Features Published 10 February 2020

A Call to Critique

Bella Todd writes on why artists with learning disabilities are ready for critical engagement: it’s time for critics to catch up.

Bella Todd

Not Fucking Sorry by Not Your Circus Dog. Photo: Stephen Allwright

Bloomsbury Theatre, 2005, and a critic walks out of a performance of Tango Apocalypso by The Shysters, a company of actors with learning disabilities. Asked why he is leaving prematurely, he says something about being unable to review the show because the learning disability is “in his face”. Brighton Fringe, 2014, and a critic attends a performance of Eye Queue Hear by Access All Areas, a performance company of artists with learning disabilities and/or autism. He doesn’t file his review, however, and tells the venue this is because, “I don’t want to upset anyone”.

What was going on for these two critics? What led to them feeling this work was somehow – for them at least, and in that moment – unreviewable?

The theatre companies in question have been left to guess. Because sadly these encounters, and the many similar encounters before and since, have marked the end rather than the beginning of any critical conversation.

It is this lack of dialogue between companies and critics that a new report [published today] aims to address. Commissioned by neurodiverse performance company Spectra with funding from Arts Council England, it identifies and explores a conspicuous gap in critical engagement with theatre made by artists with learning disabilities. Theatre companies working with artists with learning disabilities are making increasingly professional, interesting and artistically driven work. So why is theatre criticism failing to keep up?

It may focus on formal reviews, drawing on over 40 in-depth interviews with theatre companies and related artists, critics and commissioning editors. But the aim of today’s report is to open up a conversation that can benefit everybody – and general audience members have an important part to play in this, too. Whether we’re talking about Twitter reviews, post-show discussions, an informal natter at the bar or the wider scale harvesting of public responses to art that ACE is aiming to facilitate with its new Insight & Impact Toolkit, critical engagement clearly doesn’t have to be confined to those with a writing platform or a review commission. In fact, one of the findings of the report is that there is scope for theatre companies to be bolder and more creative in imagining the sorts of critical conversations they would like to have – and perhaps more open-minded about who they might have them with.

All of which means there’s a role for every theatregoer to play here: in thinking about how we engage with the work of artists with learning disabilities, and what barriers – external and internal – we might encounter along the way. The perspectives of audience members who have learning disabilities themselves must of course be integral to this. There’s nothing like experiencing a show as part of a neurodiverse audience to remind you that there are as many ways of engaging with and responding to theatre as there are of making it.

So what is getting in the way of critical engagement with the work of theatre-makers with learning disabilities? Needless to say, it’s complex: social, structural, semantic, existential, you name it. But what a lot of it seems to boil down to is uncertainty. The critics who contributed to the report were uncertain about many things, from what language to use to what ‘learning disability’ is and isn’t, from the nature of the companies’ creative processes to the potential impact of negative criticism on the artists.

Theatre companies may be able to do practical things to help with some of this: Bradford’s Mind The Gap are already working on a language guide. Galways’ Blue Teapot have in some cases issued direct invitations to reviewers to “be honest” – and close reading of their review archive reveals an immediate impact on the critic’s level of engagement. The next step might involve communicating more about the critical cultures being developed within companies: artists with learning disabilities are often already receiving support on how to encounter reviews and feedback, as well as to reflect critically on their own and others’ work. As artist Jez Colborne puts it, “reviews are important because if you don’t get critiqued you’re never gonna learn, never gonna progress, never gonna develop. Theatre isn’t a walk in the park or a bed of roses. You have to be strong and to accept that some things don’t work. Sometimes we do need harder criticism, not people saying ‘ooh it’s wonderful’. I think critics don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. That shouldn’t be the point any more.”

So clear information, toolkits and direct invitations may help. But we shouldn’t underestimate the role played in all of this by really insidious, deep-rooted misperceptions around the capacities of people with learning disabilities – to work professionally, to exercise creative intention, to be meaning making.

The companies have all encountered patronising and infantalising attitudes. Supposedly ‘positive’ feedback often comes in the form of phrases such as “they must get so much out of it!” and “how did they learn their lines?” Many have experienced reviews in which the critic has mistakenly assumed that the performance of an artist with a learning disability was being somehow ‘propped up’ on stage by a non-disabled or neurotypical performer, or even a support worker. Several companies still find their artists – including actors in their 40s and 50s, actors with careers and relationships and beards – being referred to as ‘children’.

You can see this issue write large in the treatment of performance collective Drag Syndrome during their recent tour of America. Venues cancelled their dates on the grounds the artists were not thought to be performing with ‘full and informed consent’. Rather than being recognised as artists – who had originated and crafted their drag personas, and in many cases sought the company out – individuals with Down’s syndrome were perceived as being manipulated and puppeteered by (non-learning disabled) artistic director Daniel Vais.

