Collective Power: Daughters of Fortune, Mind the Gap

| Anna Eaton

We were part of Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance’s Collective Power Award which recognises a project or programme in which partnership working has improved the health and wellbeing of individuals or communities using the arts and culture. 

We are big believers in collaborative working and the power of doing things together. We are running a blog series up until Christmas celebrating each of the brilliant projects shortlisted for the Collective Power Award. People from the heart of each project tell us in their own words what they’ve learnt along the way, what surprised them and what have been their favourite parts.

The fifth in our series is about the brilliant winner of the Collective Power Award, Daughters of Fortune from Mind the Gap.

Daughters of Fortune is a groundbreaking, co-created arts and science project exploring the largely invisible subject of learning disability and parenthood. Underpinned by a research programme in collaboration with learning-disabled parents, medical experts, social workers, council officers and advocates, Daughters of Fortune is a world-class artistic programme that aims to reduce stigma, raise awareness and ultimately improve the experiences of learning-disabled parents.

It has included an interactive forum theatre workshop called Anna, a small-scale touring theatre production called Mia, a collection of stories and images of learning disabled parents named Paige, and an epic outdoor production titled ZARA. Two of our team were lucky enough to catch a showing of ZARA in London last year which was an incredibly powerful experience (read all about it here).

Daughters of Fortune is a mighty example of a multi-faceted collaboration with lived experience at the heart, and co-production and co-design running throughout.

As part of this project Mind the Gap offered four internships for learning disabled people who wanted to work in the arts. We caught up with Paul who was the Assistant Producer Intern and is now Assistant Producer, and Jess Boyes the Business Development Officer at Mind the Gap.

What has been your favourite thing about the project?

Paul: One of the most favourite things and one of the hardest things has been finding out about the lived experiences of parents with learning disabilities and the parents allowing us as a company to be able to tell their stories in a true and honest way.  

From the three shows that Mind the Gap did the learning I think we have made has been epic.  

In Anna, the performers learnt to lead the interactive workshops. It has toured to people with learning disability as well as social services. We are also making a video of the show which is interactive. 

For Mia we did a three-week run at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was amazing and the feedback from the audience as well as reviews for the show were great.  

Now ZARA – well what can we say – exciting, exhilarating, tiring, fun. From the very first moment the Daughters of Fortune concept was talked about the director Joyce Nga Yu Lee had the idea of a giant baby and well, you cannot get bigger than a baby the size of a double decker bus. We had a community cast of 100 people in each venue, an army tank and aerial skills plus so much more, but what made all of these three shows so important was giving a voice to people who felt that they were not being listened to and making sure their stories, and stories of so many learning disabled parents, were being heard. 

From a wider industry perspective it has been great that we have been able to give two roles to two of the interns for ZARA, including me now being the Assistant Producer and Josh Coultard who was Creative Engagement Intern has been delivering access workshops and has a work placement on our Totally Arts course. 

Jess: For me, it’s the impact the whole Daughters of Fortune project has had on procedure in health and social care. I think it’s true testament to the way the arts can have a real benefit on the wider world.

We’ve had feedback and messages from audiences at all points through the project who have said it has changed their perceptions of the capabilities of learning disabled parents, and from people who work in the health and social care sectors who have told us Daughters of Fortune has had a direct impact on how they work with learning disabled parents. We’re seeing real change and it’s the voices and stories of learning disabled people who are driving that change. I also think Paige, the Photobook, is absolutely beautiful.

Have you made and learnt from any mistakes along the way? 

Jess: We’ve learnt SO much from this project. ZARA was easily the biggest, most ambitious project in the company’s 32-year history. There was a huge number of collaborators and lots of partnerships to manage (over 400 people involved in the making of ZARA in total!). There were challenges around how to condense our wide-ranging, complex research on a sensitive and personal subject matter into a 70-minute outdoor show. This led us to ambitious use of projection, aerial work, a giant baby and a huge community cast who were all introduced to the subject matter sensitively, and left as advocates for learning disabled parents.

We had brilliant partners including Walk the Plank and Emergency Exit Arts, experts in giant outdoor arts events, Dr Kate Theodore from Royal Holloway University, Amanda McKie from Calderdale NHS, funders including Arts Council England, Wellcome Trust and The Rayne Foundation, and worked closely with advocacy and learning disabled parents groups including Elfrida Society, WomenCentre, Geordie Mums and Cloverleaf. It was vital that the voices of the learning disabled parents who so generously shared their experiences with us were at the heart of the whole project– we felt real responsibility to use these properly and do their stories justice.

And of course, we’re left with the challenge – what do you do with a baby that’s the size of a double decker bus after the performances?! Watch this space…

Paul: I don’t think we made mistakes, but we certainly made a lot of learning along the process of Daughters of Fortune that as a company we want to progress on and make sure we carry on in the future.

Mind the Gap learnt loads from the internship programme that was part of ZARA. Having a person for the interns to talk to (that is not the line manager) was really helpful – interns could talk about anything that was worrying them about the work they were doing or things that might affect the project. There were also taster sessions for people with learning disabilities that might want to apply for one of the roles but might not know what the role entails. One learning we have taken away and will be working on is making sure we have longer time with the interns and understanding everything that needs to be put in place for the interns and the company to make sure it is a success. 

Has anything surprised you during the project?

Paul: I think a big surprise was the media response and people walking through the Piece Hall in Halifax with the giant baby puppet, Eva. It was so interesting as the show happened during the Easter holidays and we had to rehearse – Baby Eva was uncovered and we had a mixed response. I think that was positive in a way because children were running up and really interested, whereas the parents were a bit more unsure.

We had national TV turn up, including BBC and Sky, to do pieces about the show. We were on Radio Four and local radio and it got the message out what about our main goal of the whole project: to challenge stigma about parents with learning disabilities, and raise awareness about the challenges they face.

We hope Daughters of Fortune has made an impact and we hope that with other parts of the project that we can help create a change and educate midwives and social workers, both working with adults and children to work together so more learning disabled parents can keep their children. 

Jess: The strength of demand for the project, and responses from the health and social care sectors. The Daughters of Fortune research has been presented by Dr Kate Theodore and Daniel Foulds at numerous conferences, and we were astonished that Daniel is usually the only person who has a learning disability present at these conferences about learning disability. There’s been such brilliant feedback about the free resources that are available and during the project we were approached to create a number of other arts-based resources for people working in the field.

To find out more about Daughters of Fortune visit Mind the Gap’s website and follow them on Twitter.

Photo provided by Mind the Gap, taken by Oli Scarff

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