Leading disabled actors have accused drama schools of not doing enough to recruit disabled students, and of hiding behind a “contrived” excuse for their failure to do so.
Research by the campaign group Act for Change shows that not one of 473 final-year students across 17 major drama schools in England declared themselves to be a disabled person.
The research cross-referenced the students with their entries on the casting website Spotlight.
This week, disabled actors Mat Fraser, Jamie Beddard and Steve Varden (pictured) criticised drama schools for failing to recruit more disabled students, while the disabled-led theatre company Graeae said it was “frustrating” that the diversity of D/deaf and disabled people was not yet represented within drama schools.
Ayesha Casely-Hayford, chair of Act for Change, said the charity was left “speechless” by the results of its research.
But she said that she and her colleagues were also pleased to have uncovered the results, because it meant they could “bring it to people’s attention”, while the research meant there were now “a lot of questions to be asked”.
The disabled writer, director and performer Jamie Beddard, a former associate director of the disabled-led theatre company Graeae, said that drama schools were “part of the problem rather than the solution”.
He said: “Drama schools have traditionally hidden behind the contrived excuse that a lack of employment prospects for disabled performers across the wider industry would mean training is setting people up to fail.
“This is palpable nonsense, and now more than ever, there is an appetite for trained disabled actors, and the tiny trickle who have emerged are more in demand than their non-disabled counterparts.”
Graeae also expressed concern.
Richard Matthews, Graeae’s marketing and development manager, said: “The diversity of D/deaf and disabled people isn’t represented within drama schools across the UK, and that is frustrating, especially when we know how much talent is out there yet to be discovered.”
In a bid to address the barriers faced by many D/deaf and disabled young people who want to enter the industry, Graeae has launched a crowdfunding bid to pay for the second year of its Ensemble programme, which will provide six months of high-quality training in theatre-making for six disabled people between the ages of 17 and 26.
Matthews said: “Drama schools are all at various stages of change – some more progressive than others, but with still a long way to go.
“It’s through our new model of exchange with the Ensemble programme, alongside our work with the industry, that we will catapult huge shifts in attitudes and inclusive approaches. We need to work together.”
In the pilot phase of the programme, Graeae took on six D/deaf and disabled young Ensemble artists, and delivered workshops to many more.
It has signed up five drama schools and wants over the course of the programme to train 18 D/deaf and disabled young people – providing “a stepping stone into further drama school training, or to start gaining employment within the industry” – as well as running a summer school scheme.
It is also working with drama school tutors, course leaders, and marketing and admission teams.
Disabled actor and performer Mat Fraser, best-known currently for his appearance in the hit US TV show American Horror Story, said: “We shouldn’t even have to have the Ensemble training programme, but with the continued extremely low numbers of disabled applicants, clearly it is very much still needed.
“It’s extremely disappointing that numbers have not significantly risen for applications, and I would urge all drama schools to actively seek more disabled students as well as go to see as many productions that use disabled actors, to have whatever it is that’s scaring them off removed by familiarity, because I suspect that is part of what is slowing progress in this area.
“There is little evidence to the contrary. We have to do better.”
Steve Varden, who starred in the 2004 film Cloud Cuckoo Land, believes he was the first “severely disabled” person to audition successfully and be admitted into a performing arts school – in Coventry, in 1985 – although he had to quit the theatre studies course after one term for personal reasons.
He said: “I have done a few very short theatre and drama-type courses since leaving Coventry but I never made it or really contemplated going back to the full drama school experience.
“That is probably because I know that prejudice, misunderstanding and a distinct lack of equality exists within those types of highly competitive institutions.
“All of my performance breaks and opportunities have come about from personal connections with people (including myself) who have had the vision, courage and confidence to believe in my skills and abilities.
“It is making these often scarce and rare connections that is really so difficult to achieve when the likes of drama schools, producers and casting agents are so closed and no doubt frightened of such creatively progressive encounters.”