SQ3: Does an actor’s disability enable them to address important human and social issues on stage?

Theatre performances often explore big topics. For example: Who has power over other people and why? Who is right and who is not? Who is guilty and who is innocent? What is more important, feelings or duty? And so on. Can actors with a learning disability effectively communicate these questions via performance? 


Audience discussion after the Antigona performance, CZ

I feel like not every actor is able to portray everything. Various types of actors are suited for portraying various types of characters. So, I was wondering if the actors share any personal experiences with the characters they portray. Based on my own experience – if I hadn’t experienced it, I wouldn’t be able to portray it. However, if I share the experience, I’m able to empathise with the character and portray it truthfully. I was wondering how it applies to actors. If they learn the role, which I guess they do, or if they, as they get older and as their life unfolds in front of them, they’re then able to put more into the role, to make it more authentic…woman
I feel like they start by learning it but then they get into it. It starts as a learned habit but then they live through their characters, I think. researcher


Discussion with Czech secondary school students after watching the document Revoluce 21 about Teatr 21 theatre:

AvatarWas there any topic that caught your interest?
researcher 1

AvatarI guess that they want children.
student 1

AvatarThis question is relevant at Aldente theatre as well. Once a 16-year-old actress came up to me saying she was pregnant. She wasn’t actually pregnant, just wanted to be. However, at this point when I haven’t really known these people yet, I was shocked. You’re asking yourself: ‘How did it even happen?’ For a year she lived with the idea that she was pregnant. We had to be careful because of the baby, make sure she’s at ease… They think about it so deeply it simply becomes reality in their head. Many of them want to become mothers. The boys don’t think so deeply about it because, at this age, they don’t really want to be dads. But the girls want a wedding and children. Then even the parents, how they handle it – you have to explain to them it may not be true in the end…
researcher 2

AvatarWhat I find fascinating is that people around me aren’t usually thinking: ‘I want to be a mum, I can’t wait to become one, it’s what I was meant to be.’ Yet they… the document showed that it is their biggest dream, to be a mum.
student 1
AvatarMaybe it’s true that the things we desire the most are the ones we cannot have.
student 2
AvatarYes. Magda (actress from Teatr 21 theatre) is engaged but as you could hear (in the movie) when the wedding will happen depends on her brother. And Aleksandra, of whom her father had thought she’ll be bedbound, has been told by her family members for years that she will never be married. That they won’t allow it, that it’s not possible and that she had better deal with it. Her family makes her feel like she’s not normal. This is why her body and sexuality are a big topic for her, she would love to have a partner without a disability.
researcher 2
AvatarThis is why in the performance of Libido romantico she plays the part of a girl that desperately wants a normal boy because that’s what is near to her heart. She put her own feelings to use for this role. At a conference in Poland, where we have gone, Aleksandra had a talk on body shaming and body image. It was really interesting.
researcher 1
AvatarI was perhaps surprised by the theme of politics and how deep they can go into it. Naturally, since the political system (in Poland) causes them harm, it makes sense they address this topic. However, it’s the fact they go so deep into it and talk about the problems they see in it.
student 1

Monologue section

To me, it seemed natural. All I can think is: And what else should they address?grammar school teacher, CZ
I think it’s completely natural. They are people with opinions as well as we are, and we should be interested in the opinions of all people.woman, CZ
Actors with some kind of difference are in themselves carriers of a social theme – by their very existence they testify to the fact that we are not all the same. The audience has to come to terms with this and think about what their relationship to being different is. But it would be a mistake to think that inclusion is the only topic that the actors with a disability can talk about. Some people think that an adult actor with a learning disability is actually adequate for a child. That’s nonsense. A person with a disability quite often has much more life experience than a peer without a disability – simply because they have had to come to terms with their own differences. Often with a range of health complications and direct threats to their lives as well. These are all topics that actors with disabilities have a lot to say about! They just need a director to help them translate it into theatrical form. But that’s what the vast majority of actors without disabilities need too.director of the Aldente Theatre
So one example was us taking the story of Frankenstein and saying: ‘Right, is this story science fiction or is this (Frankenstein’s Creature) a symbol for someone who has been excluded from society? Who has no part in civic life, is enraged because of that, and wants to be involved in other people, because that’s how we define ourselves?‘ And when we were creating that show, there was lots of conversation about how that single character (The Creature) was like an emblem for all people who have ever been pushed to the side. So we talked a lot about that story, which is 200 years old, what it means for a company like ours and we talked a lot about this notion of otherness. Because for a white, British, middle-aged man, ‘the other’ might be the black, poor immigrant. And it’s very easy to treat that person as inhuman. director of the Blue Apple Theatre, UK
The show that we are working on now is George Orwell‘s Animal Farm – a powerful, hard, heart hitting piece about abuse of power and revolution against oppression. The oppression that our actors have seen is very subtle. In England, only maybe a performer like Ros with Down syndrome would have been one of the first people to have been taught to read. Before that, people with Down’s were not taught to read, because why would you teach them? What are they going to do? And at the conference in Warsaw, our presentation was about exploring what people’s relationship with society is like, to the extent that: what does it mean to be given an education? What does it mean to live independently? What does it mean to have a vote? Because in Poland, if you have Down’s, you do not automatically have a vote. So maybe the oppression is not like Tsar Nicholas oppressing the peasants, but there is a conversation about what it means to take control of your own life. director of the Blue Apple Theatre, UK
And for example, one of our actors, James Benfield, is very sharp, he’s a very deep thinker. When we were talking about the character of Frankenstein’s Creature, he said these words that went straight into the play: The Creature is not taught how to give or receive love. So when he does these bad things, it’s just him saying: “You’ve done that to me, I will do this back to you. Like a child would.‘ His level of understanding about how the story relates to the company and will relate to the community that we perform it to, is just off the scale. In a rehearsal room you would have conversations like that with a degree student. But not everybody in our company is like that.director of the Blue Apple Theatre, UK

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