20 Questions….. with poet Jim Ferris

For some years I have been running the series called ’20 Questions…’ when I ask a variety of creative human beings – from burlesque performers to theatre directors and novelists – the same twenty questions. Individuals are encouraged to respond to as many or as few as they like, in whatever form they choose. The answers are invariably fascinating and illuminating, even more so when compared to how other artists have responded. This time I’m delighted to introduce renowned poet Jim Ferris and his lyrical, honest, inspiring answers…..

Jim Ferris

Jim Ferris

What first drew you to your particular practice?

Words have always held power for me. I started speaking surprisingly young, I am told (and told further that I haven’t stopped yet – so much for my dream of being the strong silent type). I still recall the magical power of the ancient language of the Catholic Mass, the mystery and majesty as well as something to resist. Poets speak the world into being: in the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god. No wonder Plato hated the poets – that’s power. I’m not particularly Christian anymore – yes, you are, my mother would say – but I recognize that language is not just how we communicate but how we perceive, how we come to what we think we know. This is why so many deaf people have been such a worry to so many hearies: they feared the deaf ones were beyond the creative and organizing discipline of the word. It takes nerve to mess with the language, man, and how can we help ourselves?

What was your big breakthrough?

There have been so many breakthroughs. One of the most important was discovering poetry as an alive and lively art form, discovering that poetry wasn’t just something in books. I had just moved to southern Illinois for graduate school, and some friends of friends had me over for dinner. Out on the coffee table was a poem that one of them had been working on. Neither of them claimed an identity as a poet, as far as I knew. The poem was about acting, it was smart and used language well, I liked it quite a bit, and suddenly it occurred to me that real live more-or-less regular people could write interesting and moving poems – and just maybe I could do that too. It really was a revelation.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

I think the most challenging aspect of my process is not so much finding the shape as it is finding the starting point. I’m reminded of the old line attributed to Archimedes: Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I will move the world. It’s not the most accessible of metaphors, but I think finding the lever and the place to stand are the most challenging aspects. And discerning not enough from just right from too much. And not telegraphing the punch line. And not explaining the joke, a very teacherly flaw. I should probably stop here.

Is there a piece of art, or a book or a play, which changed you?

There are many. Reading Hemingway and then Fitzgerald as a sophomore in college was transformative for me. Those two writers helped me know what I wanted to do with my life: live in Paris in the 1920s and make beautiful and moving things with words. I’ve let go of the Lost Generation Paris thing, but not the other.

I can’t claim to be great at this, but I do try to stay open to possibility in my encounters with poems and other works of art: maybe the next poem will be the one that changes everything, or at least cracks open this moment. Who knows where that might lead?

What’s more important: form or content?

Yes.

How do you know when a project is finished?

Paul Valery provides my answer: a poem is never finished, only abandoned. Or: when the surface glazes over, when it doesn’t belong to me anymore, when it’s not hot for me anymore. When I can’t find any way to make it better, when I am at the end of what I can do, or think, or feel. When my bag of tricks feels empty. Maybe this is when I know it’s time to put the thing down for a week or a month. I’d love to have Yeats’s “click like a closing box,” but I’m not often that lucky. Even though I’m a lucky man.

Do you read your reviews?

I think writers should approach reviews of their work employing the wisdom of those signs at hotel swimming pools: No Lifeguard on Duty; Read at Your Own Risk. I don’t read them; I fear I might not be able to let them go. I may read them eventually, hoping there will be some kernel of insight that I can use in the future. That unreasonable hope is, unsurprisingly, not often fulfilled. Sometimes my work is seriously misrepresented, and that is something I cannot afford to let in my head: if I write defensively, I’m almost certainly overwriting and probably not diving into the deepest pools. It’s an interesting challenge: staying open to influence, open to what comes up, while managing the kinds of influence and limiting those constricting and inhibiting influences.

What advice would you give a young writer/pracitioner?

Giving advice feels dangerous, but what the hell. Write the things you need to read; write what you love, do the work that fills you up; write for fun, enjoy the work even if it never sells, finds a big audience, even if it never gets you laid. If the joy of making isn’t the biggest and most important reward, find something else to do.

Always be a beginner; fresh, beginner mind is the place to be. At the same time, learn your craft, master your tools and keep them sharp. Write, and read, and keep doing both. Let the world influence you. Try to write like God. Especially if you don’t believe in God.

Love people and the world around you. And write through that.

