Patient | Carer Community Projects
Learning Disabled Adult Theatre Workshops

“Theatre is nothing, yet makes use of everything -- gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness -- rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate theatre.” -

Antonin Artaud (Dramatist, poet, essayist, actor, and theatre director)


Bright Sparks Theatre Arts Company is a Theatre Company, based in Leeds, set up by John Hudson and Marc Walton.

Both John and Marc have a long history of making theatre with learning and physically disabled people, beginning in 1995 delivering drama workshops and arranging performances at Thomas Danby College, through to creating and delivering the epic 'Tale of The Giant Strawberry' and the subtle multi-media performance 'Swallows and Amazons', both at the West Yorkshire Playhouse's First Floor space in 2012. John's ongoing work over the past five years has seen a gamut of productions with Devon based 'Wolf and Water' and 'Get Changed' Theatre Companies. In addition, Marc has been Stage Manager for 'The Beautiful Octopus Club' since it began in Leeds at the Wardrobe Club over ten years ago. Both John and Marc are members of the Patient | Carer community.

'New Beginnings', was the first project for 'Bright Sparks', working with the Potternewton Centre through Februrary and March 2013, exploring acting skills and story making, building to a 45 minute rehearsed performance, the theme and content being dictated by the group. The project culminated in an intensive eight day residency at 'Stage@Leeds', a professional theatre space based at the University of Leeds. The Bright Sparks Company along with the theatre professionals based at Stage@Leeds added lights, costume and props through a flexible and creative series of workshops, culminating in two performances to a paying audience on Thursday 11th and Friday 12th April 2013.

Jools Symons (PPI Manager at LIME) was in the audience and invited the group, in 2014, to come to University of Leeds' School of Medicine, to employ a similar attitude to communications and theatre, delivering a series of one-day drama sessions which specifically involved student doctors as part of their communications skills training. Working in a friendly, safe, fun and creative environment together, each student participant in the project was left with a feeling of improved social understanding of physical and learning disabilities, from the highly tangible experiences that, in turn, lead to clear learning outcomes. One element that Bright Sparks find particularly important, is the way in which the realisation that "I've learnt something today" is by later reflection - the participants being caught up in the moment, as we move from one drama exercise to the next; and that everyone is having too much fun to get overly focussed on the actual reasons why we are doing what we are doing. The flipside of the project was how the Learning Disabled Adults came away with reduced anxiety about clinical environments and the medical professionals with whom they come into contact in their real lives. This was made abundantly clear, when one of the learning-disabled adults was overheard telling a student participant how well he had done that day; and how he was, "... one of the best students I've taught."

2015 saw Bright Sparks team up with medical students and physician sssociate students in LIME once more. This time inviting students to attend arts, drama and poetry sessions at Inkwell Creative Minds in Chapel Allerton (through the Mind charity) to work alongside the elderly, their friends and family and people living with Dementia and Alzheimers. Again, these shared creative experiences were designed to encourage a 'level playing field', where people from all walks-of-life, with varying levels of skill and ability could collectively take part in therapeutic arts exercises.


So, why use this technique?

In this section we explain why we use the activities that have been employed in the drama workshops, to cultivate a creative, fun and playful environment, in which every person involved is encouraged to participate and contribute equally. Many of the activities feature group devising work, in which the content of the drama is decided democratically. In order to achieve this, groups must negotiate; and in order to negotiate, they must communicate. Through drama games and a shared enjoyment of several types of creative process, the workshop participants quickly learn communication skills specific to the situation without necessarily realising it until they have had a chance to reflect on the activities.

Working with groups of learning disabled adults, using drama and theatre techniques, we were able to see the improvement of group members' self esteem and confidence, by allowing them the freedom of expression. Engaging a whole democratic group with drama games that involve negotiation, to reach a collective creative decision within a group, quickly improves an individual’s sense of worth. In order to negotiate participants must communicate. When taking part in "light-hearted" drama games, the learning outcomes happen in the moment in an unconscious and natural way; and moreover, it is often only in reflection, that participants realise how much they have derived from taking part.

In our years of teaching communication, we have seen a direct link established when bringing different communities together, in a way that would be hugely beneficial for them both. For the learning disabled adults it allows them to relate their concerns and opinions to the next generation of medical professionals, enabling their voice to be heard and giving them a sense of increased value. And for the students, the ability to engage with and begin to understand the needs and challenges for people with learning disabilities. This, taking place in a non-formal setting, encourages direct 'in-the-moment' learning and gives the students a real hands-on experience that serves to prepare them for these kind of encounters in their professional practice.

When working with people with unconventional ways of communicating whether it be due to a medical condition, disability or otherwise using drama and arts techniques proves really useful. This is because arts and drama by their very nature employ alternative ways of communicating beyond the usual day to day language based interactions.

One of our key approaches to this work is we do not think of learning disabled adults as ‘learning disabled’. We think of a group of adults with variable ways of communicating. In a typical drama session of 20 people, you will have 20 people who all will all communicate in different ways. Some will have limited verbal skills; some may have no verbal skills whatsoever, some will communicate through a support worker and some might not stop talking! There is often no formal convention for communication, which is radically different to most everyday situations where dialogue follows what we deem to be socially acceptable. This factor, along with challenging status within peer groups and unconsciously examining what we think we understand of this particular minority group is what makes it such an illuminating process for the students to undertake.