Access All Areas, is a theater company that works with people with severe learning disabilities. Formally under the name Rainbow Theater Company, the group has been working in Hoxton Hall since 1976. Access All Areas runs several ongoing parallel workshop groups that meet throughout the week.
Dustin: How did AAA get going? and what inspired you to work in the way that you do?
Nick: When I started we had no office, we were running it out of our bedrooms. We took over the group [Rainbow Theater Company] that was founded in 1976, for people with severe learning disabilities. We saw how amazing it was, but we wanted to develop it. So I came along as a workshop leader, and eventually took over as director of the charity and developed a business plan. We’ve secured some more regular funding and now we have our own office. So, I came along and took over, in a good way I hope. Then we employed Ciara, as a part time creative learning officer. So we’re growing slowly but surely.
Ciara: I was involved in theater from a very young age, but it was during university that I began to be disillusioned with theater for theater sake. I love theater, but there was something missing for me. And then one of the modules at university was titled ‘Applied Theater.’ It was about using drama, and the mechanisms of drama as a tool to bringing about learning and growth. And that just made perfect sense to me. So straight from university I went to work with community theater companies, working in hospitals, prisons, schools. So then I moved to London, and worked for an organization programming all of their performing arts projects, that was mixture of coordination and facilitation. And over those four years, I had done quite a lot of work with disabilities, and became very interested and fascinated by it. And then I saw that Rainbow was calling for volunteers. So I started to volunteer on Monday nights, after my normal work, and fell in love with it really. I think a more holistic approach to theater training can have wonderful effects, especially with people with learning disabilities. So then it lined up that Access All Areas was looking to take on another person, and now I work two to three days a week with the company.
Dustin: Can you talk about how your methodology as a theater company relates to social work?
Nick: So, we live in two worlds when we work in this field. We work through the arts, and we also work through day services, social services, and mainstream care. We’re creating art, but we are mindful of the groups we are working with, and the different contexts that people are living in. Some people live independently, but most people live in either care homes, or with their parents. Even at the age of 50 or 60, some of them are still living with their parents. With their parents aging, some of our members still haven’t learned any independent life skills at all. So we’re living and working in this double edged place, where we’re developing actors, for those and want to go on a pursue auditions, we’re here to help them move in that direction. And for other people it will be just about coming along each week, developing some social communication skills, but also giving some rest to their families and carers as well. So we’re doing many different things, and with new projects we can offer different options depending on their wanting to do.
Ciara: With this kind of work, you’re not just a theater maker, the pastoral role is equality as important. And keeping abreast with the public sector, state polices, working alongside local authorities, and other third sector organizations as well, to understand your place as an organization. I think especially with our project spinning yarn, with people with severe and multiple disabilities, we’ve had to work quite closely with Hackney council, to build a project that is built around the individual participants. That led me into a whole world of working along side social workers, duty care managers, care homes, care providers, and that’s something I never thought I would be getting into at all. In terms of You Me Hoxton Too, it was a research based project, that took us out into the community. We took our actors out away from the stage and into the neighborhood. Access All Areas does a wonderful job of creating a safe space for people with learning disabilities to explore and create amazing theater. But what was different with Me You Hoxton Too, we were giving them the tools to research out in their local communities, and staging conversations with local residents. It was something we had never done before, and I think it was really important for the integration of our members into the local community.
Dustin: Can you talk about the audience for Access All Areas, and how often Access All Areas puts on public shows?
Nick: We work with a lot of disability related organization, including a youth center, Hackney College, and a number of other groups. So, we have quite a sizable contingent of people coming to the shows. Of course parents, and carers, and as a company we manage a database of contacts of people interested in our shows. We rely a lot on volunteers for our performances. The shows run smoothly thanks to a lot of help from our volunteers. So we’re well supported in terms of volunteers and audiences. While we get strong reviews, often people will come up to us and give us feedback, “I’m not to sure about this, or that…” So our regular audience members are often quite honest, and if you can’t be honest with them who can you be?
Dustin: Can you talk about the workshop methodology, your influences and inspiration, and how people might move between being an audience member to a performer and back again?
Nick: Well it really depends on the specific project. If it’s rainbow, that’s our Monday evening group, that meets every week for two and half hours. We use a mixture of drama, movement, and music, and we’ve started to use film now and as well. We’ll use those skills to explore different topics. For our show Walk a Mile in My Shoes, we explored the world war two as a topic. We explored the history of learning disability in a show called A Very Unmerry Hardpenny Christmas. And looking at how people with learning disabilities have only recently began coming out of institutionalization and major discrimination. So we have a mixture of techniques, no hard and fast solutions. We use physical theater, we never use texts, because a lot of our group can’t read. So all of our shows are devised by the group, and they’re all quite good at remembering and improvising things in the moment.
Ciara: It’s a combined arts practice, the different disciplines don’t exist separately, they exist together as a way of exploring. And I think that works quite well with our members, because we work with people with an array of different learning needs. So employing an interdisciplinary approach we’re able to engage all of our members in different ways that suits them.
Nick: For those with profound and multiple learning disabilities, they have no form of verbal communication, and their range of expression is very limited compared to what we would perceive as a kind of performance in a traditional sense. We felt that creating a public performance wasn’t always the best for those participants. So we started Spinning Yarn for that purpose. So for the other groups, we now say want members that are conscious that they are performing. It’s therefore our job to find out how each person is then able to perform, and then we engage the performance around them. Each person is shown in the most positive light they can.
Ciara: I guess there is something to be said about our methodology, in terms of where does the exploration end and the direction begin. It’s very much user led, devising process. Our members devise the material. But at what point do we have to step in and take on the role of director? Their’s no straight answer to that. It’s always quite an interesting question, we are working through.
Nick: I think that’s one of the main, ongoing arguments, we’re dealing with all the time in participant led performance. You have practitioners that are trained helping to facilitate an experience for a group of people, but bearing in mind we also have an audience. We have to create a space for material to develop, but as facilitators we need to be able to mold it in a way that is legible as a performance that has some kind of journey. Doing the Me You Hoxton Too project was a huge departure for us, leaving the confines of the theater and into the streets to engage with local residents. We are actively exploring different ways to develop our performers skills, and engage with the community we have been a part of since the mid 70s. There are people in our group that use to live in a hospital, and to go outside the hospital they had to get a specific pass, that you had to apply for like you were getting a visa and go to a foreign country. So I’m very conscious of how this area has a huge history of locking up people who don’t quite fit within societal norms. And although we try and do the opposite, we are generally confining people to the theater space, so going out into the streets was quite a nice departure for us, to perform on the streets that our members are from, and engage with a public that has never seen any of our shows.
Dustin: You briefly mentioned it earlier, but can talk a bit more about how you help and represent those performers interested in pursuing their acting on a professionallevel?
Nick: Yeah, some of our performers really want to take their acting seriously, and they’ve been saying it since I met them. So we had an opportunity to go to the BBC and create show reels for a casting director. So we took a group that was interested in doing that. And since then we’ve had a quite a few different opportunities for our performers to audition, and have had great success on mainstream BBC television programs. And the performers are able to get a good payment for their acting skills. It’s been great, especially since there are no opportunities for anyone with a learning disability in normal drama schools to get professional training. So, not only are we trying to enable a marginalized group to develop their communication, social, and interpersonal skills, but we’re hoping to raise awareness and change public perceptions of learning disabilities. And while we’re doing that help some of our members to get paid work within the arts.