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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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)