(Photo: Katy Rubin. Pictured: Jonathan Lewis)
This past weekend’s journey (November 18-20, 2011) was a strange one: the first leg took me from New York to London, two cities I’m familiar with, to greater or lesser degree, and which have much in common. But London was just a stop on the way: three trains (silent—the Brits don’t speak much on public transportation) took me past quite a few sheep till I landed in Bradford, Yorkshire. Bradford is a small industrial city, now very economically depressed with big empty mills and plenty of small, recently-closed shops, as well as a gaping hole in the city center where a building project was begun just before the recession hit. It’s the “Bradford Hole.” My first day in town was spent getting my bearings, and coming to terms with the truth that all the food outside of London is fried, mushy, creamy, sugary or some combination of the above. Interestingly, the neighborhood in which I’m staying is entirely an immigrant one, mostly Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants who eat at MahMoods, the Halal MacDonalds. It was disorientating to travel into the middle of England, only to wake up in the morning to the golden arches of MahMoods out my window. Although—in 2011, maybe there’s no reason to be surprised. I can get a little New York-centric, I suppose, thinking that we have the monopoly on diversity….
Any feeling of being out of place disappeared yesterday morning when I walked intothe beautiful studios at Mind the Gap, an incredible theatre company dedicated to developing and producing work by and with learning-disabled artists. Their studios, which leave me alternately salivating with jealousy and feeling inspired, are a way of repurposing those old, abandoned silk mills which both made and then unmade this city decades ago. The studios (including office spaces, kitchens, rehearsal and performance spaces, recording studio, lounges, etc) are also accessible to every possible human who might walk through its doors: elevators, sliding doors, accessible restrooms and many other elements I can’t identify. In addition to accessibility, Artistic Director Tim Wheeler stressed to me the importance of transparency: with viewing spots (complete with benches and armrests for drinking tea) everywhere for people to watch rehearsals without having to participate in that moment, or intrude. Their transparency continued in the way they welcomed me into both the creative and administrative areas of the work from the first moment. At the end of my second day today, I joined the staff meeting, to learn about struggles as well as successes and hear from old, seasoned artists in the company as well as newer members. This transparency feels like a great gift. I’m getting news of Thanksgiving preparations at home, and while there’s not mention of it here, it seems I’ve landed on a theatre company characterized by its gratitude. The actors participate, are hired, because of their incredible abilities, not their disabilities, and yet it is recognized that they have rare stories to tell, stories which many people haven’t heard.
In the last two days I’ve participated in contemporary dance class as well as Street Dance (Hip Hop) class, and then observed and assisted in the devising process of Unreliable Witness, an original piece based on the Acting Company’s experiences with hate crimes against disabled people. They have done research into the history of disability-related hate crime, back to the Greeks and the Romans, on through the witch-hunts and trials and up to the last century of abusive institutions. The play integrates these ancient stories with incidents that took place in the last few years in Britain, from the horrific (young disabled man imprisoned in a dog house, robbed, fed weed killer and beaten to death) to the merely terrible (young woman in a wheelchair, who could not speak, left in a hot bus for nine hours when caretakers forgot about her). These are explored alongside the stories the actors themselves have experienced, sometimes on the bus on the way to rehearsal. These are the stories following me into my dreams at night…as are the new ideas I’m eager to borrow (steal) from my colleagues here. I am also completely transparent, as a spy.
More to come…
(Editor’s note: The following video was taken by Katy Rubin on 11/22/11. This video features the professional Acting Company and the Making Theatre students, who are training all together in a “street dance” class at Mind the Gap theatre in Bradford, England. This video shows solos they created in the class and grouped together in pairs or trios to make a collective dance to Usher’s OMG.)
(This video was taken during rehearsal for Unreliable Witness with the professional Acting Company at Mind the Gap.)
Katy Rubin, Founding Artistic Director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, has facilitated the creation of Forum Theatre performances in New York with homeless adults; LGBT homeless youth; people living with HIV/AIDS; and recent immigrants; and has both trained and developed theatre in Brazil, India, and Nicaragua.
The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.