Supporting young people to flourish in the arts means recognising the vital, sustaining power of dreams, and giving artists the means to realise them, says professional coach and mentor Brad Cole.

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Whenever Darren Cheek, Artistic Director of Damn Cheek, phones me with ‘that tone’ in his voice, I always get a particular feeling in my stomach – part roller-coaster ride of gut-twisting terror and part life-affirming joy – as I brace myself to expect the unexpected.

This time, the unexpected was as follows: “Would you be interested in taking part in a mentoring project at the Lighthouse Theatre to support young, performance-based artists? The project is in partnership with the organisation Extraordinary Bodies Young Artists (EBYA). The actors have all been identified as having outstanding ability. The actors all have some form of neurodiversity or disability.”

I was nervous. I have trained and worked as a theatre practitioner – actor and writer – for 3 decades, and was lucky enough to work opposite the great Ben Langford, an actor with Downs Syndrome, for Dark Horse Theatre company. I also have experience of working with dozens of ‘disadvantaged’ young people in a variety of professional and voluntary settings, plus I practise as a developmental coach with a degree in mentoring.

But really? This aside, I knew little about the real ‘challenges’ of disability. I knew nothing about the specific ‘disadvantages’ or ‘psychology’ of disability. Thus I pleaded with Darren.

Eschewing my self-doubt – and I’m sure eschewing his own increased reservations – Darren applied his Svengali arts. And 4 weeks later, I found myself with him and with the wonderful actor-musician Kate Adams, in the studio space at Lighthouse Theatre, spending a workshop day with 4 young actors: Jess Skelton, Kira Procter, Josh Ward and Clarissa Hustler.

That workshop was the beginning of a wonderful, 4-month professional working relationship with 2 of the actors who agreed to work with me – Jess and Kira.

Jess, an actor, dancer and self-taught choreographer, shared with enthusiasm her passion for romantic comedy and her love of movement and dance. A true extrovert, Jess will happily throw herself out of a plane because raising money for her favourite charities is a big part of her values.

Kira, a gentle and reflective actor, musician and songwriter, shared her intensely personal connection with acting and songwriting and how this connection springs from the deep well of her relationships and her lived experience.

Over 4 months, in one-to-one conversations, we talked for 9 hours. Jess and Kira’s emerging concerns were professional, real, universal: managing nerves; staying focused; audition and interview technique; finding an agent; refining a CV; creating a showreel; identifying TV shows to work on; searching for films to be a part of. Everything, in fact, that had preoccupied and sustained me as a young actor entering the business 30 years before.

Mentoring is a wonderful co-active process. Both the mentee and the mentor are changed by the journey of their work together. Jess and Kira awoke in me something that I had somehow forgotten – how, at this stage in a performer’s career, it is our dreams which truly sustain us.

For our dreams are not idle things. Not fanciful delusions. On the contrary. They are the seeds of our inspiration. The foundation of our resilience. They are our meat and drink. The blood, bone and soul of our real and burgeoning talent.

Dreams do not have disabilities.

Dreams are, however, demanding and fragile in equal measure. They demand fertile ground on which to flourish, and they demand careful nurturing and encouragement to transform that fragility into knowledge and craft. They demand a network of gentle, careful shepherd-gardeners, talent feeders and propagators of artistic growth, and inspired, blossoming self-belief.

As Kira, Jess and I talked, I looked around my profession to find those safe nurturing places and people – the support that would be needed.

And I looked. And I looked.

There is undoubtedly some good work being done. EBYA and DiverseCity are shining examples, as is the outstanding pioneer and longstanding advocate of integrative casting, Vanessa Brookes and her Separate Doors initiative.

But the industry has a long way to go, with very little available and meaningful guidance or support even from major industry gateways such as Equity or Spotlight. And while we have come some way (if not far enough) with colour-blind casting, we still have much to achieve in providing the same level of opportunity for actors who are physically and neurologically diverse. If the arts had the same investment of energy as sport does, with even a fraction of the vision and the material investment that produced the Paralympics, what stories might be told, what dreams realised?

Damn Cheek’s collaboration with EBYA is a seed. The seed of a dream.

In the meantime, watch out for the 4 actors involved in the project: Jess Skelton, Kira Proctor, Josh Ward and Clarissa Hustler. Their dreams are bold and bright. Their talent undeniable.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

WB Yeats

Brad Cole is a professional developmental coach and mentor. Find out more on Brad’s website about the services he offers.