Theatre of Progress: Mind the Gap’s ZARA, an eye opening performance

| Azad Sharma

We recently interviewed Julia Skelton, Executive Director of ground breaking learning disability theatre company Mind the Gap. From Julia we learned how social change can be stimulated using theatre as a powerful creative tool to inspire co-production and facilitate discussions about social issues. Last Friday, members of our team had the incredible experience of witnessing this in action when they attended a performance of Mind the Gap’s largest ever production called ‘ZARA’, performed outdoors in the gardens of the Imperial War Museum in London. We laughed, cried, danced and learnt about the experiences of many parents with learning disabilities.

The Story

In celebration of their 30th anniversary, Mind the Gap curated this extra special performance which marks an intersection between two of their other projects: Daughters of Fortune and Staging Change.

Daughters of Fortune explores learning disability and parenthood for a mainstream audience. It began with a forum theatre piece called ‘Anna’ which was used for research workshops and was followed by ‘Mia’, a production that gained critical acclaim and featured at 2017’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as touring 24 theatres across the UK.

This year’s Staging Change project focuses on getting people with learning disabilities employed in the arts. Mind the Gap are partnering with five venues including Leeds Playhouse and Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax. ZARA has provided the opportunity for Mind the Gap to work on best practice for this project by employing four interns, each with a learning disability, to work on the production.

ZARA is an outdoor performance of considerable scale, capturing the essential vision of Mind the Gap and their approach to theatre as impacting life ‘off-stage’. The production features a spectacular 22 feet high, moving baby art installation which was made by outdoor art specialists Walk the Plank especially for the performance.

ZARA tells the story of a mother and child against the world, with a cast of 100 actors, an army tank, cherry pickers and 4x4s as well as 3D projection mapping and an original music score. Whilst the core cast of professional actors with and without learning disabilities stays the same over the venues they’ve performed at, Mind the Gap recruited the bulk of the remaining cast from local communities for each venue. It’s this final touch that captures the focus and commitment of this stalwart of theatrical co-production.

The Experience

The most striking aspect of ZARA is the ways in which the issue of learning disability and parenthood is scaled-up to emphasise some of the current issues they face as one of a national crisis. The stage was set in the lead up to the performance with the showing of satirical news reports and advertisements of popular TV shows with a cast of learning disabled actors. The news reports and adverts brought home the overall message, one which was repeated throughout the evening: “I’m not a case, I’m a human being”. The films were educational tools that brought the audience into the performance through a series of informative and creative accounts that left many of us shocked by how little we knew about this issue: 65% of children whose parents have a learning disability are taken into care against the will of their parents.

The news reports quickly moved from a historical account of learning disability and parenthood from the 17th century to the 1960s by sending a ‘live reporter’ to Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park who interviewed members of the public (i.e. us: the audience) and a dancers collective who raise awareness around disability rights.

Then the show began! The stage is set: ZARA is a mother-to-be who has a learning disability, she’s in hospital about to give birth, social services are moving in to take the baby into care, protesters have gathered outside the hospital to campaign for her rights to stay with her child.

After the birth of the baby (whose name is revealed as EVA at the end of the production), the ‘multi-disciplinary team representative’ makes the case for taking the baby into care. ZARA, frustrated by this stance maintains that ‘if you help me you help my baby’. When the multi-disciplinary team attempt to take the baby, protesters clash with them and the army is called in due to its size. During the attempts to remove giant baby Eva from her mother there’s a wonderfully down-to-earth obstacle: the Poo-mageddon! A moment of levity, comedy and dance in the form of choreographed hazmat suits coming to help clean up the scene.

But this cleansing process is a metaphor for something far bigger than the changing of a diaper. It’s about healing the community, bringing together opposing parties in support of a mother and child. Giant baby Eva’s increasing distress as a result of the tensions around her at the moment of her birth prompt a collective effort to help calm her and nourish her. This is where the army and the state, the protesters and ZARA set aside their differences to bring a selection of large props in the shapes of a dummy, a bottle of milk, a blanket. It took a collective effort to provide for the baby’s wellbeing. It took a little village to raise the child in its first moments.

The story concludes with ZARA’s foster mother, Diane, coming to the scene and promising to help, a gesture of reconciliation, intergenerational healing and community building.

But to only see ZARA in terms of its narrative would be to miss out on perhaps the most quietly touching moment in the performance. The lights go down and the huge baby installation becomes a projector for videos that contain the real-life testimonies of many learning disabled parents whose voices formed the discursive edge that brought ZARA’s story home. This beautiful gesture of solidarity with parents from our communities who have struggled to keep their children and who described how much they loved their children and how their wellbeing was dramatically improved when they were able to see their children really captured how differently parents with learning disabilities are treated compared to other parents. Their brave testimonies told the story of a systemic issue that sets parents up to fail but also challenged that system and promoted a system change.

Mind the Gap are seasoned veterans of this visionary theatrical practice and we hope to attend more of their performances in the future. As we went home after ZARA all of us were really touched by the issue, filled with solidarity, compassion and a new understanding. It’s those feelings that form the foundation for most social change. The performance itself was really like a work of magic, it enchanted the crowd with its nuance and courage as well as its grand scale. To keep an eye out for videos and photos do check out Mind the Gap’s website and Twitter.

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