‘Cripping up is the twenty first century answer to blacking up.’ Peeling and The ‘d’ Monologues.


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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..


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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

http://www.kaiteoreilly.com/plays/peeling/index.htm

http://members.multimania.co.uk/graeae/productions/peeling/peeling.htm

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Peeling-Kaite-OReilly/dp/0571215947

http://www.artswales.org/what-we-do/funding/what-we-fund-in-wales/cultural-olympiad/unlimited/awards

http://press.artscouncil.org.uk/Resource-Library/The-Llanarth-Group-Wales-482.aspx

10 responses to “‘Cripping up is the twenty first century answer to blacking up.’ Peeling and The ‘d’ Monologues.

  1. Long live the Cymru Crips!

    “I’ll grit my teeth when every Oscar-hopeful pulls off their studied gimp impersonation.” — so often what I see are nondisabled actors imitating other nondisabled actors’ mannered (tortured) performances of their ideas of disability.

    • Like Michael Sheen’s performance as Art in the uncomfortable film The Music Within — it looked to me like Sheen was doing a pretty good performance of Daniel Day Lewis performing Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Why do you think they call it ‘acting.’ Sigh.

  2. I think that’s a fascinating observation, Jim – that what we see are non-disabled actors imitating other non-disabled actors’ impersonations or interpretations of impairment/disability.. A similar argument can be made about that tricky issue, ‘Orientalism’ – all those problematic Fu Man Chu stereotypes – not to mention Olivier’s now wince-making version of ‘the Moor’, full of ‘noble savage’ fruity vowels and a chest-resonating bass voice…. I hope this is a phase we are passing through, just as for casting around race… and maybe in an enlightened future we will look back and blush – or stare open-mouthed in horror, as my nephews did when realising there had once been a programme called ‘The Black and White Minstrels’- with black face and all – on primetime television in the UK on Saturday nights in the 1970’s….

  3. While it’s certainly a fantastic and exciting thing to see this issue in modern theatre finally being properly addressed, I hope we’ll also take care to remember the end goal. That being, a cast hired on performance merit or artistic direction alone. I don’t think i’m being extreme to say there’s no objective issue with non-disabled actors playing disabled characters. Likewise with non-black actors ‘blacking’ – and vice versa. We all know that what disgusts us isn’t the rather common place idea of an actor pretending to be something other than they are, but the preconception of disabled actors being ‘not good enough’. Something I really think ‘peeling’ does a good job of firmly debunking.

    We’ll need to go a long way in one direction, ensuring that disabled actors are hired first and foremost. But eventually, wouldn’t it be better if we simply didn’t consider an actors body form an issue for discrimination.

    • ” But eventually, wouldn’t it be better if we simply didn’t consider an actors body form an issue for discrimination.” Absolutely. Thanks for this, William. As you imply, this is a wider issue. This effects all of us and has more implications other than impairment – it’s cultural heritage, gender identity, age, etc etc – and whilst there still exists blinkered notions of ‘normalcy’, the entrenched perspectives and old hierarchies will still stand.

      • Yes, I think we can all agree that “the entrenched perspectives and old hierarchies” are why theatre like this needs to exist. All the best in the future.

  4. For me the question of ‘Cripping up’ is a metaphor for the non-disabled ego. The illusion that you can control, modify and contain, if not your own body, then someone elses. My question for William and Kaite is: what do you, as a disabled playwright, in a country that prides itself on a legacy of being part of the universal cannon of theatre but pays no dividends to disabled artists or performers? Dividends in this context is used as a metaphor for cultural inclusion. In short, the disability aesthetic is erased out of Irish theatre and performances.
    Do you hold your work back in the hope that there may be some emerging disabled performers who might, some day, bring your work to the stage? Or do you compromise and collude with ‘Cripping up’ as a way of establishing your work? If I’m bold enough to make accusations about the non-disabled ego in theatre, well then, I have to admit it’s quite difficult to balance integrity, authenticity and reality with my own ego as a disabled writer. The adulation and the special treatment of being told “You’re the only crip in this village” can be alluring in as much as it can be isolating

    • a short reply now but a more reasoned one will follow….Thank you, Rosaleen, for opening up this issue and posing such important and challenging questions.
      I can only really say what I would or have done. I’ve sought out the collaborators and cadres who I want to work with, regardless of non/disability, establishing my own work and (i hope) integrity over the years. I’ve turned down 11 requests to stage PEELING when it would be cast by hearing and non-disabled actors, and the parts are written specifically for Deaf and disabled performers. That’s my choice – I’m not trying to be a saint or martyr with this (this is the first time I’ve revealed this in public), but it’s what I chose to do but others may make different choices. That’s up to them and fine.
      In some cases it’s taken more than a decade to finally work with those I’ve yearned to (eg David Toole, Mat Fraser, Mandy Colleron…) and the way I did that was to make good work, but also take on part of a producer’s role – at least in the beginning of this particular project. I’ve learnt the skills to make applications, I’ve raised funding myself, I’ve strived to make work of the highest calibre – and if you know you’ll have problems making work in particular contexts, try outside that context, or if you can’t bear cripping up casting, offer plays without disabled characters. I believe quality will out and I know you;re work and it’s just a matter of time before you get that proper breakthrough. Meanwhile, go for every competition going (eg the Bruntwood coming our of Manchester’s Royal Exchange), writing your plays without compromise. When you win a competition or find the director who ‘gets’ your work, you’ll be able to start that negotiation about casting. It’ll take time, but it will happen. And look beyond your horizons, whilst working within them for change.

  5. Your point is well put. When the aesthetic your work most readily expresses is refused almost wholesale, to what do you turn – compromise or endurance? And I think Katie’s reply is a good one. The choice is really down to how you view your situation. Does putting your work forwards in a form that allows easier integration necessarily have to be viewed in terms of loss of integrity. Or do you see it as a step, one of many, towards an end goal in which you can make the decisions your work demands.
    Interesting work, consistantly put forwards via competition and so forth, will often find it’s own way through to the spotlight.

    • One choice that many disabled people on both sides of the Atlantic have made is to develop and perform solo work. It requires performance skills, of course, but it also develops performance skills, and it allows the author absolute say over who performs the work … But that’s solo work, with all the possibility AND all the limitations that implies. Not to mention all the energy that solo work requires.

      I’m a firm believer in getting the work out there — making sure it’s damned good and getting it out there, for one reason because that seems to me to be an essential part of creating the change that we want to take place. Ah, but when ‘the work’ requires Deaf and disabled actors … but solo performance does seem to offer one partial answer to a couple questions. Perhaps …

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