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

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.

Symbiotic relationships
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."

O’Reilly drew details and perspective from interviews with the cast and wove it into his material. “So it’s their play and their story,” says Pilley. “Most of us know very little about the lives of people with disability. It’s exciting subject matter to explore in the theatre.”

O’Reilly’s play raises another vexed issue: under Irish law it is illegal for “mentally impaired” people to have sex before marriage. The law is designed to protect the vulnerable from exploitation, but the condition of marriage seems archaic and denies adult status to people with ID. It is a law that Pilley finds shockingly outdated, something that must be looked at.

Looking, though, is not something that society is particularly primed to do when it comes to disability. Like curious children instructed not to stare at people with physical differences, we are discouraged from treating disabled people as a spectacle. When a performer with special needs take to the stage, such reticence is automatically challenged. "That's absolutely part of it," says Claire Hodgson, the chief executive of the Dorset company Diverse City. "The issue here is that the disabled people want to be looked at, as a spectacle, as a performer, which does challenge the whole thing of 'looking away'. Inside every performer is the desire to be watched, to be seen. I think it's about becoming visible."

'The world as it actually is'
Diverse City was set up to create integrated performances. "I've always been interested in making casts and companies that represent the world as it actually is," Hodgson says, "and not just a small slice of human existence."

Hodgson will soon come to Kildare for the Performance Corporation's Big House Festival in August to work on 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, it is a collaboration with the choreographer Emma Martin and participants from St Raphael's, a Kildare care facility for people with intellectual disability.

“For people with disabilities, and particularly intellectual disabilities, it’s rare to be part of a high-profile public performance,” says Hodgson. “It isn’t a community performance for friends and family – this is at the centre of a festival and will be judged alongside professional work. For them that’s important, because they want to be seen by a wide range of people, to perform in front of big audiences and to participate in culture on a level playing field.”

As Hodgson sees it, we may be at a tipping point for a broader integration of disabled and non-disabled performers. During last year's Olympic Games, her company staged a performance, Breathe, a collaboration between young disabled performers from Dorset and Brazil, which launched the sailing competition. "We're in a particular historical moment when things are really changing," says Hodgson.

The Irish scene is burgeoning, from Blue Teapot's recent nomination for the Judge's Special Award at the Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards "for giving a voice in theatre to actors with intellectual disabilities" and the forthcoming appearances of Sanctuary at the Galway Arts Festival and Dublin Fringe Festival, to Ignite, a new platform managed by Arts and Disability Ireland and supported by the Arts Council to commission and tour new works by artists with disabilities.

“I think the Paralympics last year changed a lot of people’s minds about what disabled people could achieve,” says Hodgson. “I think we’ve got a window in terms of creating work and supporting disabled artists to make work that is seen by a greater amount of people.”

Hodgson is currently developing an integrated circus company in the UK called Extraordinary Bodies, reconceiving the aesthetic of circus performance and redefining the bodies of acrobats. The agenda of Come Dance with Me is similar, challenging the exclusions and rigid conformity of the ballroom. "Show me your best moves, show me your best steps," is how she describes it. "We can all learn steps, but in life, and in dance, the most important thing is that you have your own moves."

Like Hodgson, who aspires to a culture where integration in performance is the norm and her company’s interventions are no longer needed (“It would be the best outcome to work towards extinction”), Petal Pilley would like to see theatre in general become more inclusive on the stage.

Theatre can be tough, she knows, "but it can express far more enlightened aspects of humanity as well. I think it's exciting to challenge it." That, ultimately, is what the theatre is for, to honour the talent and ambitions of its performers, to realise their agency in collaboration with others, and to explore under-represented issues by bringing them sharply into view.

Sanctuary is at Blue Teapot Theatre as part of Galway Arts Festival from today until July 27th; Come Dance with Me is at Big House Festival in Celbridge in August