What work of art would you most like to own?

There’s a reason I work with words rather than visual images, but I’d love to own Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. What it does with light is just stunning. If I did own it, I hope I’d do with it what collector Chester Dale did and give it immediately to the National Gallery so lots of people could see it.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

Inspiration. Writing is much more about preparation, application of butt to chair, and perspiration than the lightning bolt from the sky. I love a good lightning bolt, and it’s important to court the muses. But waiting for the God of Poetry to speak to you in a booming voice is to miss all the quiet ways the gods are speaking to us all the time. Pay attention, and keep your pen moving. The rest, including God, can take care of themselves.

Work I wish I’d created

This could be a long list: Peeling, The Great Gatsby, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, As I Lay Dying, anything and everything by Shakespeare, Holy Sonnet 14 by John Donne – what a set of verbs! John Belluso’s Pyretown. Just about any painting by Riva Lehrer or Vermeer. Lots of great contemporary poems.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I’m not sure I have much of an answer to this question. Everything. Nothing. I don’t think I was ready to know until I knew. That the principal joy is in the making. The importance of just writing, of putting pen to paper. And then doing it again.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To make things that are useful, that may help people feel and make sense of the world differently, better, that suggest language and categories to think with, ways of being and noticing and feeling and responding. I’d like to push the envelope, to expand the horizon a little bit. I want to change the world, that’s all. And have a damned good time in the process.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, insecurity?

W.S. Merwin has a wonderful poem about some of the things he learned from one of his teachers, the legendary John Berryman. The last two stanzas seem to particularly fit this question:

 

I had hardly begun to read

I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can’t

 

you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write

 

In twenty or thirty or forty years, people will look back at us, shake their heads, and marvel at how misguided we were. Ten or twenty years after that, they’ll decide we did some good stuff after all. But whose work will make that future cut? [Big shrug.] If you have to be sure, don’t write.

I hope I have learned to be hip to my own shit. I hope I can take my work seriously without taking myself too seriously. If making stuff is fun, let’s just get out there and play, keep playing, anything written can be rewritten, anything you still hate a year later can be thrown away. Or burnt to make room for the new. Make it a goal to fill pages, not to write the World’s Greatest

Whatever. Just write. Posterity can take care of itself.

Single most important thing learned about creative life

Let the making of the work be your reward, take your joy there. That way you won’t be thrown by attention or its lack. If you’re in it for the fun of doing it, then the rest isn’t so important. One other thing: either be independently wealthy or be able to make a living. It’s good to be able to eat and pay the rent. And maybe put shoes on the kids from time to time.

Answer to the unasked question

Love – I think that’s the answer to the question not yet asked. Love doesn’t mean ignoring problems, making or accepting excuses. It means caring: caring enough to pay attention, enough to expend scarce cognitive and emotional resources, enough to observe and think and speak up. Caring enough to remember that everybody dies, that no one gets out of here alive. Caring enough to do something, no matter how small it might seem.

*

Further links to Jim Ferris:

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Ferris http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/jim-ferris https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoWtNBf1wJI http://www.valpo.edu/vpr/kuppersreviewferris.html

 

 

 

 

Cosying up to the critics….

And so I find myself in Berlin, continuing my fellowship at the remarkable International Research Centre ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’, Freie Universitat, and preparing to set off to the German language premiere of one of my plays at Mainfranken Theater Wurzburg. I will write about my research work in a future blog, along with the German language premiere of The Almond and the Seahorse – translated by Frank Heibert as Mandel und Seepferdchen. Before I move on to this German adventure, I feel I have to complete the circle with my previous production, Cosy, The Llanarth Group in association with the Wales Millennium Centre, supported by Unlimited.

It is one month since that play premiered, and I have only really absorbed the astonishing critical response to the production, directed by Phillip Zarrilli, with a wealth of Welsh women performers: Sara Beer, Llinos Daniel, Bethan Rose Young, Ri Richards, Sharon Morgan and Ruth Lloyd.

Sara Beer as Maureen in 'Cosy'. Photo: Farrows Creative

Sara Beer as Maureen in ‘Cosy’. Photo: Farrows Creative

I have been collecting the reviews and responses, and excerpts follow, with links to the full reviews:

Brief extracts from reviews of COSY by Kaite O’Reilly  

8-12 March, 2016 Wales Millennium Centre

‘COSY: It will make your heart pump and your belly shake.’  

