When the Lung Ha Theatre Company was founded in Edinburgh back in 1984, it was one of very few companies in Europe dedicated to producing powerful, professionally-supported theatre work with adults with learning difficulties. It took its name from one of its early productions, by founding co-directors Pete Clerke and Richard Vallis, about the adventures of a mischievous monkey; and it began, with gradually increasing confidence, to explore ways of working with companies of performers who had been defined as having special educational needs.
Its current artistic director, Maria Oller, took over the job in 2009; and since then - through a series of co-productions in Scotland and beyond, and an even more ambitious repertoire than in previous decades - the company has become steadily more integrated into a Scottish arts scene gradually becoming more open to the potential of an inclusive theatre culture. Their work has been seen in England, France, Ireland, Sweden and Finland; and the common factor among all their shows is the sheer quality of music, design and spectacle with which the performers are surrounded, combined - under Oller’s direction - with a detailed attention to the creative development of each performer, and of the Lung Ha ensemble, that has produced some remarkable talent.
“People sometimes ask why we tackle writers like Chekhov,” Oller said in 2018, as the company launched a memorable one-hour version of Three Sisters at the Traverse, “and why we don’t do more devised work based on the company members’ own experience. But their feeling is that they are disabled 24/7, and their problems are something they have to deal with all the time. Whereas what they want from Lung Ha is something completely different, something that challenges them to be people they never thought they could be; and the encounter with great writers - both contemporary and classical - is part of that experience.”
In 2019, though, the Lung Ha company departed from this general rule to co-operate with Scotland’s leading children’s theatre company, Catherine Wheels, on a schools touring show called Emma & Gill, in which one of the leading members of the Lung Ha company, Emma McCaffrey, worked with Catherine Wheels artistic director Gill Robertson, writer James Ley, and Oller as director, to create a stripped-back two-handed show that would explore her own experience of autism through a relationship with a friend - played by Robertson - who is not autistic.
In this sequence, we see Emma setting off to perform in a school she has never visited before, and persuading Gill - when they get there - that sometimes her unconventional way of doing things can be the best. Robertson has been one of Scotland’s finest creators and performers of children’s theatre for the last 20 years; and here, we can see how McCaffrey, through her work with Lung Ha, has matured into a performer of equal power and charisma, with a range than enables her to play a fine Olga in Three Sisters, and also, in this show, to reflect on her own life as an autistic person, with honesty, wit, and a rich sense of fun.
Emma & Gill is scheduled to tour non-school venues in Scotland in 2021. Find out more about Lung Ha Theatre Company at http://lungha.com, and about Catherine Wheels at https://www.catherinewheels.co.uk.
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