I've been sitting in on rehearsals for this unique collaboration between The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Diverse City and The Bristol Old Vic
Jenny Stephens, Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, has always been passionate about having a diverse student population. In the three years since I first started my Directing MA, I have seen the impact of this championing of people from all backgrounds with an ever increasing diversity of student intake.
However, as with most drama schools, BOVTS rarely sees applications from students with disabilities and both Jenny and Paul Rummer (School Principle) are keen to see that change.
In 2017 BOVTS with support from the CDD, commissioned me to conduct research into the barriers faced by disabled students in applying and studying at drama school with the aim of understanding how best to attract and train disabled students. This lead to conversations with
Diverse City a pioneering arts organisation committed to promoting equality and diversity in the industry and specialists in inclusive performances and working practices.
Alongside these conversations, a collaboration between Diverse City and Bristol Old Vic had been brewing for some time with Artistic Co-directors Jamie Beddard and Clare Hogson acting as Agents for Change, helping the Bristol Old Vic to address its approach to inclusion. Jamie, who is also an actor with Cerebal Palsy, had performed at the Bristol Old Vic in Messiah in 2017.
It was therefore proposed that in 2018, the annual co-production between BOVTS and the Bristol Old Vic should extend to include Diverse City with Artistic Director Jamie Beddard playing the title role in The Elephant Man.
As a result of my initial research, I have been called back in to the School to document and evaluate The Elephant Man with a view to understanding the benefits and challenges of what is called 'integrated rehearsals' - rehearsals that include both disabled and non-disabled actors.
So what can I tell you? Well so far everything seems to be going pretty smoothly. After some initial nervousness from the company about saying the wrong thing and making sure Jamie felt welcome, the company have settled down into quite a standard rehearsal period. Director Lee Lyford made sure that there wasn't too much time to let nerves take hold and threw them straight into exploration of some movement sequences with the cast lifting and manipulating Jamie's body.
What is different however, is the palpable pride that the students feel in being involved in such an exciting collaboration. When I asked Grainne O'Mahoney who is playing Mrs Kendall, how she felt after the first day of rehearsals, she was more than enthusiastic: 'I felt extremely lucky, really warm hearted and it felt like we were doing something that would be really powerful.’
In addition, there is a real warmth and kindness in the room that is tangibly different from other rehearsal rooms that I have been in. This is partly thanks to Jamie's personality, his sense of humour and genuine interest in everyone promotes a certain kind of empathy. But it is also the philosophy of inclusion that surrounds the whole project. Every element of the audience experience has been thought about in as inclusive a form as possible from the surtitling of all the actors to the audio description of the action, this production truly is for everyone.
If you would like to read the final evaluation of the rehearsal process or my original research paper into the barriers faced by disabled students, please email email@example.com