Disabled actors have welcomed a new BBC scheme that aims to “shine a light” on experienced disabled performers, and discover and develop up-and-coming talent.
The Class Act development programme will include an intensive three-day workshop and an opportunity to build contacts and showcase talents to professionals across the industry.
Those selected to take part will be tutored in audition and camera technique, acting and business skills, and script and character work, and will have the chance to work with directors on scenes for their showreels.
The Class Act programme is part of BBC’s efforts to support and raise the profile of disabled actors.
But it is also part of wider efforts to increase the number of disabled people working across the BBC.
Its target had been that disabled people would make up 5.3 per cent of all BBC staff by 2017, but the figures for March this year showed it had already smashed through that target, reaching 10.2 per cent (up from 3.7 per cent in 2014), while disabled people made up 9.6 per cent of those in leadership positions (up from 3.1 per cent).
This means it has already exceeded its 2020 target of eight per cent.
The 2020 target for portrayal of disability on-screen is that eight per cent of roles – including “some” lead roles – should portray or represent a disabled person, but the current figures will not be released until later this year.
Three years ago, only 1.2 per cent of roles on screen portrayed or represented disabled people.
Natalie Amber, a member of the deaf and disabled members committee (DDMC) of the performers’ union Equity, who herself plans to apply for the BBC programme, said she believed it was “a big step in the right direction”.
She said previous BBC schemes, such as holding open auditions, had not helped disabled actors build up their skills, which the new programme should do.
Amber had been forced to take five years out of the industry after she became disabled, and said she had since found it “very difficult” to find anywhere to practice acting to camera from a wheelchair.
She said she hoped the programme would not be a one-off, and that future workshops would take place outside London.
Amber – who appeared last year in the ITV thriller Paranoid and the BBC One drama Doctors – said it was difficult for disabled actors with support or access needs to take part in mainstream workshops, because they might need to pay for their own support worker or interpreter while the person leading the workshop might have never worked with a disabled actor before.
She pointed out that the BBC was not the first broadcaster to hold such a workshop for disabled actors.
ITV held a similar, but shorter, development workshop for disabled actors earlier this summer, based around its soap Emmerdale.
And Coronation Street cast the disabled actor Liam Bairstow in 2015, after he was spotted through ITV’s Breaking Through Talent disability workshop.
Amber said she hoped broadcasters and other parts of the industry would work together to improve opportunities for disabled actors.
She said members of the DDMC were trying to “make our presence more widely known” and build their information resources, so “if people have any questions they have a place where they can come”.
Cindy-Jane Armbruster, another member of Equity’s DDMC, also welcomed the new BBC scheme, but she said she was cautious about the difference it would make until she had seen its long-term impact.
She said: “If it does make a difference, I would definitely like to see more of it. They need to keep at it.
“I would like them to keep pushing for this, to keep being good allies.”
She said she also hoped the initiative reached a “very diverse range of Deaf and disabled actors – diverse in terms of impairment, race/ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation, age, etc”.
She said she was “very glad” that the BBC appeared to be making a “multi-pronged effort” to increase opportunities for disabled actors and the portrayal of disability on television, and that it was talking about casting disabled actors in roles not specifically written as disabled characters.
Armbruster said efforts also needed to be made throughout the whole of the production process, to increase the numbers of disabled people working as writers, commissioners, casting directors and producers.
She added: “This will hopefully lead to more interesting stories, and hopefully also widen the view of what disability looks like.”
She said disability was “one of the most widely diverse characteristics” and it would be “exciting to see and celebrate just how different and individual we all are”.
Alison Walsh, the BBC’s disability lead, who joined the broadcaster from Channel 4 in 2015, said: “On screen portrayal of disability is increasing on the BBC but disabled actors are still struggling to find a place – especially in roles not written specifically as disabled.
“Although this scheme doesn’t guarantee work, it will provide training opportunities and exposure for new talent as well as established actors who have yet to have their ‘big break’.
“Crucially it will provide a wake-up call to drama creators that they need to work harder to consider disabled acting talent for all productions – not just those with a disability theme.”
Shane Allen, controller of BBC comedy commissioning, said: “It is crucial that we have more disabled people represented in our comedy output and bring through new disabled performing talent.
“This is the most focused and practical way for us to unearth and nurture the talents out there who are looking for this career break.”
Piers Wenger, controller of BBC drama, said: “This exciting new initiative will provide disabled actors with some of the finest training the BBC has to offer and give them the best possible chance to compete for opportunities.”
To apply for the training programme, disabled actors should submit a self-taped audition that lasts two minutes or less.