         Denis Lennon Art Scene in Wales (March 11, 2016) http://www.asiw.co.uk/reviews/cosy-wales-millennium-centre

‘When the lights go up at the end of Kaite O Reilly’s Cosy in the WMC’s Weston Studio, you might find that you have to pick yourself up off the floor and put an ice pack on your face for the clobber it gives you. This play fights you and your natural urge to ignore the inevitable; it provokes and can reduce you to tears like any great fighter. And it does so, as O’Reilly does so well, through language…This production stirs and questions our ideals of life and death in a beautiful and sensitive manner. It will make your heart pump and your belly shake. A thought-provoking night that is not to be missed.’

 

New Welsh Review Issue 110 (Winter 2016)

‘Cosy’ by Kaite O’Reilly at WMC 

Sophie Baggott  https://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=1169

…‘Cosy’ is simultaneously the most moving and entertaining script I’ve heard on a Welsh stage in years…The all-female cast members are each phenomenally in tune with their characters… O’Reilly’s writing is, at times, breathlessly beautiful. Without warning, bickering is wrenched into raw, soul-searching outbursts… [O]ne might…have been aghast at the deafening decibels of laughter spilling out of Weston Studio throughout the performance. Yet, rather than cloaking ‘Cosy’ in gloom, O’Reilly’s play beams with black comedy. The sisters are wickedly funny in this cross-wired mess of a situation. The playwright displays a quite perfect clip of how families so often muddle their way through the most maze-like dramas with a ‘well, you have to laugh’ mentality.

Sharon Morgan in 'Cosy'. Photo: Farrows Creative

Sharon Morgan in ‘Cosy’. Photo: Farrows Creative

The Arts Desk, 4 stars

Powerful disquisition on ageing, death and womanhood

 Gary Raymond 10 March 2016 The Arts Desk **** http://www.theartsdesk.com/theatre/cosy-wales-millennium-centre

‘Kaite O’Reilly’s new play is a dark dark comedy, a Chekhovian family saga on a mainly bare stage that handles its subjects of aging, death and family with a rich and grounded intellectualism to be expected of the playwright’s work. The production itself skips lightly along the thin line that separates reality from a discomforting dreamscape, the waiting room: everyone is waiting, for death, for life, for family members to arrive. It is an ominous comedy…

Sharon Morgan is regal as Rose; Ri Richards, Ruth Lloyd and Llinos Daniel are excellent as the sisters; Bethan Rose Young has perhaps the most difficult task as the precocious 16-year-old who seems to learn nothing in school other than enlightenment philosophy; but it is Sara Beer who steals the show as Maureen, a brilliant and disconcerting comic turn that from the off envelops the play in a sense of the otherworldly.’

Western Mail/Wales Online

Cosy tackles the difficult subject of suicide with comic timing and emotional depth

Jafar Iqbal 10 March 2016 http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/theatre-news/cosy-tackles-difficult-subject-suicide-11020164

‘Good things happen when Kaite O’Reilly comes to Cardiff. Previous visits have resulted in critically acclaimed productions showcased by the likes of Sherman Cymru and National Theatre Wales…For what is arguably her most intimate production to date, O’Reilly may also have produced her best…Cosy is a tender meditation on the value of life…What immediately stands out when watching Cosy is its honesty. O’Reilly tackles an extremely sensitive subject with a matter-of-factness that is, at times, shocking. Suicide is discussed frankly, without prejudice and, crucially, with laugh-out-loud humour, giving it a legitimacy that is both liberating and unnerving at the same time…six exceptional performances. The characters are all beautifully developed, the natural chemistry between them all making for great viewing. Standing out from the pack is Sharon Morgan, as Rose… As the play reaches its powerful conclusion, the audience is gripped. Comedies about suicide aren’t made too often but, in writing a very good one, Kaite O’Reilly proves yet again why she is amongst Britain’s best playwrights. And someone welcome back to Cardiff any time.’

Llinos Daniel (Gloria), Ri Richards (Ed), Sharon Morgan (Rose), Ruth Lloyd (Camille) and Bethan Rose Young (Isabella) in 'Cosy'. Photo: Farrows Creative

Llinos Daniel (Gloria), Ri Richards (Ed), Sharon Morgan (Rose), Ruth Lloyd (Camille) and Bethan Rose Young (Isabella) in ‘Cosy’. Photo: Farrows Creative

 

The Stage. 4 stars.

