Program Profile

Feature Issue on Careers in The Arts for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Mind the Gap: Looking After What Others Overlook

Author(s)

Julia Skelton is executive director of Mind the Gap in Yorkshire, England. She may be reached at julia@mind-the-gap.org.uk.

Two white women, one with dark hair and the other blonde, demonstrate a move to seated students in the background. The woman with dark hair is bent over, resting her right elbow on her knee while her left arm and leg extend. The woman with blonder hair stands in profile, legs straight, slightly bending at the waist into the side of the other woman.

Karen Bartholomew of Mind the Gap leads a contact improvisation session with dance students, including Michelle Robertshaw, right. Photo by Les Parkinson.

Mind the Gap is the largest theatre company in England that puts performers with a learning disability and/or autism front and centre stage. Founded in 1988 by Susan Brown and Tim Wheeler, we are based in Bradford, in Yorkshire, in the North of England.

We often get asked about the origin of the company name. Triggered by the co-founders hearing the London Underground’s famous booming announcement “MIND … THE … GAP” when discussing what to name the company, the term also reflects our commitment to looking after things that others might overlook.

In particular, this means raising the visibility of, and opportunities for, people who identify as having a learning disability within the arts and creative sector.

We do this by making and touring high quality shows and events. We tour work across the United Kingdom, and internationally, especially within Europe – though sadly we’ve not yet made it “across the pond” to the United States!

In the past five years, our work has largely revolved around a major project called “Daughters of Fortune.” It was inspired by a chance remark by one of our core team performers whose sister, who also identifies on the autistic spectrum, was pregnant and undergoing an assessment to determine if she and her husband were able to parent their expected child.

This led to a major exploration of the subject of learning disability and parenthood, initially through research led by Royal Holloway University London. Based on this research, we have made four very different artistic responses that explore this issue. Each of these has been devised with, and is performed by, performers with a learning disability and/or autism. Each has a particular purpose and audience in mind, aiming to raise awareness and understanding, and we hope lead to better support for parents with disabilities.

The first of these responses, or “daughters,” is “Anna,” an interactive forum theatre workshop initially aimed at those with direct experience with the issues raised. This has been developed into a training package, including a film of the show, for people working in health and social care, e.g. midwives, social workers, healthcare workers.

The second, “Mia,” is a small-scale touring show – designed for theatre and arts centre spaces, and festivals, including the famous Edinburgh Fringe. This high energy, cheeky, multi-media show is aimed at wider theatre-going audiences, encouraging them to think about these issues – possibly for the first time, or differently.

A Black woman with a yellow coat and her hair tied back in a small bun leans toward a lighted, vertical panel featuring several different scenes of furniture and people.

Charlotte Jones in A Little Space. Photo by Tom Woollard.

The third daughter, “Zara,” super-sized the issues through a large-scale outdoor event, which Mind the Gap co-produced with outdoor arts expert partner Walk the Plank. This put a giant baby puppet – the size of a two-storey high house – at the centre of a spectacular show that showed Mum’s Zara mammoth struggle with the authorities to be able to keep her baby Eva. Through four live events in Halifax Yorkshire and London in April 2019, including a livestream internet broadcast, we reached more than 10,000 people across England and globally.

And, finally, “Paige” is a photobook featuring the stories of parents with learning disabilities who’ve been involved in the research. This is designed to show our value and appreciation of the people who’ve shared their often-painful stories with us. We aim also to illuminate the complexity of the subject of learning disability and parenthood for wider audiences, and hope it will lead to change and better support.

The “Daughters of Fortune” project illustrates how Mind the Gap interweaves the talents of our performance ensemble, with subjects and opportunities that are relevant to people with a learning disability and/or autism. Sometimes, as in the case of Daughters of Fortune, this is a very direct link. For other work, it’s a more indirect link, such as our unique adaptations of existing works such as Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice & Men.

Some of our work is about exploring new artistic forms, like our collaboration with Gecko physical theatre company to create A Little Space. And sometimes we are just out to have fun and engage new audiences, such as our walkabout festival piece Mirror Mirror, which featured two creatures in mirrored costumes.

Growing our own talent is the second key strand of Mind the Gap’s work. We do this mainly through our training academy, which has grown from one training programme called Making Waves that started in 1998, to a thriving area of work that now offers six different courses. The most intensive of these is our Performance Academy, which runs for four days each week over 35 weeks, and over three years. Over the past year we have worked with York St. John University in the UK to achieve approval for this course to lead to a certificate in higher education at Level 4. In the UK, this is the same level as year one of a university degree, and Mind the Gap is the first theatre company in the UK to achieve this level for a training course designed for learning-disabled students.

The third and equally important part of our work is collaboration and exchange of learning. Mind the Gap can’t be the only answer for people with learning disabilities who aspire to be involved in the creative sector as artists, participants and audiences. While we currently support 14 artists as part of our core team, we can’t provide ongoing and full-time employment for everyone.

So, we aim to provide a leadership role within the UK creative sector by working alongside others to create more and new opportunities. This includes theatres and arts centre venues, fellow learning-disability organisations and individual artists, and key stakeholders and funders like Arts Council England.

We offer training about inclusive practice and access, but advancing opportunities for creatives with disabilities is most effectively achieved by working with individuals and organisations in a long-term and sustained way. Over the past three years, thanks to funding from UK stakeholders Esmee Fairbairn and Paul Hamlyn Foundations, we’ve been able to do just that with six UK theatres, including Leeds Playhouse, Albany London, and Northern Stage Newcastle.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic over this past year have, of course, presented many challenges for people with a learning-disability and/or autism. Notwithstanding these, Mind the Gap has also created new opportunities using digital platforms like Zoom and Teams. We’ve been positively surprised and encouraged by people’s resilience and ready aptitude to learn new skills. Through a practical creative tool called the Creative Doodle Book, created by York St. John University in partnership with us, we’ve actually worked with 30 new groups, and over 200 new people. We have found that digital technology can bring greater democracy and better access when used thoughtfully and creatively.

So, in spite of the challenges ahead, Mind the Gap remains buoyant, optimistic and determined. 

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Profiles: Mind the Gap | This music video features Mind the Gap performers.