Projects, Performers, Performance

Mind the Gap

photo Denis Darzacq

Jack Riley and Liam Bairstow from Mind the Gap ©Denis Darzacq

Travel broadens the mind, so the cliché goes, so here I am sitting in a sunny top floor flat in Budapest thinking about the work that I am currently doing in Bradford for Mind the Gap.

I’ve gone a long way in my attempt to understand the nature of things. I am often confused and exasperated at my inability to explain what I am doing and why I am doing it. Sometimes a little clarity emerges and I can explain things a bit better. That normally happens when I am thousands of miles from the place that I am doing it. So coming to Budapest was important in doing my work in Bradford better.

©Denis Darzacq

Susan Middleton Mind the Gap Ambassador ©Denis Darzacq

I first worked with Mind the Gap in 2003, when I was at Northern Stage, and asked Tim Wheeler, then Artistic Director and one of the founders of the company, to collaborate with us on a touring production.  We decided to create a new version of ‘Don Quixote’ adapted by Mike Kenny, and it toured to 18 venues across UK, with a company of learning-disabled and non learning-disabled performers, from two ensemble theatre companies, to great critical acclaim. Tim and I became good friends and I have been loosely involved with the company, over the years, since that time.  Last year Tim resigned as Artistic Director of Mind the Gap and I was asked to join the company as a consultant and ‘critical friend’ to help them through a process of change.

©Denis Darzacq

Euan Evans Thirlwell Mind the Gap Academy Student ©Denis Darzacq

It has been a fantastic opportunity for me and I have learnt much more than I could ever have imagined through the process. I have of course my own methods and idiosyncratic ways, but the time spent with Mind the Gap has made me question some of those long held beliefs. What is emerging for me now is a new way of thinking about theatre and how to make it.

What I have learnt working with Mind the Gap.

I am currently in rehearsal for a new piece of theatre called Contained which opens at Mind the Gap Studios on 16th October 2015 at 7.30. Come and see it.

Listening to the Mind the Gap performers’ stories has been up-lifting and I have learnt so many things from them, including some pretty deep thoughts about what it is to be human.  Their stories have become the true centre of our work, reflecting their lives with honesty and finding new ways of presenting themselves through story telling, music, dance and just by being who they are. Sometimes the simplest of tasks takes on a sense of deep meaning, for example, watching them go about a series of jobs on stage, moving a speaker, plugging in an amp, testing a microphone become powerful moments of self expression.

©Denis Darzacq

Chloe Shaw-Champion and Israr Abbas Mind the Gap Ambassadors ©Denis Darzacq

One of the aims of the work has been to create the environment in which the performers have been able to say, in a sincere and complete manner, I am me, I am here and I am fine.  It takes a lot of guts to say that and mean it.  Many of us find it really difficult to do. It makes us vulnerable and unsure, yet if we can believe it, it can make us powerful and lovable. The Mind the Gap performers’ have become experts at presenting themselves. Nobody does it like they do it and it is wonderful to watch.

Which, of course, is true of anybody presenting themselves in front of you with complete sincerity.

One of my favourite stories, that I repeat a lot, was told me by the Russian director Yevgeny Arye, artistic director of Gesher Theatre Company in Tel Aviv.  He explained that he was watching rehearsals one day when a door opened in the wings and a cleaner just swept the back area of the stage without noticing anything else going on. Yevgeny explained that it was mesmerising and beautiful to watch, much more interesting than the ‘actors’ working hard in front of him. I hold that story close to my heart. Let’s bring the cleaners to the front of the stage.

©Denis Darzacq

Jez Colborne Mind the Gap Resident Artist photographed by Denis Darzacq


The Music of Jez Colborne

I got to know Jez Colborne when he was a performer in the Northern Stage/Mind the Gap co-production of Don Quixote back in 2003. Years later I went to see ‘Irresistible – Call of the Sirens’ written by Jez.  It was amazing.  Jez as a composer and performer was just brilliant and it was obvious that I wanted to collaborate with him on Contained. He started writing music for the piece and it suddenly occurred to me that a great narrative for our show would be the making of a music video. The performers would create a band to play Jez’s music. They would seem to learn it and rehearse it during the show and finally they would perform a finished version at the end of the show.  ‘Im Me’ music composed and with lyrics by Jez is produced by long-term Mind the Gap Associate Artist Si McGrath.  It will be accompanied by the music video directed by French photographer Denis Darzacq.

©Denis Darzacq

Khadijah Afza Mind the Gap Academy Student photographed by Denis Darzacq

 The photography of Denis Darzacq

I was introduced to the work of Denis Darzacq by Mind the Gap when I saw photographs from his exhibition ACT some years ago. He had captured powerful moments that touched me deeply. When I started working on ideas for Contained I immediately thought of him as a collaborator. I believed that the authentic moments I was looking for, from the stories of the performers, could be achieved more effectively through the photography of Denis. It would give me a start. I would get to know the performers better by looking at them first in photography by Denis.

©Denis Darzacq

Jack Riley Mind the Gap Academy Student photographed by Denis Darzacq


In creating Contained we started by filming every performer from Mind the Gap’s Academy and Resident Artists to learn their story. One minute on camera each. Then Denis took a series of portraits and ‘sofa’ shots. We were compiling material. Stories and images were quickly accumulated. We filmed with Denis in locations around Bradford for a week for our final music video of Jez’s song. This was the source material that we would use for the creation of our piece of theatre.