Cosy review at Wales Millennium Centre – ‘deliberately discomforting confrontation with death’

Rosemary Waugh. **** https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2016/cosy/

‘“Well, doesn’t this look cosy?” says Gloria (Llinos Daniel) as she lets herself into her mother’s living room. Yet, despite the title, there is nothing cosy about Kaite O’Reilly’s new play. Instead, all aspects sit incongruously with one another, from the self-consciously fashionable clothes warn by middle-aged Camille (Ruth Lloyd), to the clunky, prep school philosophy phrasing spouted by granddaughter Isabella (Bethan Rose Young) and, most of all, the different family members forced together.

This conscious discomfort continues into Simon Banham’s set design, which starts life as nondescript, dust-sheeted mounds, before morphing into blood-red lines of nursing home chairs that slice the space into disjointed angles. Lighting by Ace McCarron brings the medicinal into the domestic setting, turning first spearmint blue and then a saccharine peach. Gloria, the most estranged daughter, is introduced in a blaze of red, while the increasingly frequent mentions of death turn the stage black. The production’s soul is found in the musical interludes by Daniel, which act as buffer zones between the fraught familial exchanges.

Rose’s (Sharon Morgan) insistence that her family must confront the idea of death is the ultimate un-cosy element. Her more didactic ruminations are lifted by Sara Beer’s humorous, subtler comments on assisted suicide and disability…’

Bethan Rose Young, Sara Beer, Sharon Morgan in Kaite O'Reilly's 'Cosy'. Photo: Farrows Creative

Bethan Rose Young, Sara Beer, Sharon Morgan in Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘Cosy’. Photo: Farrows Creative

 

Dr Mark Taubert. Ehospice.com

Author: Dr Mark Taubert, Clinical Director/Consultant in Palliative Medicine, Velindre NHS Trust, Cardiff) (http://www.ehospice.com [palliative care news])

‘Where to begin to describe this play by renowned playwright Kaite O’Reilly? I’ll start by making up a word: ‘uncosy’ came up repeatedly in my mind with an ill-at-ease feeling delivered with unremitting pace throughout this play……Sara Beer gives one of the stand-out performances in this play, with her witty, funny and astutely observed thoughts on modern medicine, life, death, attitudes towards disabled people and also assisted suicide…

‘Cosy’ dealt with the big ethical questions our society will face in future in a surprisingly balanced way. This balance is achieved by witnessing debates between people with very different opinions: they argue and argue, but this is portrayed in an informed way.

Advance care planning, advance decisions, do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation decisions (and tattoos) all get pitched in such a way that a medical professional like myself could identify with this societal critique – and not cringe, as so often happens when fiction tries to imitate medical reality. I nodded a lot during the play, mainly in recognition of what I have seen and heard in hospital, community and hospice medicine over the last 16 years…’

 

British Theatre Guide

Othniel Smith

Cosy ‘…wears its deep seriousness lightly; a tale of empowerment which leaves one deep in contemplation.’

Ruth Lloyd in 'Cosy'. Photo: Farrows Creative

Ruth Lloyd in ‘Cosy’. Photo: Farrows Creative

 

3rd Act Critic

Cosy: ticking meat

Holly Joy https://3rdactcritics.wordpress.com/?s=Cosy&submit=Search

‘We are hit with a sombre set. Cosy, it says on the backdrop. Exquisitely mournful music plays, a woman’s voice breaks the air and it begins. Watching these remarkable women enact such complex and difficult subjects – ageing, euthanasia, suicide, terminal illness and sibling rivalry with sense, passion, anger and humour was sobering.’


The playwright is leaving the building…. embracing diversity and challenging normalcy

 

Sharon Morgan, Ruth Lloyd and Ri Richards in 'Cosy' rehearsals. Image: Farrows Creative

Sharon Morgan, Ruth Lloyd and Ri Richards in ‘Cosy’ rehearsals. Image: Farrows Creative

There reaches a point in every theatre production of a sole-authored script when the playwright needs to leave the room…. and now is my time to do just that….

New writing is exactly that – new – it is untried and brings with it all the excitement, risk and anticipation of doing something for the first time… I loved being in rehearsals full time for several weeks, trying out the script, making amendments, getting feedback from visiting playwrights and dramaturgs as well as the company… Now it is my turn to leave everything in the director’s capable hands and allow him and the company to make their final preparations…

We preview on Tuesday 8th March, International Women’s Day, which seems an appropriate day for a play all about women, of all ages, written by a woman playwright…. We’ve also been receiving some fantastic coverage in the press and media, which I reproduce below. Have a ‘Cosy’ read or a listen….

