Flo O’Mahony: R+D – Sister Project

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Hello, this is Flo, AD of The Zoo and sister to Rachel. Rachel is 27 years old, and is Severely Learning Disabled. She’s spent her life having decisions made for her, and being praised for any achievement which can be drawn up on a neurotypical spectrum. 

When I passed my driving test and bought a cranky but reliable Peugeot 106, the first thing I wanted to do was to take Rachel for a drive. I let her tell me the way (she finds pretending to be a Sat Nav hilarious), and lo and behold, she took me on an incredibly moving tour of important houses we had been to together during our childhood, pointing them out as points on a map of our earlier years, eventually leading me to a house I had to suddenly move out of which for various reasons, had a huge impact on Rachel without my knowing.

This little slice of freedom of choice totally woke up my understanding of Rachel as an incredible communicator, when given the tools to make choices in a way that suits her (rather than just me). 

About The show:

The project will seek to find a way of facilitating creative collaboration between me as a professional theatre-maker, Lee Simpson, my mentor and AD of Improbable as a director, and Rachel, my sister, who has Severe Learning Disabilities and global development delay. Rachel will be as involved as she chooses, from R+D right up to performance. We are not making any assumptions about what this might look like, or about where the lines of audience member/ creative may be blurred for Rachel. 


Rachel is 27 years old, has speech (pretty limited), adores theatre, and has an absolutely incredible sense of humour which surpasses her diagnosis. Her world is very different from any ‘neurotypical’ person’s world, and her ways of being within it are often only valued in recognition of how well she is able to live up to the expectation of ‘neuro-typical people’ behaviour (the piece will almost undoubtably also ask – ‘neuro-typical’ – what even is that?!)

The piece aims to establish what the world might look like if for one hour only, the world (/the show) was the perfect place for Rachel to be in; completely, utterly and unapologetically. What is the perfect piece of theatre we can make for and with Rachel?

This idea throws up lots of questions about how we communicate with neuro-diverse people, how we facilitate communication for them (Rachel can’t adequately express herself through language – so where does that leave her?) and how we stop ourselves from rating communication/ connections through a neuro-typical or ableist lens. 

The idea is that the audience gets to experience what happens when Rachel’s choices/ preferences/ stories are allowed and fully respected, and what happens when we decide to be in her world, rather than asking her to rigidly fit into ours. She’s a toilet humoured, Kylie Minogue-loving, abstract song-singing, comic clown with a penchant for whoopee cushions and knock knock jokes that don’t make sense – so there’s plenty of material to get us started! (She also happens to really enjoys shouting ‘get off my stage’ during theatre visits!)

The piece would of course be focused on creating an extreme level of Relaxed Performance set up, enabling Rachel to choose to engage however she feels (or even not at all if she decided not to come) and for our audience to do the same. 

Similarly, it feels a little bit like we are discovering new rules for how to engage with disability in a professional rehearsal process in a way which goes beyond community engagement, and which puts disability, even in its relative severity in Rachel’s case, into the professional arts frame without removing the disabled person from the picture. 

I am so incredibly moved by the disability-lead breakthrough theatre has been experiencing over the past two years. Through this piece, I’m hoping to discover what happens to the voices of people like my sister, who cannot lead her own work, but who can be a participant in a process if it accepts her fully and works to her access requirements, which sits within that emergence of urgent new work that centres the narratives of people with disabilities. Importantly, the work is not about me, or my experiences as a carer – that’s another show (and one which I believe must have been made already!). 

I hope that in making this piece, I will be able to offer audiences the chance to see what might happen if we choose to meet with neuro-diverse people by being in their world, rather than asking people with disabilities to be in ‘ours’ 100% of the time. I hope that this message might speak to somebody whose mum has dementia, or whose child has ADHD, or whose partner has a mental health issue as much as it might speak to somebody whose sister happens to be disabled. 

The piece will also celebrate diversity, inclusion and access in a gloriously visual, playful, live, interactive and welcoming environment where everybody is really and definitely invited. 

(But especially Rachel). 

Stage one: R+D-ing ‘How To R+D With Rachel’

September 20th – 22nd @ New Diorama, London
Because we don’t know what a devising process with Rachel might look like, the first baby step to take was to R+D how we might R+D a show made entirely with/ about/ for Rachel. We played, we responded to Rachel as leader, and we learnt a huge amount about what becomes possible when you allow yourself to be lead by somebody who is neuro-diverse. We had so much to learn. 

We embarked on a three day R+D at New Diorama, supported by New Diorama and Improbable in September 2017 – you can view my video diary from the time on the project blog.

Flo x 

This Project is Kindly Supported by: