In conversation with Abigail Clay and Claire Harris
Updated: Mar 5
Claire Harris is an actor, currently studying at Central School of Speech and Drama on the Access All Areas programme. Claire has Down's Syndrome and is a member of Shakespeare 21, an improvised Shakespeare group for people with Down's Syndrome run by her sister, Abigail Clay, who is the producer of ShakeItUp Theatre. Both groups will be performing at a fundraiser event in aid of Scotts Project in Tonbridge on 27th March.
What does ‘improvised Shakespeare’ mean?
Claire: Make it up on the spot. No lines, no characters, no place it’s set - it’s the audience giving that.
Abigail: So step 1 of the Shakespeare 21 sessions is exploring Shakespeare’s plays; we talk about the genres and some general tropes and themes, and then we do some work with Shakespearean text. Step 2 is improvisation games. So, for instance, we’d do a game with endowments - shall we do an example?
Abigail puts her head in her hands and starts crying.
Claire ‘enters’ and holds Abigail’s hand. Claire: I’m so sorry you lost your brother.
Shakespeare 21 went to Tonbridge Baptist’s Church to do some improvised Shakespeare for elderly people. One person was reading a monologue, and everyone else was doing movements inspired by the imagery of Shakespeare’s text. All of those monologues have lots of imagery and lots of animals, so it’s about getting into your body with it and helping you immerse yourself into Shakesperean’s language.
Why do you think it’s important that people with learning difficulties and Down's Syndrome have access to Shakespeare, particularly? Abigail: Shakespeare is such a cornerstone of British and international culture. If everything you saw of Shakespeare was performed by people who look a certain way and sound a certain way, you might be forgiven for thinking that if you don’t look like that or sound like that then you shouldn’t be doing Shakespeare. So we’re looking for opportunities to draw people in who might think that Shakespeare isn’t for them. Shakespeare in particular is important because everyone knows Shakespeare, so there’s the manner of the actors in Shakespeare 21 being able to say that they’re doing Shakespeare to their friends and family and they will know what that is and think it’s a really big deal and something really difficult, so from that you’re getting affirmation of your talent and ability.
Are there ways in which you feel the theatre as a whole could be made more accessible?
Claire: One thing I don’t like is people who don’t engage their brain before speaking. I think that they should be more careful with what they say in front of people who might be sensitive. If you’re easily sensitive, like I am, it can get misinterpreted as being rude. I don’t think it’s fair that someone might think someone is stupid because they get a bit emotional or something like that.
Abigail: There was a callout on Spotlight a couple of weeks ago which I responded to because they were looking for a ‘Down Syndrome actor’ and it was so clear that they had not put anything in place to support an actor with Down's Syndrome coming for an audition. They’d said the audition is next week, and presumably they’ll tell you the week before they start filming whether you’ve got it or not. For someone who needs to sort out a support worker, and they have a week - it’s not simple. But it’s the system, isn’t it, because those people who put the notice up probably only had 3 days’ notice themselves. It obviously is a structural problem. You need to be extending the invitation out to marginalised groups of people, but you need to be making sure you’re doing it in a way that actually facilitates those people coming in. If you put out a casting call, there will be people in marginalised groups who won’t apply if you don’t explicitly say, ‘We actively encourage applications from X, Y, and Z’, because they will assume they’re not welcomed.We’re all learning all the time, including me. ShakeItUp Theatre is going to the Brighton Fringe in May, and the venue I have booked is not accessible! There’s a responsibility there, when you’re looking into these things - I should have looked at that venue, and said, ‘Are you accessible?’, and if they said, ‘Sorry, no’, I would have said, ‘Oh, that’s something that’s really important to us, next!’ So you’re letting people know that this is something that’s important in the industry.
Are there particular stories that you like seeing on stage and TV?
Claire: My favourite musical is Wicked. Elphaba was given away by her parents for being green, which I think is wrong, morally.
Abigail: I was completely fascinated when Claire told me this because I haven’t seen Wicked and had no idea that was what the plot was. Our mum’s uncle also had Down Syndrome and Grandpa didn’t know him, because he was put in an institution when he was 5, and died when he was 37, so you [to Claire]were drawing a link, weren’t you, between Elphaba and Godfrey because it was like the same thing happened.
Has performing with Shakespeare 21 changed your view of yourself as a performer?Abigail: We have utterly seen Claire transform as a performer.
Claire: I know my first acting role was at primary school, when I was 5 - it was at that age that I loved acting. I played Mary in the Nativity play. It was utterly embarrassing for me because I was holding the baby upside down. I was too busy watching the boy playing Joseph, I had a crush on him!
Abigail: The first thing I saw Claire in was a pantomime of Cinderella that they did at Orpheus College [performing arts college for adults with disabilities], and Claire was Cinderella, and you helped write the part, didn’t you? And your Cinderella decided what about the prince?
Claire: That actually he wasn’t a very good prince and he was just a sexist fool, and, actually, I didn’t need to marry him, I could go off and see the world, I didn’t need to be saddled with him.
Abigail: I remember being shocked at how strong and confident Claire’s performance was of that. Fast forward to Claire’s physical theatre performance of The Caucasian Chalk Circle last spring, and you know a lot of actors just act themselves, especially on film, and Claire was so clearly performing, and demonstrating a skill that she’d learned. She had to walk very slowly down the fire escape with a baby. What that demonstrates to me is how much Claire has been able to learn and develop as a performer. I think that’s the problem with the phrase ‘learning difficulties’, as people come up with this idea that there’s only so much learning that can take place. That’s the point. Claire was good before - she’s fantastic now.
Interview by Sibylla x
A fundraiser event in aid of Scotts Project in association with Shakespeare 21 will be held on 27th March in Tonbridge. World Down Syndrome Day is 21st March.
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