Zara: an outdoor theatre show giant in both ambition and scale

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Zara is a co-production between Mind the Gap and Walk the Plank which interrogates the taboo around learning-disabled people becoming parents featuring a giant baby, 3D projection mapping, a cast of 100+ and an original music score, plus learning-disabled practitioners in key artistic roles. Disability Arts Online speaks to a host of people involved with this truly landmark project.

Giant baby puppet

Eva, the giant baby at the centre of Zara. Image courtesy of Mind the Gap

Yorkshire’s Mind the Gap has a well-deserved reputation as being one of the leading learning-disability theatre companies in Europe. What do you get when you cross that expertise and ingenuity with Walk the Plank, specialists in large-scale outdoor spectacles who have created shows for the likes of the Commonwealth Games? You get a crossover of such scale and quality that DC Comics and Marvel might even feel envious.

Giant babies and army-sized casts aside, this is a project which is as much about substance as it is about style (or size). Zara is the culmination of a number of years working on the thorny theme of parenthood for learning-disabled people, a cycle of work entitled the ‘Daughters of Fortune’. Mind the Gap’s first production on the subject was Anna, a forum theatre piece used for research workshops. This was soon followed by Mia, which was a smash at Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, followed by a subsequent UK tour.

Julia Skelton, Executive Director of Mind the Gap reflects on the process thus far:

“ZARA is a huge-impact piece of outdoor theatre that has been four years in the making. We have brought together an international team of directors, choreographers, producers, designers, technicians, puppeteers, musicians and actors. Right now, there are hundreds of people working on the project in the UK and we are really proud to be the company behind the idea.”

“I met Mind the Gap a couple of years ago and knew immediately that we should work with them,” recalls Liz Pugh Creative Producer of Walk the Plank. “I was drawn to their work and their ethos; they are bold, inclusive, and are breaking boundaries. Walk the Plank make work in public space in order to reach and engage as diverse an audience as possible, as such we are thrilled to collaborate with a company so respected in the theatre industry and within learning disability arts.”

East Asian woman smiling

Joyce Nga Yu Lee Director ZARA Mind the Gap Theatre Company

Joyce Nga Yu Lee, Resident Director at Mind the Gap, who directed Mia, reprises her role for Zara. “Zara has always been the ultimate goal of the Daughter of Fortune project from when it was first conceived in 2015,” she explains. “Learning disabled parents and their stories are under-represented and highly complex, and I aim to shine a spotlight on these important and poignant human stories.”

Nga Yu Lee describes the progression from small to large scale:

“It is our ethos to tell the stories with much care and authenticity which is why we started small with Anna, a forum theatre piece, that reached peer audience and medical professionals; followed by Mia, a theatre touring piece that reached people who may already have an interest in these stories. Along the way we’ve reached thousands of people, heard more stories and won awards; now we are ready to go further to the more “unsuspecting” audience in this large-scale outdoor piece Zara.”

Clearly, the intention is to confront audiences with a topic which is often considered taboo outside learning-disability circles. Nga Yu Lee expands:

“Discussion of learning disability and parenthood amongst those people who have direct experience happens all the time, but it is rather marginalised in the wider society, let alone in theatre. I feel it is the fear of the unknown together with a stigma that prevents discussion from taking place in the wider society. And learning disabled people’s stories are yet to receive the attention they deserve in the arts. I feel now is the right time, and Mind the Gap has the right people to make those changes.

Zara has the story of a learning disabled mother at its centre – this is unprecedented in a performance of this scale. It clearly depicts the challenges learning disabled parents face, whilst highlighting how universal the feelings and challenges a woman faces at this stage of her life, with or without disability. Through Zara I hope to promote empathy amongst audience members, demystify the idea about learning disability and parenthood and break away from the shackle of stigma.”

Man in blue short smiling

Jordan Freud Assistant Director Intern for ZARA Mind the Gap Theatre Company

Learning-disabled Assistant Director Intern, Jordan Freud has been shadowing, learning from and supporting Nga Yu Lee throughout the production. “It’s humbling and an absolute privilege to be involved with a production of this scale,” says Freud. “Before landing this internship, I had aspirations of directing important pieces of theatre, which were both socially led and entertaining. Zara truly feels like one of the most important productions of 2019 in terms of changing perceptions of parents with learning disabilities. Being involved in its creation is certainly helping me reach my ambitions.” But the production speaks to Fried on personal as well as  professional level:

“Being diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of eight, I know all too well about the amount of assessments that people with learning disabilities have to go through. I was very aware that I had a social learning disability but was determined to prove people wrong and become a confident communicator. If it hadn’t been for my mother fighting for me, I wouldn’t have been able to get the help and support I needed throughout my education. While ZARA tackles the issues of learning disability and parenthood, I can sympathise with what these parents have been through – as a disabled person, fighting for your rights is a universal truth.”

The premise of the production is that Zara, played by JoAnne Haines gives birth to a giant baby, Eva. She’s so big, Eva is seen as a threat to society, queue pandemonium, panic, protests and the armed forces getting called in. But Zara will defend the rights of her baby to exist with everything she has.

“I have a lot of sympathy for Zara and can relate to her,” says Haines. “I was moved around a lot when I was younger until I met my foster mum and Zara has had a similar experience. Zara is a bubbly person with a good sense of humour and tries to keep her cool but is willing to fight for her rights when she needs to. I really like Zara, I think we would be good friends.”

White woman with ginger hair smiling

Mind the Gap Actor JoAnne Haines who takes the role of Zara Photo Credit © 2016, Emily Bailey

This is Haines’ first experience as the lead in a production and although learning-disabled she is not a parent. Haines reflects on the need to represent that experience authentically:

“It’s important for me to know what someone with a learning disability has been through in real life and understand how the situation made them feel. I don’t think I would be doing Zara justice without speaking to people who have lived experience of this issue. I really don’t like it when actors pretend to be disabled people in TV and theatre – it’s really important that learning disabled actors tell these stories.”

Whilst Mind the Gap always work with learning-disabled performers, it’s notable that Zara has learning-disabled people staffing some of the more hands-on behind-the-scenes roles such as producers and facilitators. This has been achieved through ‘internship’ style roles where they can learn on the job.  Zara has a community cast of more than 100, helping coordinate it all and train them up is Creative Engagement Facilitator Intern, Josh Coulthard. “It’s great for me to be involved in the role that I am doing,” says Coulthard. “I have had quite a lot of experience on the stage in the past, but this is my first time working behind the scenes; it’s very interesting to find out how things work.”

Paul Wilshaw has previously performed with the company, but this time around takes the reigns as Assistant Producer Intern. “My role includes a variety of jobs from sorting out accommodation for our performers, travelling around the country to meet with various partners and collaborators to ensure everything is on track and working on accessibility…it’s so varied,” explains Wilshaw. His relationship with the subject matter sums up nicely why this is such an important piece of work.

“I’ve always wanted to be a dad and these stories have really hit home to me about the problems I might have in the future, whilst also making me more determined to be one! The point for me is to stop prejudice against learning disability – we’ve had it for so long in our lives and there’s still judgement around being a parent. Until society changes its views on it, having a learning disability and being a parent will be seen as a taboo – which it shouldn’t be.”

Zara and her giant daughter Eva will crawl into The Piece Hall, Halifax 19-20 April before making their way to Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in London, 10-11 May. Tickets and further information available here.