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Spearheading a more complex and nuanced critique of artistic quality in the theatre and disability

Theatre productions featuring actors with learning disabilities have traditionally been examined from medical or social engagement perspectives, but seldom from theatre practice or aesthetic viewpoints. Blazing a trail in this under-researched area of study is Dr Matt Hargrave of Northumbria University, who has been studying theatre involving learning disabled performers for almost 10 years.

His latest research in theatre and learning disability was prompted by theatre companies Mind the Gap in Bradford, UK, and Back to Back in Geelong, Australia, who were concerned that the artistic product of learning disability theatre was considered second to social utility. Keen to analyse theatre shows from a performance quality perspective, Dr Hargrave interviewed actors, writers and directors from several theatre companies, including Mind the Gap, Back to Back, and Full Body and The Voice (now known as Dark Horse). He also analysed their working practices, rehearsals and key shows, focusing on artistic quality and the contribution that learning disabled actors make to the theatre.

Six years of intense research resulted in a book published by Palgrave, entitled Theatres of Learning Disability: Good, Bad, or Plain Ugly?, which began as a collaborative doctoral research project between Mind the Gap and the University of Leeds, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The book represents a paradigm shift in the way learning disabled theatre is critiqued. Its poetics of the theatre of learning disability is an invitation to the sector to assess the work of learning disabled actors as a craft – in the same way that mainstream theatre practice is evaluated.

This work is already making an impact, and in 2016 the book was awarded the Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA) New Career Research Prize. Judges agreed that, “[The book] challenges the connotations and expectations of disability arts across communities” and “challenges us to think and see differently, defining a new aesthetic and redressing historical misconceptions as well as potentially offering a ground-breaking contribution to the pool of knowledge.”

Theatre producers and others reviewing the book emphasise that it has challenged their perceptions of learning disability theatre work and changed the way they critique the sector. Dr Scott Wallin, Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, praises Dr Hargrave for underscoring the contribution that learning disabled actors bring to theatre practice. “Theatres of Learning Disability is an important advancement in the underdeveloped field of disability and performance, effectively arguing how we can and must critically engage with disability art at the level of craft and aesthetics,” notes Dr Wallin in TDR: The Drama Review 61:1 (T233), Spring 2017.   

An important success of the book is the easy read translation that follows at the end of the manuscript, making a rigorous, intellectual scholarly publication accessible to all. This pioneering work has inspired new research questions, with academics examining how learning disabled artists can act as leaders and directors in the field.

The book leaves an important legacy and challenges the artistic sector to change the binary way we think of disabled/non-disabled and instead look at what we all have in common, in particular – human vulnerability.

More research is this area is clearly needed and Dr Hargrave is supporting the sector by working with organisations such as Crossing the Line and Unlimited to strengthen international collaboration and unite different theatre practices. 

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