A podcast with Dylan Moore for the Institute of Welsh Affairs: http://www.clickonwales.org/2016/02/iwa-podcast-confronting-the-last-taboo-old-age-and-death-in-theatre/

Read about the most influential and powerful women in Welsh theatre here 

On normalcy and diversity – an interview in The Stage

Lyn Gardner’s Guardian preview of Cosy

Actor Sara Beer and me in conversation with Nicola Heywood Thomas on BBC Radio Wales Arts Show

Joe Turnbull’s interview with me on normalcy and coming from a family of rebels for Exeunt theatre magazine

A feature I wrote about writing for female protagonists for Art Scene In Wales

An interview with Welsh National Treasure Sara Beer for Western Mail and Wales Online

Richard Huw Morgan and Pitch – radio interview with Tom Wentworth, Ruth Lloyd, Llinos Daniel and me

25 exciting things to do in Wales during March WOW247

Art Scene in Wales: Cosy – Writing for Women

The following is a feature I wrote for Art Scene In Wales about ‘Cosy’. The original article can be accessed here

The 'Cosy' sisters: Ri Richards, Ruth Lloyd & Llinos Daniel. Photo: Farrows Creative

The ‘Cosy’ sisters: Ri Richards, Ruth Lloyd & Llinos Daniel. Photo: Farrows Creative

I was on attachment to the National Theatre Studio in London five years ago when I got the impulse to write a play for women covering the age range from sixteen years to seventy six. It’s quite unusual to have that spread across three generations, and a prospect I relished. When I was starting out in theatre as a performer, I often heard the lament from older women of the ‘thin’ roles available to female performers once we passed the easy-on-the-eye ingénue parts. ‘Once you’ve done Lady M in the Scottish play there isn’t really anything until septuagenarian Lady Bracknell’ I can remember being told by a veteran of the old rep’ system. Once I moved off-stage into writing full time, I swore I would create big, complex, juicy parts for women to compensate for the apparently watery gruel so many talented actresses believed they were fed.

Fast forward twenty years and a rehearsal room in Grangetown filled with Welsh national treasures: Sharon Morgan, Sara Beer, Ri Richards, Llinos Daniel, Ruth Lloyd and Bethan Rose Young: three generations of one seething, complex, love-you-to-death family, matriarchs and viragos, every one.

I love writing for women – and it has been a particular delight to be working with such fine actresses. Since our first R&D back in June 2015, their comic timing, emotional intelligence and ability to play the fine details rather than the broad strokes has urged me on to polish and refine the script. In the past heaven has been defined by theatre folk as being eternally in rehearsal, and I go with this – except I’m impatient to see the product, these six women taking to the Weston Studio stage.

‘Cosy’ is a dark comedy looking at the at times difficult things that make us human: Our relationship with siblings, mothers and daughters; our relationship to our ever-changing bodies. When we’re young we can’t wait to be older, adding years to our sum – the same years often dropped from the accounting when we’re older, approaching that ‘certain age’ when vibrant women in their prime often become invisible.

Getting older is an important subject for all, regardless of gender, in this youth-loving society where, if we believed the media, sixty is the new forty and forty the new twenty-five. How we navigate becoming mature, and the inevitable last curtain lends itself to serious, poignant and comic exploration. It’s wonderful to get my playwright hands on such multi-layered and emotionally rich material, creating parts that reveal the paradoxes and flaws at the heart of likeable characters. I believe humour allows us to embrace challenging subjects, and in our rehearsals our cast seem as adept at making me laugh as bringing a lump to the throat. I hope I am holding up my side of the bargain when I said, all those years ago, I wanted to write meaty parts for this nation’s outstanding female performers.

A great compliment came during our first read-through from our youngest member of cast, Bethan Rose Young. ‘I could act in this play right through my whole career,’ she said, ‘starting now with the granddaughter, growing into playing the sisters and mother, and in fifty years playing the grandmother.’

It’s quite something, and humbling, to think a play I’ve written could accompany an actress throughout her life.

Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. March 8 to 12.

Images: Farrows Creative

‘Kaite O’Reilly has always been a rule breaker.’ Exeunt magazine

What follows is an interview with Joe Turnbull for Exeunt magazine. You can read the original feature here

With thanks to Joe and Exeunt.

 

Kaite O’Reilly has always been a rule breaker. Her 2012 play, In Water I’m Weightless set a precedent by having an all Deaf and disabled cast. She’s pioneered creative access throughout her career, informed by her longstanding affinity with Deaf culture. Plays such as The 9 Fridas, subvert traditional theatrical form and aesthetic. And even when she deliberately sets out to make mainstream work she can’t reign in her recalcitrance. She describes the Almond and the Seahorse, her 2008 play which got a five-star review in the Guardian, as her ‘Trojan Horse’: “I created what seemed to be the most commercial theatre script I’d ever written. Only it’s got subversive politics in its belly.”

Her latest work Cosy, which is set to premiere at the Wales Millennium Centre on 8 March, very much falls into the latter category. It’s ostensibly a traditional family drama encompassing three generations of women, which tackles the thorny issue of end-of-life scenarios and ageing.

“I’m deliberately taking different perspectives of a family coming together. It’s familiar – the family all get together and all these discussions and events happen in the family home. But perhaps some of the content and arguments and perspectives being presented are not the ones we would usually hear”.

It turns out O’Reilly’s dissident sensibilities are in her blood. “My family were always rebels, they were always the dissenting voice that would shout up from the back”. As O’Reilly regales me with her backstory, I’m transported to the West Midlands in the 1970s.

O’Reilly’s father, an Irish migrant is holding court amidst a bustling farmer’s market. A proper working-class Irishman, his sales patter is a performance aimed at punters as he tries to flog his sheep. Back at the O’Reilly family home, get-togethers also provide a stage, and everyone is expected to deliver, whether it’s a poem, song or a story. This is the theatre of everyday life. It clearly had quite an impact on the young Kaite.

“The performative aspect that comes culturally from being working class Irish was huge. As I get older I understand how formative that was because it was always about entertaining, engaging, challenging, provoking.”

It isn’t something that they can teach at drama school, nor is it something you can read in a book. “I think that right from the get-go, if you’re going to be a playwright it’s got to be about the living words in the mouth. You know as soon as something sounds stagey. There’s something about engaging with language in the absolute moment that you have to be able to dazzle and create and engage with words.”

But her working-class Irish heritage isn’t the only aspect of her identity that has been seminal to O’Reilly’s work:

“Identifying politically and culturally as a disabled person was essential, because it changes you. It affects everything about how you perceive the world. I think that is huge as a playwright because we’re trying to – as that old hackneyed Shakespeare quote goes – ‘to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature’. Well if you are actually seeing nature and the notion of normalcy as being different from what the majority culture says, then there’s some really interesting things happening”.

O’Reilly doesn’t shirk from the label, she has always embraced it, even in her work, whether that’s using integrated casts, embedding creative access or by directly addressing disability themes. As is common for many successful disabled artists, O’Reilly finds herself at times awkwardly straddling the two worlds of mainstream and disability arts. Cosy is perhaps a sign of things to come for O’Reilly as something of a middle ground between the two. Although the play doesn’t address disability political issues directly, it was inspired by her thoughts around assisted dying which is a very important topic for the disability rights movement.

“I started to think about ageing, about end-of-life scenarios, our relationship to the medical profession and how industrialised care has become. What are the family dynamics in end-of-life scenarios? So basically, Cosy is quite a dark but sophisticated comedy looking at whether we truly own ourselves.”

O’Reilly is eager to acknowledge that her perception of language and working process as a theatre maker have been massively influenced by her work with Deaf collaborators, such as performer and director of visual language, Jean St Clair. “Seeing what language can be through the prism of Deaf culture and experience has been really important; the form, the means, the aesthetic and the possibilities were broadened as I began to learn sign language”.

“I’m notorious for my bad signing,” she tells me, wryly. “Jean teases me all the time about it. Whenever I threaten to go and learn BSL she says ‘no don’t because I actually like what you’re doing, because it makes me think differently’”.

Due to budgetary restrictions, not to mention the changes in Access to Work benefits, O’Reilly regrets that Cosy won’t be the “all-singing, all dancing, all-signing access-fest” as previous works such as In Water I’m Weightless. The play will be captioned, and they are also trialling an app which encompasses different languages and possibly audio description. In spite of the restraints and her past successes, O’Reilly is still not taking anything for granted, displaying the enthusiasm and passion of a young upstart. “Every day I wake up smiling and thankful that we’ve got this opportunity from Unlimited, it’s an incredible gift”.

