Earlier this month, as part of the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre, I was interviewed for the British Council website. What follows is a video link and additional material, below.
Can you tell us about your new book, Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors?
It’s a collection of five plays, from Peeling, which I did with Graeae Theatre Company in 2002, right the way through to Cosy, an Unlimited commission that happened earlier this year at Wales Millennium Centre.
Some of the plays in the collection are character-driven and quite realist, but others are post-dramatic and experimental. I’ve been using what I call ‘alternative dramaturgies’ formed by a Deaf and disability perspective.
The word ‘disabled’ can be really problematic. I didn’t want to use the word ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’, and I think ‘atypical’ is a far more interesting term. I decided to use this word because the collection contains plays, performance texts and post-dramatic texts – so they are not one particular thing, and it’s unusual to have a collection like that. Also, the plays are for actors who are not the usual representation of what an actor may be.
How did you come to be an artist? What was your path into the industry?
I started out as an actor working with Graeae Theatre Company in the late 1980s. I was very involved in the disability civil rights movement, campaigning for equal access to public buildings, education and opportunities. The people that I was meeting at that time who worked in disability and Deaf arts opened up all sorts of opportunities for me to be experimental, making work as a writer, dramaturge and maker rather than an actor. I also just fell in love with the use of sign language.
So I became more and more interested in writing and working dramaturgically – and sometimes as a director – working with visual language. Around the same time I was very fortunate to win a couple of major playwriting awards in the so-called mainstream. So I had these two tracks going along in parallel, and the irony was that people in either culture, whether it be the mainstream or disability culture, weren’t really aware of what I was doing in the other track. This is why in recent years I’ve been trying to bring those two together, and the book is partly a result of that.
How do you think the UK and the wider international creative industries are doing in terms of creating opportunities for disabled artists and disabled-led work?
I think there is a huge amount that needs to be done. I am incredibly disappointed at how little has changed. There are lots of organisations that are trying to bring more diversity as a whole, and there are lots of incredible initiatives, but it’s taking much longer than I’d ever hoped. In 1987, I was lying down in front of a bus on a demo, because we wanted just to be able to have accessible transport. That’s beginning to happen now. I feel that I still need to be lying down in the front of the doors of the theatres and buildings that, whilst well-meaning, are still not actually allowing the breadth and variety of artists to make work and be part of that culture.
There are special initiatives, but those special initiatives for disabled playwrights or disabled practitioners, so far in my experience, don’t really lead to what they should, which is proper jobs and proper commissions.
And yet, we are doing far better than so many other places in the world. So I may be complaining, but I’m also really grateful that we have examples and models that we can share with our collaborators internationally. I’m very excited by that, and that heartens me and encourages me. But I still think we really could do better, and how we will do better is by having more disabled and Deaf cultural leaders.
How do you think these opportunities could be made more available, to allow artistic leadership among disabled artists?
I think there’s a big issue here about whether we want to have diversity that is in actual physical bodies or whether we want diversity culturally. If you have a woman making work, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be feminist theatre that she’s making. Just because you have someone who might be disabled making work, it doesn’t mean it’s disability culture. Disability culture encourages us to question normalcy, to question the very narrow, confined representation we usually have of what it is to be human. That, for me, would be the real political shift.
What do disability arts festivals like Unlimited offer audiences and artists?
What would be fantastic is to make sure that we have some of the innovations and the aesthetics of access used widely in the so-called mainstream. I’ve been trying to bring the same kind of innovative work with the same kind of content that I would have been doing in disability arts and cultural context to a mainstream platform. Creatively, it’s incredibly exciting to have more diverse theatre languages in a piece of work. I want us to have more theatre languages, I want us to be more accessible. I don’t want it to be an add-on. I want the sign language, I want the audio description, I want the projections to be integrated and used creatively as something for the audience as a whole, regardless of impairment.
But I also want disability arts and cultural festivals in their own right to continue. They provide a place where people can cut their teeth and can be mentored and developed. Festivals like Unlimited enable us to take risks and to fail – and to succeed – and to take the successes on to reach a wider audience.
Having our disability festivals also just gives more diversity. I really like going to a very specific festival because it also allows those of us that have been doing that for 20 or 30 years to see what’s new, to catch up with the old comrades and colleagues, and also just to keep pushing, questioning, checking, “Are we still needed? Do we need to actually still be out there, demonstrating? Or are we now being completely included in the mainstream?” And I think, at the moment, we’re not being included in the mainstream.
What advice would you give to young and emerging disabled artists who are at the beginning of their careers?
I think the advice that I would give to emerging artists of whatever discipline – and whether they’re disabled or Deaf or hearing and non-disabled – is always the same. We need resilience. We have to take risks. There’s new blood coming through, and they need to shake things up a bit. They have to find their own way of doing things. Find the allies who are trying to bring about change. I would say please remain curious, please remain defiant and questioning and passionate, and enjoy it. It has to be enjoyable, because otherwise, why are we doing it? Know who your forbearers were, acknowledge your influences, but chop it up, break it up, smash it up, make it your own.
Kaite O’Reilly was speaking to Jane Fletcher, Arts Content Editor at the British Council