Finding Sanctuary through Performance

How a stage play with a cast of actors with intellectual disabilities made it to the silver screen.

Len Collin directing Kieran Coppinger
  • Sanctuary was a successful stage play with actors with disabilities
  • The story was about people with disabilities and relationships
  • There was a plan to make it into a film
  • Filming the story had lots of challenges and needed a lot of planning
  • Actors with disabilities don’t get the same opportunities as other actors
  • The play and film played a large part in changing an old-fashioned law.

I have great admiration for actors. I started my career as a thespian and know how tough and demanding it is to learn lines, remember blocking and handle props, without lapsing in concentration, losing your accent or dropping your character. Actors have to face a lot of rejection and disappointment; they have to handle adversity with a smile, and often they have to hold down jobs outside of the profession whilst they are resting. In my own time as a professional actor I cleaned toilets, worked in a dye factory, delivered Tupperware, laboured on building sites, I even stuffed envelopes for a charity organisation. Those cold calls you have from people selling insurance, double glazing or doing surveys, are probably actors between jobs. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to be unemployed for any length of time, you have most probably stood next to a would-be actor in the queue. It’s a profession with far more downs than ups, and most actors know that the glam and glitz of Hollywood is a dream beyond their reach.

So why do they persist? Why do they put themselves through torture just for the chance of being somebody else up on the stage for two hours a night? Or for the fleeting few seconds they may be allotted on a film set? It’s because they love what they do. It’s because in that moment when the audience laughs, applauds, or cries… they are acknowledging you, your talent and even your very existence. Little wonder then that marginalised individuals, such as persons with intellectual disabilities, might find a sense of worth and achievement through the performing arts.

I first encountered the actors from Blue Teapot Theatre Company in 2011, when they auditioned me for a screenwriting commission as part of an Arts and Disability Ireland scheme. Perhaps using the word “audition” is a little strong, but that’s what it felt like. I was impressed by the confidence of the actors; this was not acting as therapy, this was not something to do in their spare time, this was an ensemble cast of professional actors who happened to have intellectual disabilities. This attitude is integral to artistic director Petal Pilley’s vision. “They’re professionals. Pure and simple.”  Initially I was only hired to write the short film script for the cast, but Petal asked if I would like to direct the performed reading of the script planned for Culture night at Druid Theatre. This was how I really got to know the actors well and what they were capable of. When Culture night came around we had a full house. Kieran was very chilled, Charlene very chatty, Frank nervous with Paul calming him down, it felt like any green room backstage I had ever been in. The only difference was the choice of pre-performance meal – Pizza. The performed reading was a huge success, I worked with the actors on stage, helping orchestrate the performances a little like a conductor. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget.

A year later I saw the cast perform in Sanctuary, at Blue Teapot’s studio theatre in Munster Avenue. Even though I knew the cast well, I was blown away by their performances, and charmed by the wit and intelligence of Christian O’Reilly’s script. However mostly I was appalled and angry about Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (1993).  I was not familiar with this law, which effectively makes it illegal for two people with intellectual disabilities to have sex unless they are married.

In the pub afterwards I proposed that Sanctuary should be a film, that this world had not been portrayed on the silver screen before, and that people needed to be made aware of the absurdity of the unjust law at the heart of it. I was impressed by the story, but also struck by the fact that the actors were very openly prompted on stage. The reason for the prompts was mostly to do with the gales of laughter that would interrupt the actor’s flow. On stage, an actor like Patrick Becker could turn this prompting into part of the performance – it became a contract between the audience and the actors, and added to the charm and involvement. Of course, on film we stop and start all the time and I had been working with the actors on camera technique, so it wasn’t a massive leap to make. Getting the film financed and made however would be another battle.

The issue, if you are an actor who happens to have Down’s syndrome or autism, is that there is very little space for you on screen. A role which may suit an actor with an intellectual disability, such as the character of Josey in Garage (Abrahamson 2007) or Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (Levinson 1988), is usually taken by an actor who does not have a disability. This is known as “Cripping Up” and is often compared to actors “Blacking Up” in the past. It’s a phenomenon that anyone working in disability arts is well aware of, and thankfully is less prevalent in theatre due to the sterling work of companies like Blue Teapot in Ireland and Mind The Gap in the UK (to name but two). The situation in film and TV however, is that the sighting of any actors with disabilities is as rare as hen’s teeth. We needed a producer who was as passionate and tenacious as we were, we found her in Edwina Forkin of Zanzibar films. Thankfully, the Irish Film Board/Bord Scannán na hÉireann, the BAI (Broadcasting Authority Ireland) and RTE backed our proposal, and in 2015 the cameras started rolling.

