Special-needs actors centre stage: ‘For once they have the power in the room’
Several new theatrical productions are asking audiences to stare at disabled people, and explore their loves, lives and issues
Sanctuary, a story of young love and romantic seclusion starring (from left) Charlene Kelly, Frank Butcher and Patrick Becker
Come Dance with Me, inspired by ballroom dance, the competitive display of TV’s Strictly Come Dancing and the subversive charm of the Baz Luhrmann film Strictly Ballroom
A young couple, unable to escape the watchful eyes of their family, friends or guardians, decide that they would like some time alone together. They book a hotel room and settle in for some privacy. What can happen when no one is watching? A story of young love and romantic seclusion wouldn’t ordinarily make for an unusual drama, but the couple at the centre of Christian O’Reilly’s recent play Sanctuary are special; Sophie has epilepsy and Larry has Down syndrome. For the characters and the audience there is a curious contradiction: here are two people whose desire is to be unwatched, yet such a depiction of the agency, sexuality and desire of people with intellectual disability is very rarely seen.
O’Reilly’s play, staged by Blue Teapot Theatre Company, is a romantic comedy written for the Galway-based ensemble of actors with intellectual disability. As it shears this couple away from a group of their peers – some bitter and jealous, some with romantic designs of their own – it cracks open a political quandary about the sexuality of people with special needs and asks intriguing questions of the theatre. For both reasons, Blue Teapot, in operation for 17 years now, is finally gaining wide attention.
Last year, when Sanctuary was first produced, a psychologist in the audience was moved to tears. “They have the power,” he told the company’s director Petal Pilley of her ensemble. “For once they have the power in the room.” It has taken the company some time to achieve that level of control, since its formation as a charity and a creative outlet for people with disability in 1996. Pilley, who joined seven years ago, saw the opportunity to create an ensemble and introduced an acting school to develop the company as a professional outlet.
Pilley agrees that turning Blue Teapot into a professional company has involved challenging her ensemble while respecting its limits. “It’s to absolutely acknowledge intellectual disability, and to create the support for actors with ID. For example, this play has a lot of text in it and sometimes the actors need a prompt . . . It requires a little bit of sensitivity. At the same time, I’m constantly astounded by their level of emoting, the drive and the depth of understanding for the characters and the play itself.”
Sanctuary is the company’s first specially commissioned work, and O’Reilly developed it in consultation with the ensemble. “Through our working relationship over the years, I realised they had very little opportunity for romantic and sexual fulfilment in their lives because of the nature of dependency,” says Pilley. “They live at home or in a group setting, and yet they’re adult men and women. They’re sassy and flirty – and the theatre’s full of that.”