Words by Katie Campbell of PosAbility Magazine
Formed in the 80s, Lung Ha Theatre Company provides a creative and dramatic outlet for people in Edinburgh with learning disabilities.
Formed in 1984, the Lung Ha Monkey Theatre opened their first ever performance at Adam House in Edinburgh. They took their name from the play they put on: Lung Ha’s Monkey, an adaption of the cult classic Japanese television show Saiyuki, known in the west simply as Monkey. Its Japanese title is a more literal translation of its source material: the 16th century Chinese epic, Journey to the West. Lung Ha was simply a made up name for the titular monkey. And so, from this, Lung Ha Theatre was born. What makes Lung Ha, and what made Lung Ha’s Monkey different, though, is that its ensemble cast is composed entirely of disabled actors. The actors came from various hospitals and rec centres, and marked the first time Scotland had seen such a project open to the public.
“Originally, it was founded by a man called Richard Vallis who was involved in disability sport at the time,” said Michael Fraser, creative director at Lung Ha, “and he brought in someone called Pete Clark, who started various theatre companies as well, to direct a show. That was largely because the people who Richard was working with wanted to do some theatre. In the first show, there were about 60 performers, and it was all voluntary.
“Then, people got a bit hassled and wanted to do it again, so we did another production every twelve months until 1991, and at that point, I think there was a feeling that they couldn’t keep calling in favours and that sort of stuff.
“They incorporated into a company called Lung Ha Theatre Company, and became a registered company and a charity, and that enabled them to raise funds from various sources to start paying people properly and producing work, and keep producing work. In a sense, the company is run along very similar lines: we still have a full company production even now.”
Based not far from the famed Traverse and Lyceum theatres in the heart of the Scottish capital, the theatre now has a group of 20 performers, each of whom have a learning disability of some kind, who rehearse with the theatre for between 12 and 35 hours a week to perfect their role in the theatre’s upcoming show. Lung Ha encourages the nurturing and development of their actors, who are not expected to have any prior experience with acting, ensuring that the actors are ready and fully prepared for their role. As much as the theatre concentrates on the ultimate goal of the performance, it is about the players, and the support that can be given to them.
“I think support is important,” said Michael. “Our focus is enabling people to be the best they can be, and part of that is to provide a safe and supportive structure around the work, so that people can just get on and be creative. They come to be performers, so our job is to create a base which enables that to happen.
“Second to that, I think ensuring everyone has a named person, be that parents or a family member, or a key worker, and that relationship is important to us as well, to make sure if we ever have any challenges, or the performer is feeling challenged by something, we can all talk together and work through this challenge with that person’s named support. That relationship is important too.”
Lung Ha regularly commissions writers to adapt or create plays for their large troupe, ensuring that everyone has a role. They perform a mix of original plays and classics. The cast delivered a hugely successful performance of Antigone in 2012, which received favourable comparisons to a parallel production at the National Theatre of London. Michael believes that the theatre’s crowning achievement, however, was a piece created with the Grid Iron theatre company and performed in, Huxley’s Lab, which was loosely based on Aldus Huxley’s seminal science fiction novel Brave New World.
The play challenged the notion of genetic perfection, questioning how quickly we as a society are walking into the mass engineered, mass produced perfection of Huxley’s class-based society, where imperfection lowers caste. Presented in association with the Infomatics Forum at the University of Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Festival Theatre and the Edinburgh International Science Festival, the play was a huge success.
“We did nine performances and sold out all of them,” said Michael. “An astonishing play. And then we were nominated and won the Critics Award for Theatre in Scotland award for Best Ensemble Production. In the awards, I think there’s ten or 12 categories, and we’re in with every professional company from across Scotland.
“To be in their company in categories was a wonderful achievement. The whole company went on stage at the award ceremony, it was just fantastic. To be in that company is such a validation of people’s hard work, the commitment and hard work. That was certainly our crowning achievement by far.”
Lung Ha are currently preparing to put on their latest performance, a new version of Anton Chekhov’s classic play Three Sisters, by Adrian Osmond, which will open on 15 March at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. A collaboration with the Sibelius Academy of the University of The Arts in Helsinki, the play will be directed by Finland-born Maria Oller. The play is an ambitious foray into the Russian classics.
Michael notes that this will provide an excellent opportunity for theatre goers to evaluate the work of the troupe: “It gives our audience a frame in which to judge our work compared to other companies. Chances are our audience will have seen Three Sisters by someone else, and if we’re doing Shakespeare, there’s no doubt they will have experienced that with somebody else.”
Three Sisters will move to Perth Theatre on 23-24 March, and then finally to the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow for a performance on 28 March. As Martin said – Lung Ha is always looking for volunteers, but there’s a more important role to fill: “We’re always on the look out for audience members too! Come see a show! That’s why we do it! There’s no show without punch!”
Article featured in the February/March issue of PosAbility Magazine. PosAbility is an innovative, fresh magazine that focuses on opportunities available to disabled people today. Covering a wide variety of topics from accessible holiday ideas, days out for the family, health and fitness, employment and education, all the latest products, exclusive competitions, exciting features and more. More information about PosAbility and how to subscribe can be found at www.posabilitymagazine.co.uk. Keep up with the latest on Facebook and Twitter .