to recognise and not just dismiss you”.
The poetry has been “written with, by and about people with learning disabilities and mental health needs” (United Response explains more of the background to the project here).
The poems, part of the Poems for project that supplies poem-posters for public display free of charge, are on display at Bristol’s Paintworks from today until Thursday. The collection will then be available online, as an illustrated book and, it is hoped, used in schools to raise awareness.
Rogan says of the project’s aims: “There is still this common urge to treat people who are in some way ‘different’ as dangerous aliens, or objects of scorn or mockery, people we need to keep separate. Thus, learning disability and mental ill-health are both experienced by a minority of people in our society and, though the experiences are very different, the stigmatisation both can meet is the same. It cripples lives. It shuts them off.”
While acknowledging that poems are no substitute for policy or resources, Rogan says “they can connect and can enlighten”: “Politicians keep emphasising the urgency of the need for better mental health services and better understanding – I suspect to relatively little effect. There is a crisis here and it just continues. And reports keep emphasising the need for better mental health education and resources in schools, so that children already struggling can seek help at an early stage…[the poems] can help children who are struggling recognise what might be happening and what might help.”
The collections draw on poetry written or collected over the last four decades including through Rogan’s work, personal connections, creative writing workshops and the Postcards from the Edge project run by United Response.
The poem “Other People” by Shiraz, who is supported by United Response, was part of the postcards campaign: “People are like apples or eggs. They look all right on the surface, but you don’t know what’s going on inside.”
In another poem, “A father to his son (with Down’s syndrome)”, the author, John Mclorinan, describes his child as “wonderfully irreverent, irrelevant, inappropriate, spontaneous, topsy turvey, upside down. vulnerable, perceptive, aware, eager to communicate, willing to please”.
The collections that launch today, writes United Response’s director of policy Diane Lightfoot in the illustrated book that contains them, “shine a light on those who too often remain unseen in the shadows and on the fringes of our society”.
The poem below is by Rogan, written from the perspective of his late sister Kim. The poet explains: “We often went out together. Some of the words and phrases above are Kim’s own. Somehow she had to make sense of the way people looked at her, in the street, or when she entered a public room.”
Shall we go for a walk ? When I go for a walk people look round at me.
Will you come too ?
Will you hold my hand ?
They look round at me. There’s something wrong.
Will you come too ?
Perhaps I’ll put my ear-phones in and play my music extra loud.
I am going for a walk. What’s wrong ?
Will you come too ?
Will you hold my hand ?
* See Poemsfor.org to read more or read about the exhibition opening times here.
Lisa Johnson is a writer. The 30-year-old from Sheffield recently had a book published, a collection of poems, songs and stories put together with fellow authors from her writing collective. Today she will take part in a workshop in her home city, explaining the creative process and encouraging others to write.
She says of Story Balloons, her weekly writing group: “It is something I look forward to.” Uptown Boy, her poem about love, she adds, makes her feel “very happy”. “I always wanted to write,’ she says, adding that writing has changed her: “I feel more confident, proud of what I’ve achieved.”
Story Balloons helps counter stereotypes and improve confidence, and has led to a published book – read more in my piece in the Guardian
This year’s campaign week celebrates people overcoming adversity, prejudice and ignorance and it’s a welcome moment to focus on the positive amid the social and political inequity faced by people with learning disabilities (you can follow events and issues on Twitter using the hashtag #LDWeek14).
Obvious bias and sibling pride aside, so many friends and family have been genuinely surprised and impressed – and no, not in a patronising way – when I’ve revealed the creation they’re admiring has been crafted by my sister. Seriously – why would I hang crap on my walls (unless from an elephant and painted by Chris Ofili)?
She may not be a conversationalist or a writer, but pictures speak a thousand words and what she’s made is bold and beautiful. That said, Raana still produces her signature lozenge-shaped bullet cars and blobby, squat people (the hair is always spiky – a hangover from her boyband-loving days…these pieces are most definitely not on my walls), but here’s a taster of why I love what she does:
Secondly, while thinking about an art-related post, I came across some powerful pieces of work produced by members of Outside In. Based at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, the project is a platform for artists “who find it difficult to access the art world either because of mental health issues, disability, health, social circumstance or because their work does not conform to what is normally consider as art”.
The pieces here are by artists who happen to have learning disabilities.
The works should trigger some questions about “outsider art” and the gap between the treatment of and attitudes towards people who have learning disabilities and those who do not. What the Outside In project calls “the idea of there being an ‘us’ and ‘them’”. As one of the project’s award-winning artists, Carlo Keshishian, believes that “Outside In can function as a mouthpiece to project the voices of quieter people.”
That’s what we need – more people listening to and acting on the wishes of those whose voices (and by voice I mean profile, choice, representation, status) are not as loud as those in the “mainstream”.
And finally, take another look at the photographs of the artwork on this page. Ask yourself this, if you didn’t know, how many of the pieces would you genuinely have thought were produced by people with learning disabilities?
* I can’t end this post without signposting you to the colourful creations here by “industrious artist” Connor Sparrowhawk, aka LB, currently being sold in postcard and print form to raise funds for legal representation at the inquest. Connor died in a specialist NHS unit last year and the #JusticeforLB campaign is pushing for answers about his death and raising awareness about learning disability – this letter signed by more than 500 people, explains the issues and necessary action.