The Ways in Which We Work Aren’t Working for Disabled Artists

I’m currently in rehearsals for my new play, Instrumental, a short comedy about two musicians who come to blows on Christmas Eve. I’ve written the play in collaboration with the actor Rishard Beckett (both Rishard and I shall be performing in the play), following on from our first collaboration earlier this year on Rishard’s one-man show, The Yellow Post-It Notes, which was performed at the Coventry Godiva Festival as part of the launch event for the city’s bid to be named UK City of Culture 2021.

Indeed, it was the Coventry 2021 team who first brought Rishard and me together. Rishard has Down’s syndrome and wanted to use the platform given to him by the City of Culture bid to explore the importance of community through a show, looking at the various people in his own life who had contributed so significantly to his quality of life and his ability to actively pursue his dreams and ambitions. Coventry 2021 asked if I could help Rishard realise the project, having myself only recently performed my own one-man show Clubmartyr at the Coventry Shoot Festival. They were also keen to use the launch event as an opportunity to bring about collaborations between artists in the city that otherwise may never have happened. As it was, the matching of Rishard and me was to reap artistic rewards that went beyond those of merely creating a show of which we could both be proud.

Rishard’s keen sense of play and mischievous nature were traits that I first saw as challenges to be overcome, being that we had only a small number of evenings to write, rehearse and polish what was going to be Rishard’s first solo performance – and one that was going to be performed in front of a scarily large audience. My fear was that without a disciplined and structured approach we wouldn’t reach the ‘professional’ standard and that the audience’s response to seeing Rishard on stage would be: “Aww, bless. It’s good to see people like that being given a chance.” I wanted Rishard to be validated as an artist in his own right, and for the work to transcend the prejudices that many of us harbour, albeit secretly, perhaps, about people with disabilities and what constitutes a successful performance.

But it was soon apparent that it wasn’t about transcending these prejudices, but actively challenging them. If Rishard was going to succeed in voicing what it was he had to say, then he was to do so on his own terms and not the audience’s – or, indeed, mine. He rejected a text-based approach; he rejected rote learning lines and repetition; he embraced going off on tangents and improvisation; he sailed close to the wind. As a playwright well-drilled in the School of the Conventional Rehearsal Process I saw Rishard’s unorthodoxy so late in the day as an alarming lack of discipline which threatened to undermine his ability to communicate effectively with an audience. But, of course, Rishard wasn’t the one standing in the way. I was.

So much of what we do in the theatre is done to mitigate risk. Actors are schooled, plays are developed and processes honed to meet an ideal. This is an assumed ideal, and one which is rarely questioned or even identified as an assumption. Despite the comforting idea that we in the theatre world are the vanguard of the Alternative, the industry in which we work and the ways in which we work and the choices we make about who to work with belie a dogmatic and perverse conservatism. In this context, a solo piece in which the actor has Down’s syndrome is nothing short of a revolutionary act. Disagree? Please, feel free to name your top five shows of a similar ilk. How about your top three? Two? One?

My frustration at our complacency on this point doesn’t just arise from the injustice of denying certain voices a place in the theatre, but also from a belief that our adherence to ways of working is hampering our efforts to truly express ourselves. Forever mitigating risk and adhering to what is tried and tested puts the process before the people and if we are to have a theatre which truly embraces the diversity and richness of human experience then we need to stop putting the cart before the horse.

To do so with Rishard meant replacing my faith in processes with a faith in him. I stopped bringing hastily written scripts, I stopped trying to remind him what we did yesterday, I stopped trying to reign him in. What Rishard gave me in return was a faith in the moment, that most unyielding of things, that may or may not happen at any given time whether you intend it to or not. During the performance at the launch event there was an inspired moment when Rishard stopped the show to scold his mother for filming the performance. It had the audience in raptures and struck me as astonishingly brave. But then for it to have been brave there would have had to have been fear, and of that Rishard had none.

I have tried to approach our second show, Instrumental, in the same spirit of “Why the hell not!?” that so characterised the latter stages of our collaboration on The Yellow Post-It Notes. Hence why I’m having to sing and play guitar in the show despite neither being able to – in the conventional sense – sing or play guitar. Minor details.

Collaboration, at its best, is change. If you’re singing from the same hymn sheet from the off, the alarm bells should start to ring. Fluency and ease are complacency in finer clothes. This is why I so enjoy working with Rishard. He challenges the fundamental assumptions I’ve been laboured with since An Actor Prepares was dropped on my desk back in school. Whilst we in the Arts routinely claim there are a multitude of equally valid ways in which to make work, we should confront the fact that some ways are more equal than others and that this is prohibiting certain voices from being heard. If we fail to do so then our work and culture will continue to be the poorer for it.

Rishard Beckett and Richard Walls.

You can see Instrumental by Richard Walls and Rishard Beckett at the Shop Front Theatre on Wednesday 7th December. More info here:

Richard Walls By Richard Walls, ASF Associate Director

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