A front runner in inclusive theatre work

Joe Sproulle as Spencer Parkin. Picture: Amanda Crowther
Joe Sproulle as Spencer Parkin. Picture: Amanda Crowther
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Dark Horse provides opportunities to actors with learning difficulties and it is as good as any theatre company out there, according to actor Lisa Howard. She talks to Nick Ahad.

Actor Lisa Howard is something of a Yorkshire stalwart.

Red Ladder, York Theatre Royal, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Northern Broadsides, she has worked with all of them in a career which has seen her also appear in films and on TV.

A no-nonsense sort who calls it as she sees it, before she agrees to any job, there is always some sense of trepidation.

“There is something in the back of the mind that says ‘what will the quality of the work be like?’ I want to know that the company I am working with will meet my standards,” she 

Before you start thinking Howard is the sort who is a bit big for her boots, a clarification – she simply expects a level of professionalism. She brings her own work ethic into the rehearsal room, so she wants to know that when she works with a company, everyone will be pulling in the same direction.

She is, she admits, a little surprised at just how professional she has found the theatre company she is currently working with.

“Normally on a job, you come into the rehearsal room on the first morning, you have a chat, meet the other actors, conversation moves on to things like who your agent is, who you’ve worked with before, all that sort of thing,” says Howard. “So it’s really liberating actually to not have any of that.

“You know that when you are in the rehearsal room, you are there to work and that is the only thing you are there to do.”

What is this liberating trick that happens in the rehearsal room? No talking. Dark Horse is the theatre company that, in April 2012, was born from the company Full Body and The Voice. The name change of the Huddersfield-based company came about because artistic director Vanessa Brooks wanted to reflect the national ambition of the organisation, which was first established to create opportunities for actors with learning disabilities to work on stages around the country.

The focus has now shifted and Dark Horse sells itself as a “national touring theatre company which premieres new writing”. While that is the focus, the raison d’etre at the heart of the company remains. It is still an “ensemble of learning disabled actors and exceptional non-learning disabled actors from the broader industry”.

This is one of the reasons behind the no talking rule and the professionalism Howard has found with the company.

“It is important to have a structure and it is vital that you stick to the plan,” says Howard.

“There is no talking during warm-ups, none of the personal chatter you might normally have – once you get in the room, you have to stick to the plan and it is all about the work.

“I have worked with companies in Yorkshire where it is total anarchy, so it is actually really liberating to get the opportunity to work like this. I actually find it really refreshing.”

In the case of Dark Horse’s latest production, Sing Something Simple, it just so happens that one cast member has Down’s Syndrome. Actor Joe Sproulle, who plays Lisa’s son, is helped by the regimented way rehearsals are conducted.

“I had to be off book, so learn all my lines, before rehearsals began, which is an unusual way of working, but it has been really interesting to work in a new way, it means I am learning a lot as well,” says Howard.

Sing Something Simple tells the story of Spencer and Kit Parkin, who have grown up surrounded by the legendary success of granddad Gerry, a session singer with BBC Radio 2’s Cliff Adams Singers. Spencer’s mum belts out 80s power ballads, his best friend Bonnie is a karaoke queen and his brother Kit is heading for pop stardom.

Spencer, the first Parkin in the history of Parkins unable to sing a note, is not. But he’s not going to let that stop him.

When Kit jacks it all in and joins the army and Spencer is left looking after their distraught mother, he decides to make things better the only way he knows how, by entering a singing competition.

Before he knows it, he’s standing at the Royal Albert Hall, clinging onto the inspiration of his late granddad Gerry Parkin, backing singer extraordinaire.

“As well as simply being interested in the company and wanting to work with them, I was very interested in Vanessa and her writing,” says Howard.

“The script is very funny.”

Brooks, artistic director of Dark Horse and the writer and director of the latest piece, has written for theatres across the country and was asked to become Alan Ayckbourn’s first dramatist in residence at Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. The point is – the calibre of the people involved, and therefore one assumes, the work itself, is high. It should mean that people leave their prejudice at the door when it comes to the show.

Howard knows that isn’t always going to be the case.

“I think there is a bit of an automatic assumption that the standard of work from a theatre company featuring learning disabled actors might be slightly lower,” she says. “It’s the reaction that I have come across when I’ve been talking to people about it when handing out leaflets. That makes me realise there is definitely a certain view. The truth is, there is nothing am-dram about this, nothing sub-standard, the company doesn’t 
make allowances and the audience doesn’t need to either.

“It’s a good piece of theatre and it is funny and entertaining and really enjoyable.”