Cast of IN WATER I’M WEIGHTLESS: David Toole, Sophie Stone, Karina Jones, Mandy Colleran, Mat Fraser, Nick Philips. National Theatre Wales development week, November 2011.
Cardiff, November 2011: I’m in a studio with a group of outstanding performers, some internationally renowned, others forging reputations as ‘people to watch’. Also present is John McGrath, artistic director of National Theatre Wales, choreographer/movement director Nigel Charnock, designer Paul Clay, and emerging director Sara Beer. We’re here to develop In Water I’m Weightless and I can’t quite believe it’s happening.
The project is a long time coming and is only possible because of my Unlimited Commissions from the Cultural Olympiad, funded by the National Lottery through the Olympic Lottery Distributor, delivered in partnership between London 2012, Arts Council England, the Scottish Arts Council, Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council. These awards enabled me to launch The ‘d’ Monologues, scripts written specifically for Deaf and disabled actors, informed and inspired by interviews and interactions with people from all over the UK.
I’ve talked to disabled and Deaf friends, strangers, and colleagues about sex and complex interpersonal relationships, childhood ambitions and adult careers, divorce and promiscuity, favourite recipes and aphrodisiacs, societal labels and self-identification. We’ve spoken about sub- or counter-cultures and the mainstream, prejudices and preconceptions, theatres where performance happen and theatres where surgery is performed. We’ve talked of discrimination, both positive and negative, of love and loathing, fertility and being sterile, of what it is to be human and how to be truly alive. And this stimuli has prompted several projects and attracted National Theatre Wales’s creativity and openness to engage.
In Water I’m Weightless will be NTW’s twentieth production, produced at the Wales Millennium Centre in July 2012, setting an important precedent about which practitioners and what content are produced on a national platform. It’s rare for the material which makes up In Water I’m Weightless to reach the ‘mainstream’ – and it is even more rare for such a high profile transcultural experiment to happen.
I write this with confidence as I’m a fellow of an International Research Centre connected to the Freie Universität Berlin’s Theatre Department, which investigates the interweaving of performance cultures and of cultures in performance in the broadest sense. My research through practice focuses on what I call ‘Alternative Dramaturgies Informed by a Deaf and disability Perspective’, with particular reference to disability arts and culture and its relationship(s) to dominant, or mainstream culture(s).
As a practitioner, I have one foot in the ‘mainstream’ and one in disability arts – and previously it was a case of never the two shall meet… It has taken several decades to reach this position where I can openly fold disability content into a ‘mainstream’ project without having to find clever ways of hiding it and my intentions, or endlessly having to justify this way of being, or why I might want to write about human difference whilst challenging established parameters of ‘normality’.
There’s often an assumption that this kind of work has no place in the ‘mainstream’ – or it will be hectoring, or politically correct. Personally, I’m far more interested in the provocatively politically incorrect – and am sure that the combination of NTW’s creative team and the witty, subversive performers will ensure In Water… is anything but ‘worthy’.
The first part of this post began reviewing the year and questioning whether anything has changed in the relationship between disability arts and culture and majority culture. Given my forthcoming production with NTW, and other developments in 2011 in Scotland, I’m encouraged and given hope for the future.
Both Robert Softley and Claire Cunningham have been developing projects in 2011 with National Theatre Scotland.
Robert’s Girl X was an exploration of ethical issues surrounding the rights of an eleven year girl with cerebral palsy, who had the mental age of a five month old infant. Her mother sought a hysterectomy for Girl X, believing the onset of puberty would only bring additional, and unnecessary distress to her. The doctors also felt such controversial surgery might improve her quality of life. The play, produced in Spring of 2011 and written by Robert Softley and Bart Capelle, asked questions such as: ‘When do private matters become public concern? Is the majority always right? Do wheelchair users know better? Where will it all end? ’
In contrast Claire Cunningham’s recent dance theatre work explored her twenty year relationship with her crutches – and the (im)possibility of creating her ideal man from these objects, – what she knows best. Ménage à Trois was ‘a hauntingly beautiful study of love, obsession, loneliness and manipulation’ and, like In Water I’m Weightless, emerged from an Unlimited Commission.
I’m a big fan of both Claire and Robbie’s work, so am delighted at this development. It’s incredibly heartening that the National Theatres of Wales and Scotland are making unprecedented approaches towards disability artists and content in their commissioning and programming. But it’s also clear how central Unlimited and the Cultural Olympiad have been in helping make these changes happen.
Unlimited describes itself as ‘a project celebrating disability, arts, culture and sport on an unprecedented scale as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.’
I am writing on January 1st 2012. It will be fascinating to see on January 1st 2013 quite how successful that influence will have been – how far and deep its touch…. For the moment, I am hopeful.
Happy 2012, all. Hope it is creative and provocative and stimulating and joyful.
For an interview between Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of National Theatre Scotland, and Robert Softley on Girl X, go to:
For further details on my research project with International Research Centre Interweaving Performance Cultures in Berlin, go to:
Copyright Kaite O’Reilly 1/1/12.