For dramatic effect

In the first of our web exclusive monthly
themed features we look at interesting and innovative ways to
engage with service users, Graham Hopkins
opens the curtains on the use of theatre and drama.


In his famous song, Noel Coward advised Mrs Worthington not to put
her daughter on the stage as, notwithstanding Miss
Worthington’s perceived personal shortcomings, “the
profession is overcrowded and the struggle’s pretty tough.”
The art of acting is as old as man, making its premiere in ritual
dance and song. Its history may be noble but its practitioners
have, until relatively recently, been considered anything but by
their contemporaries.

Actors in Shakespeare’s day were considered little more
than rogues and vagabonds. Only in the nineteenth century – which
saw a knighthood for Henry Irving in 1895 – did the words
“actor” and “respectability” take a bow in
the same sentence.

Although still overcrowded and a struggle today, the acting
profession is seen as glamorous and well-rewarded, thanks (in the
main) to film and television, and thus more attractive and
appealing. Watching people act is part and parcel of everyday life.
And, indeed, most if not all people act from time to time: whether
telling a joke or recounting something that happened, an element of
acting comes into play. Maybe we’re all actors at heart.

So, it’s little wonder that more and more social care and
user organisations are turning to theatre and drama as a medium for
putting a message across, training, personal development or

Using, for example, people with learning disabilities to perform
short sketches or mini-plays that present a “message”
can be very powerful. In October this year the First Choice Theatre
Company, a learning disabled group, presented It’s My
at the social services information network (SSIN)
conference in Nottingham. SSIN is the representative body of
information officers who work in social services. The short play
looked at “who makes the decisions that affect the lives of
people with learning difficulties” and proved to be the hit
of the conference.

Fist Choice began life at Friary House day service in Newark.
Money from Nottinghamshire county council’s fund for the
disabled special initiative grant, and a further grant from Newark
& Sherwood district council, was used to introduce drama to the
service users. Working with Bamboozle, a Leicester-based theatre
company, 13 users discussed and explored things that were important
to them, and a script was born.

“I love drama,” declared First Choice’s
Christine Craven. “I enjoy having the audience look at you.
And I do a curtsy!” Sharon Walker was very clear what acting
has done for her: “Drama has built my confidence and I have
since moved out into supported housing. I like doing it for social
services professionals to watch us. And it gives us the confidence
to tell the staff and our parents what we want and don’t
want.” Does it work? “Yes!” she replies. But then
thinks about it for a second. “Well, some times it does, some
times it doesn’t.” Has doing drama changed you?
“It’s changed us all,” she says.
“I’ve blossomed! We’ve all blossomed because of
the drama.”

Emma Dawson says she was scared at first especially performing
in front of people she didn’t know, but she really enjoys it
now: “Drama is fantastic,” she says. And everyone
agrees except one – Adrian Deldardo. “Drama’s not my
favourite,” he says. “I love my singing. Love Me
is my favourite.” And with encouragement from the
cast, Adrian performed his favourite song – and very well, too.

The democratic nature of drama provides a well of options and
inspiration that can never run dry. Young offenders and those who
misuse drugs and alcohol are generally those with low self-esteem
and limited life opportunities. The stage can offer a positive
alternative to the syringe, the curtain-call an alternative to

Michael Wicherek, who has trained in social work, and thus is
well-placed to understand both care and theatrical worlds, is
artistic director of Box Clever theatre company. His company has
worked, in collaboration with the National Theatre, most recently
with Lewisham youth offending team (YOT), and has completed a major
project with Cambridgeshire drug action team. “From the
company’s point of view,” he says, “we work with
young people in a way that explores their life issues. It’s
hugely rewarding for the young people and for us – but not in a
do-good-ing kind of way – because we honestly believe that drama
opens doors for young people.”

Engaging with young people often on the edge, says Wicherek,
means “making every effort to involve artists of all
disciplines – writers, actors, performance artists, video artists –
in the hope of stimulating them with a variety of

Having worked for 10 years in this field, Wicherek is conscious
that things happen in fits and starts. “There is still a
wariness about investing in this kind of work from a welfare point
of view,” he says. “Also the arts world never
considered this type of work as viable.” So rather than
plunge in and plan it properly, both sides “explore and
support it a bit.”

However, he remains optimistic: “sitting down on an equal
basis with the YOT and primary care trust is a great step
forward,” he says. Wicherek’s partners may have a
message to get across but that must not be at the cost of the
artistic quality of the product. He believes there is a need to sit
down with people to identify and agree objectives with each piece
of work. Not only will this help with evaluations of success, but
of course, could lead to more investment and involvement.

As with Box Clever, the Clean Break Theatre Company look to
provide a range of opportunities. Clean Break is the UK’s only
women’s theatre company for ex-offenders, prisoners, ex-prisoners
and women who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The
company believes in providing opportunities for these women to
develop skills, confidence and creativity. Founded by two women
prisoners in 1979 the company today runs an accredited education
and training programme in theatre and performing arts, as well as
annually touring a professional theatre production on the theme of
women and crime.

The education and training programme includes short courses in
acting, dance, video skills, creative writing, storytelling and
theatre technical skills. Women can go on to take a year-long,
part-time Access to Theatre in the Community course and
following this have an opportunity to train as a drama workshop
leader in the community on an NVQ accredited scheme.

