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Source: Te Pukenga

The latest research work on theatre for learning disabled by Ara | Te Pūkenga National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Arts (NASDA) Lecturer Tony McCaffrey, has many voices.
Giving and Taking Voice in Learning Disabled Theatre (Routledge 2023) includes 20,000 words from the learning disabled artists of Different Light Theatre. Four years in the making, the inclusion of the voices of the learning disabled artists themselves talking about their processes is something unique and garnering attention worldwide.
The essence of the book is expressed by McCaffrey quite simply. “There’s a huge power imbalance between me and the performers with learning disabilities. This book attempts to shift that imbalance. That’s what it’s about”.
Different Light Theatre is an ensemble of learning disabled artists who started out with workshops in Christchurch in 2004 and have been devising, researching and widely performing work in New Zealand and overseas ever since. The group has also participated in online conferences in Athens, Helsinki and Reykjavik
While the company has its latest work in its sights – FAUST.US an adaptation of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus in collaboration with NASDA degree students, McCaffrey is receiving invitations to speak about their book across the globe.
“I’m heading to give a talk at the Academy of Theatre and Dance at Amsterdam University which will host a book launch event, and then presenting a paper at a conference in Denmark. The University at Buffalo, New York is also keen to record a podcast episode on the new book for their New Books Network in July.”
Different Light’s experimental work, which calls into question long-held assumptions about both theatre and learning disability, informed McCaffrey’s first research book post-PhD, Incapacity and Theatricality (2019).
But this latest title draws on interviews with the performers themselves, recordings of rehearsal processes, and informal logs of travelling together and sharing experiences.
“These accounts engage with the practical aesthetics of theatre-making as well as their much wider ethical and political implications, relevant to any collaborative process seeking to represent the under- or unrepresented,” McCaffrey says.
The raw material has been contributed in times of raw life experiences too. The group has felt deeply the loss of two loved members in recent times. They’ve navigated earthquakes, mosque massacres, the Covid pandemic and climate crisis. Theatre stages have given way to online performance and presentations.
While these challenges have necessitated adapting to change, McCaffrey says the growth in this theatre work of almost 20 years runs deeper and is the essence of the latest book.
“My process was different at the start. I was making performers fit into what I thought theatre was and now we’re trying to make theatre fit what the performers are doing, who they are and what they can offer,” he said.
This unfolds in front of the audiences’ eyes because as McCaffrey sums it up: interesting things happen along the way.
“While I expect performers to be trained, to work in devising and improvising performance and then to perform it with virtuosity and resonance – we also show the audience the process more. Revealing the element of care and hidden labours that go into producing performance.”
A short visit to a regular Sunday morning rehearsal reveals the bonds between, the challenges faced, and the joys within the group. Their journey, according to McCaffery, a “negotiation between, on the one hand, love, care, and support, and, on the other, artistic discipline and rigour.”
Josie Noble who joined the group in 2011 and features on the cover of the book, explains this herself. “Different ways of acting is really cool,” she said. “When I first came, I was shy and nervous and since then I’ve learned a lot from Tony and the group. I have confidence being in public now which is a good thing.”
Isaac Tait, who has travelled the UK and US performing with the group and had opportunities to present papers at international conferences said the experiences they’ve had and challenges they’ve faced meant it “hadn’t all been rosy”.
“Just like Dr Faustus I’ve been going through hell. But Different Light has been building the foundations to help me get out,” he said.
We can expect further collaboration from these artists and McCaffrey as the company continues to co-research how voice or artistic decision-making is given, taken and negotiated.
“This is one example of a section of our community who have been historically marginalised in all kinds of different ways educationally, by dictates of law, and socially in terms of exclusion,” McCaffrey said. “So, what we are working on is how we can find ways of being together in an untogether way and to listen to the different voices that emerge, voices that deserve to be heard by everybody.”