Mind the Gap: affecting social change through learning disability theatre

| Azad Sharma

Back in January we wrote about innovative theatre companies that are using the arts in a collaborative way to produce social change. We were really moved by companies like Mind the Gap whose visionary approach to ‘learning disability theatre’ has been paving the way for other projects across Europe.

Mind the Gap was founded in Bradford in 1988 and they work in partnership with a variety of learning-disabled artists and organisations to produce bold, cutting-edge, thought provoking performances that challenge audiences. For Mind the Gap, theatre doesn’t begin and end with the performance on a stage. Theatre is part of an interactive, collaborative, and nurturing way to build community. In the last few years alone, organisations from across the world visited Mind the Gap to look at their respected methodology and approach to work. 

We wanted to find out more in the lead up to Mind the Gap’s latest production ‘ZARA’ which we are excited to attend in May. So we caught up with Mind the Gap’s Executive Director Julia Skelton for a chat about what personally inspires her about Mind the Gap’s work, how things have changed over the years and what she’s learnt along the way.

What about Mind the Gap personally inspires you? 

What drives me is I’m interested in theatre that can affect social change. First of all, I want to make excellent theatre for public audiences. But I’m also interested in the added dimension that theatre can bring which is to shed new light on issues and create ways of looking and talking about things which you maybe don’t get from reading a newspaper article of a piece of research. I think theatre and performing arts do have a very particular place in an ability to illuminate different issues, encourage dialogue about them, and ideally stimulate change.

What have you seen change during your time as Executive Director?

I’ve been with Mind the Gap for 22 years. I started in the year when the national lottery was launched. I saw the start of when lottery funding became available to arts, charitable and a range of community organisations. I saw the massive impact it made. In that period of the late nineties and early noughties there was a lot of positive development around access and opportunity regarding people with learning disabilities. Obviously there were other positive developments and I have a broader interest in those too, but specifically concerning Mind the Gap, I saw really positive action like the Disability Equality Act of 2000. Those kind of moves have helped to create stronger legislative teeth around issues for disabled peoples. I think that the range and quality of opportunities for Mind the Gap and Mind the Gap’s artists have developed and improved over that time. 

Since the 2008 financial crash, the subsequent cuts to public funding and continued drive to austerity, I do see that those measures are having a negative impact on opportunities available for disabled people. It concerns me greatly that some of that ground that was won and gained is at risk of being lost and eroded due to the pressures on public funds. Also the context of Brexit makes it difficult to have debates around things other than Brexit! The short answer is, it’s a bit of a mixed bag with positive developments in some areas. But the impact of financial cuts and pressures has definitely created challenges, particularly in terms of health and social care provision for people with disabilities. 

Could you tell us a bit more about how your new production ZARA came about?

ZARA’s artistic director Joyce Nga Yu Lee, who has developed and directed a number of projects for Mind the Gap, came to a team meeting one day and said “I’ve just heard something really fascinating”. It was to do with the sister of one of our core artists Alison Colborne, her name’s Pippa and she was expecting a baby. Alison had to leave slightly early that day because Pippa was undergoing a parenting assessment. Joyce was fascinated by this and wanted to know more and then reflected on it for a while. Joyce came back to myself and Lisa Mallaghan, our senior producer, and said “l want to create a show with a big baby at the centre of it. And I want to illuminate the subject of learning disability and parenthood for a much wider audience”. So right from the inception of this project this large scale outdoor event was always the driving artistic ambition. We recognised that we couldn’t run before we could walk so we had to ask ourselves ‘how do we start this?’ 

That led to a research project with Royal Holloway University London. The first step we took was to make a forum theatre piece based around the interviews that Mind the Gap conducted with a number of women and men who had direct experience of parenthood. That piece is called Anna and we’ve just revisited and revived that to develop it a bit further. On the back of Anna, we made a small scale touring piece called Mia which we took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017 as well as to a variety of theatres across England, Scotland and Wales. Each of those pieces is a different scale of analysis of the issue of learning disability and parenthood. Anna is an intimate and interactive piece. Mia is a small scale touring piece designed for theatre venues. And ZARA is the largest scale outdoor event. So the large scale project was driven by one person’s story. 

