“We wouldn’t accept an actor ‘blacking up’ in 2018, we shouldn’t do the same with learning disabled roles.”
Seven new guidelines on the casting of actors with learning and developmental disabilities for film and TV in productions worldwide have been proposed and backed by senior screen industry representatives and politicians in Wales today.
The standards, which include advice on avoiding stereotypes, auditioning appropriately and working in partnership, have been developed by Hijinx in a bid to promote ethical casting, and to ensure that learning disabled characters are fairly represented on screen. Hijinx are a company who produce pioneering inclusive theatre and film productions, run a non-profit actor training academy and casting agency for neurodivergent actors.
Since the Oscars began in 1929, 16% of best actor and actress awards have been for portrayals of disability or mental illness, including notable performances such as Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man, Geoffrey Rush as David Helfott in Shine and Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump.
Clare Williams, Chief Executive of Hijinx, set a challenge to the screen industry as a whole: for a neurodivergent actor to win a BAFTA Cymru award by 2025, a BAFTA award by 2028 and an Oscar by 2030. She said: “It would be shocking to see an actor ‘black up’ to play a character of colour, and we feel that in 2018 it is equally unacceptable for a non-learning disabled actor to play the part of a learning disabled character. The recent pledge made by the BBC to double the number of disabled people working for the corporation by 2020 is a great step forward, however this is only taking us halfway, as we should be reflecting the true diversity of our society on our screen too.
“We believe that our goal of a neurodivergent actor winning an Oscar by 2030 is achievable through effective partnerships between the screen industries and learning disabled-led organisations such as Hijinx. For each of the seven recommended new industry standards we offer a solution and support. Today we are letting the screen industry know that we are here to help.”
Hijinx announced their recommendations at the Casting Neurodivergent Actors in Film & TV Seminar, held at the Pierhead Building, Cardiff Bay. The seminar chaired by Phil George, Chair of Arts Council of Wales, was attended by senior screen industry representatives and politicians, including Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sport, Lord Elis-Thomas, Allison Dowzell, Screen Alliance Wales, British Council’s Rebecca Gould, and Lee Waters, AM Llanelli. The debate addressed the barriers to casting learning disabled actors, as well as how casting neurodivergent actors could become the norm. The seminar offered constructive support and advice on how to cast a neurodivergent actor, how to cast authentically and how to avoid stereotypes, with an ultimate goal of ending casting neurotypical actors as neurodivergent characters.
During the seminar Llyr Morus, Pobol y Cwm’s Producer was praised for including a learning disabled character, played by a learning disabled actor in an ongoing storyline. Pobol y Cwm approached Hijinx early on in the storyline process and were able to build in the necessary arrangements for casting and rehearsals. Sian Fouladi, 28, an actor with Down’s syndrome has played the character Ceri since 2017 and was supported in rehearsals and on set by a Neurodivergent Artist’s assistant from Hijinx.
Also a participant at the seminar, Bad Wolf Chief Operating Officer, Natasha Hale commented: “Bad Wolf are committed to doing anything we can to support learning disabled actors and are excited about working with Hijinx to do so.” Bad Wolf has produced numerous films and television series, including Sky’s popular vampires, witches and fantasy drama, A Discovery of Witches.
Following the seminar, the audience were given a short presentation from Hijinx actors outlining the new standards. Danny Mannings, 30, an actor with Autism, asked those present to “give us a chance to be on set or in the studio, show us how you work, let us understand your expectations.”
Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sport, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, AM also supported Hijinx’s recommendations: “I admire the boldness of Hijinx’s call for action within the screen industry and wholeheartedly support their aims of truly reflecting our society on our screens. I’m heartened by the turn out and backing from the screen industry and confident that with the support of learning disabled-led organisations Wales can be pioneers in changing the face of who’s represented on the small and big screen.”
While only receiving 16% revenue funding from Welsh Government and Arts Council of Wales, Hijinx has an expansive, ambitious mission to make it commonplace to see more learning disabled actors on stage and screen. Having recently secured a £235,000 cash injection from Morrisons Foundation to develop their Film strand, part of the six figure sum will enable Hijinx to match-fund three short films, featuring neurodiverse casts, over a three year period. For more information on the recommendations and support available go to www.hijinxactors.co.uk.