The Unusual Stage School
front:Jon Luxton; seated l to r: Lee Ellery, Kay Jenkins; standing l to r: Andrew Hubbard, David Woodham, Martin McLean, Sherrall Morris
Mat Fraser gives an assessment of a new theatre project launched by Disability Arts Cymru
This was an ambitious project, organised by the trend setters Disability Arts Cymru, and this was a perfect example of how their drive for more inclusion in the arts can begin to realistically manifest. The problem? Not enough disabled actors and theatre practitioners in Wales, let alone a Welsh, all disabled theatre company, like Graeae in England. Their solution, rather than some misguided notions of instant professionalism for the untrained, was to start the damned training! Their eventual aim though, is to indeed have that disabled theatre company, and I think they are right on track to do it.
So this 11 day residential course was set up to begin that process. The director was Chris Tally Evans, assisting tutors Aled Rhys Jones and Maggie Hampton, and voice tutor was Sarah Harman, supported wonderfully by Gwennan Young, Sara Mackay, and all the other DAC crew, including all the participants' PAs. The participants themselves were a mixture of ages, impairments including learning disabilities, and levels of talent and experience. They were led through some general stagecraft, including improvisation, character development and voice work, encouraged to write their own stories to provide the drama material, and then refined, rehearsed and eventually performed the resulting scenes and sketches. I was asked to assess the final performance, and feedback individually to the participants.
So, I went to Ceredigion and prepared to watch some enthusiastic but probably not very good pieces of disability theatre by amateurs. Yes, I have to be honest here, I expected nothing like the level of work I saw. Indeed, musician Jon Turner was amazingly accomplished, and his songs, interspersed between the scenes, could easily form a great EP's worth of material, and he could grace the stage of any music festival and hold his own. He was fantastic.
I was tremendously encouraged by the performances, which were full of good writing, comedy, acting, stage presence, group work, and music. Of course some of the performers were more professional actor material than others; some got a lot of self-confidence from it, and some I fully expect to go to drama school after this, as they surely have the talent. The initial group piece was as good a piece of Bouffon work as I have ever seen, dark, confrontational and funny, and as the evening progressed, I bore witness to some great scenes of emotion, humour, anger, politics, and most of all, focus and commitment. Amongst some of the many highlights were very funny, camp, dialogue from Jon Luxton and accomplished writer Andrew Hubbard. They reminded me a little of Eric and Ernie's domestic scenes mixed with a touch of Orton, and I would love to see them develop a sitcom idea from what I saw (BBC 3 are currently looking for exactly this kind of thing for new comedy sketches). Kay Jenkins was also a natural comedy performer, and both David Woodham and Ian Rees were confident and professional. I see no reason why they shouldn't end up in a TV soap, as they want, as long as they continue to train. Many of the others too showed promise as actors and performers, too many to name check here, but as long as they continue their learning and practise, and stay focussed, try to get into drama schools and keep writing, they could all contribute something worthwhile to Welsh Theatre.