Talking (and Signing) about Theatre and Disability

by Andrew Wilson

It was a day of hope, frustration, and a lot of laughter – much more laughter than I expected to find in an event called "Reshaping our Future: Theatre and Disability."

Co-hosted by Graeae Theatre Company, UK Disability History Month (UKDHM), and Park Theatre, the day's aim was to “bring together Artistic Directors, Producers, Managers, Casting Directors, Writers and Actors... to encourage the inclusion of disability in plays and explore best practice to help us work inclusively with the growing pool of disabled and deaf artists, to embrace a truly diverse and representative theatre.” The sessions were held in the Park90, on the set of This Little Life of Mine, and British Sign Language (BSL) translation was provided throughout the day. A total of 55 people attended.

“Okay, let’s try that out”

Responding to a question from Danny Sapani, Jenny Seeley tries out some staging ideas with Jude Mahon, Nickie Wildin, Gerard McDermott, Daryl Jackson, and Narinder Samra. Click here for excerpt.

One of the standout sessions was a staged workshop that illustrated Graeae Theatre’s rehearsal practices. (Graeae Theatre was established in 1980 to champion accessibility and provide a platform for new generations of Deaf and disabled talent. The name is pronounced “Grey-eye,” and refers to a Greek legend of three sisters who shared one eye and one tooth between them). Artistic Director Jenny Sealey directing two scenes from a production currently in development.

With both disabled and non-disabled actors and BSL interpreters onstage, the company tried out different configurations and positioning. Should the interpreters stand together, or with the character they were interpreting? Should they move with the character? Who should react to whom, etc. Participants in the audience such as actor Danny Sapani (see video) contributed suggestions, which were tried out on stage. As well as directing the actors and interpreters, Jenny provided a commentary on the types of artistic and practical decisions that have to be made in such productions, and gave the point of view of a deaf person in the audience watching an interpreted or subtitled performance.

Showreels and Ramps on the Moon

In another session, video presentations from Access all Areas, Deafinitely Theatre, and Graeae showcased the wide range of work being carried out by deaf and disabled actors with these companies. Also shown was a video from Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s 2016 touring production of The Government Inspector, which was the first play in a series supported by the Ramps on the Moon programme.

Ramps on the Moon brings together seven theatres across the country in a six-year programme integrating disabled and non-disabled performers and practitioners. Participating theatres commit to organisational changes such as putting access on the agenda of all meetings, creating long term employment and training opportunities for deaf and disabled people, and committing core production expenditure to the project. The programme also features Agents for Change – disabled people who are employed by the host theatre on a fixed-term contract, generally on a part-time basis. The director of Agents for Change, Michele Taylor, provided one of the best lines of the day, saying that the Agents’s role is “not to be a desk where all things disabled end up, but a trampoline from which ideas bounce in all directions.”

Becky Allen (BSL interpreter), Amit Sharma, Kerry Michael, Jez Bond, and Vicky Featherstone


What do the Artistic Directors think?
A wrap-up panel session featured Vicky Featherstone (Artistic Director, Royal Court Theatre), Kerry Michael (Artistic Director, Theatre Royal Stratford East), and Jez Bond. The three artistic directors each gave different takes on some of the issues that concerned them and how they were addressing them.

Vicky Featherstone talked about power and who has it in any given institution. Royal Court is writer-led, so one question is: how to start a conversation about the themes that get written about? She noted the fact that the idea of inclusive productions initially challenges non-disabled actors and staff, who worry about “saying the wrong thing,” but quickly find they take it in stride.

Kerry Michael spoke about his theatre’s upcoming production of Tommy in 2017 with Ramps on the Moon. Citing the famous lyric, “That deaf dumb and blind kid/Sure plays a mean pinball,” and the conversations engaged with deaf and blind communities, he described the project as “really exciting and really scary.” He also posed a challenge for theatres: “How do we make disabled-led productions the next big thing, the most exciting thing we do, so everyone else want to do it too?”

Speaking from the audience, Julian Peter of Park Theatre’s Diversity and Access Committee started a (friendly) debate with Jez Bond about labelling. Julian spoke about the importance of supporting diversity without labelling disabled people, while Jez brought up his theatre’s experience with casting notices: “If we don’t emphasise that disabled people as such are welcome to audition for a given part, many will assume it isn’t open to them.” An ongoing issue that theatres across the UK are having to negotiate...

Julian Peter, Laura Guthrie, and Kate Lovell in the Park Cafe Bar

A wide range of voices and issues

A number of themes emerged when  the session was opened up for questions and comments. The following is intended to sketch the range of issues covered, and the wide mix of participants from different levels and areas of UK theatre.

Active discrimination, ignorance and plain thoughtlessness are real and pervasive. Actor Nickie Wildin described how work in pub theatres was sometimes impossible for her due to physical access issues. Two participants related illustrative incidents: one was a theatre that took a touring production about autism but refused to do a relaxed performance; the other was about a well-known actor who left a production following auditions once it emerged that a disabled actor had been cast in a prominent part. Neil D’Souza (actor) said that the British reluctance to give bad news was another challenge, relating obstacles faced by disabled actors to his experience of agents who simply wouldn’t tell him (or would outright lie) that they aren’t putting him up for roles because he is Asian.

Sophie Watson (Bush Theatre) asked about funding opportunities, and commented on the importance of ensuring diversity was not just on stage but that disabled professionals had opportunities in production and administrative positions. Dorcas Morgan (Park Theatre) supported the need for diversity from the ground up, across the organisation. Small things help, like all staff learning some basic signing. Richard Lee (Stagetext) said it can’t just be a project-based thing, but has to carry on in the next play, and the next. Laura Guthrie (Agent of Change at Nottingham Playhouse) said that technical and stage management positions are especially hard to obtain training for disabled people. But they are the people who put shows together. She commented that people with learning disabilities are often forgotten, but have been involved in genuinely valuable work. Kate Lovell (Stratford East) described her theatre’s efforts to do peer support events for disabled theatre workers. Izzy Cotterill (Orange Tree Theatre) said small theatres like hers have a contribution to make, mentioning a production of The Tempest for autistic audiences.

Richard Rieser presents a session on the history of stereotyping in the arts.

Richard Rieser (UKDHM) brought the discussion back to power relationships, saying the disabled movement was actually stronger 15 years ago, and that progress had been disappointing. Susie Burrows (UKDHM) related how, when she and Dorcas Morgan were organising the event, their invitations to artistic directors at some theatres were met with “We’ll give it to the Diversity Department.”

Segun Lee-French (Islington Council) emphasised the importance of diversity on theatre and related boards, relating his own experience of frequently being the only person of colour at various official and community meetings despite the wide diversity of his borough. Vicky Featherstone mentioned the Artistic Directors for the Future programme, which is dedicated to changing power relationships at leadership level in mainstream theatres.

Lucy Wollat (Executive Director, Young Vic), spoke of the importance of involving more people like her, i.e. in managerial positions, and wished more had been in attendance. “Executive directors can and must push to make things happen, but they need to be involved.” Andrew Shepherd (Theatre 503) said more events like this were part of the necessary peer support for theatres, and said he hoped there would be more.

Amit Sharma wound up the session with a reference to the Graeae legend from which his theatre company gets its name: “Share the eye, share the tooth... Thanks for coming!”

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