Known for their cutting-edge, provocative work, Bradford-based Mind the Gap have never been afraid to think big, but their latest production has to be their most ambitious yet.
As one of Europe’s leading learning disability theatre companies, they have over the past thirty years consistently produced thought-provoking pieces that seek to effect change and their large-scale outdoor spectacular ZARA, which comes to Halifax’s Piece Hall in April, is sure to make a huge impact. It is the culmination of four years’ work and the apex of the company’s Daughters of Fortune project exploring learning disability and parenthood which, explains artistic director Joyce Nga Yu Lee, is still something of a taboo subject.
“I truly believe that theatre has the power to move hearts and minds,” she says. “And ZARA is going to do just that.” The driving force behind the project and a passionate advocate for change, Lee first had the idea for ZARA in 2015 after hearing about a young woman on the autistic spectrum who was having to undergo an assessment of her capabilities as a parent after the premature birth of her baby. “As someone who has worked closely with learning disabled actors for many years, it was the first time I had heard about it, so I thought it was such an important story to tell. And ZARA is the first thing I dreamed of – I wanted to make it large scale and put it right in the centre of the city.” However, Nga Yu Lee realised that being able to fulfil that dream would require patience and a careful multi-staged approach.
“Learning disabled parenthood is very under-represented in any art form but particularly in theatre, so we needed to approach it with a lot of care and research. It had to be authentic and based on real stories.” A team was assembled who sought out learning disabled parents in Yorkshire and listened to their experiences. Out of the material gathered they then created a small-scale forum theatre piece in 2016 entitled Anna which was shared with targeted audiences for feedback. “We presented it to our peer groups, to learning disabled adults, midwives, advocacy groups, university students, social workers and social work students and asked for their reactions.” That then led to a second piece, Mia, which the company took up to the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2017 where it was a huge success and went on to tour throughout the UK. “The scale of Mia was a bit bigger,” says Nga Yu Lee. “And it appealed to theatre goers who might come to see a show to find out more about the issues.” Together Anna and Mia paved the way for ZARA which Lee describes as “universal and made to appeal to a more general public” explaining that it explores the challenges we all face as parents with or without a disability. The company is working with outdoor arts specialists Walk the Plank, a core cast of professional performers with and without learning disabilities, plus a local community cast of around a hundred.
“The main thing is that this issue is not in a dark corner any more,” says Nga Yu Lee. “We are not able to change people’s lives overnight but hopefully ZARA might help to alter society for the better.”
Piece Hall, Halifax, April 19 & 20. Tickets mind-thegap.org.uk
Featuring a giant baby, 3D projection mapping, a cast of over a hundred and an original music score, ZARA will be performed in just two venues – the Piece Hall in Halifax in April and Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, Southwark in London in May.
Mind the Gap is collaborating with Salford-based outdoor arts specialists Walk the Plank who have created large-scale spectacles for a number of celebrations including the Manchester Commonwealth Games and several UK and European Capitals of Culture. “I met Mind the Gap a couple of years ago and knew immediately that we should work with them,” says Liz Pugh, creative producer of Walk the Plank. “I was drawn to their work and their ethos; they are bold, inclusive, and are breaking boundaries. We make work in public space in order to reach and engage as diverse an audience as possible, we are thrilled to collaborate with a company so respected in the theatre industry and within learning disability arts.” ZARA will transform and fill the elegant 18th century central courtyard of the Grade I listed Piece Hall in Halifax and promises to be a truly memorable event as an international team of choreographers, musicians puppeteers and actors collaborate on an awe-inspiring piece of theatre. “I am passionate about outdoor performance,” says Mind the Gap artistic director Joyce Nga Yu Lee. “The experience for the audience will be really spectacular and exciting.”