Behind the Scenes: Zara – the new production from Mind the Gap. Blog 2 – Lisa Mallaghan.

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In the second of three blogs looking behind the scenes at Mind the Gap‘s latest production Zara, their Senior Producer Lisa Mallaghan explores their partnership with Walk the Plank and follows the process from the initial idea to the production going on sale.

Behind the Scenes: Zara by Mind the Gap. Blog 2 by Lisa Mallaghan.

In our last blog, Julia Skelton – Executive Director of Mind the Gap – talked about the company, and where the idea for ZARA came from.

In this blog, I’m going to tell you a bit about what happened next.

So, where were we? ZARA Director Joyce Nga Yu Lee came into the office and said:

‘I’ve had an idea – I want to make a giant baby!’

and it fell to me, as Senior Producer, and the team to work out how to make it a reality – no small challenge!

First step

I managed to bag us a coveted slot to pitch ‘Daughters of Fortune 3: Big Baby [working title]’ at the 2015 ISAN (now known as Outdoor Arts UK) Ideas Summit; it was a three-minute opportunity to pitch the project to an audience of industry people who could make our project happen – we had to get it right.

Joyce Nga Yu Lee, Mind the Gap Actress Anna Marie Heslop and I painted our vision for what has since become ZARA: a mixture of Godzilla, the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, and the film District 9.

It worked!

In the following 30 minutes, we had our Co-Producers (Walk the Plank), and our London Location Partner (Southwark Council), on board, and in the ‘Marketplace’ afterwards we added Emergency Exit Arts to our team – we were off.

Next step

Fundraising. – a detailed, strategic and complex budget and fundraising strategy was led by the brilliant Julia Skelton, who has taken Mind the Gap from strength to strength over the years, and our Business Development Officer (and bid writer extraordinaire) Jess Boyes.

Daughters of Fortune ‘phase 3’ not only includes ZARA, but also an updated forum theatre tour ‘ANNA’, a new series of interviews and published research, exhibitions, digital outputs, legacy events and more – a target budget of £850,000 was needed. Over two years a series of successful bids to Arts Council England’s Ambitions For Excellence, Wellcome Trust, The Rayne Foundation, Calderdale Community Foundation and others got us most of the way there and in July 2018 we were green lit.

Of course, between October 2015 and the funding being put in place in July 2018, the majority of the partnership, project development and planning had to get underway. It’s always a nerve-wracking period – knowing you are asking your partners to invest significant time and resources, and to keep large chunks of their company diaries clear, in the faith that the funding will come through. There were a number of bumps along the way, with unexpected ‘clauses’ set by funders, and some unsuccessful smaller bids. But we got there.

Whilst writing this I looked back to remind myself how the relationship between us at Mind the Gap – England’s leading learning disability theatre company – and world renowned outdoor arts specialists, Walk the Plank had started.

It was like this:

‘I’m thinking that a few days of exploration between Walk the Plank and our artists, to see what is possible and try out some ideas might be fun and could help us work out any future potential.’

That starting point of inviting play and collaboration, being gradual and careful, has infiltrated the collaboration between our companies.

We took time to understand each other, how our companies work, our priorities and our strengths. Walk the Plank brought their exceptional skill and experience in outdoor arts, and Mind the Gap brought 30 years of experience in staging world-leading work by learning-disabled performers. From the outset, our challenge was to bring these two forms together; we knew wanted to make an outdoor spectacle that would tell a meaningful story and both move and wow the audience; we wanted the talents and stories of learning disabled people to be centre-stage – not just as performers, but also as facilitators, researchers, directors and producers.

Mind the Gap has trained Walk the Plank in working more accessibly, Walk the Plank has trained Mind the Gap how to upscale our outdoor work – including teaching one of our performers to fly!

This has been a truly equal and collaborative process that has already hugely benefitted both companies.

Final step: pulling it off!

You can be the judge…

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.

 

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

©

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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