COURSES FOR DARK HORSES
18.05.2012 / Good Practice / 0 Comments
Learning disabled actos can and should share the stage as professional equals, says Vanessa Brooks
Picture this if you will. A scenario common to the evolution of many theatre practitioners. A theatre director comes into a prison once a week to deliver a theatre workshop to a group of detainees. After many years, and shifts in ambition, the workshop becomes a formal training course, is validated by a drama school and, on release, prisoner graduates do paid work in TV, playing to audiences of 4 million plus and featuring in national tours of new plays to major theatres. The prisoners have become trained professional actors. Clear as day. No argument. Exacting training plus paid work equals professional.
Now re-read the above and insert "theatre space" for "prison" and "learning disabled people" for "prisoners" and you become aware that a less equivocal statement of vocational status means learning disabled actors are always assumed to be rooted in a community arts model.
Changing this notion, and partnering innovative producers, directors and writers in the media industries in order to make change happen is the touchstone of artistic policy at Dark Horse theatre. The belief here is that with access to the best high level train- ing and the toolkit which forms the basis of the craft of acting, learning disabled actors can and should work in any and all contexts, without the expectation that the industry needs to make concessions.
I came to the company in 2008 from a "mainstream" theatre background, as a playwright and director. I also had an insight into drama school training, thanks to my own actor training at Central and my work as a director and tutor at various NCDT drama schools. I'd worked with a couple of Dark Horse's actors prior to my appointment and found them to be talented individuals for whom I wanted to find more opportunities. I also wanted the industry to be able to cast them in all manner of scripted media. To be able to do so would involve a major re-think of the company's approach to actor training.
Full Body & The Voice (as the com- pany was then known) had grown from a social care project into an Arts Council RFO which retained some learning disabled actors through on- going training sessions. Actors were given support in the 'care' mould in the rehearsal room. The training itself focused on free and contact improvisation. The mood in the room was exploratory (lots of tea breaks and conversation) and actors were encouraged to use their own experiences and issues to inform improvisations. This resulted in a cross-over in sessions between therapy and drama - I recall quite a few tears. Assessment records showed a high level of subjective judgement from the drama practitioners who delivered the training and, although meant with the best of intentions, the actors were being rendered unemployable outside their own rehearsal room and working process by virtue of the focus on com- fort and self-exploration. None of the actors could hit a mark in a TV studio, work within a three week rehearsal period, develop a character vocally and physically or work with a script.
As the first step, a competency- based system was devised that could be used company-wide - the actor©scheme, which focused on the key acting skills developed in all of the major drama schools. A,C,T,O,R is used as a clear and communicable acronym. A is for aptitude (focus and concentration), C is for company (ensemble skills), T is for technical skills (voice and movement), O is for original imagina- tion (making creative choices) and R is for rise (professional readiness). Alongside this, the "silent approach" was (and continues to be) developed. This is a method for communicating concept without using language and means that we can tutor students with limited speech. Stanislavskian/ Strasbergian method forms the lynch-pin of technique and actors use the standard actor's vocabulary of action and objective. Student actors receive skills inputs from industry specialists, high level tutors, directors and theatre companies, rather than drama or care workers,
The Academy of the Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) oversaw syllabus plans which were benchmarked against their BA Hons acting course and hosted a residency in London at the end of year one where students honed their acting for camera skills. ALRA continues to validate our actor training, adding value and ensuring standards are maintained.
It was a result of this training that Shameless producer Lawrence Till felt he could risk employing eight of our actors in an episode, an exacting shoot which wouldn't have been workable without the skills and discipline the actors now have. Dark Horse actors have toured nationally to theatres like Hull Truck, Dukes Lancaster and Cockpit London and a major national tour next year will feature two graduate actors.
In autumn this year the new foundation acting course (F2) offers opportunities for up to fifteen new students with learning disabilities to learn the "tricks of the trade" and, most importantly, work confidently and on equal terms with non learning disabled actors.
Dark Horse was assessed as out- standing for excellence and innovation by Arts Council England when award- ed National Portfolio status; and innovation and excellence are the watch- words for our pioneering actor training. It's to be hoped that the most talented learning disabled actors have served their time within the participatory sphere and that this new standard of vocational training can begin to afford these exceptional and capable professionals the status that they deserve.
Vanessa Brooks is director of Dark Horse Theatre Company
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