Up Down Girl and accessibility in theatre

Right now Circa Theatre is staging Up Down Girl , an adaption of Up Down Boy by Sue Shields with the Myrtle Theatre Company, from 20 April - 1 May.

Mattie is off to college in an hour – and she’s left it to Mum to pack her case. Mum won’t miss the blaring music, slamming doors and massive phone bills. But Mattie is no ordinary teenager, and will Mum cope without her? Direct from a sold out season in Palmerston North, Up Down Girl is an honest and uplifting play about the extraordinary life of a person with Down syndrome and their mother’s humorous perspective on bringing them up.

The Up Down Project is an inclusive performance collective that aims to empower tāngata whaikaha, promote tolerance, and encourage collaboration between artists of all backgrounds and abilities. This production of Up Down Girl, which served as a catalyst for the group’s formation, was initiated by actor Lily Harper in response to an insensitive storyline about the Down syndrome community on her favourite television show.

One especially cool thing about the production is it includes a number of accessible sessions.

  • Audio Described Performance – Sun 25 April 
  • Relaxed Performance – Tues 27 April
  • Sign Interpreted Performance – Sat 1 May

We spoke with co-director Nathan Mudge and star Lily Harper about the play, and the importance of accessibility.

Meet Lily Harper

Lily, a young woman with Down syndrome, is being pulled in two directions

How did you get into acting in the first place?

When I watched Mamma Mia and saw Meryl Streep as Donna, I became really interested in what I could do as an actor and showing people what I want to do. When I was in Auckland and I did StarJam, I loved hanging with celebrities and doing interviews, so I always wanted to act professionally in plays. I'd never done that before. When I saw Nathan [co-director of Up Down Girl] for the first time on stage, I definitely remember I wished I could have the spotlight like he did. I decided for myself that I should be an actor. 

What are your plans after this season of Up Down Girl?

I don't have any plans in particular but I would like to do Up Down Girl in Auckland. I also want to do another play about a child with Down syndrome and being adopted.

What would you like more people to know about people with Down syndrome?

Sometimes when people with Down syndrome go to school or work they can be bullied. I want to show everyone that people with Down syndrome like to hang with their friends, they like to go out and have conversations, and go to parties; they are just like everyone else.

Meet Nathan Mudge

(Nathan has co-directed the play with Michiel van Echten)

What’s your theatre background?

I did the occasional school production growing up but it wasn't until I finished high school, moved to Wellington, and joined Long Cloud Youth Theatre that I fell in love with theatre and decided to pursue it as a career. I’ve travelled the country as an actor, but more recently worked behind the scenes as a producer, director and teacher.

When did you get interested in making theatre more accessible to a wider audience?

I was in a play several years ago about a Deaf man and his family, which featured sign language and had an interpreted performance. It was apparent how much it meant to the Deaf community to have a play and performance catered to them, but it also highlighted how fewer opportunities they get to participate - off stage and on. I teach drama to people with disabilities so I see first-hand in my students how keen they are to engage with the performing arts.

With Up Down Girl you’re doing an audio-described performance, a relaxed performance and a sign-interpreted performance – are these kinds of performances you’ve done before?

When our team decided to present Up Down Girl in Palmerston North, we wanted to ensure that all of Lily’s friends could see it, so accessibility was our priority from the outset. It was my first project as an independent producer and the first time I’d coordinated accessible performances, but Arts Access Aotearoa provided all the information and support we needed to pull it off smoothly.

What words of advice do you have to other theatre producers about how they can be better for a wider audience?

Inclusion doesn’t stop at the audience; it needs to include on stage, as well. We often see work by people with disabilities, and other minority communities, as niche - something that’ll tick the diversity box - but proper inclusion comes when you commit to developing and supporting their practice, and that often means adapting your own. Make inclusion and accessibility a priority in your programming, budgets and processes, and connect with disability organisations throughout - they have a wealth of knowledge and are there to help.  

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