Up to this point everything was in theory only. The actors at Blue Teapot have a routine, a person with Down’s syndrome or autism is reliant upon routine… and the routine in place was a three-day week with five hours per working day interspersed with regular breaks. During performances, this five-hour working day would be shifted to accommodate evening performances. However, filming days are long, at least eleven-hour days on set with travelling, hair, make-up and wardrobe not included. So in reality fourteen-hour days, six days a week. Would the actors be able to manage such long hours? Would the nerves of working in front of a film crew of twenty plus people get to them? The lights? The sets? The long waits in between set-ups as lights and camera are moved? There were many imponderables.

The first scene we shot was Kieran’s character Larry changing from his work clothes into his going out clothes. We were on Location in Supermac’s on Cross Street. Kieran was clearly nervous, even though he said he was fine, I could tell that he was just a little edgy. The crew were all new to me and Kieran, there was tension on set for sure… and that was about to get worse. As the cameras started to roll the action was simple enough. Kieran had to unbutton his shirt. Kieran has big hands, with chunky fingers, this is often a characteristic of Down’s syndrome, and he was having trouble with the buttons, he was taking an age to get one button undone. The tension was building on set, how long was this shoot going to take? Here we were on Roll 1 Slate 1 Shot 1 Take 1 with hundreds of takes to come over the thirty day shoot, and time was passing very slowly. My instinct was to keep going; I had faith in Kieran, and I knew that the crew also needed to know what they were dealing with – then the button popped out of the hole of the shirt, one undone… a slight relaxation in the crew… but then Kieran’s fingers moved to the second button and tension doubled. Kieran then showed why he is a professional actor and justified my absolute faith in him, he improvised, he realised that the buttons were taking too long, he sensed the tension and he came up with the solution, he pulled the shirt over his head – He solved the problem and the crew fell in love with him from that very moment.

Over the course of the thirty days filming there were many moments that challenged us, and the actors were always equal to it. Yes, the days were long, but we scheduled the actors so that each individual worked no more than five days in any one week. We tried to engineer the days so that the hours were more manageable… but still the actors coped with those odd days that were fourteen hours long. They rose to every challenge they were given. Acting on film is much more technical than theatre acting as movements have to be precise and remembered. What hand did you have your cap in? Where exactly did you put down that phone? Notes can come from Director, Continuity, DoP, Camera Op, Sound, Props, Hair, Make-up, Wardrobe… There is a lot of information to digest between takes. At the start I would have all of this information filtered through me, but soon it was obvious that the actors were more than capable of absorbing all the instructions themselves. Occasionally something would be forgotten, or a line would cause issues… if you watch the film carefully you can spot a few of these moments… look out for “Sexy traffickers” or “The missing phone” – but overall the actors exceeded expectations.  The UK Department of Health partly describe Intellectual Disability / Learning Disability as – “A significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills” In my opinion the making of Sanctuary has blown this definition out of the water. It is of course far more about reduced access, and less opportunities. It is the industry that needs to change, not the actors. We need more films like Sanctuary and greater representation on screen. We need to see an end to actors “Cripping Up” in the hope of garnering awards. Sanctuary has authentic performances from talented actors who deserve a platform.

Oh and what about Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (1993)? Well thanks to the sterling work of Inclusion Ireland, and other activists… and the fact that Sanctuary highlighted the issue… that law is no more. There is still a fight ahead of us to change people’s attitudes – it takes time to challenge ignorance, but we are getting there.

Len Collin directed ‘Sanctuary’, his first feature film, for which he has won Best Director at Newport Beach Film Festival and Best First Feature at the Galway Film Fleadh.

In 2010 Len wrote, produced and directed the award winning online drama ‘Covies’, which won an Allianz Business to Arts Award for creativity. His short film ‘Bound’ (2014) has been seen around the world in Ireland, America, Germany and the UK. 

Len is best known as a screenwriter, and has written for a plethora of television series over the years. He has been responsible for over fifty episodes of the ‘The Bill’ was lead writer on ‘Ultimate Force’, ‘London’s Burning’ and ‘Holby City’. Len has written a number of episodes for ‘Soldier, Soldier’, ‘Casualty’ ‘Thief Takers’,’Eastenders’. ‘The Clinic’ and ‘The Chief’.

Len’s theatre plays include ‘Box’, ‘Terrible Beauty’ and ‘Soprano’s Last Supper’ [adaption of the Vegas show for Tivoli Theatre Dublin]

Len has also starred in many TV shows and films including ‘A Touch of Frost’, ‘Dot the I’, ‘An Exchange of Fire’ ‘Call Red’ and ‘High Heels and Low Lives’.

Len is also an educator and currently lectures in Screenwriting and Film Production at Northumbria University. He is in the middle of a PhD entitled The Representation of Intellectual Disability in Film and Television.