Click on the link to listen to the programme: The Reunion
In the early 1970s, children with severe learning disabilities were often hidden away in institutions and sent to “special” schools, away from their peers. No-one expected anything of them. Conditions like dyslexia and autism, although named and identified, were rarely diagnosed and sufferers were often seen as “problem children”.
In 1974, Jo Collins and Mary Ward identified a common interest in treating all children as individuals, not labels. A disused chicken shed, owned by an impoverished aristocrat, became the base for their new theatre company. That summer, Chickenshed Theatre was named most promising new company by The Stage newspaper.
It took some years for the company to become fully inclusive. But, when it did, the results were astonishing. Able-bodied and disabled actors, dancers and singers created what theatre director Trevor Nunn described as “a glimpse of a more perfect world”, a utopia where everyone’s individuality was celebrated, not hidden.
Famous names including Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins were bowled over by the quality of the performances. Princess Diana became a patron and got to know many of the young actors.
A girl in a wheelchair could dance through the air, a young woman who could not speak became a gifted songwriter and a young man from the wrong side of the tracks chose to become a dancer rather than a jailbird.
Joining Sue to look back on the pioneering work of Chickenshed are founders Jo Collins and Mary Ward, actor Simon Callow and former Chickenshed members Lucia Bellini, Emma Cambridge and Jessica Wall.
BBC Radio 4, 2nd September 2018