Perhaps it’s fitting for these austere times that Cosy sees O’Reilly going back to basics in more ways than one. “Cosy isn’t breaking new ground in terms of form or aesthetic but I think it’s interesting that we have reached the point of maturity, where we can have a big growling play with these different perspectives all mashed up and arguing together.”

But it just wouldn’t be an O’Reilly play if it wasn’t pushing the boundaries in some way. Cosy has an integrated all-female cast of disabled and non-disabled actors with ages ranging from 16 to 76, “how gorgeous and delicious is that?” she enthuses. Even more significantly, the roles with the most power in Cosy are predominantly staffed by people who identify culturally and politically as disabled, including the director (Phillip Zarrilli) and assistant producer (Tom Wentworth) in addition to O’Reilly herself as the writer.

“I think it’s interesting that the powerbase is coming from a very open identification as disabled. Often they’re the ones who are non-disabled and the people that are being cast are disabled. I wonder if that’s a shift that has come from Unlimited and their legacy, that we’re now becoming more and more in the position of the powerbase.”

In concert with the launch of Cosy, O’Reilly also has a book entitled Atypical Plays for Atypical actors being published by Oberon Books. It will feature a selection of five plays and performance texts spanning nearly 15 years of work, each of which is informed by disability politics. Clearly, there’s no chance of this rebel being assimilated by her mainstream success.

And like all true revolutionaries, O’Reilly isn’t content being the sole dissenting voice in what can at times be a very homogenised profession. Instead she’s looking to use her profile as a vanguard for others. “There are things that I’m trying to do through my practice and engagement that I hope is going to help shift things and provide opportunities for other people as well. For me it’s very important that we have people in leadership and positions of power who are not only disabled and Deaf, but who identify culturally and politically as so.”

Cosy is on at Cardiff Millennium Centre from 8-12th March. Tickets and info here

 

Wales Arts Review: Exploring taboos: the Genesis of ‘Cosy’

 

Ruth Lloyd and Bethan Rose Young in 'Cosy'. Image: FarrowsCreative

Ruth Lloyd and Bethan Rose Young in ‘Cosy’. Image: FarrowsCreative

The following is a feature I wrote for Wales Arts Review. The original article, including more images, can be accessed here

Even as a child, I was drawn to taboos. What was hidden, or not to be brought to everyone’s attention was – and remains – hugely attractive to me. I loved to expose the unmentionable, to revel in revealing the forbidden, not just out of mischief, but to see the reaction this provoked. I wanted to talk openly about what the grown-ups mentioned in lowered tones and coded messages, to question their absolutes, to view things from the other side. As I matured, this curiosity led me to theatre – the place to explore all that it is to be human – where nothing is verboten.

As a playwright, I’m tempered by the times I live in, influenced by the debates surrounding me. Two themes caught my attention and imagination several years ago when I started writing Cosy when on attachment at National Theatre Studio in London – the cult of youth in an increasingly ageing population, and exit strategies.

The invisibility of women ‘of a certain age’ in our media has been a hot topic of late. It’s an absurd situation, as in our maturity we’re more likely to be confident and vibrant, shedding the insecurities of a younger age – yet the faces of teenage models sell anti-wrinkle cream for the over 40s in magazines and actresses over thirty five are deemed ‘too old’ to be the love object of men several decades their senior – a Hollywood fact fabulously pastiched in Inside Amy Schumer – Last Fuckable Day.

Although the recent employment of eighty year old Sophia Loren as ‘the face’ of’ a beauty brand caught the headlines and suggested a turn in the tide, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. We live in a youth-loving society that seems to give little value to maturity and experience, especially of the womanly variety. Immediately I knew I wanted to explore this, in the company of six female characters ranging in age from sixteen years to seventy-six. Through a classical device of three generations of one family, I chose to explore complex emotions and perceptions from myriad perspectives, from one embarking on adult life, through those in the middle, to one nearing the end of it.

The second issue that demanded my attention as I started sketching in ideas for the new play is one of the most important in recent times: assisted death. The argument has raged for years, splitting political parties as well as the disabled community, carried into parliament with the Marris Assisted Suicide Bill in September 2015, with opposing groups campaigning on the Westminster streets outside. Dignity in Dying and Care Not Killing were engaged in a face-off, divided between ‘My Body, My Choice’ and ‘Better Living, Not Easier Dying’. By the time the Bill was defeated in the Commons by 330 votes to 118, my play was fully formed.