©Denis Darzacq

Alison Short Mind the Gap Resident Artist photographed by Denis Darzacq

Once all the stories were collected we started to devise a project that could accommodate that material.

So ……

Contained (The Project) is a ‘circle of projects’, that surrounds a piece of high quality theatre, that feed off each other artistically and build long-lasting relationships with people locally, nationally and internationally.

The ‘circle of projects’ are developed from a relationship with a new performance piece, Contained (The Performance),  which at its centre, is a collection of personal stories told by an ensemble of performers, with a range of learning disabilities, whilst they create a music video.

The activities include a series of one-minute films, a two day filmmaking residency, an Academy showcase, a music video, a documentary about learning disability, an exhibition and much more.

Ideas travel between each mini-project – informing, exciting and generating enthusiasm for the whole range of ideas and activities, developing an holistic/integrated approach to the project as a whole.

Contained (The Project) will grow experientially over time, changing and developing and deepening the experience for ourselves and the people we create the projects for and with.

The theatre piece is moving  towards its final stage. Rehearsals for the final production starts at the beginning of September. I will be back on familiar ground in a rehearsal room with a team of performers and theatre practitioners.

The place I love to be. It’s going to be beautiful.

©Denis Darzacq

Denis Darzacq and Euan Evans-Thirlwell ©Denis Darzacq












Performers Being Themselves

Special People Creating Special Performance

Elixir Festival

Mats Ek and Ana Kaguna at the Elixir Festival (Picture: Stephanie Berger)

Last week I was at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London seeing performances at Elixir Festival. Brilliant performances by some amazing people.

Joan Hewson is 96. She sits on a chair with her stick and then she moves gently with delicate grace with her partner. Her movements and smiles touched my heart. I imagined what her long life might have been and I see her now, in that moment, as a beautiful expressive performer telling us her story through the way she moves.

The night before I had watched some dancers from my past. Retired dancers from London Contemporary Dance Company, and other companies, who are now in their 60’s and 70’s were back on stage, telling their stories through small anecdotes projected on the wall behind them as they dance.

I have long been excited by performers presenting themselves on stage. I am a believer in the principle that audiences/spectators like to see who the performer is, as much as ‘what they do’ on stage. Dancers dance, but in doing so they reveal a lot about themselves. We see them as people first and performers second.

Mind the Gap

Last week I was also in the rehearsal rooms of Mind the Gap Ensemble  in Bradford watching rehearsals for their new show ‘Trickster’ a co-production with That’s Life, a group of people ‘with intellectual disabilities creating art & celebrating life’.

I have long been an admirer of the work created by Mind the Gap. I can’t remember the first show that I saw of theirs, it was many years ago, but I do remember their brilliant production of ‘Of Mice and Men’ in a studio theatre in Bradford.  I felt moved and inspired by the work.

photo credit

Mind the Gap ‘Of Mice and Men’ (photo Tim Mitchell)

The performers gave performances of such depth – Seeing that production made me realise the major reason I make theatre. For me it always starts from my interest in the performer, first as a person and secondly what they do.

It does not matter to me whether they are ‘professional’, ‘amateur ‘ or ‘community participant’, ‘able bodied’ or ‘with learning or intellectual disability’, ‘an older performer’ – I wish we could get rid of these labels.

When I watch theatre I just want to feel connected and lost in the moment. Sometimes to be moved and sometimes to laugh and to learn and simply enjoy the theatrical experience.

The Elixir Festival, the rehearsal with Mind the Gap last week and ‘Of Mice and Men’ many years ago are all examples of a type of theatre that is becoming more popular with audiences/spectators. I am happy this is the case.

However Mind the Gap is still not well known by general audiences.  It is an award–winning company that works with learning disabled and non-disabled artists as equals. Based in Bradford, West Yorkshire, it has flourished as one of the UK’s leading disability-related theatre companies, placing a strong emphasis on outstanding drama and not disability.

Last week it was announced that Tim Wheeler, co-founder and Artistic Director of Mind the Gap has resigned from the company.

In 2003 I asked Tim and the Mind the Gap Ensemble to make a co-production with the Northern Stage Ensemble. We decided to create a new version of ‘Don Quixote’ adapted by Mike Kenny, and it toured to 18 venues across UK to great critical acclaim. Tim and I became good friends and I have been loosely involved with the company, over the years, since that time.

'Irresistible' (photo Tim Mitchell)

‘Irresistible’ (photo Tim Mitchell)

Not long ago I saw their production of ‘Irresistible’ , an energetic and entertaining live event combining music, theatre and sirens. It was performed as part of  the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games celebrations and has gone on to tour nationally and internationally. ‘Irresistible’ was a change in direction for the company. The idea was sparked by the creative mind of Jez Colborne, an accomplished actor, musician, performer – and fantastic siren impersonator – who has worked with Tim for many years. Jez has a condition called Williams syndrome where one of the benefits is that he has perfect pitch. He is an extraordinary performer and has been an important part of Mind the Gap

Tim and his colleagues have created a great company and I hope, that with him leaving, it will not cause too much disruption. Their work deserves to be seen it the mainstream cultural institutions where it still finds it difficult to get bookings

‘Irresistible’ played outside the National Theatre in London in 2012. Hopefully it will not be long before they are seen inside the building.

The last words are from Tim …

‘Mind the Gap is not a therapeutic organisation. Where our interest lies is in the unique stories and unique perspectives and looking at ways to spread its message in the artistic and theatrical sector.

We’re not just interested in the stories of people with learning disabilities we are also interested in the creation and development of ideas’

Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler