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Dyslexia in theatre – an insider’s guide

04 August 2021

Dyslexia in theatre – an insider’s guide

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By Emma Tompkins

For an audio version of this article, please click here.

The next time you are in space with more than ten people in it, look around, the likelihood is at least one of them will be Dyslexic. The next time you are in a theatre space on the first day of rehearsals, it’s almost a guarantee. Also, it might even be part of the reason they’ve been hired.

Dyslexia goes by a few names, it can be referred to as a learning difficulty or a learning disorder, it’s considered part of the Neurodivergent family; a large brood that includes other connected disorders like dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dysnomia and dyspraxia. It’s also comorbidity cousins with developmental disorders such as AD(H)D and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

It is also a quality that according to an informal survey held by #SceneChange is likely to be present at double the national average in Designers.

Dyslexia in theatre – an insider’s guide
Image Credit: #SceneChange

But what is it? And why does it seem so prevalent in theatre?

If you want to go by it’s formal explanation (and just to warn you the rest of this article is an ode to why you shouldn’t) it literally translates to ‘Dys’ meaning ‘Bad or Difficult’ and ‘lexia’ meaning ‘pertaining to words’. So a ‘Dyslexic’ is ‘bad with words’.

I’m Dyslexic, and I’ve just written this article and created the phrase ‘comorbidity cousins’. Am I really so bad with words?

That’s not to say words haven’t bested me for most of my life. Yes they were worried about my development at school, yes my essays came back riddled with red lines and comments through my spelling and grammar, yes English was my least favourite subject and yes I still struggle today but the real lead buried deep into decades of poor awareness, destroyed confidence and lack of training (and the thing I want to scream from the rooftops) is the fact that dyslexia has also allowed me to excel.

A few things to know before diving into dyslexia in theatre:

Dyslexia is a buffet, not a set menu. 

You can be dyslexic and be able to read but struggle with writing. You can be dyslexic and be able to write but struggle with reading (*waves*). You can be dyslexic and struggle with both of these and so much more. The buffet is not opt out, the strength of the dishes will vary and there will always be the prawn crackers of poor memory, questionable grammar and typos already waiting on the table but we are all unique, we will all express our neurodivergence in our own unique ways.

It’s so much more than what we do, it’s how we think.

Scientists are still trying to understand dyslexia’s cause, a popular theory is that it is connected to cones in the eyes; receptors that take in light and colour. Apparently, we receive these things a bit differently. It’s also thought that our processing is different, we store things through slightly different routes and in slightly different parts of the brain. The difficulties with spelling, grammar and memory are one of many symptoms these ‘brain differences’ give us. The reason we all think dyslexia just means you can’t spell is because of all the qualities dyslexic thinking gives you, the ones that are flagged up earliest are the difficulties encountered when we hit the education system. The challenges dyslexics face end up defining dyslexia because it takes a lot of observation to realise proficiencies and difficulties could be connected.

Dyslexia is also a super power. 

This might sound odd, even to fellow Dyslexics, because it did to me before someone let me in on what they don’t tell you in school. But it’s true. Dyslexia is both kryptonite and the ability to fly. Dyslexic people excel at areas like 3 Dimensional thinking, empathy, problem solving & bigger picture thinking, creativity and ideas. We can flip objects around in our heads as easily as we can flip a ‘p’ with a ‘b’ when we read. We don’t think in linear ways thanks to the differences in our brains but whilst that often comes out as saying ‘stage managers’ when we meant to say ‘salt and pepper’ (I did this last week) and losing our house keys 3 times a day it also is how we find poetic language to explain our ideas, how we solve problems when the linear route doesn’t seem to work and why we smash it out of the park at the board game Articulate. History is littered with dyslexic scientists, creators and entrepreneurs. What’s the thread that links those people? Creative, problem solving Ideas.

For Dyslexics, English is our second language (kinda). 

The brain function needed to communicate/understand in our mother tongue has been scientifically shown* to match that of a neurotypical person attempting to communicate/understand a second language (Neurtotypical means someone who doesn’t have a Neurodivergence). Our dyslexic brains are engines going at 40mph in first gear. So the fact that I can also say ‘Donde está la biblioteca’ means I’m multilingual, it’s science. We tend to think this quickly naturally, but it means that our brains get tired sooner. Tiredness is considered a trigger for Dyslexia, but in truth, if our brains have no petrol left in the tank they will run at our most basic level, one that might not come across as totally accurate or comprehensible, and our behaviour will match. 

Diversity is the dance group, Divergent are our brains.

Neurodiversity refers to everyone, we are all different, so are our brains. Neurodivergent refers to those whose brains that are so different they count as significantly divergent from the standard range of neurodiversity present in the population. In Neurodiversity terms, if people who don’t have Neurodivergent brains range like the different types of chocolate in a Celebrations tub, we are Quality Street. There is a little blurry bit where people use Neurodiverse to describe Neurodivergent, because it sounds a bit more palatable. It’s not great but it exists, but if you are ever using it formally, it’s Neurodivergent.

Teachers aren’t always trained to spot students with learning difficulties.

The current PGCE training scheme does not include Neurodivergent awareness training. Thus, when dyslexia is first encountered it is seen as a problem meaning from the beginning we are front-loaded with all the things we are going to struggle with and won’t be able to do. Whilst it’s still a step forward that learning differences are being diagnosed in the first place, we’ve got a long way to go. I’ve heard a 9-year-old child say they cried when they got their diagnosis because they thought it meant they would never be able to get a job, and whilst the rate of unemployment amongst dyslexics is double the national average** it is all the more reason to celebrate and value all the things that Neurodiverse people can excel at. The lack of awareness means not only do newly diagnosed kids and families feel like this is a professional death sentence but people don’t realise being a dyslexic or Neurodivergent person can also come with a host of strengths.

Dyslexia in theatre – an insider’s guide
This is an image created by Exceptional individuals, an organisation that supports neurodiverse people in work (more info about them below). But whilst not being scientific it explains the differences between a neurotypical brain and a neurodiverse one. Essentially we excel and struggle., Image Credit: Exceptional Individuals

Now, onto theatre. 

It doesn’t take a wild amount of imagination to work out why some many of us gravitate to theatre. Theatre is proudly home to the oddballs, the outside the box thinkers, the ones who come alive when the restrictions of the education system are taken off. We are often the naughty ones. Theatre and the design disciplines also allow for 3D, spatial and non linear thinking. It is where creativity can come from emotion and avoids strict rules. We are all problem solvers, be it balancing budgets, finding the way through a tricky character motivation or working out how to put a giant spinning praxinoscope on stage and fit someone in it. Obviously problem solving, creativity and emotional understanding are not qualities solely given to dyslexics, that would be preposterous, but theatre is an environment that welcomes people with these skills, so it’s not a surprise to see stats like #SceneChange’s 20% amongst designers when the national average is 10%. I would also not be surprised if actors, stage managers and set builders had a similar popularity. 

Theatre isn’t a perfect playground, and with all the awesomeness that Dyslexia gives you there are still the hurdles; reading plays that are handed to you on a pristine white paper with black ink in a blacked out rehearsal room with fluorescent lighting is still the thing that sends dread directly to my heart as quickly as it does physical pain to my head (and the reason why making websites black and white in response to a famous person dying is one of the most stupid ideas ever thought of). God bless the enthusiastic director who recommends reading this fantastic book a week before we have the chat, it’s just not going to happen. I’m certain there are dyspraxic creatives out there who dread the coordination centered warm up games with the same furious passion I dread the short term memory ones. Additionally, there is a specific nightmare to having to balance set, costume and prop requirements at the same time (whilst only being paid to design one discipline) with different deadlines and procedures, often on more than one show, let alone feeling the fatigue pretty much stop your brain functioning outright. This one is obviously not unique to Neurodivergent people, it just gets that extra bit harder when your brain is actively trying to sabotage your ability to do it well. 

