How Access All Areas are helping learning disabled actors conquer the stage

Cian Binchy in The Misfit Analysis. Picture: Idil Sukan

Cian Binchy in The Misfit Analysis. Picture: Idil Sukan - Credit: Archant

Nick Llewellyn and Cian Binchy tell Alex Bellotti about the Hackney company, which offers theatre training to people with conditions such as autism.

If the hugely successful stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time opened the eyes of London audiences to the world of autism, it still has one major problem. It’s what Nick Llewellyn of Hackney’s Access All Areas Theatre Company calls ‘cripping up’ – using an actor to pretend to be learning disabled, rather than just employing someone who actually is.

Fortunately, slow as it may be, things are beginning to change. Next year, Access All Areas will be celebrating their 40th anniversary – they began in 1976 as the Rainbow Drama Group at Hoxton Hall – and will do so safe in the knowledge that many of their volunteers are now featuring in shows such as Casualty, Holby City and Doctors. Particularly exciting is the news that five of them – four of whom are Hackney residents – will soon be starring alongside Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent in a film adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending.

“We’re very much about enabling authentic voices from people with learning disabilities to come through and make their own work, but our role is about nurturing that,” says Llewellyn, who has been artistic director of the group since 2008.

“Often the people we work with don’t have a physical disability – sometimes they do too – but the challenges they face include communication skills, living and independent travelling. Disabled artists might be in a wheelchair, but they’ll have the impetus and energy to be online applying for things, whereas people with learning disabilities need a lot more support to achieve a fulfilling life. Often that’s why they’ve been left behind, they’ve been hidden.”

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The need for a group like Access All Areas is clear. In Hackney, around 4000 people are estimated to have learning disabilities such as autism or Down’s Syndrome, with the vast majority of them facing unemployment.

Despite being closely knitted to the local community, the company offer theatre training and workshops to volunteers across London. One such person, Ealing resident Cian Binchy, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, achieved widespread recognition earlier this summer when Access All Areas helped his show, The Misfit Analysis, reach the Edinburgh Fringe.

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“I performed in school plays when I was young and I’ve always just wanted to be the centre of attention really, if I’m honest with myself,” laughs the 25-year-old. “But what got me into performing professionally was Access All Areas. They are a charity that actually take learning disabled theatre seriously, and don’t rubbish it and leave it in the ghetto, unlike a lot of organisations that I feel don’t really care.”

Last year, Binchy graduated with a diploma in performance from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, who – with the help of Access All Areas – run a course especially created for learning disabled actors.

As part of his final project, Binchy devised a 15 minute piece that eventually became The Misfit Analysis – a satirical one man show he hopes will help debunk portrayals of autism in films such as Rain Man or Forrest Gump.

“It’s kind of funny, there’s a lot of humour in the play, but at the end of the day that humour is still making a very serious point,” says the writer, explaining the struggle he faces in coping with the emotional extremes of Asperger’s.

“I find being upset or being sad a very awkward emotion, because in this society we live in, being sad and crying unfortunately is a sign of weakness to a lot of people. So I don’t really know how to deal with it a lot of the time and it comes out as anger, but I know mostly I’m more sad than angry.

“I may sometimes get a bit too silly and it gets out of hand, where people may think I’m being rude. Really I don’t mean to be rude, I’m just trying to cover up the fact that I’m upset and I find it a bit hard to take it all really. I don’t feel that in Britain people have time to give any emotions. You’ve just got to keep going, if you know what I mean.”

Having already crossed borders to Scotland, Binchy has big plans for his show; alongside a full tour in the spring, he also hopes it will visit places as far reaching as America, New Zealand and Norway.

Access All Areas, meanwhile, are busy planning their next project, Madhouse, which, in partnership with the Barbican and Open University, will look at Britain’s now defunct series of long-stay hospitals which used to house people with learning disabilities.

“As a society we’ve really struggled to think about the potential of people with learning disabilities,” says Llewellyn. “What’s great about the arts is that people with learning disabilities don’t feel they’re getting it wrong. Obviously they learn acting skills, but there’s not this restriction around their ability; there’s a freedom in their expression.

“People can go and become all different things in their life, whereas people with learning disabilities are quite limited. So we’re saying, ‘Let’s try to work with some of these really talented people and bring them into the public consciousness’.”

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