Dark Horse works with and trains actors with learning disabilities, but is losing its Arts Council funding next year. Chris Bond spoke to the theatre company’s artistic director.
A WARREN of corridors inside the splendid Lawrence Batley Theatre leads you to the home of Dark Horse.
The walls here are proudly adorned with photographs of past productions featuring some of the theatre company’s actors. There’s one of Hypothermia which was staged at the Cockpit Theatre in London and Sing Something Simple, performed at major venues including The Lowry, in Salford, and Cast in Doncaster.
Another shows four exhausted-looking actors taken at three in the morning on their first day of filming for the Channel 4 TV show Shameless. “We point this out to new students to show that it isn’t all glamorous and that there’s a lot of hard work,” says artistic director Vanessa Brooks.
It’s a brilliant photograph that captures the fatigue etched on their faces. It’s only at the second glance that you realise three of them have Down’s Syndrome. In many ways it typifies what Dark Horse stands for, they want their actors given opportunities on merit rather than out of sympathy, or as a box-ticking exercise.
The company trains actors that have learning disabilities to work alongside non-disabled actors, writers and directors on a national level. It’s an approach that has brought them widespread applause, but then came the devastating news last week that they were losing funding worth £100,000 a year.
It came as part of the Arts Council announcement, in its three yearly tranche of funding, revealing which organisations and companies it will be supporting in its NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) programme.
While there were some winners in Yorkshire there were losers, too, including Dark Horse. In a statement after being told the bad news, Brooks said: “To be dropped from the portfolio at this point in our evolution after such consistent investment, excellent feedback and assessment and positive encouragement from Arts Council England seems bizarre.”
A week on and she is no less baffled or dismayed by the decision, which wipes out around 30 per cent of Dark Horse’s core funding from next spring. “It feels like we’ve been knocked back into the Stone Age.”
She admits the news came as a shock seeing as they’ve been funded for the past 14 years and hadn’t been given any inkling this was going to change.
It was only in an assessment meeting afterwards that they were told that another bid which met the same criteria had been given preference to theirs. They were also told that “audience development”, in other words getting more bums on seats, was an area where they could improve.
“We recognise there’s only a certain amount of money and we never expect funding from the Arts Council, you can’t. But our application wasn’t one that in any way failed, it was actually quite strong which makes it very disappointing,” she says.
“We did a show that played to full houses at the Lowry and the Stephen Joseph Theatre [in Scarborough], so we’re not talking about something that didn’t work.”
Joe Sproulle is one of the actors who has trained and blossomed with Dark Horse, which Brooks believes has helped break down social barriers in its own way.
“With something like Sing Something Simple, that Joe did, you had people who would normally come to watch a Godber or an Ayckbourn play coming along and they were amazed by the work of an actor like Joe. Then they would think ‘wow, he’s got Down’s Syndrome’ but it was an incidental thing.”
During the last three years Dark Horse has been involved in national tours with its actors but these will now have to be shelved. “We were in the foothills of thinking about the next national tour of a show called I Love You Baby. Toby, one of our actors, was going to play the central role in that, in a new play that was going to tour nationally. But I really don’t think we can find a way to do that now because we haven’t got the money,” she says.
“This part of our work, which demonstrates the abilities of actors with learning disabilities to work on equal terms with other actors in mainstream theatres, has gone – and there’s nobody else now in the UK who does this.”
Although the funding cuts don’t kick in until next Spring, their artistic programme will have to be completely redrawn.
Brooks feels that all the hard work they’ve done to establish themselves at a national level has been undone. “We’re being pushed back into a kind of community project which is what we’ve really clawed our way up out of.”
Mind the Gap, based in Bradford, does something similar to Dark Horse and did well in the Arts Council’s funding announcements. But Brooks is concerned that nationally, minority ethnic organisations and disability-led groups are slipping off the arts agenda.
Her main concern is what funding cuts to organisations like Dark Horse says about our attitude towards disability and the arts. “We need to show that learning disabled actors are capable of work at the highest level rather than the lowest level, which is usually the only level they’re allowed to work at,” she says. “We see people with learning difficulties working in supermarkets or shops and they don’t need to wear a special costume. But with theatre, in some instances, there is still that attitude.”
Although Dark Horse will stop doing national tours its actor training courses, affiliated to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, will continue. It works with up to 14 students who have learning disabilities and is at the heart of what they do.
“We don’t work with everybody, it’s actually quite tough to get on the courses because not everyone is cut out to be an actor. Joe trained for four years before he was ready for an audience. But what we’re saying is that people have the right to work on equal terms with anyone else, because acting is a craft.”
This is a tough time for organisations like Dark Horse and although Brooks is planning to write to the Arts Council she can only appeal against the decision process rather than the decision itself. There are other funding options out there, including the Arts Council’s lottery-funded grants for the arts programme, that they can apply for, but there’s no guarantee they will be successful.
At least there was a ray of sunshine this week with the news that Dark Horse was one of 11 theatre companies joining up with the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme (RTYDS), the influential programme that launched the careers of Ken Loach and Trevor Nunn.
There will be big challenges ahead but Brooks is adamant the company will continue. “The long term view hasn’t been mapped out yet but we’re still here and the work goes on.”