OffWestEnd talks to Nick Llewellyn about his work and his new production of “The Interrogation”

Nick Llewellyn is Artistic Director of Access All Areas. Nick has received critical acclaim for his pioneering creative methodologies for people with learning disabilities.

He directed unReal City (co-directed with Tristan Sharps of dreamthinkspeak), MADHOUSE re:exit (“One of the most important pieces of theatre I have seen in recent years.”, The Misfit Analysis (“Utterly fascinating and wildly creative”- The Guardian) and Eye Queue Hear (“busting disability arts out of its ghetto” – The Stage).

Nick founded the Performance Making Diploma in partnership with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (Winner: Guardian University Award 2015).

What first attracted you to the theatre?

I used to play all the pantomime dames in our primary school pantos each year – I was hilarious supposedly! I went to various youth theatres in Cardiff which were often led by some great devising and experimental theatre companies and saw the work of Welsh companies such as Volcano and the live art work coming out of Chapter Arts Centre. In 1999, when it first began in Cardiff, I joined Hijinx Theatre’s ‘Odyssey’ community project and was hooked on inclusive devised performance with learning disabled performers at the centre. I then worked for Hijinx on graduation from drama school and subsequently moved back to London to co-found Access All Areas using all that I had learnt and experienced on my journey.

If you could pick any one person or theatre company to work with on your next project, who/which would it be?

I have always loved the work of Back to Back theatre in Australia. They are an inclusive company of learning disabled and non disabled performers. They tour internationally, often on the main stage of the Barbican when they come to the UK. A UK/ Australia collaboration would be wonderful.

What is your opinion of Off West End theatre, in general?

I’ve always been drawn to the outsider voice and the alternative way of being in the world so off west end theatre fits my perspective. There are some great venues, artists and companies and as a theatre maker I like to draw on. Immersive and interactive companies such as dreamthinkspeak, Shunt and Punchdrunk plus live artists such as Bryony Kimmings and Scottee or new venues such as Camden People’s Theatre, Battersea Arts Centre or The Yard give voice to new, fresh and experimental forms of theatre. As a theatre maker I have been truly inspired by these artists and ways of working but the most inspiration comes from the artists of Access All Areas, who, having soaked up these inspirations from our training programme at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, now create new aesthetics and hidden stories that add to our rich culture in London.

What was the most inspiring production you have ever seen? Why?

A show that I will never forget was called The Paint Show which I saw in Edinburgh festival in 2003. We went to an old warehouse and the loose story pitted various audience members against each other as stilt walking aliens encouraged us to fight each other with paint and foam batons. There was a story that I forget and a pumping dance track from a DJ up on a balcony but what I do remember was the visceral nature of the show. The audience were not sitting down half asleep but totally engaged in the action of the piece, we had to work together, we were immersed, and a community was formed. I often want to repeat these feelings again with Access All Areas shows where the audience are no longer witnesses but active participants with a community they may have never spoken with before. We engage with a playful prod and nudge about who we all are as a collective understanding our place in the world.

What piece of work are you the most proud of?

I am most proud of MADHOUSE re:exit which was an immersive performance by Access All Areas performed in 2018 at Shoreditch Town Hall and with the Lowry, Salford. We worked with 5 learning disabled artists who created 5 interactive performances inspired by their experiences of being learning disabled in response to the appalling history of learning disabled people being locked away in long stay hospitals. We created a modern-day care facility, ‘Paradise Fields’, and encouraged the audiences as ‘active citizens’ to come along and find out how they can help now that budget cuts have created a vacuum supporting people with learning disabilities. One audience member said there is a knife edge and this show sat on the right side of the knife as it made her question her assumptions about learning disabled people. Another audience member enjoyed going around our show with a group of down syndrome young people playing, getting to know each other and understanding their experiences as they related to the show. The show was a huge undertaking but a piece of work I was truly proud of.

What things in your personal life do you draw upon when you direct?

My sister is disabled and I also have a mild visual impairment. Although my sister does not have a learning disability, she does have multiple rare neurological disorders and as someone with an invisible disability has encountered much of the same prejudices. For example, navigating the complex benefits system, unconscious bias, verbal abuse, neglect and sometimes systemic abuse by the system, family and friends not truly understanding your access needs, lack of hope for the future and so on. All of these experiences have helped me co-create truly empowering and often hard-hitting performances with the Access All Areas artists.

Are there any actors/actresses you would like to direct?

As we are now embarking on a new intake for our Performance Making Diploma at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, I am super excited to work with the emerging talent that will graduate from the course in 2 years’ time.

Which director do you respect most on OffWestEnd at the moment?

I have huge respect for Rachel Bagshaw. Her previous two shows, The Shape of Pain and Midnight Movie sent shivers up my spine. Both were shows that explored chronic and often invisible pain. The stories of these untold warriors are truly vital to be heard, not in a victim way, but for the daily battle to be understood. Also, to question audiences’ assumptions of what disability is and your relationship to those issues.

Can you tell our readers about what you’re doing now/next?

Our current show is The Interrogation which is a co-production with Access All Areas artist Charlene Salter, writer Shaun Dunne and creative technologists Marmelo. The audiences use an app on a smartphone and follow the story of what happened to Charlene trying to get to the theatre one day. The audiences walk around their town following a GPS map on their phone and hearing stories about a shocking crime that Charlene was assumed to have committed. The performance is a socially distanced and relaxed outside walking tour that examines ableism of language and the feelings of being judged as a learning disabled person. Come and see it! We’re touring to GDIF, Canterbury, Salford, Bristol and London at Battersea Arts Centre and Rich Mix from 29 August – 3 October 2021.