Art & Events Interview Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Helen Bryer and Adam Smith: Still, Here

By | Published on Friday 4 September 2020

The Hackney Carnival, taking place digitally this weekend, was – of course – forced online because of COVID-19.

But ‘Still, Here’, released this weekend to coincide with those celebrations, is something that will get you out and about in that part of London. It’s a walking tour starting at Hackney Town Hall featuring the voices of learning disabled and autistic artists.

It’s presented by Access All Areas and its Black Cab Company, and is co-directed by Helen Bryer and Adam Smith. I arranged to talk to both of them to find out more.

CM: Can you start by explaining the technical and practical details: how is ‘Still, Here’ delivered and how can audiences access it?
HB: ‘Still, Here’ is an audio tour around Hackney, featuring the voices of learning disabled and autistic artists sharing their experiences of lockdown. It consists of eight stops at different locations, where audiences can scan a QR code to access the audio. Audio description and captions are included as part of each stop.

The whole tour takes about 90 minutes to walk, but the stops are designed so that you can do one or two, or the whole thing. Audiences bring their own headphones, so it’s a COVID-safe way to get out and about and hopefully experience something new.

CM: On to the content of it: what’s it all about? Is there a narrative?
AS: It’s about the experiences and the lives of learning disabled and autistic artists during the COVID-19 lockdown. Each stop consists of spoken words and sounds from a different artist, exploring what they love about Hackney and what they have missed about it during the lockdown.

HB: There’s not one narrative, as each stop is specific to each artist, so there’s a mix of themes and styles, from performance poetry to naturalistic dialogue. This means you can dip in and out, but if you do choose to do the whole tour you’ll be ‘met’ at each stop by the voice of a guide character who threads everything together.

CM: What was the inspiration for this? What made you want to create it?
AS: Early in the lockdown, Access All Areas created a film called ‘We’re Still Here’ that outlined that, even though we are stuck at home and can’t be face to face, we are still here supporting each other, being creative and we still matter. That inspired this project, I think.

HB: We were also inspired by conversations with the Black Cab Company artists. Because we couldn’t continue our usual face-to-face workshops, we spent a lot of time speaking on the phone or over Zoom, and it gave a real insight into people’s lives during this strange time. We wanted to share some of that with an audience.

CM: Are there ways in which lockdown will have had more of an impact on autistic and learning disabled people?
AS: Yes, definitely. Before lockdown, we were running a wide ranging Take Part programme with learning disabled and autistic people in the community, allowing people to communicate through drama and be open about their experiences and worries.

For some participants, the workshops were their only weekly activity, so lockdown meant losing an important part of their week as well as the opportunity to be creative and socialise. Having to stay at home will also have meant a loss of independence for some people, which will have a lasting impact. We are a community who already often felt isolated and excluded – lockdown has only increased that.

HB: As Adam says, lockdown has brought huge challenges for learning disabled and autistic people. But as part of this devising process we’ve also heard about some of the unexpected positives: quieter streets for safer bike rides, less pressure to socialise if you don’t want to, and people generally being kinder. Of course, none of that takes away from how difficult this period has been, but it’ll be interesting to see if any of those positives ‘stick’ when we start to get back to ‘normal’.

CM. Can you tell us a bit about Black Cab Company? What sort of work does it do?
HB: Black Cab Company started as Rainbow Drama Group in 1976 and has been creating performances in Hackney ever since.

Black Cab artists are learning disabled and autistic residents of East London, who are passionate about telling unusual stories about everyday life. Our productions have taken place in London venues including Hoxton Hall, Rich Mix, Hackney Showroom and Chats Palace, as well as taking over unusual spaces in East London including Hoxton Street Market and Sutton House.

AS: We create semi-autobiographical work that often includes real experiences of learning disabled and autistic people. We meet weekly – on Zoom at the moment! – and devise work together, with large scale productions every two years. Sometimes our work is a protest about lack of equality, but it’s often a big celebration of our differences too.

CM: Can you explain its relationship to Access All Areas and your involvement with both?
HB: Access All Areas grew out of the original Rainbow Drama Group. So although we now run a whole range of different projects – including immersive performance events, award-winning performer training and industry consultation – Black Cab Company’s work will always be at the heart of our practice.

I’m the Director of Take Part & Train at Access All Areas, which means I oversee all of our participation and community work, as well as leading our Performance Making Diploma at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama.

AS: I’m involved in lots of different parts of AAA’s work. As well as being Co-Director of Take Part, I’m also a performance artist and trainer. I’ve also composed music for AAA productions.

CM: Did you have to cancel plans because of lockdown? What would you have been doing if COVID hadn’t hit?
AS: The lockdown has affected our Take Part programmes a lot. Black Cab Company were due to start developing a show for next spring and we’ve had to shift all our work with participants to online and postal resources for the time being. As an artist I have missed out on performing at a music festival in May, as well as performing with my collective Not Your Circus Dogs at the Edinburgh Fringe.

CM: Can you tell us about the Transforming Leadership programme that you are involved in?
AS: Transforming Leadership is a two year Arts Council-funded programme that gives learning disabled and autistic artists the opportunity to gain experience in leadership roles within Access All Areas and Disability Arts Online. I was very privileged to be appointed co-director for Take Part.

I work across all our participation projects, and this has given me the experience to work in different ways and change up my energy for each class. The leaders are also accessing training and coaching throughout the project, so I’ve been learning Makaton and reflecting on my practice as I go along.

HB: Adam is one of eight learning disabled and autistic leaders working in leadership roles as part of the programme. It was developed in response to a lack of opportunities for learning disabled and autistic leadership in the arts. There are also co-chairs of our board and digital influencers, in addition to other co-directors like Adam.

The programme is in its really early stages but despite this and the interruption of lockdown, it’s so exciting to see the progress that’s already happening. Co-directing with Adam is wonderful!

CM: The COVID crisis has had an enormous impact on the arts industry in general: what hopes do you have for your own projects in the future?
AS: I would love accessible theatre to re-open. I really hope companies will make room for more work by learning disabled and autistic artists.

HB: Like Adam says, access and representation are really important. I hope that, in the scrabble to survive and get back to normal, disabled artists and audiences aren’t forgotten about. For Black Cab Company and Access All Areas, I hope we can continue to be creative in our response to challenges- I’m sure there will be plenty more for us all as we come out of this crisis.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this?
AS: After ‘Still, here’ I will be taking part in an online performance with ‘What’s Going On In Your Head’, a night of performances with the theme of neurodiversity and mental health.

I will be celebrating my achievements but also sharing how my negative thoughts about myself have been amplified by the COVID-19 outbreak. I’ll be working with Ignite Theatre, doing a live socially distanced performance about lockdown and how it has impacted learning disabled people. ‘Not Your Circus Dogs’ will hopefully revive our show and I will hopefully be working with many other companies when it’s safe to do so!

HB: We’ve got a full term of online and socially distanced projects planned, including a new project using forum theatre and drama exercises to explore the return to the ‘new normal’, something that’s a big source of anxiety for many of our participants.

I’ll also be starting a new term of the Performance Making Diploma and can’t wait to be back working with students. Access All Areas’ Performance Company has also been busy developing new work during lockdown, so you’ll have to watch this space for what comes next!

‘Still, Here’ begins at Hackney Town Hall and ends at Homerton Hospital, and it’s recommended that you take it in during the day time. It’s free and there is no need to book but you will need your own smartphone and headphones. It will be available from 13 Sep-31 Oct, see this page here for all the details.