15th March 2019 Carol Jones

Behind the Scenes: Zara the new production from Mind the Gap. Blog 1 – Julia Skelton.

By: Julia Skelton

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In the first of three blogs looking behind the scenes at Mind the Gap‘s latest production Zara, their Executive Director Julia Skelton opens up the process of creating a large-scale outdoor project that illuminates the stories and challenges faced by learning-disabled parents.

Big things are happening at Mind the Gap right now. REALLY big things in the shape of a giant baby puppet – bigger than a double decker bus – that will be at centre of our forthcoming outdoor show ZARA!

Created in partnership with outdoor arts experts Walk the Plank – the team behind the celebrations of XVIIth Manchester Commonwealth Games and numerous UK and European Capitals of Culture – ZARAis the final chapter in the Daughters of Fortune project.

This project, initiated and artistically led by Mind the Gap’s resident Director Joyce Nga Yu Lee, was inspired by the experience of one of our learning-disabled artists.

In 2015 during a chat over a cuppa with Mind the Gap artist Alison Colborne she mentioned that she had to leave early because her sister Pippa – who is also on the autistic spectrum and was expecting a baby – was undergoing a major assessment in order to be able to keep her baby; “Tell me more” said Joyce – and the Daughters of Fortune project was born.

Right from the start Joyce’s vision was to create a large-scale outdoor project that illuminated the stories and the challenges faced by learning-disabled parents.

But in order to achieve this, we had to delve deeply into this complex subject to fully understand it. The building blocks towards the ZARA events included working with researcher Dr Kate Theodore of Royal Holloway University London (RHUL) to interview and analyse the stories of learning-disabled people with direct experience of parenthood. This led first to interactive forum theatre piece Anna, and then small-scale touring show Mia. Both shows tell stories in different ways for audiences in intimate settings.

And now it’s time to GO LARGE!

ZARA will bring these issues to a much wider and bigger audience. It doesn’t argue that there is a simple or one-size-fits-all solution, only that learning-disabled people’s views, opinions and voices need to have equal weight to others in any decision-making process.

This theme – i.e. giving voice to learning-disabled people – is the common thread through all of Mind the Gap’s work. Founded in 1988 by Susan Brown and Tim Wheeler, the company was set up to put learning-disabled artists centre stage and enable them to speak up for themselves. The legacy continues.

In 2019, as we mark the company’s 30th year, the success of Mind the Gap’s progress is evident in our multiple and varied projects.

We are thrilled to be working with internationally renowned physical theatre company Gecko on our next touring show. In June we start the main development and rehearsal phase to create a co-production that will tour in England in autumn 2019 and spring 2020 and then internationally.

Through the Engage and Staging Change projects, made possible by investment from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Arts Council England, we are building strong, lasting relationships with theatre venues and local communities across the country. We want to create a strong audience base for our national touring shows, and to help establish ongoing, regular opportunities for learning-disabled people to get involved with the arts all year round.

We are also part of an Erasmus+ project, working in collaboration with fellow leading European learning-disability focused theatre companies L’Oiseau Mouche (France) and Moomsteatern (Sweden). Working with academic experts Jonathan Meth and Professor Matthew Reason from York St John’s University, we are exploring new ways for learning-disabled artists to reflect and evaluate their own practice.

So, there is much to celebrate! But having worked with the company for over 20 years now, I am frustrated by the fundamental inequalities that persist for learning-disabled people. While positive progress has been made to create more opportunities for learning-disabled artists, participants and audiences I think that we still lag behind other disability arts areas.

The reasons for this are many and varied. One factor is that it’s rare for learning-disabled people to have been, or to be, deeply engaged in disability activism. This is partly because the way such activism is conducted, and the language associated with it, are often inaccessible. Also, the role of non-disabled people in learning-disability arts (directors, producers, marketing) and activism is often viewed with suspicion and cynicism by people with physical and sensory disabilities.

Most importantly of all – particularly when it comes to creating meaningful paid work opportunities for learning disabled artists – is the inflexibility and inherent prejudice of the benefits system. The vast majority of practicing artists ply their trade through short and medium work contracts – often on a freelance basis (I know this is far from ideal for anyone, but it is the reality of the UK arts sector right now). However, it is impossible for anyone who is reliant on welfare support to meet their essential needs to participate in short term contract work without jeopardising their entitlement to benefits in the longer-term.

Further, our experience and research reveal a lot of inconsistency and blatant prejudice and hostility, towards individuals in receipt of benefits. Mind the Gap has provided evidence to support a number of appeals over the past two years, all of which have been overturned, but only because of the persistence and support of active parents, guardians and/or social workers. Those without such support are seriously at risk of being on the end of decisions that create genuine hardship and personal crisis.

These issues are the subject of many a rant in the Mind the Gap office. Luckily, our team is mostly optimistic and always determined not to let such issues get in the way of making great work with fantastic people!

Julia Skelton, Executive Director, Mind the Gap

 ZARA is at:

The Piece Hall, Halifax on Friday 19 & Saturday 20 April

Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park (home to Imperial War Museum), Southwark on Friday 10 & Saturday 11 May

Find out more, get involved and book tickets.

Listen to Mind the Gap on BBC Radio 4 Front Row.

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