It seems fair to say that most non-professional social care and
drama liaisons at the moment tend to be issue-led rather than
artistic-led. And while this clearly works – as First Choice proved
in Nottingham – this maybe because audiences haven’t seen
user groups present an argument, demand or idea in this way before.
It’s the thought, presentation and effect that are being
applauded at the end. But are they being applauded for their acting
or for being learning disabled people who are acting?

This conundrum is being faced by the Shyster theatre company
(see showcase study below). “Why label us a learning
disabled? Why can’t we just be a company of performers? At the
moment somehow we have to be both,” says artistic director
Richard Hayhow. “There are strengths in both views,
particularly if you accept the premise that learning disabled
performers have not only been denied access to theatre making but
also that that they have a unique contribution to make to
theatrical innovation.”

Similarly, the London-based Strathcona Theatre Company, founded
in 1982, is a national touring company, employing eight
professional actors with learning disabilities, who devise physical
theatre pieces, with the assistance of two directors. During this
time, Strathcona has been producing work of the highest artistic
standards which appeals to disabled and non-disabled audiences
alike. As well as touring productions Strathcona gives workshops
and short demonstration performances, undertake residencies, and
devise education projects and training programmes.

However, many learning and physically disabled adults want to be
judged on their acting ability rather than their disability. But
there are so few opportunities to do so professionally – in the
sense of being skilled, proficient and expert. And even less to do
so professionally – in the sense of making a living – or
part-living out of it.

Graeae (pronounced gray-eye) is Britain’s foremost theatre
company of people with physical and sensory impairments. Founded in
1980 by Nabil Shaban and Richard Tomlinson, it takes its name from
Greek mythology: Graeae are the three “old women” or “grey ones”
who were grey-haired from birth and have only one eye and one tooth
between them. They are Enyo (“horror”), Deino (“dread”) and
Pemphredo (“alarm”) and they are the sisters and guardians of the
Gorgons (three sisters with snakes for hair whose look turns the
beholder to stone). Nice family.

Graeae’s (that is, the theatre company’s) aim is to
redress the exclusion of people with physical and sensory
impairments from performance and is involved in training, young
people’s theatre, outreach and education. The board of
management, staff, directors, actors and writers are mainly people
with physical disabilities and sensory impairments. Indicative of
its battle against the odds is that it has no theatre space to call
its own. Spiritedly, the company refuses to play at theatrical
venues that do not have disabled access both at the front and

However, a number of small professional companies of learning
disabled actors are increasingly attaching themselves to theatres
and are gaining recognition, such as the Coventry-based Shysters.
This year the charity organisation Voice UK – a national support
and information group for adults and children with learning
disabilities who have experienced crime or abuse – received a grant
to produce a training video for people with learning disabilities
on how to assert themselves.

The organisation thought it a good idea to produce a video drama
following the day in a life of a learning disabled woman. Perhaps
uniquely in the growing genre of training videos, it decided to
only use professional actors with learning disabilities, and to
bring in a commercial film company to co-produce it. The Shysters
provided the three actors to play the disabled roles. It was, as
Box Clever’s Michael Wicherek believed to be the way forward,
an attempt to take a message but deliver it with dramatic quality
and production values that stand up in their own right.

Voice UK contracted the Deryshire-based Creative Forum, who had
an impressive track record in commercial production – with clients
including Guinness and Heinz. With full camera, lighting and sound
crew the three-day shooting schedule was an intense but enjoyable
experience. “Working with a group of people who were so
committed was an extremely rewarding experience and very
refreshing,” says Creative Forum’s Tony Judge, director
of the Assert Yourself video. “The project had its
challenges though – some of the subject matter was quite difficult
to visualise let alone film, and this put quite a lot of demands on
the actors who had bags of stage presence but little TV experience,
so they had to learn a whole new approach.” But he adds:
“I never thought I’d ever say, ‘I’m working
with a bunch of Shysters’ and enjoy it so much!”

Actors talk about the challenge of “becoming”
someone else. For a while they stop being themselves. For people
with disabilities or mental health needs so much in society
prevents them even being themselves. 

For most, however, it’s a chance to do something
different, a chance to shine. It’s a challenge physically and
mentally (learning lines) and it takes some bottle. The process of
learning, rehearsing and performing can positively improve your
well-being. It can improve confidence and raise self-esteem and
(certainly while the applause is thundering) fill you with a sense
of achievement. It can take you out of the day-to-day drudgery and
inspire and motivate you. It can help you understand and develop
relationships. It can improve your communication and negotiation
skills. And it’s enjoyable, to boot. You can see why the
Worthington women, despite the noble knight’s opposition,
thought the stage worthwhile.

Have you used drama effectively in social care? Tell us
about it and we may feature your success story in our BEST PRACTICE
section on the web.


For The Shysters
Richard Hayhow – artistic director
Kathy Joyce – associate director
Sue Bosworth-Jarvis – company administrator
Sunny Patel – company assistant.

Tel: 024 7625 6431 ext 214

First Choice
Contact support worker Lee Harbour on 01636 707 611

Box Clever
12G1 The Leathermarket
Weston Street

Tel: 020 7357 0550


Clean Break Theatre Company
2 Patshull Road
NW5 2LB.
Tel: 020 7482 8600

Strathcona Theatre Company
Unit K03
Tower Bridge Business Complex
100 Clements Road
London SE16 3DG

Tel: 020 7740 2440
Fax: 020 7394 1232


Creative Forum
Thorpe Farm
32 High Street
Derbyshire DE55 5NY

Tel: 01773 591 289
Fax: 01773 591 298


Voice UK
Tel: 01332 202 555


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