Kiruna Stamell and Ali Briggs in Forest Forge’s production of ‘peeling’, directed by Kirstie Davies, Spring 2011. Photograph by Lucy Sewell.
Some years ago I received a Creative Wales Major Award from Arts Council Wales, to begin a project I called The ‘d’ Monologues – short dramatic solos written specifically for Deaf and disabled performers. There is a dearth of plays with disabled characters, and when these are produced, the parts are invariably played by non-disabled or hearing actors. Those who know me and my play peeling will know I’m not a fan of this kind of casting. As one of the characters says in peeling, a play all about performance: ‘Cripping up is the twenty-first century answer to blacking up.’
The Western theatrical canon is full of disabled characters: From the pathos of the blinded Oedipus to the personification of evil in Richard III, the impaired body has often been used as a metaphor for the human condition. But seldom have the plays been written from a disability perspective, or performed by disabled actors. This was the impetus for my writing peeling in 2002 for Graeae Theatre. I wanted to write an edgy, inventive, and humorous play specifically for Deaf and disabled actors, which used Sign performance (theatricalised British Sign Language), and reflected the experience of disabled and Deaf women. Unfortunately so often in the media, we are portrayed as the victim or the villain – the object of sympathy, or charity, or superhuman inspiration. In peeling I wanted to create women who were witty, sexy, complex human beings who made difficult decisions about their fertility and potential offspring; women whose lives didn’t necessarily differ so much from non-disabled, hearing women’s lives.
A triumph in its original production, directed and designed by Jenny Sealey, and remounted earlier this year by Kirstie Davies of Forest Forge, peeling garnered prizes alongside outstanding reviews and is now seen as a watershed moment in the relationship between disability arts and culture and the ‘mainstream’ media. It was arguably the first production written, directed and performed by disabled and Deaf practitioners to be reviewed widely and seriously by all national press. A similar response came from within the specialised disability press: ‘Disability art grows up’ was one heading. The play was – and remains – controversial in elements of its content, politics, and depiction of disabled and Deaf women – but also for my refusal for it be performed by anyone other than Deaf and disabled performers.
I find non-disabled actors impersonating people with physical or sensory impairments extremely problematic – akin to the now offensive ‘blacking up’ of white actors to play Othello. This is not me being overtly PC, simply my rejection of what that message implies – that there are no black or disabled actors good enough to play these parts and that Caucasian non-disabled actors will always do it better…
I remember when it was announced the first black performer was going to play Othello at the RSC. If my memory serves me right, I was in my early teens at the time and horrified when this came up, presented as some kind of celebratory cutting-edge news item on the local television station. “What?!’ I remember thinking. ‘There hasn’t been a black performer playing that part until now?!’
Everyone interviewed seemed to be most relieved this prejudice had been finally put to bed and shook their heads over the onerously-held negative opinions of actors of colour in the past. There would be no more boot polish and burnt corks smelling out the dressing rooms of the RSC or the UK regional repertory theatres. Caucasian actors blacking up to play the Moor owing to their supposed superior acting skills, knowledge of the Bard and ‘his’ language no longer held sway… And I look forward to the time – in my lifespan, I hope – when a similar change occurs regarding disabled performers and characters with impairments, whether congenital or acquired.
In the meantime, I’ll grit my teeth when every Oscar-hopeful pulls off their studied gimp impersonation and offer resistance by writing what I hope are interesting and subversive parts for Deaf and disabled actors.
I’ve been writing plays with disabled protagonists for almost twenty years. Throughout that period I have heard the same argument from theatres and directors from both sides of the Atlantic: How will they cast it? Where will they get good, experienced, professional actors who identify as disabled or Deaf? They just don’t exist! The audience or critics or theatre cat won’t accept it! and yada yada in finitum blah de blah until fade…
These preconceptions are incorrect. There is a vast collection of talented, professional performers, theatre practitioners, and live artists – and the numbers are growing. An incredible amount has been done to change perceptions and open up opportunities for training and professional work since my acting debut with Graeae Theatre in 1987. There is an army of the great unsung who have worked tirelessly and continuously to raise the portcullis of fortress professional theatre in the UK and elsewhere – but this has also predominantly been our own actions, created or ignited within the disabled community, working with allies.
Bringing this talent and experience centre stage on major platforms has become something of an obsession, and I’ve spent the past four years developing several projects which now are coming to fruition – projects I’ll be writing about on this blog in coming months.
When I received my ACW Creative Wales Major Award back in 2008, I spent a year exploring the form of the dramatic monologue, seeing solo work in Europe and the US, meeting and being mentored by experts of the form, like Sara Zatz and Ping Chong Company in New York. I shadowed part of Ping Chong’s Undesirable Elements Series, watching testimonial theatre in various school halls and community centres in Brooklyn, the participants/performers using their own autobiographies to address the experience and reality of being disabled in NYC.
Throughout this period, I was writing monologues in a variety of styles and dramaturgies, informed and inspired by my interactions with Deaf and disabled people across Wales. Unlike Verbatim, or the testimonial theatre of Ping Chong Company, I chose not to use the actual stories I had been told, but used these anecdotes and experiences as inspiration, and created fictional drama informed by these interactions.
At the end of the year, the experiment proved to be a success and worth persevering with. A script-in-hand sharing of early work at Unity Festival at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff brought outstanding reviews and I later brought what I coined ‘The Cymru Crips’, a group of performers I’d been working with in South Wales – Sara Beer, Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds, Kay Jenkins and Macsen McKay – to The National Theatre Studio in London, for a further script-in-hand showing when I was there on attachment in 2009..
Kay Jenkins, Macsen McKay, Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds, Sara Beer, Phillip Zarrilli, Kaite O’Reilly and Maggie Hampton at the National Theatre Studio 2009.
I was further encouraged by receiving an Unlimited Commission from the Cultural Olympiad, part of the celebrations to develop the project across the UK. But that is a further story…
Part of this blog originally appeared in: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/posts/45