Jane Jessop, founding director of Blue Apple Theatre, tells Sheila McWattie about raising awareness of disability hate crime and taking Blue Apple Theatre to the Houses of Parliament
Blue Apple Theatre was founded in 2005 in Hampshire by Jane Jessop, then Chair of her local Mencap branch, as a response to people with learning difficulties who wanted to act, dance and sing on stage but had no opportunity locally to do so. The aim of the company is to bring all the benefits of taking part in theatre to adult performers with learning difficulties, and enable them to present high quality productions to the widest possible audiences.
Blue Apple’s main company is inclusive of more than 30 disabled and non-disabled adults who have fun together discovering and developing their talents while devising and creating two major professionally produced productions a year for performance to the general public.
Jane, whose son Tommy has a learning difficulty and is a professional actor, explains:
“We believe that creating inclusive theatre is important in building bridges of understanding and respect between different community groups. Blue Apple developed a more intensive theatrical training programme as several of our talented actors had ambitions to be professional, but could not access drama school because of their learning disability. This developed into a touring company of six actors who have learning difficulties and who in 2012 performed Hamlet in Shakespeare’s words to theatres across the South of England and played to more than 3,000 people.”
Among Blue Apple's current outreach initiatives is Living Without Fear, a dance/drama about independent living and disability hate crime, which originally toured South East England in November 2011. Over the past two months, Blue Apple’s Touring Company has been presenting a new 50 minute-long version of this fearless, empowering examination of disability hate crime.
Created in collaboration with the writer William Jessop, choreographer Jo Harris and director Peter Clerke, and in partnership with Hampshire police, Living Without Fear presents real stories of what is happening in the lives of people with learning difficulties today.
“In this production, six actors provide an authentic voice in tackling difficult issues around disability hate crime, mate crime, bullying, fear and problems around being understood,” Jane says. “They challenge us all to think about our collective and individual responsibilities. Living Without Fear poses questions about how we in the wider community want to be judged; how we can all help vulnerable people live safely and without fear, and how we listen when words are few and stories are incomplete.”
Jane is urging public and professional people of all ages, abilities, disabilities and backgrounds to book the show for future performances, consider funding or sponsoring the company, and find ways to add their voice to the debate about a range of issues which directly or indirectly affect us all.
“This work raises important questions where there may not be easy answers,” she acknowledges. “Most of all we hope this production will encourage everyone to take people with learning difficulty seriously and to listen and at least investigate if alarm bells ring in your head. Let’s face it: disability hate crime does happen.”
The production – fully self-contained, with lights and sound – is designed to play â€¨in a wide variety of spaces, both theatre and non-theatre, including art centres, schools, conferences, community venues and at festivals.
“This is a show for everyone, of every age, public or professional, teenager or adult, regardless of their perceived abilities or disabilities,” says Jane. “Its message is clear: everyone has the right to live without fear.”â€¨
In the summer of 2012, when Blue Apple Theatre toured their Arts Council-funded production of Hamlet across South-East England, 3,500 people saw the show, which received standing ovations. Steve Brine, MP for Winchester & Chandler’s Ford was in the audience at the Winchester gala performance.
He was highly impressed. Steve and Jane subsequently persuaded the Speaker of the House of Commons and MP for Buckingham, John Bercow, to invite the company to perform Living Without Fear to 50 influential guests, including ministers, MPs, members of the House of Lords and chief constables, in the Speaker’s State Dining Room at the Houses of Parliament in April 2013.
So how was the performance received and what kind of impact is it likely to have?
“Living Without Fear is an evocative mix of dance, music, humour and powerful, hard-hitting drama, with wonderful feedback from guests, such as “profoundly moving and challenging”.
We were delighted that the specially invited audience stayed for 30 minutes after the performance to discuss some of the issues raised in the production about disability hate crime and living with a learning difficulty in today’s world” says Jane. “This audience included Basingstoke MP Maria Miller, who is Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister for Women and Equalities; and Esther McVey, the MP for Wirral West and Minister for Disabled People.”
“As a direct result of this special performance we’ve had enquiries about touring in the North of England as well as the South. We are keen to tour nationally – but of course that partly depends on our capacity to attract more funding and sponsorship.”
“The impact of the show combines powerfully with the work we’re doing with Home Office funding to produce a training DVD on disability hate crime for Hampshire police, due to be launched at a Winchester cinema in June 2013. We are looking for funding to develop a similar DVD which can be used with workshops in schools.”
This move follows the success of Freddie’s Story, Blue Apple’s training video for medical professionals about communication and diagnosing people with learning difficulties, which is used in training medical staff by more than 30 NHS Foundation Trusts around the country.
According to Mencap, up to 90% of people with learning difficulties are bullied or harassed every year. Living without Fear adds Blue Apple’s unique voice to Stand by Me, Mencap’s national campaign on disability hate crime.
Jane is particularly keen to take Living Without Fear into schools to help raise awareness of the prevalence of disability hate crime committed by and seriously affecting young people.
“Let’s face it,” says Jane. “Anyone who is disabled can experience this type of crime; we just do not hear about it or take it seriously enough. From the person you thought was a mate through to strangers on a bus – anyone can be responsible for disability hate crime. Local police have described Living Without Fear as an extremely realistic portrayal that is spookily accurate. Training can help us all.”
“Acting is a great form of expression and communication for anyone who wants to explore and discover their own potential. Our Blue Apple actors are growing every year, while our company remains acutely aware that people with learning difficulties are facing significant challenges in terms of benefit rules and expectations around making choices about their lives.
“We are interested in working with and alongside organisations such as Mencap and People First, and very keen to speak to individuals and organisations interested in booking or sponsoring us to help spread the message that disability hate crime is a reality that is all too often ignored, or discuss any other aspects of our work.”