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Meeting of minds on arts inclusion

As arts groups meet to share good practice in involving people with disabilities, funding remains the biggest hurdle to overcome, writes Brian Hayward

The demand from the Scottish Executive for social inclusion in the arts is reverberating through the arts community. For established groups such as Lung Ha's Theatre Company, Fablevision and Giant Productions, it is an endorsement of what they have always been doing. For others, such as Scottish Opera, it demands a fundamental review of their working practices.

The Tramway in Glasgow is in the middle of hosting a three-day festival-cum-conference for arts groups, with workshops, presentations, performances and discussions, to share best practice in ways of involving people with disabilities in the arts and stimulating the Executive to fund enterprises on a national scale.

Under the rousing title of Activate!, it is also the culmination of a drama programme that began in 2002. Both it and the festival have been co-ordinated by the Collusion Theatre Company.

Three local authorities - Angus, East Ayrshire and East Renfrewshire - have collaborated in the project, which has involved drama workers leading small groups of people with special support needs in programmes designed to help develop their confidence, social and personal skills. Over the past few months, these groups have been preparing a short piece on the theme of the seasons for performance each afternoon of the festival.

This kind of work is nothing if not labour intensive. At the Renfrewshire group's rehearsal in Newton Mearns, drama leaders Nadia Drennan and Amanda Donald (who also lead the Ayrshire group) were running through the performance. Each of the six people with special support needs was partnered by an able actor, in this case members of the Collusion Youth Theatre. A ninth helper, Louise MacDonald, a community arts student on work experience from Strathclyde University, augmented the recorded soundtrack with some smooth continuo on her violin.

At this late stage of preparation, much of the partnering work being done by the youth drama sextet was hardly more than repetitious modelling of the language and movement for their partners. However, one helper, Jenny Clark, was positive about what she has gained from working with the special needs group.

"I really enjoy the feeling of being useful, of being important to somebody," she said. "The need to repeatedly explain things simply, and remind, and persuade, has really improved my communication skills. In some ways, I think it has made me a better person; I've learned to be more patient, to be more considerate."

At the end of the evening, one mother said: "Geoffrey has really branched out since he started the classes. He is much more communicative, more imaginative and he lives for the drama. He was really angry on the holiday Monday when there was no class!"

This kind of affirmation of the value of arts work will not be missing at the conference and will be looked for from three levels of interest.

At Holyrood level, Eastwood MSP Ken Macintosh speaks this morning on the rationale of his constituency's support of Activate! and the need for suitable models to be adopted on a national basis. The groundwork for his address will have been laid on the opening day of the conference by representatives of Angus, East Ayrshire, East Renfrewshire and Glasgow City councils, who are long-term supporters of this kind of work.

Important professional opinion comes from Jean Alcock, who runs her own advisory service in the west of Scotland, specialising in work practice and remedial opportunities in education and leisure; Linda Payne, a freelance choreographer who draws on her years of experience as a carer and dancer to provide therapeutic workshops for children and adults with disabilities; and Anita Loring, who has worked in the specialist area of cerebral palsy as a member of the European Community Association.

At the core of the conference, Clarke Crystal of Lung Ha's Theatre Company (for adults with learning disabilities) and Phyllis Steele, founder of Giant Productions, will contribute to this afternoon's main discussion on "Disability and Inclusion in the Arts". They will be preaching to the converted but hopefully passing the collection plate to the Executive.

Collusion Theatre Company, tel 0141 644

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