A short distance from you, even closer than you may think, there’s a vertical community of eclectic characters. After a sold-out run at last year’s Brighton Fringe, Grace Eyre Street is returning, and they’re setting their sights skyward.
This drama project is run by the Grace Eyre Foundation, a local charity supporting adults with learning disabilities. It aims to create and deliver a bold type of dramatic performance. “With drama, you can create a way where people with learning disabilities are in charge of what’s going on” Mark Richardson, course leader and artistic director, tells me. “This gives them a sense of ownership over the work, which comes with an advocacy and a belief in themselves.” The artistic director of Brighton’s Carousel for 22 years, Mark has run projects with people with learning disabilities for over three decades. He tells me performers with learning disabilities are often far more creative than those without.
He and his colleague, Imogen Liddell, are enabling service users to develop new skills and extra confidence through this project. Sessions start with a warm-up, putting participants into a creative mood. They then refer to extensive notes pinned to a huge board, developing concepts and adjusting existing set-pieces. Both see their role as simply supporting the performers, helping them produce this piece, and crafting it into an audience-ready form. “It’s about putting the individual at the centre,” says Mark. “Making them the decision-maker, the lynchpin and the person who counts in the equation.” He recounts a story when some friends, who’d been studying at the famed Ecole Philippe Gaulier drama school, came to see a similar show he’d directed a few years ago.
“They said: ‘Oh my God! I’ve just spent the last two years studying to do what they did. And I still can’t do it.’” He likens giving people a structure and some confidence to watering a flowerbed. There’s no denying there’s too much stigma attached to people like his group. By involving them in a drama-based project like this enables Grace Eyre to portray their clients in a very different and positive way.
Much of what the foundation does involves supporting people to live the life they want to live. This might not be hugely interesting to some, but creative arts offer a compelling way to engage with the wider community. Last year’s show was based in an imaginary New York neighbourhood, examining what its residents might be getting up to. This year they move the concept into a housing block where the neighbours are packed closer together. “When we did this for the first-time last year, I don’t think any of us expected it to be so popular,” says Purple Playhouse Theatre manager, Henry Bruce. “I’m hoping this is going to be something which will continue to grow. It’s not just about empowering the service users, it about empowering the staff as well.” These performers all have different ways of being. Not all use speech to communicate, instead finding their own way to perform – including dance, mime and improvisation. For this year’s Fringe show, they’ve also joined onstage by Theatre Inc, a Chichester-based learning disabled group, and Fan Dance Theatre.
Henry offers Ben, a service user for about three years, as a good example of the course’s numerous benefits. “I’ve always had a thing for theatre,” Ben tells me. “I’ve always loved performing and doing drama. I love seeing how the professionals do it and seeing what it’s like to be a different person. I’m always happy when I’m onstage.” He also works as an ambassador for the Grace Eyre Foundation, sitting in board meetings and helping guide policy-making. “I find them intriguing, and quite useful.” On top of this, he helps organise the foundation’s monthly club night – The Purple Clubhouse. Here there’s an opportunity to socialise with similar organisations from the region, while being entertained by an in-house band, DJs or visiting theatre companies.
The Grace Eyre Foundation also participates in Artist’s Open House during May, offering the chance to view, or even buy, art of an amazing standard. Like the theatre space, it’s seen as a great way to open their doors and bring down some barriers. It’s nobody’s fault, but society does compartmentalise learning disabled people from birth through to adulthood. “I think people with learning disabilities see the world in a very different way,” says Mark. “It’s nothing to do with ‘difference’ as such, it’s to do with the way that they are. If we can value the way that they see things, what you do is give people an amazing opportunity to share their skills. “
Grace Eyre Street 2018 comes to Purple Playhouse Theatre on Weds 23 May & Weds 30 May, as part of Brighton Fringe.
Photo credits: David Smith.