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












Finding Stories

Learning to be a Filmmaker

‘Jeepney” My first short film

‘Jeepney” My first short film

I’ve always been a fan of filmmaker Ken Loach. He seems to be able to create authentic stories of people living on the margins of society and make their lives rich and important. Stories that entertain us, but also stories we need to hear that teach us something about the world we live in.

With the thought/delusion that I might be able to make movies like Ken Loach, after a long time of working in the theatre, I went to college to learn how to be a filmmaker in 2006. I thought, at the time, that the most interesting creative work was in happening in films. Theatre seemed to me to be a little stale. I was tired of seeing clever people showing off  – which is what I was beginning to think professional theatre was all about – and I wanted to see stories that explored real lives in real situations.

I wasn’t learning much from a lot of actors ‘standing about on stages and talking to each other’.  In fact, I’ve never really been keen on the idea of ‘actors’ pretending to be somebody else, I was much more interested in ‘performers/creators’ who expose something of themselves in front of audiences/spectators as well as presenting great stories and beautiful imagery.

In describing this I am using the language of people like Robert Lepage. Robert pointed out some years ago that audiences listen and spectators watch – he wanted a new word to describe the people who came to his shows – he wanted them to participate in the process.

As for film – there now seems to be so many new ways of making movies whether it is high quality 3D like Wim Wenders with “Pina” and Alfonso Cuarón with “Gavity” – both amazing by the way – or the guerrilla style documentary that explores the relationship between fiction and reality. It is now possible to make movies on a smart phone or to get hold of professional equipment quite cheaply. People can become filmmakers comparatively easily and can make amazing films that are successful and groundbreaking on a very small budget. The opportunities for creating films are getting easier, the old days of subsidy for the arts maybe collapsing but if you want to make a short movie you can do it – on your phone.

People Playing Themselves

I am particularly interested in how the US based Italian filmmaker, Roberto Minervini, develops his work. His latest film “Stop the Pounding Heart” was premiered in Cannes last year and is currently playing cinemas in Europe and doing the festival circuit.

'Stop the Pounding Heart’ film by Roberto Minervini

‘Stop the Pounding Heart’ film by Roberto Minervini

Described in the Hollywood Reporter as:

“ … a hybrid of documentary and unscripted narrative depicting real people in an insular rural community, the film’s cast is made up primarily of members of two large families in Texas. The chief focus is the Carlsons, goat farmers who run an artisanal dairy business, selling milk, cheese and yoghurt at local farmers’ markets.

The parents, Leeanne and Tim, raise their twelve children according to a strict interpretation of the Bible, homeschooling them to limit negative influences. It’s an austere life of prayer, work and religious studies at mealtime, with no sign in the house of such standard communication tools as television, computers or telephones.

At 14, Sara is one of the older siblings, helping to educate and care for her young brothers and sisters while navigating her own way into adulthood. When she meets Colby Trichell, a young amateur bull rider from a more rough-edged Christian family, a mutual interest develops that’s so guarded it could barely be defined as attraction.”

The Passage

I worked with Roberto in The Philippines on my own short films and later in Texas when I played one of the leading characters in his first feature, “The Passage” – a road movie that took us from from Houston to Marfa, Texas. It was great fun and it taught me a lot. The film was created on the road in ‘real’ situations, with the ‘real’ people we met on the way playing themselves.  The character I played was also pretty close to me, a lost soul, an artist, searching for something to believe in again. There were also a few confrontations with the police, which was a bit scary, and all those guns!

Marfa Red

‘The Passage’ a film by Roberto Minervini

Learning in Unexpected Ways

I had also been working this way at the International Academy of Film and Television in Mactan Island in the Philippines, my college, trying to get inside the hearts of the people of the place and let the camera tell their stories. I made four short films there and, after leaving college, started to make my first feature.

However circumstances changed and a terrible tragedy made me give up filming there.

I returned to UK pretty broken. But the years have healed the sense of quilt I felt and I am now working productively again. I’ve gone back to creating theatre but in different environments and circumstance. I worked for a few years with the homeless charity ‘Changing Lives’, (Formally The Cyrenians) working with people who had experienced homelessness, trying to reflect and shine some light on their stories. We did performance work, writing projects, photography, short films, sang together, built web sites and held music events. All of it was aimed at understanding the lives of people who had found themselves in deeply chaotic times and needed help to rediscover themselves and their sense of worth, their abilities and their talents. It was a learning process for me and I shared that learning with many people – both the people who participated in the activities and the people who came to see and listen to our events.  It was an important time for me and I hope for the hundreds of people that I worked with. I know that a lot of them benefitted from the process and from the creation of the different events we worked on together. I remember them all and smile.

The Performance Ensemble

(c) David Wardle

The Performance Ensemble

Now I have moved on again and am developing a new Ensemble. – The Performance Ensemble – which works with people over the age of 60. The ensemble makes contemporary theatre for audiences of all ages. Stories that emerge from the heart of communities. Creating a hybrid company of an ‘Ensemble of Equals’ from different backgrounds, skill and cultures searching for authenticity and meaning  and creating beautiful events.

But I’ve written about that before – you can read about that here