Is disability culture going mainstream? ‘richard iii redux’ shortlisted for 2019 James Tait Black Award

I know the answer even as I wrote the title for this blog… No. And define ‘mainstream’ while you’re about it, O’Reilly. And ‘disability culture’… and no, I am not going to turn this blog into one of my academic essays about Crip’ culture and interweaving performance cultures (though I can refer you to where they’re published, if you want to drop me a line, below).

I started wondering about the place of disabled-led work after noticing it seems to be getting a higher profile these days, whether at Edinburgh Fringe or Lee Ridley (aka ‘No Voice Guy’) winning Britain’s Got Talent and heading off on a National tour. The RSC, National Theatre (London) and The Globe are all presenting more diverse casting regarding Deaf and disabled performers in recent and upcoming productions, whilst Ramps on the Moon and Agents for Change beaver away on inclusivity and creatively accessible theatre productions with their regional theatre allies.

This is all brilliant. I’m ecstatic when longterm collaborator Sophie Stone moves from spoken to visual language on a Westend stage in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s ‘Emilia’ and can’t wait for her embodiment of a Deaf Jacques in ‘As You Like It’ at the Globe later this year. And as for seminal moments… Francesca Martinez’s calling out of the Government’s austerity policy (“blood on their hands”) on BBC’s Question Time remains my political highlight of the year (see @chessmartinez pic.twitter.com/3zQUDVLvOa )

The visibility and presence of disabled and Deaf individuals on our screens and stages is finally increasing, which feels like a triumph. I’ve written previously about the importance of representation (in 2012 for The Guardian here Howlround here ). All my professional career I have tried to write and make work that is inclusive and from a politicised disability perspective, challenging notions of normalcy and embracing all the possibilities of human variety. To witness so much talent and intelligence finally taking a rightful place on national platforms is extraordinary and deeply gratifying.

Many years ago I realised that one way I could help bring about change was to use the only power I have as a playwright – to write inclusive plays but also specific parts solely for Deaf and disabled performers. peeling (commissioned by Jenny Sealey for Graeae Theatre Company, first produced in 2002) was the first script where I insisted that the rights were only available to companies casting Deaf and disabled performers in the role. Since then I’ve turned down eleven requests for production from all over the world, when the directors have said “there’s no disabled or Deaf actors in our town/country/planet, and so we’ll cast hearing and non-disabled actresses who will, well, ACT…” Given that peeling is a meta-theatrical play, with performer/actress characters stating: “Cripping up: it’s the Twenty First century answer to blacking-up” I have often wondered how closely the actual script had been read by proposed producers.

Thankfully now, seventeen years on from its first production, there are companies producing the play with sterling Deaf and disabled casts. Taking Flight Theatre Company produced peeling earlier this year in a Wales-wide tour, garnering a 4 star review from The Guardian. They will be re-mounting the production for a tour of England this September – tour dates and information here.

Seattle-based Sound Theatre will present the American premiere of peeling this August. Helmed by director Teresa Thuman, peeling offers “a fresh, if not jolting, perspective.”

Sound Theatre production of ‘peeling’. Caroline Agee. Photo by Kellie Martin.

“Seattle has never seen a play like this before,” director Teresa Thuman states in the press release (reproduced at the end of the post). “The very nature of theatre is to expose and make public all that is human – in every form, every ability. For those who live on the margins, theatre is a way to bring them to the center as fully human beings.”

This notion of putting disabled and Deaf figures centre-stage was at the heart of my co-written text, ‘richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III’. Taking Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’,  the veritable poster-boy of disability-as-the-emodiment-of-evil as inspiration, co-writer and director Phillip Zarrilli and I set out to reclaim historical Richard and ‘re-crip the crip’, as I put it in an essay for Howlround (‘Cripping the Crip’).
Written for long-term collaborator performer and disability activist Sara Beer, we wanted to put her centre-stage in a complex multi-layered solo, where she plays multiple fictional personas alongside an investigation into the historical Richard and Shakespeare’s ‘monstering’ of him.
We’re delighted to be able to reveal this week that ‘richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III’ has been shortlisted for the 2019 James Tait Black Award for Drama.

 

“The James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Drama celebrates innovative drama produced worldwide. The prize is presented annually for the best original play written in English, Scots or Gaelic and first performed by a professional company in the previous year. The £10,000 prize is open to any new work by playwrights in any country, and at any stage of their career. The accolade was launched in 2012, when Britain’s longest-running literary awards—the James Tait Black Prizes—were extended to include a category for drama.

