Dark Horse tales reveal remarkable resilience and talent in Huddersfield

dark horse

noun

  1. a candidate or competitor about whom little is known but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds.

What if we told you there’s a theatre company that exists purely for adults with learning disabilities, to allow them equal opportunities both to train and to work in the performing arts?

That this theatre company has alumni that work in theatre, television and film?

That they have toured nationally?

Here’s the real mind-blower.  They’re right here, in Huddersfield, nestled amongst the welcoming walls of the Lawrence Batley Theatre.

Founded in 1998 as Full Body and The Voice, Dark Horse Theatre is a charity that has called the Lawrence Batley Theatre home since its inception.  

This lively image is from Dark Horse productionYou Have Been Watching 
Photo credit: Ant Robling

Under normal circumstances students flock to Huddersfield to train with Dark Horse from all over Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Greater Manchester two days a week.  Their unique training methods are tailored to develop the skills needed to enable Dark Horse-trained actors to work on equal terms with non-learning-disabled actors.  And that isn’t just the work we see on stage or screen, of course – there are auditions, read-throughs and rehearsals to contend with, too.

Kirsty Wolff, Audience and Outreach Co-ordinator at Dark Horse, explained some of the ways in which training at Dark Horse differs from other drama schools:

“An approach to actor training that removes unnecessary language from the rehearsal room was created by Vanessa Brookes.  She joined the company in 2008 and created ‘the silent approach’, which makes training more accessible to students with learning disabilities.”

Headshots of Dark Horse Theatre company actors

Prior to this, students worked with actor trainers to explore and create their own ‘theatre language’, using dance, gesture, music and song to communicate, rehearse and perform.  Vanessa Brookes’ arrival shaped the way that Dark Horse was working into a more formal, drama school model which is still used today, six years after her departure.

The units that students of Dark Horse cover are much the same as those found in any drama school across the land, including movement, acting technique, voice, ensemble and fitness.  Adaptations are made to curricula and rehearsal spaces to ensure that every student at Dark Horse has the chance to learn, to understand, to contribute and succeed.

Having recently appointed new artistic lead Amy Cunningham, Dark Horse is excited about what the future holds for actors and new students alike, with the promise of a new “artistic vision” in the works.

Over the last year the company has adapted considerably thanks to Covid-19, particularly as people with a learning disability are at considerably greater risk from the virus.  Luckily, adapting is one of the things Dark Horse does best, so the transition from in-person to Zoom training was as smooth as can be.  

Rebekah Hill pictured with fellow cast-members in Ramp on the Moon‘s production of Oliver Twist
Photo credit: Ant Robling

“Working on Zoom has been a great tool, allowing training and rehearsal to continue whilst also being an effective way to check in on each other’s emotional wellbeing.  The dedication and resilience of the actors and students astounds us every day”, said Kirsty.

One actor who studied at Dark Horse didn’t have quite the same fortune in 2020 as her colleagues and classmates!  Rebekah Hill had been cast in a production of Oliver Twist that was due to embark on a UK tour throughout the Spring, but this was unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic after their short run of shows at Leeds Playhouse.  Another former student, Joe Sproulle, appeared in BBC drama series The A Word.

As it became clear that few plans would remain unaltered throughout the year, Dark Horse made sure that anything they organised could easily be rearranged or postponed.  Whilst flexible, the ideas that were put into motion were exciting and ambitious, adapting to the ever-changing circumstances that the year brought with it.  

The class of 2020 had their reimagined graduation piece shown at Brighton Fringe in October 2020, having been rearranged from an in-person event in May.

The first stop was YouTube where Dark Horse plugged a gap in the market…content aimed at a learning-disabled audience.  Acting tutorials provided content for the learning-disabled community whilst also allowing actors and students to utilise and polish their skills.  Alongside a plethora of guests from the world of theatre, Dark Horse has created over 145 training tutorials on topics such as character creation, mime, vocal warm-up, exercise and the occasional blooper reel.

Unfortunately for the class of 2020, their graduation show wasn’t able to go as planned.  Performances at the Lawrence Batley Theatre and York Theatre Royal in July 2020 were reimaged and reconfigured into a dazzling online extravaganza, named The Garden: Lockdown Edition.  The piece combined speech, poetry, original music and illustrations and was shared with an online audience, and had the honour of featuring at The Brighton Fringe in October of last year, itself having been rescheduled from May.

The performing arts and the internet have become cosy bedfellows in the last 12 months.  We have been treated to musicals thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber and his #TheShowsMustGoOn YouTube channel.  Classics from the National Theatre including showings of Frankenstein from the 2011 productions where Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller took it in turns to play Victor Frankenstein and his cursed creation.

Closer to home, creative minds from the Lawrence Batley Theatre, namely Artistic Director Henry Filloux-Bennet, have collaborated with theatres around the country to showcase brand new content.  What a Carve up!, an “ingenious and gripping” piece recorded by actors in isolation, and the upcoming The Picture of Dorian Gray released on March 16th, have made the most of new ways of working and woven the use of technology into the very fabric of their being.

#OutBreakOut will premiere at the Huddersfield Literature Festival 2021

Never ones to shy from a challenge, the Dark Horse team has not only kept their YouTube channel regularly supplied with content aimed at the learning-disabled community, but has also embarked on a four-part journey starting with #FutureLoading.  This animated short film explores the lives, passions, successes and challenges of three adults with learning disabilities, and above all discusses what it in fact means to ‘adult’.  The first instalment premiered in January of this year, with the second part – #OutBreakOut – due to be released in conjunction with the Huddersfield Literature Festival 2021, which is running online from March 18th-28th.

It is incredibly impressive how this small but dedicated team of actors, trainers and students have deftly hurdled over any obstacles put in their way, and their resilience must surely be an indicator of their future success.  We look forward to bringing you further news of their endeavours!

Huddersfield Times

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