We’ve now interviewed 25 people with direct experience and so our knowledge and understanding of the subject has advanced and developed. Whilst I recognise that it’s a very complex subject with no right or wrong answers, there is definitely an issue with a lack of awareness, understanding, and visibility  that we are trying to address.

What’s next for these productions?

The next stages of the project are to take Anna into health and social care settings. We will work with midwives and staff on the front line of social work to make sure that perspectives and opinions of people with learning disabilities are taken properly into consideration and represented. One of our findings which is perhaps controversial, is that parents feel the focus is very much on the child and it can be at the expense of individual circumstances and with a tendency to assume and plan for the worst. The knock on consequences of that is that people feel very disempowered. 

Could you tell us how Mind the Gap generally work and collaborate with others?

We are the largest learning disability organisation within England. One of the challenges we find when we look for meaningful progression routes for people who have worked with us, challenges which are compounded by cuts and financial pressures, is the lack of opportunities to move on to. We end up creating new projects and new courses to provide opportunities for more and more people! 

One of the main ways in which we support artists with a learning disability is through our Academy. We run a range of courses at different levels of intensity and currently support a team of 14 artists with learning disabilities who form our core ensemble who we draw upon for our events and touring work. Over the last few years we’ve been looking at ways to support artists to develop their own independent projects. We have a number of examples where we’ve worked with artists who’ve then gone on to secure their own Arts Council funding. 

In the case of ZARA and our particular collaboration with Walk the Plank, we’ve done some outdoor projects before but we wanted to take the opportunity to look at how we could scale up that work as well as amplify the work we’re doing through partnership. My colleagues Lisa Mallaghan, Joyce Lee and one of our artists Anna Marie Heslop made a presentation at the Outdoor Arts conference which had national and international visitors. The conversation that started there with Walk the Plank led to this partnership on this project as well as working with Emergency Exit Arts and Southwark Council who are our London partners. We reached out and asked people to get involved and had a positive response. We’ve spent the last two or three years working together and learning from each other. Walk the Plank have done projects on this scale before but not with a learning disabled cast so they’ve learned how to make their work accessible as well as taking additional health and safety precautions into consideration. It’s been a big learning experience for everyone involved and there’s about 350 people in total involved in it in some shape or form. It’s by far the largest project Mind the Gap has ever delivered. 

In terms of the basic principles of how we work, we invite people to come and share learning with us. We don’t have all the answers. We always say “let’s go on this journey and find the answers together”. That’s the other beautiful thing about the arts. It encourages life-long learning and exploration. There is always something new to learn, new relationships to form, new experiences to have. That’s why it’s such a brilliant environment for people with learning difficulties who have an aptitude and interest because it encourages you to continue to look at what you can do and how you might do things differently. 

What are some of the important lessons you’ve learned along your journey?

Never underestimate people and always listen. Don’t dismiss people’s views. In order to create effective work in an arts and theatre context you have to be willing to listen to things you don’t want to hear. If I’ve made mistakes it’s where I’ve persisted with something without taking a step back. I’m probably better at that now. You really need to make sure you listen to the people you’re working with and be respectful of their views. Those I think are my principles of good practice. The other thing is that you need to keep a level of objectivity. When I’ve made bad decisions it’s where I’ve let myself be drawn into something emotionally. 

What is your ‘best’ mistake?

The best mistake I’ve made? Wow, that’s a good question! Back in 2001 we were starting our journey towards creating our own custom-built premises for Mind the Gap. I failed to follow up with our (then) officer at Arts Council England to verify that our project idea was being put forward to a panel for permission to apply to the Capital Grants scheme. It wasn’t! And that set us back quite considerably. What I learnt from that was always attend to the details, and not to be afraid to follow up with key people to make sure my assumptions are correct. If you passionately believe in something, sometimes you have to find alternative routes to achieve your ambitions. In 2008 the company moved into our fantastic premises Mind the Gap Studios within Lister Mills in Bradford. So all’s well that ends well!

Where can we find out more?

Please visit our websiteevents page, and Twitter

Photo provided by Mind the Gap

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