Like with the education system, these are the immediate encounters which make our lives harder. I for one identify my dyslexia as being the reason I can design and the reason I can write (albeit with the inability to see my own mistakes). It is always, always, always up to the individual as to how they want to identify and whatever they identify as is the right answer. People with dyslexia don’t have to tell you, or explain themselves or believe that their talents are anything other than their own. This is very much a personal journey for all of us and this is just one perspective. 

But for those who want to celebrate their dyslexia, who welcome the idea that it is part of who they are and that it’s is both rubbish and awesome, then this is for you. If there are any theatre people out there reading this who want to better support their dyslexic and Neurodivergent teams there are some ideas about support below. But one of the best things you can do is make your team aware that if they would like to disclose their Neurodivergence then you are happy to talk to them about what adjustments you can do to make their experience more positive. A lot of the things will be really easy, and as a result you will get better work out of us and a happier creative to boot. In case I hadn’t made this point clearly enough already, we are probably there as a result of our thinking differently so it will benefit everyone to facilitate that.

So, I’m proposing a different spin. My brain, my glorious, baffling, brilliant Neurodivergent brain has given me the ability to think in 3D, to problem solve, to care with such strength, to look at the wider scale of things and come up with some creative ideas/solutions (same thing) that I will be proud of for the rest of my life. It’s always important to acknowledge and find ways to support the struggles, and I will always have some dyslexic shaped barriers until the world becomes accessible for everyone but for any Neurodivergent person in society, if we only flag up the problems, we are only ever seen as problematic. So, I also am claiming to be both ‘Dyslexic’ AND ‘Hypercrearia’, a word I’ve invented, which *roughly* translated means ‘very creative’.

Notes, Links and resources for dyslexic and neurodivergent people:

  • If the theatre you are working with has an access manager, this person can facilitate your needs throughout your time working there. If the well resourced theatre you are working with doesn’t have an access manager, ask why.
  • Exceptional IndividualsExceptional Individuals provide employment services for neurodivergent people and companies looking to be more neurodivers
  • Does your company nurture neurodiverse talent? BBC Article 
  • Universal Music ‘Creative Differences’ hand book PDF download 
  • BDA Videos
  • There are fonts designed specifically to help with dyslexia (they work for some but not all – buffet principle). 
  • The Freelancers Make Theatre Work survey results has been recorded in an audio format for those who prefer audio versions. 
  • There is accessibility support within the Arts Council England’s grant application system. Email enquiries@artscouncil.org.uk with ‘Access support’ in subject.
  • https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/long-reads/articles/employers-hiring-neurodiversity
  • *‘Don’t call me stupid’ documentary with Kara Tointon – Includes Neuroscientist measuring Kara’s brain function against those with a second language. 
  • If you have a learning difficulty you are covered by the Equality Act 2010
  • There is evidence to suggest both Alebert Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci were dyslexic.
  • **Source of unemployment statistic: Exceptional Individuals.

Cyan Banner image full credits:

From Morning to Midnight: Set and Costume Design, Photo by Emma Tompkins

Writers – Georg Kaiser & Dennis Kelly, Director – Luke Kernaghan, Lighting – Alex Ray, Costume Supervisor and Maker – Hannah Hart, Costume Makers – Olivia Cory & Hannah Woodey, Scenic Construction – Sophie Child, Holly McGonigle Scenic Art – Holly McGonigle, Sophie Child, Elizabeth Gilmarten & Bethany Paul-Rientoul, Stage Management – SM Ryan Jaques, DSM Rachel Kimber, ASM Alex Holmes & Tegan Sewell, Technical Management – Liam Daley, Production Management – Olof Bjarnadottir, Cast includes: Angus Maxwell, Danielle Antonini, Lara Cooper-Chadwick, Tom Higgins, Harvey Badger, Ellie O’brien, Gabriella Gibs, David Thomas Croffy, Lila Risnes, Chirstelle Elwin, Laurie McNamara, Grace Binford Sheene, Christian Powlesland, Jacob Powel, Lauren Ava-Thomas, Sarah Johnson.

Audio version of this article below;


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