Putting inclusivity front and centre
Holly Gladwell, General Manager, Rifco Theatre Company charts the journey of Dishoom! by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a play that tells the story of a boy with a disability, from concept to stage.
Rifco Theatre Company is one of the UK’s most successful touring companies. Led by Artistic Director Pravesh Kumar, it produces plays and musicals that celebrate and reflect contemporary British Asian experiences, culture and society.
Alongside this it develops British Asian Artists to improve pathways into the industry for under-represented voices. Rifco is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation.
Background to the project
For twenty years Rifco has been encouraging conversation amongst our audience, who are around 60%-85% British Asian, around taboo subjects such as honour, ageing, arranged marriage and sexuality, so we felt that disability was the next important conversation to have.
- Talking openly about 'us and them'
Dishoom! toured in the Autumn of 2018 and was borne from a desire to tell the story of an Asian boy with a disability growing up at a time of national divide over immigration during the rise of the National Front. It also felt timely to talk openly about ‘us and them’ given the social and political climate that currently engulfs us.
- Working beyond ethnicity
As a diverse-led organisation we also wanted to push ourselves to work beyond ethnicity and embrace the Creative Case holistically, proving that we could put a British Asian actor with a disability front and centre. We aimed to allow our creative process to start and finish with him whilst extending the company’s resource and approach to inclusivity; creating the conditions in which each actor can contribute equally.
- Commitment to access performances
We recommitted as an organisation to provide access performances on tour for our patrons and programmed a range of these in partnership with venues including captioning, audio description and a dementia friendly performance.
We began in 2017 by commissioning Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti who was a founder member of Rifco. We then placed a casting call for our actor, wanting to create an authentic character with the narrative led by the disability that our chosen actor lives with.
Working with our casting director Sarah Hughes, who has extensive experience with Graeae and for the Paralympics, she chanced upon Bilal Khan via Twitter, a young man living with Cerebral Palsy still studying at school with a dream to be the next Doctor Who.
Over a period of nearly a year Rifco invested in preparing Bilal for the stage, Pravesh worked intensively with him on the script and his acting craft, we engaged a vocal coach to develop his posture and vocal technique from his wheelchair, and funded a RADA training course.
The story began to take shape of a boy and the summer he spent with his family and friends realising his inner superhero, not being bound by his disability or shielded by the community.
- Practical and operational challenges
Our first concerns of touring with a wheelchair user were practical. We worked with Neil Irish, Designer, who has previously designed for Graeae, to ensure that the design incorporated wider access and egress and the costume design refined to reduce changes. We undertook a series of venue recce’s and made adjustments to the touring environment, utilising lifts and moving dressing rooms to create accessible green room spaces.
- Additional support
Supported by consultants Access All Areas, we met with Bilal and his mum to establish his personal needs beyond the practical. Bilal is an ambitious and independent young man but this would be his first time away from a very supportive family unit and his school SENCO team, so we had a duty to address his emotional needs as vulnerable young man entering the workplace for the first time.
We therefore recruited a Creative Enabler, whom we termed ‘Buddy’. This person was responsible for driving him from venue to venue and taking on his pastoral care during the production, also assisting him backstage. It was an enormously varied role and we were really lucky to find Gemma who bought a calm and measured atmosphere and was able to find the balance between ‘Buddy’, colleague and parent-figure.
Budget and funding
- Access to work funding
When we devised the budget we allowed £8,000.00 for access; a relatively unscientific figure given the nature of the disability had not been confirmed. As the project unfolded it was clear that this would have been very stretched through the employment of the ‘Buddy’ and specialist car and accommodation needs, so we turned to Access to Work funding.
- Funding takes time and tenacity
The outcome of this application was positive, although the administration time required for submission and maintenance of the application to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should not be underestimated, it required tenacity dealing with a system that is not set up to understand our industry.
- Access costs
Our analysis of the costs at final reconciliation were that we spent around £13,500 to provide the supporting elements to Bilal for the production and we were granted 96% of this spend by Access to Work.
We led our evaluation of this project with how enormously proud we were to have conceived a production with disability at its heart.
We told an important story and we nurtured and launched the career of an artist who might not have had access to this profession due to ethnicity and disability. He left the project with an agent and a place at Drama School.
“I can’t wait to start my first professional acting journey with this leading British Asian theatre company. Pravesh and the team have been really supportive throughout this opportunity. I am honoured to be involved with this brilliant piece of new writing.”
The play was seen across the country by an audience of over 7000:
“Very powerful and touching with a great message. So entertaining”
“Fantastic play once again. Brilliant topics tackled. Love all your plays!’
“Energetic, colourful, topical, relevant theatre. Really enjoyed it – thanks!”
And we received some reviews that really understood what we were doing with the play and our ambition.
"Dishoom! is an absolute celebration of diversity and a truly special piece of theatre." North West End - 5*
"A story worth telling" British Theatre Guide
Successes and Challenges
With any project there were highs and wobbly moments. Our biggest success was achieving our artistic aims and we also look to the future with a greater understanding of the support and resource required to fully support actors so they can participate in an equal and meaningful way.
The greatest challenge became the pull on personnel resource, not only in providing day to day support to the cast, but also extensive administrative time in the ATW claim, transport and accommodation logistics.
We learned for example the term ‘accessible room’ in a hotel runs the gamut from having a lift, to meaning larger rooms equipped with roll in showers; a great deal of time was spent on frustrating, premium rate phone calls to hotels getting to the bottom of their interpretation.
We would encourage all companies to conceive programmes that are inclusive beyond simply casting inclusively. Rifco is a core team of three and we look back and consider the enormous amount we achieved and how we are richer as a team for strengthening our approach to the Creative Case for Diversity and inclusivity across our productions, artist and audience development.
Holly Gladwell, General Manager, Rifco Theatre Company
Dishoom! Has since been nominated for Best Stage Production (Asian Media Awards) and was also nominated for Best Live Production (Eastern Eye Arts and Culture Awards).
Photos: © Richard Lakos