Tag Archives: co-exist

‘We’re not that different me and you’ – fulfilling potential and changing perceptions with The Misfits Theatre Company

Three months ago, if someone said to me the words ‘learning difficulty’ or ‘learning disability’ I probably would have thought of a host of descriptions or conditions that would define or describe that label.  I might have thought about limits. I probably would have looked away shyly if I noticed someone who looked a bit different on the bus.  Or maybe I would have been so well meaning in an attempt to be supportive of someone who was different, that I might have inadvertently been a bit patronizing.

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It’s unlikely I would have thought about the abilities and potential that the label could also bring, and I certainly wouldn’t think that I would be in a rehearsal room learning from professional actors who were independent, highly creative, enthusiastic, mutually supportive of each others efforts and fearless in their sharing of personal stories, their truthful representations of their everyday lives and their will to fight for their rights for social equality and inclusion.

The Misfits Theatre have been working collaboratively since 2005 to facilitate people with learning difficulties, making their voices and experiences heard.  Originating from the closure of a community day centre their pioneering work has taken them to venues and spaces across Bristol and beyond. The company of 35 members  (all whom have a learning difficulty) includes 7 paid actors as well as those who vote and lead as directors of the company, giving a valuable opportunity for the members to take shared ownership over their own futures.  The members also act as healthcare trainers and perform to NHS and social care professionals, reversing traditional power relationship as doctors and nurses learn first hand from those who may be their patients in the future.

By sharing with their audiences  the ‘real life’ experiences of learning difficulties and being  social excluded, The Misfits  challenge perceptions and assumptions  making work with themes including life skills, hate crime, dealing with challenging behaviour, relationships and sexuality. These are balanced with a wry humour and clownish comedy and the fun, playfulness and collaborative nature of the making process is embedded within all aspects of the organisation, and it is this that makes it so unique.

The companies work extends beyond more traditional performance spaces. The Misfits along with their friends and carers have the opportunity to get down and groovy at the flagship ‘Rhythm of the Night’ disco at The Trinity Centre.

The event is open to anyone who wants to meet up. There is talking, drinking, dancing, a couple of renditions of the conga, Elvis always makes an appearance and the DJ blasts out that old Tom Jones classic at the end of the night. It’s not much different from a Saturday in town. I’ve learnt that having a learning difficulty may mean that some of your needs are specific but enjoying social time, a laugh with your friends and the opportunity to meet new people is something that is universal and very much needed and appreciated amongst the local community. The night also offers an opportunity for performance and to encourage others to watch and engage in theatre.

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My time with the Misfits has truly transformed my understanding of  ‘learning difficulties’ and has revealed the many gifts and talents that individuals have when they are given the space, resources and support that they need to develop them.  The Misfits have taught me the importance of advocacy, standing as role models to many of their peers in the community both through their work in the arts and also their determination to make their voices heard about issues which affect them.  The sharing of their experiences has also given me an insight into the realities of living with a learning difficulty from negotiating everyday life to the struggle to find work, social and development opportunities and to realise  aspirations.

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The most significant thing that The Misfits have left me with is the role that the arts has in building and strengthening inclusive communities.  Many of the members have described their lives before they joined as ‘boring’ or they felt isolated with nothing to do. The Misfits offers friendship, structure, opportunities to grow and an accepting place where the members can share interests, stories and laughter. The bonds that are created between performers and group members are meaningful and lasting ones and the challenges of life are turned into a mission to raise awareness, change hearts and minds, have fun and get paid doing it. The companies base in Stokes Croft ( Co-exist at Hamilton House) enables the members to meet and mingle effortlessly with other arts practioners and enthusiasts – it’s a place where standing out often means fitting in.

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The achievements of The Misfits have recently been recognised by the National Lottery who have shortlisted them out of 900 other organisations for a  Good Causes award in the Arts category.  Competing against six others, if successful, the National Lottery Award could mean a chance for The Misfits to make a TV appearance on the BBC’s One Show as well as winning £2000 to help the company continue its work. The ethos of the company is that it is member led so even my blog post wouldn’t be complete without input from The Misfits themselves –  and the video above contains an extra special Misfits message for you. Supporting the campaign is free, so please visit:

http://www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/project/misfits-theatre-company

to find out more and just click on the box to cast your vote. It would mean so much.