The play is a riotous one-woman piece promoting inclusivity in the arts and written from a radical disability perspective.  It challenges Shakespeare’s representation of the disabled monarch and the creation of ‘the twisted body/twisted mind’ trope, satirising the non-disabled actors who have ‘cripped up’ to play the part in the past.

The panel includes students and academics from the University of Edinburgh, representatives from the Traverse Theatre, Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Schaubuhne Theatre, Berlin, and freelance theatre director Pooja Ghai.

‘This year’s shortlisted plays deal with some of the most pressing issues facing the world today. The innovation demonstrated by each playwright is truly astounding and I would like to congratulate each of them for being nominated for this esteemed international prize.’         Chair of the judging panel Greg Walker Regius Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University

 The Award Ceremony will take place at the Traverse Theatre on Monday, 19 August, 2019 from 16:00-17:30. The other two finalists this year include two US plays: Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris and Dance Nation by Clare Barron.The ceremony will include readings of excerpts from each of the three finalist plays, interviews with the authors, and announcement of the winning play.  Further details here.

This accolade in being shortlisted for this prestigious prize was what prompted my opening question and the title of this blog post – Has disability arts gone mainstream? I am encouraged that a piece of Crip’ culture has been shortlisted for such a ‘mainstream’ award, never mind it being a critical irreverent poke at The Bard and his damaging presentation of physical difference equaling evil, written from a radical disability perspective, with a tone defiantly feminist and Welsh. It is a credit to the unique judging panel of the award that work like ours is valued and promoted. Phillip, Sara and I are hugely excited and thankful about this nomination… but rather as one swallow doesn’t make one summer, one nomination, or one casting, or one appearance on Question Time doesn’t make us ‘mainstream’, or with fair and equal worth and opportunity. But we are trying, and kicking down those doors, and raising our hands and our voices to speak and sign and make ourselves, our stories, our talents, experiences and lives visible.
.
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PRESS RELEASE: Sound Theatre Company produces ‘peeling’, the U.S. premiere of landmark play about disability.

SEATTLE, WA—In the U.S. premiere of playwright Kaite O’ Reilly’s internationally renowned play peeling, Sound Theatre Company continues staging authentic narratives and breaking new theatrical ground. peeling weaves audio description, sign language, and theatrical spectacle into a no-holds-barred play about representation, women, reproduction, war, and eugenics. With brisk wit and domestic backstage comedy, O’ Reilly’s storytelling style has earned comparisons to Beckett and Caryl Churchill. In an overproduced, postmodern production of Euripides’ The Trojan WomenAlfa, Coral, and Beatty have been cast in bit parts to fulfill a playhouse’s misplaced diversity program; but as tokens, the trio never experiences true inclusion. Sound Theatre centers disability justice by assembling a production team and cast that brings authentic lived experiences to this groundbreaking production.

Following Sound Theatre Company’s 2018 season of Radical Inclusion,
this season explores themes of erasure. To wit, peeling probes at buzzwords like “inclusion,” “diversity,” “authenticity,” and “equal
opportunities” as an extension of Sound Theatre’s ongoing effort to spotlight talented theatermakers with disabilities.

WHAT: peeling, by Kaite O’ Reilly

WHEN: Previews August 8, 9 at 8PM Opening August 10, 8PM Continues through Saturday August 24, 2018

WHERE: Center Theatre at the Seattle Center Armory https://www.artful.ly/store/events/14170

CAST

Carolyn Agee – Coral                                                                                                     Michelle Mary Schaefer – Alfa                                                                                       Sydney Maltese – Beaty

ARTISTIC TEAM

Teresa Thuman – Director
Monique Holt – Assistant Director and Director of Artistic Sign Language Andrea Kovich – Dramaturg
Parmida Ziaei – Scenic Designer
Taya Pyne – Costume Designer
Adrian Kljucec- Sound Designer
Jared Norman – Projection Designer
Richard Schaefer – Lightning Designer/Technical Director
Robin MaCartney – Props Designer
Zoé Tziotis Shields – Wardrobe Crew, Sound Board Operator
Roland Carette-Meyers – Accessibility Coordinator
Francesca Betancourt – Movement Director

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