Cosy is not a drama about assisted suicide, or death. It is a dark comedy about living, and the realities and options that entails. We all have to die, but what makes a good death? Such questions often cause discomfort; I’ve actually seen people flinch when I describe the central themes of Cosy as ‘a gallows humour family drama about getting older, end of life and exit plans’. Poke, poke, prod, prod: there goes another taboo.

I don’t fully understand why we in this particular society seem so afraid of death. It is the one certainty we have, and yet we continue to ignore it, seldom thinking of our demise, and how we might want to manage our old age and what comes after. It’s considered to be morbid to want to shine a light into this dark and neglected corner. Many think it is gloomy. I think it a source for wry observations and, as we’ve discovered in rehearsals, raucous comedy.

There’s certainly been a lot of laughter in our rehearsals so far, and long, tender conversations. The Cosy company is a treasure trove of Welsh actresses – Sharon Morgan, Ri Richards, Ruth Lloyd, Llinos Daniel, Bethan Rose Young and Sara Beer, led by director Phillip Zarrilli. With an award-winning design team featuring Simon Banham, Ace McCarron and Holly McCarthy, I feel fantastically fortunate. We’re a solid team, many of us collaborating before – Simon and I on NTW’s Persians; Ace, Phillip and I on The Llanarth Group’s Told by the Wind, Simon and Holly on myriad productions. We’re a mature bunch willing to take on a grown-up subject with equal irreverence and sensitivity. Humour allows us to study the absurdity and poignancy of being mortal, while also acting as a buffer against more painful aspects.

I want to handle this often feared topic with wit, as well as sobriety and respect. I love human beings ability to live joyfully and in the moment, despite the knowledge our time is finite and we will all die one day. How these two opposing perspectives co-exist is fascinating to explore theatrically – and the deceptions, avoidances, contradictions and confrontations within a family with distinct and different ethical, religious, and political perspectives.

As someone who identifies as disabled, I have long been part of a vibrant community known for its joie de vivre and gallows humour – created, perhaps, from our knowledge of the fragility and resilience of the human body. I hope I have brought some of the quality of this insight and perspective to the script, in a production I hope will be funny, quirky, honest, daring, and fully engaging emotionally and intellectually.

Cosy is the sole Welsh Unlimited Commission – an initiative aiming to embed work by disabled artists within the UK sector, hoping to reach new audiences and shift perceptions of disabled people. I hope we can help shift perceptions of that final curtain, too, and the means by which we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Cosy is at Wales Millennium Centre 8-12 March 2016. For more information, go HERE and Wales Millennium Centre box office here

Cosy: Laughing in the face of age and death

The 'Cosy' sisters: Ri Richards, Ruth Lloyd & Llinos Daniel. Photo: Farrows Creative

The ‘Cosy’ sisters: Ri Richards, Ruth Lloyd & Llinos Daniel. Photo: Farrows Creative

It takes a very special kind of attitude to laugh at death, and this is one I’m happy to say is in rich supply in the Cosy company. My play focuses on some of our society’s last taboos: ageing and death – treating the subjects with respect and a healthy irreverence.

Two weeks into rehearsals, we are getting closer to understanding the dynamic between these brilliant, but flawed female characters at the heart of the play – sisters, mothers, daughters and grand-daughters, with opposing world views and belief systems…. All the ingredients for a satisfyingly complex drama, which we hope will provoke discussion.

Conversations have already started around these vibrant themes. I had a coffee and an excellent discussion with Dylan Moore at the IWA offices in old Butetown last week. Our talk about the cult of youth and how theatre allows us to look into the dark corners can be heard  here

I was also fortunate to be invited alongside cast member Sara Beer onto the BBC Radio Wales Arts Show with Nicola Heyward-Thomas. You can listen here (around 18 mins 40 seconds) to our talk of the production, Unlimited and the work of disabled artists entering the so-called ‘mainstream’.

Further images and news of the production can be followed on the Cosy blog: http://www.cosytheplay.co.uk/cosy-is-coming/

Cosy opens at Wales Millennium Centre 8-12 March, with matinees on 10th and 12th. Further details and to book tickets: https://www.wmc.org.uk/Productions/2016-2017/WestonStudio/Cosy16/