(This article has also been published to the Theatre Bristol website)

Culmination – a Mayfest journey from audience to stage and how to fall off a precipice

‘you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own and you know what you know, and you are the person who’ll decide where to go’ – Dr Suess.  

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Two years ago I experienced ‘Mayfest’ Bristol’s annual festival of contemporary performance for the first time. I’ve previously written about my experience of the participatory theatrical intervention called ‘Fortnight’ brought to Bristol by Proto-type Theatre which prompted me to think about both my life and the city of Bristol in a different way. As a result I set up this blog and continued my journey after the two-week ‘intervention’ was over.  At the time I was at a bit of a crossroads. I felt I had attained quite a lot over the years career wise but I still felt unsatisfied. Like there was something else I should be doing. Something more meaningful than I was currently doing. I felt like there was a hole somewhere. I hole that I liked to fill with food, mostly.  I felt disconnected from my local community, disenchanted with my job and was left wondering what my contribution to the world but also to myself, actually was.

To begin with I thought that at 33 I was too old to ever seriously consider being an artist. I figured it would be impossible to develop knowledge and experience without returning to formal and expensive study. I had read about the cuts to the arts and in the context of a declining economy I worried about the financially reality of making changes to the career path I had been treading for so long.  Few people I knew valued the arts themselves, at best tolerating my tales of the things I had seen, thought about or experienced. I also wanted to understand how something so subjective as performance/art (which could be as academic intangible or impenetrable as it could be accessible) could make an impact on communities and individuals and what difference this could make. Why did I feel, inside, it was so important? I doubted my own convictions in my ideas and ideals. I doubted if it was just too late to stop everything and start again.

These were the barriers to change that I had decided on.

However it seems overall the ‘why you should’ argument outweighed the ‘why you shouldn’t. I did my best to resist the little thought seeds that had been planted. The ones that were growing into ideas about what sort if things I could write about, what sort of theatre I could make, what could I do with the photos I take, what sort of community I really lived in, how I could contribute to that community, how could I be healthier and happier, but most importantly how I could I live my life and career in line with my true values and do something that I was passionate about?

I realised the barriers were not all as I presumed. So, just in case you do have a passing interest or fleeting thought…. here is (on a very broad brush basis) – is what I have discovered so far:

Overcoming barriers, seeking opportunities and building communities.

I was pretty convinced that my age would be prevent me from changing fields or finding opportunities in an area I had little experience in. Its probably more common to access to opportunities if you are under 25, however many artists, theatres, and community groups are Opening Doors and working on a range of projects many of which encourage participation from anyone. Over the past two years I’ve been involved with both community and ‘professional’ projects, which are also designed to be accessible to anyone who wants to be involved, with some specifically targeted at non-professionals. No experience necessary. Likewise I’d convinced myself that I would need to return to formal study but this again wasn’t the case. Whilst most performance graduates I have spoken to enjoyed their degrees and built valuable networks, many have also told me that in most cases their courses did not prepare them for their launch into the ‘real world’ of theatre or art and that in most cases you just have to start from where you are with the life experiences that you already have. Bristol offers a wealth of arts opportunities from traditional choral groups, to circus, to African drumming and a wide variety of places to do it in. I’ve been a clown at Windmill Hill City Farm, Bristol Folk House, and Co -Exist, performed at The Trinity Centre and documented at the Station Arts Space.  I’ve seen work at most of the key theatres and arts venues across Bristol including Bristol Old Vic, The Tobacco Factory and the Arnolfini, however often the most memorable and perspective changing experiences are those that are conducted outside of the theatre or gallery. Some of the most special happenings and performances  around the city include those at Parlour Showrooms, St Johns Crypt, St Paul’s Crypt, Bristol Bierkeller, The Milk Bar and a captivating old Victorian public toilet. I’ve run around on several occasions, broken out of jail at the college project, been chased by hounds  around Old Market and fought to catch up with small people hanging precariously off of bus shelters and window ledges or wedged behind bins.

I’ve done my best to SAY YES to new experiences. It’s hard to pinpoint within this seemingly holistic city approach to arts and performance when the light switched on, or each time I saw things from a different perspective. Sometimes its not an overnight change but often a more subtle accumulation of experiences over a period of time.

Once I started to explore my local surroundings, rather than feeling alienated by my own starting point, I was actually overwhelmed with the possibilities. Whilst in the first instance opening a door, picking up a pen, walking on a stage, dancing to a beat, finding your voice or trying a musical instrument can seem daunting, there is always someone else around to share the experience, give advice or laugh at your comedy routine. The advantage of one of my preferred pursuits CLOWN – is that you can find joy in doing things badly, messing up and being real so as long as you are truthful in your work it will always be interesting and gain a response.  It’s a different philosophy but very enabling if you can learn to step outside yourself and start where you are. This also means that anyone can be a clown as you already have everything you need to begin your journey.

A key thing that has come from my experiences and exploring’s so far is the impact that the arts can have in building and strengthening communities and benefiting individuals.  This has been revealed in every group, performance or project I have been involved with.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a project working with older people, children, or your average office worker, it may be work which explores self identity, biography, community, encourage health and fitness, explore life, death, politics or religion, either way – I believe the arts play a fundamental role in creating meaning, connection and in sustaining communities.  For the economists among you, stand by for my highly sophisticated and complex equation: People who are supported or connected to their communities through activities which create a sense of meaning and identity, ritual, connection, a sense of a ‘bigger’ picture, which celebrate and recognise life, death, equality, and the natural world – will – in most cases, ultimately cost less to social support systems as they progress through life than those who do not have such opportunities. Rather than thinking about the cost of arts funding and grants, how about thinking about the savings that can be made elsewhere and the benefits to society overall?

You can’t stop the passion

Cuts to arts funding and economic recession is the reality in which the arts operates today. There is always a wealth of debate around this and many philosophical and pragmatic discussions to be had about the constraints and opportunities of the current economic climate.  I started my journey modestly, without expectations and my perspective as a ‘newbie’ is likely to differ to those who have been plugging faithfully away for years, living with a good measure of uncertainity  in dedication to the work they love. At this stage I do know this – that Bristol is a unique place where, in spite of difficult funding circumstances, the dialogue, passion, creativity and impetus for social change, critique, protest and celebration will always exist. On a personal note, if your measure of success is to ‘love what you do’ this often enables other aspects of your life to work in different ways to how you may first expect. Solutions can be found, resources can be shared, communities will open up, problems will be solved.

Changing direction and starting again

There have been many changes for me since Mayfest 2011 including lots of theatre-going as well as performing and training, and two years later I am preparing for a showing of my first solo piece ‘If thing’s don’t change’ as part of  ‘Mayfest at the Wardrobe’  new writing collaboration. Whilst I don’t know where the work is heading, and I still feel like there is a long journey ahead, it’s an exciting opportunity to be given the chance to perform work that I’ve written myself as part of the festival I participated in as an audience member two years ago.  Whilst to some it seemed like a risky decision to change direction, I realised I have nothing to lose, and when looking around at the world and seeing it in a different way – much to appreciate.

Sometimes ‘modern’ or ‘avant garde’ art and performance is hard to explain. Sometimes it will have no obvious story or make any immediate sense. It will often challenge you to think in a different way explore themes which you may not be comfortable with or couldn’t see before, beneath it all I’ve learnt that if you look hard enough to see it, there is a story and it’s yours.

The show

The show is biographical, and started out as a volunteer community storytelling piece developed with the support of Windmill Hill City Farm. Through drawing on my own memories of my grandmother, growing up and growing older I first developed the original story for performance at two community farm events. I was also influenced by the older people I had met who talked to me about their lives and the process of ageing, something which none of us really can fully appreciate until we experience it ourselves. It was this and losing my nan last year which prompted me to develop the work which as well as being personal to me, I felt could also resonate with many people.   Ultimately it aims to draw attention to the fragility and possibility of life and the extraordinariness of the seemingly everyday experience, which we can so easily take for granted in an often busy, frequently consumerist and sometimes spiritless world.

I hope you can come to see it.

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‘If thing’s don’t change’ is being performed as part of a double bill with Chris Dugrenier’s   ‘Wealth’s last caprice’ a sensitive and funny reflection on what we value. Showing at the Wardrobe Theatre on Thursday May 23rd 6pm/£5 email tickets@thewardrobetheatre.com to reserve your seats.

The Wardrobe Theatre is ‘a place where anything can happen. Where fresh nutritious performance is premier, where arts cuts don’t stop the passion, and where the people of Bristol can experience the thrill of live performance’ and is located above The White Bear Pub, St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. You’ll have a nice time.