Birkbeck historian develops theatre and dance with performers with learning disabilities

The two shows are informed by Dr Simon Jarrett’s own research on the history of intellectual disability, the idea of intelligence and the idea of consciousness.

Performers from the OpenStoryTellers theatre group. Credit: the OpenStoryTellers

Dr Simon Jarrett from Birkbeck’s Department of History is developing two new shows with performers with learning disabilities. Both are informed by Dr Jarrett’s own research on the history of intellectual disability, the idea of intelligence and the idea of consciousness.

The first, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Fanny Fust staged by the OpenStoryTellers, is a performance of an eighteenth-century court case explored in Dr Jarrett’s PhD thesis, which was performed at the Merlin Theatre in Frome on 13 July. The play told the story about a young Somerset heiress called Fanny Fust, who herself had learning disabilities, and was abducted by an army officer who wished to marry her to obtain her fortune.

The OpenStoryTellers used the performance to open up discussion about the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people, human and sexual rights, and decision making. Dr Jarrett sat on the steering board and acted as historical advisor for the project, which was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A member of the OpenStoryTellers theatre group said: “We want people to change the way they think about people like us like we did with our [previous performance] ‘King of the Goblins’ story. We asked the audience questions and made them think. We want to show people that even though we have special needs, we are the same as those who don’t.”

Secondly, Jarrett is working with and sits on the board of trustees for Corali, a south London dance company that develops talented young dancers who have learning disabilities. The group are working on a dance production about the nature of consciousness.

Dr Jarrett said:  “What always impresses me is how quickly the groups I work with grasp these difficult historical concepts, engage with them, and express their own feelings about them through performance. I think it shows that however dry and abstract our academic research might feel at times, there are always ways in which the public can become engaged and make their own contribution to our work.”

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