“The controversy we had in the USA showed it all,” says Vais. “A person with a learning disability is seen as someone with a broken soul who doesn’t have a mind of their own, who can’t process information, who can’t choose, who doesn’t understand the world around them. People think that people with Down’s syndrome have no capacity to understand their career path or to choose creatively. It is completely the opposite with these artists.”

Drag Syndrome. Photo: Holly Revell

When companies set out their experiences so starkly, the gap in critical engagement becomes less surprising. Of course! Why would you undertake to formally review a performance if, deep down, you believed the performer was essentially a child, or a puppet, or was just ‘being themselves’? … If you felt this was really no performance at all?

So there is, the report finds, a question mark around the creative agency of artists with learning disabilities. Often it insinuates itself out of ignorance – but not always. Others are coming from an informed perspective, and placing the question mark more deliberately.

Contributing to the continuing framing of the work as therapy or advocacy rather than art is the fact that theatre made by artists with learning disabilities did have its roots in community theatre, including therapeutic endeavours, and many of today’s artistically ambitious companies also draw on social funding. Going back further into stage history, critic and former Guardian theatre editor Andrew Dickson feels there may be, “an anxiety there informed by the long, brutal history of people with learning disabilities being put on stage or shown off in public places in order to be laughed at and humiliated.” Richard Hayhow, artistic director of Open Theatre, argues the issue is not entirely confined to history: “I think, to be honest, there is still someone without a learning disability pulling the strings in a lot of this work… A critic will spot that and then be put in that complex position of not knowing how to review the work. That’s not the reviewer’s problem, it’s the people creating the work. As a collective or a network, we don’t have enough conversations about this very issue: autonomy, and how we enable that through the creative process.”

If the critics are uncertain, then, it may in part be because the companies are uncertain too. There is difference of opinion as to how best to facilitate the creativity and the voices of artists with learning disabilities. There is a perpetual dilemma about whether to label or not to label the work as ‘learning disabled’ theatre, and disagreement as to whether or not, and to what extent, learning disability is an integral part of what makes the work artistically interesting. There is also great variety of feeling among artists themselves – often split along generational lines, and invariably influenced by very personal encounters with positive or negative messaging around disability – about whether they identify as ‘learning disabled actors’ or just ‘actors’.And here, perhaps, is the crunch. Uncertainty often leads us to feel vulnerable, and so to retreat from open dialogue, when of course that is precisely what we all need more of.

The report goes on to identify further key factors contributing to the gap in critical engagement, including the lack of diversity among critics, the favouring in mainstream criticism of normative models of theatre-making, and the constraints placed on writers by conventional criticism – with its tight word counts and star ratings and overnight files. All these things are thwarting the capacity of theatre criticism itself to function as a conversation: a place for uncertainty and nuance, for discussion of subjective encounters and embodied responses; a space for not-knowing.

There is nothing mutually exclusive about new kinds of theatre, new kinds of critic, and new kinds of critical form. Each needs, and can help to create, the other. And this is where it could get seriously exciting. We may well be talking about a need – and an opportunity – to break away from the written word as the primary medium for criticism. This is certainly one of the hopes behind the appointment of several ‘learning disabled digital influencers’, in a partnership between theatre company Access All Areas and online journal Disability Arts Online. “I don’t have any magic answers on how we facilitate more learning disabled critics, yet,” says Dao’s assistant editor, Joe Turnbull. “But we will learn a lot from the process and it’s one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved in for years.”

There is also nothing niche about the benefits these disruptions might bring, whether in helping us all break away from what Turnbull calls the “artwank language replete throughout criticism”, or in challenging the verbal velocity of the arts world in general. Think of the pressure the post-show discussion format puts on us all to cough up furballs of cognitive insight when all we really want to do is sit and feel (I much prefer the question Mind The Gap have started posing to their audiences, as a result of their ongoing work with academic Matthew Reason: “Where in your body did you experience that performance?”) Asked what would most improve critical engagement with the work of artists with learning disabilities, one actor from Gateshead theatre company The Lawnmowers theatre company responded to us with one word: “patience”.

The companies who contributed to this report make a huge variety of kinds of theatre. In the course of the research, I got to experience trippy physical theatre courtesy of Mind The Gap’s current collaboration with Gecko; mischievous micro-puppetry with About Face; a multi-sensory promenade performance by Spectra; and 18+ punk cabaret in the seductive company of neurodiverse collective Not Your Circus Dog. All so different. All so alike in the way they seemed to demand creative, and critical rigour, of a fresh kind.

So the report is about opening up a conversation. It focuses questions that have been bubbling away among these companies for years. It complements wider current conversations around diversity in the arts and the uncertain future of arts criticism. And it anticipates the key role artists with learning disabilities can have to play in all this – when we get better at valuing and enabling those with a talent for ‘doing things differently’.

You can view the full report and the executive summary here. This page also includes a note about accessible versions, and social media details for anyone wishing to join the conversation @Spectra_Arts #acalltocritique

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Bella Todd

Bella Todd is a Brighton-based arts journalist, editor and critic.

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