Sometimes there are posts that take me a long time to assimilate and write because I want to be absolutely certain that I am conveying the authentic essence of what I’ve seen and the way it has touched me. It was in November that I first saw this wonderful show, but re-visited last Friday, and I apologise to Mind The Gap that it has taken so long to set these words in place.
Storytelling has been a part of the history of mankind ever since Cro-Magnon found out that iron oxide and black manganese pigments could be applied to the walls of his cave and the stories that arise out of authentic human experience have a psychological depth of power and primal communication that is integral to every one of us in finding our sense of place, identity and meaning in this world. Stories provide us with links to traditions, legends, archetypes, myths and symbols. They are about collaboration and communication, transcending generations and barriers, engaging our emotions and connecting us with others. Through them we share our passions, sadnesses, hardships, joys, meaning and purpose, finding a common ground that allows us to overcome our defences and differences, understand ourselves better and see a congruity with others.
‘Contained’, performed by Mind The Gap, England’s largest learning disability theatre company, is a celebration of all those wonderful snippets of stories that we have so absorbed into our beings that we forget they are there in the day to day, but that shape our lives with import and reason, allowing us to understand our reactions to life and events.
An excellent example of this is Alison’s story, where she intelligently tells of how she was visiting a family member in hospital; a new mum whose baby was very poorly, and the nurses were struggling to understand the parents’ complacency about the situation. Alison stepped in and recognised the problem immediately, because she viewed life through the same lens. Because of her unique perception, she was able to access support and to explain to the nursing staff. Through leading us through the drama of the scary situation, relaying her own vulnerability and tears, and then through to the joy of the child’s recovery and baptism, Alison beautifully establishes her own meaning and wholeness.
Alan Lyddiard, the Director, cares first and foremost about people; the ones who are doing the performance. He instinctively recognises that when people intuit our care for them, they feel safe and secure to open up and tell their stories. By working with the theatre over a long period of time and through a stepped process that slowly builds trust and support, he has brought each actor to perform in a way that feels natural and right for each one of them. I was privileged to be a participant in one of Mr Lyddiard’s workshops last year and witnessed for myself, in a tiny snapshot of a process that, in reality, takes many hours of work, the gentle, almost meditative way, that he builds confidence and courage to access the forgotten stories within.
It is only when each individual is secure in owning the stories that are significant to them that the Director then goes on to explore how to enable them to present those stories in the best way possible. For some, that may be through unobtrusive film, for others they may feel liberated through music and dance, and yet others use green screen technology. It is heartening to see the choices and freedom that are available to each individual as they connect with their stories.
Some of the tales relayed are heart-warmingly wonderful and life-affirming. Accounts of love and contentment, of work successes and family found. Others touch chords deep within the audience and rock us from frustration, anger, injustice and hurt. All are raw, unmasked, true emotion that can only come from a place of vulnerability and are testimony to the security that this group of people find in their colleagues at Mind The Gap. It is significant that the Academy Director, Charli Ward, who is ever present, gently standing alongside those who need it, tells her own story and allows herself to be exposed to that process in exactly the same way as the company members; that action speaks volumes not only of the all inclusive nature and family atmosphere of Mind The Gap, but of a lady who is prepared to place her standing with her professional colleagues on the line in a deeply personal way, in order to reinforce that each individual here is just as valuable to the world we live in as each other person we encounter day by day. There is a place, intention and validity for every one of us.
Jez Colborne’s astounding musical ability has become a stalwart of Mind The Gap productions and this one is no different. His own story screams with the misunderstandings and prejudices of minds closed to the possibilities inherent in every individual. A street preacher had the cruel audacity to tell him that he was an abomination of God and should not have been born. Jez, a man whose life is played out through a faith that surely brings him far closer to his God than that preacher will ever know, could have been absolutely slain by that comment. But he wasn’t. He counteracted its effects and found healing from its intentions by doing what he does best – creating a beautiful piece of music,
“You can say what you want to, but you don’t know how I feel. There’s something inside me that I can’t conceal…Why do you think you know me, when the truth is you don’t. You seem to think you can break me, but I know you won’t…I’m me. That’s who I am. I’m me…I believe in freedom; I don’t believe in fear. I believe we all have the right to be here.”
And the refrain of those words echo and repeat through this beautiful production, taken up as a triumphant hymn of rejoicing, danced, sung and played by the whole ensemble with such affirmation and joy that it fills the space and is carried out by the audience members into the world beyond.
As the project has travelled, further stories have been gathered, filmed by Emilie Flower and directed by Denis Darzacq, which can all be viewed on the MtGStudios You Tube channel, and each feedback form gives an invitation for the audience to tell their own stories.
The ‘Contained’ project started with Alan Lyddiard’s vision for Mind The Gap, a theatre company for learning disabled actors, that never fails to produce vitally meaningful and highly accomplished work. But, there is an intense sense of this piece having a far wider remit. It speaks to EVERY person, in cathartic affirmation, that our stories are what make us intrinsically us; unique, valuable and standing with our own infinite possibilities, giving us the authority and courage to move into all the opportunities that are available to us. Our limitations, no matter what they may be – and I would contest that we all have them - cannot contain our ability to thrive in life. And the capacity of the piece to do just that actually does away with any need for labelling or categorisation and sets it beautifully alongside every mainstream theatre piece in this country that is life-enhancing, bold, innovatively creative, and uses the power of narrative to its uttermost.
February 9th, 2016 – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich - 7.00p.m.
Box Office: 01473 295900
March 23rd, 2016 – The Albany, Deptford, South London – 7.30p.m.
March 24th, 2016 – The Albany, Deptford, South London – 7.30p.m.
Box Office: 020 8692 4446
April 14th, 2016 – Mind The Gap Studios, Bradford - 1.00p.m.
April 15th, 2016 – Mind The Gap Studios, Bradford – 7.30p.m.
April 16th, 2016 – Mind The Gap Studios, Bradford – 7.30p.m.
Box Office: 01274 48730.