Necessity was the mother of reinvention for Vanessa Brooks, whose company’s talent is now reflected in its public identity.
Week three of rehearsals for Sing Something Simple find me unusually in our office rather than our rehearsal room. I can hear Mic Pool, digital projection designer and Tony award winner, rigging up the mini-Macs next door as we begin incorporating the visual aspects into the production.
It’s the first time Dark Horse Theatre has used digital design in a show, and along with a unique writing and rehearsal process forms part of the rare package that is our approach to theatre.
Sing Something Simple features a leading role written for Dark Horse actor, Joe Sproulle, and three other non learning disabled actors cast from the business also had roles crafted around their specific strengths. It has led to a vibrant, character-driven play and alongside our physical theatre techniques and silent approach to rehearsals is producing a piece of work that feels genuinely fresh.
A new comedy with music, it’s the first national tour we’re taking out under our Dark Horse identity. We rebranded the company in April 2012 and hope that our new name and website, featuring short films produced alongside our theatre productions, mark us out as something special. Stephen Joseph, founder of the theatre in the round at Scarborough, said that all theatre companies should reinvent themselves every seven years and it’s a philosophy we found ourselves eager to embrace.
Full Body & The Voice, our previous incarnation, was a name and identity immersed in a community-focused past, out of kilter with our ambition to eventually be mentioned in the same breath as Kneehigh, Headlong and Frantic Assembly as a touring company featuring new writing with leading roles for actors with learning disabilities. Our artistic output comes from uncompromising and stylish physical theatre married to the best of new writing forms.
Our previous moniker and ‘look’ – all childlike shapes and bright colours – worked well in the early days when the company developed devised pieces and explored form and practice with a group of learning disabled adults in a therapeutic setting. Increasingly, however, this identity was closing rather than opening doors to our (now) highly trained actors with learning disabilities.
Since 2008, the company has developed the skills of actors with learning disabilities through our drama school-validated actor training courses. ALRA (Academy of Live and Recorded Arts) offered its BA hons course documentation as a template for us to adapt into a unique training for learning disabled actors. Our student actors study voice, movement, acting technique, ensemble skills and acting for camera just like their non learning disabled contemporaries. The difference is in the approach.
At Dark Horse ‘doing’ is valued above ‘talking about it’ and the silent approach offers a fantastic opportunity for talented people without literacy or verbal skills to acquire vocational competence. We aim to train actors who can work in any context in the business without expecting accommodations and this ability came to full realisation in 2011 when we consulted on an episode of Channel 4’s Shameless.
Lawrence Till, insightful series producer, workshopped ideas with our actors and the episode writer Ian Kershaw. Subsequently, eight of our actors worked for eight days on location and in the studio in Whythanshawe, representing a group of ‘warts and all’ learning-disabled people in the finished product – drinking, swearing and contradicting the passive stereotype.
This new cohort of actors went on to deliver two exceptional productions in the round, Colony and Harvest, both tales of dystopia, the first concerning genetic engineering and the second post-apocalyptic survival. Gutsy and compelling, these shows performed by an ensemble of seven actors with Down’s Syndrome reversed audience expectations in terms of both the capability and representation of actors with learning disabilities.
None of this output chimed with the old company image as passive, playful and magical and we needed a much more grown up identity.
The process of rebranding wasn’t without its complexities and we were keen not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The company had some profile and the two national tours of Hypothermia – a powerful production in the round featuring one of our actors and four non-learning disabled actors – had firmly placed us on the trajectory towards touring theatre that plays out effectively to general audiences.
We engaged a digital design agency and PR consultants to assist us through the process and to ensure that all concepts were locked firmly onto our theatre production objectives. This “all roads lead to Rome” approach led to a unity of design across all the company’s outputs.
Rigging finished and actors arriving, I’m about to go into rehearsals, happy in the knowledge that our work and brand are saying the same thing and saying it unapologetically – that we make grown-up theatre with grown-up professionals who want and deserve to be taken seriously.