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Written by Ruth Richardson

Beyond Participation

Open Theatre is based in Coventry and works right across the West Midlands region as well as nationally and internationally. It has been developing work with young people with learning disabilities through non-verbal physical theatre for over 30 years. Partnership Manager for the Midlands, Ruth Richardson, spoke to company director Richard Hayhow, to find out more about their work and how they employ young creatives.

A newly visible, richer, skilled workforce.
A newly visible, richer, skilled workforce.

Tell me about yourself and your work.

I’m Richard Hayhow, Director of Open Theatre. I’m also a Professor in Krasnoyarsk University in Siberia, where I am affectionately known as Professor Hee Hee. It’s important to me to dream about the best possibilities for the people we work with and then make great work that showcases them and challenges audiences’ ideas of what is possible.

Our work ranges from creative workshops in special schools to training in professional skills through ‘real world’ productions.

Our work is very wide-ranging. One of the five programmes we run is The Talent Lab which supports emerging artists with learning disabilities. The Talent Lab aims to work with young people from the age of five to 25. Our work ranges from creative workshops in special schools to training in professional skills through ‘real world’ productions.

Our work is delivered in schools, communities, with families and support workers and directly with young people themselves. Much of our work is developed with the support of Creative Enablers – practitioners trained to assist with and broker the development and/or expression of creative ideas.

What workplace training and employment opportunities do you provide for young people?

Our organisation is completely about training. We support young people in skills development artistically, socially and in developing an independent career. We use what we call ‘Real World Projects’, such as recent tour of Hansel & Gretel, where young people learn on the job alongside fellow professionals. Hansel and Gretel forms part of our family shows series, known as Twisted Tales.

The production employed five early career professional performers with learning disabilities (alongside two emerging performers without disabilities), plus a trainee creative enabler and technician, both on the Autistic spectrum.

The company took part in three exploratory workshops or devising days, rehearsed three days per week for six weeks. We delivered workshops in nine mainstream schools on the remaining two days of those weeks. The unique skills and experiences of the company continued to shape the show throughout the rehearsal period.

We support young people in skills development artistically, socially and in developing an independent career.

We collaborated with Director Esther Simpson & Visuals Designer Paul Long from Metro Boulot Dodo, Set & Costume Designer Kate Unwin, the Open Theatre creative enabling team and technical staff from the Hippodrome.

The production premiered in the Patrick Studio at Birmingham Hippodrome, then toured the West Midlands, performing to over 2,400 family & school audiences. This included two relaxed performances. Over 700 children took part in workshops alongside the performance.

What are the main benefits of providing training opportunities?

It allows us to learn how to support the needs of emerging artists with learning disabilities in a tailor-made way. We build career trajectories with them, both short term and long term, and learn how to do it better every time.

Together we demonstrate what is possible and can be achieved. Then we can share learning with other organisations, including our partners at Metro-Boulot-Dodo and Birmingham Hippodrome. They share our passion for ensuring all people have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

What are the benefits to your young employees and to society?

We offer real-world experience and paid employment. We offer the chance to mix with fellow professionals with and without disabilities; helping young people to gain recognition as inventive, creative, skilled people.

Our work enables young people to showcase their abilities to the wider art sector and a wide range of audiences. Ultimately this work develops young people’s confidence and belief that they can follow their dreams and achieve their ambitions.

This work also changes attitudes of audiences as to what can be achieved by performers and young people with learning disabilities. It provides recognition of the quality of the work created and therefore a broadening of cultural experiences audiences can engage with. It ensures a newly visible, richer, skilled workforce.

Where do you see the opportunities and areas for growth within youth employment in the future?

Through partnerships like this we can showcase what is possible. One of Open Theatre’s core aims is to enable other organisations to work effectively with young people with learning disabilities and create similar opportunities. Growth will come from others experiencing this work and creating opportunities in their locality.

Finally, if you could give careers advice to your younger self, would that advice be?

If I look back, even if it didn’t make sense at the time, there is nothing I would change. I would say follow your instincts, hold true to what you believe and stick with it.