Category Archives: Deaf arts

And Suddenly I Appear: : Reflections on a disabled-led creative process By Nur Shafiza (Shai).

Nur Shafiza (Shai) writes about working as Creative Captioner with Unlimited commissioned artist Kaite O’Reilly on the Singapore world premiere of ‘And Suddenly I Disappear’ (May 2018). She also reflects on the impact this experience and being mentored by O’Reilly as dramaturg and disability advisor has had on her own wider work.

Self-portrait, Nur Shafiza (Shai).

Working as a creative captioner on the Singapore production of Kaite O’Reilly’s Unlimited International commission And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/UK ‘d’ Monologues was an insightful process for me. Premiering in Singapore in May 2018, it truly sensitized me to how much access is a basic human right. Captioning for theatre productions is not new to me but captioning inclusively and creatively for D/deaf audiences meant that I had to learn the visual demands of Deaf culture. This entailed incorporating specific details when captioning for D/deaf audiences such as use of different colours, fonts, sizing etc.

While our caption design was catered to D/deaf audiences, the aesthetics of access utilized meant that the captions served to be equally functional and visually pleasing for hearing audiences. This is especially telling as we had hearing audience members complimenting us on the captions in the post-show discussions. In my prior experience as a captioner, I would occasionally hear complaints on how captions are distracting and annoying for hearing audiences who would prefer not to have them.

As a creative captioner, I also learnt how to present text visually in a more evocative and poetic manner. This includes playing with the line breakages in the text, transition effects and even removing punctuation. Captions became not just perfunctory but a real visual treat with the right treatment.

Having learnt the aesthetics of access reminds me, as a theatre maker and a captioner, there is more than one way to receive the show, just as there is more than one way to process the world. We don’t always have to insist that one convention is better or right. We can equally co-exist and make space for each other’s needs if we take the time to meet in the middle. Access is a universal right.

As an Emerging Writer 

Working with Kaite O’Reilly as my dramaturgy and disability advisor has forced me to be aware of my own privilege as a writer/dramaturg who is newly stepping into disability arts. Through the process of writing several drafts for Project Tandem (a Singapore-based initiative developing D/deaf and disabled theatre practitioners, led by Peter Sau), I have had to question myself on my writing choices and thought process.

Why am I portraying disabled persons in such a way? What impression does that reinforce or challenge for audiences? What is the hidden assumption behind my selections from the verbatim text I am using? What are the ethics of using verbatim texts? What does it mean for a work to be disabled led? By what markers do we measure this notion of normal or even disability?

Working alongside actors and artistes with disability in the co-writing process also led the way for me to also really understand and appreciate what it means to create a space for the disabled community to tell their stories. I developed greater empathy and used active listening in order to capture not just their story but their voice in the dramatic script. Being aware of my own thinking processes has allowed me to arrest and side step my own unconscious biases towards disabled persons and assumptions I may have made in my own writing.

On top of that, the practice of removing any mention of a person’s physical condition in my writing was the most impactful for me. By purposefully avoiding the medicalization of the body, the creation of the stories and the shaping of the storytelling was at its most powerful. I began to realize that the drama is not the disability. It is simply in the human condition and experience. Coming to this realization was by far, the single biggest change in the way I approach, process and write my material.

Post- And Suddenly I Disappear (ASID)

The Singapore world premiere of Kaite O’Reilly’s And Suddenly I Disappear (with a UK premiere  and tour in September 2018),has demonstrated how disability can begin to take its rightful place in theatre simply because being disabled is part of human existence. I cannot think of another recent Singaporean production that uses actual disabled actors in a production with content that is disabled led. However, ASID is not just a show about disability led by the disabled – it is universal enough to be received by all audiences.

Kaite’s dramatic monologues calls out and draws attention to “cripping up”- a practise in some of our local theatre companies in Singapore. It also normalizes the everyday lives of disabled persons by refusing to exoticize and objectify persons with disabilities as an Other – neither to be repulsed by nor revered through the lens of the charity, medical or inspirational models of disability. It dares to question and critique how we are representing and treating persons with disabilities by showing that we can create stories that do not need the tired stereotypes of disability we unconsciously fall back on.

The conscious process of enabling access in all areas of production – from the act of ticket buying (a pioneering platform was created by Singapore producers Access Path Productions), ensuring access to the show venue and all the way to employing disabled performers, incorporating the aesthetics of access within the show and the careful creation and curating of stories by distinguished playwright Kaite O’Reilly – has expanded the creative norms and set new artistic standards in Singapore.

By demonstrating not just what can be done on stage but off stage as well, it leads the way and opens up productive discussions for inclusive practices that other theatre companies can adopt and incorporate in their own creative process. Four sold out shows and very engaging post-production talks informs them that it makes both creative and financial sense to begin incorporating inclusive practices for D/deaf and disabled audiences.

And Suddenly I Disappear may very well be a game changer in an industry and society where change can be slow. It may take some time and tremendous effort for other players in the theatre industry to see the value of having access and inclusive practices in all areas of production, but I believe we have already created the space for the paradigm to shift.

And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues premiered at Gallery Theatre, National Museums Singapore, in May 2018, directed by Phillip Zarrilli, produced by Access Path Productions, with a cast of Singapore and UK-based disabled and Deaf performers.

Singapore poster

The UK ‘sister’ production –with new monologues and guest performers, but the same core UK and Singapore-based cast premieres at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room as part of the Unlimited Festival, 5-6 September.
It tours to:
Old Fire Station (Oxford) on 8 September
Attenborough Arts Centre (Leicester) on 9 September
Chapter Arts Centre (Cardiff) 11 -12 September
Video-trailer and details:  https://vimeo.com/272958421
Kaite O’Reilly’s The ‘d’ Monologues will be published by Oberon in September 2018.

Alchemy in production week and technical rehearsals

Ramesh Meyyappan and Phillip Zarrilli in tech rehearsal ‘And SuddenlyI disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues.’ Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

Weirdly, I love technical rehearsals. I say ‘weirdly’ as it is often a very stressful, time-consuming, boring, tiring twelve hours in the dark, with people shouting at you….. (Actually, they’re shouting – and signing, lit with torches – to ensure the safety of those on stage when Dorothy Png, our lighting designer extraordinaire yells ‘Stage dark!’ and we’re plunged into blackout…).

I love tech’ because that’s the moment is all starts coming together – the time when my script stops being ‘mine’ and a script and becomes instead performance – alive in peoples’ mouths and hands. It’s the time when ideas originally communicated in writing on paper, and then reinvented via the director’s approach, transforms and becomes a living collaborative act.

This week I sit in the Gallery Theatre of National Museums Singapore and witness the alchemy of a production coming together…. I’ve been familiar with the performers’ work – but it shifts and takes on a new vibrancy once the lighting,  sound design and videography come into play.

Stephanie Fam performing in Kaite O’Reilly’s international Unlimited commission ‘And Suddenly I Disappear… the Singapore ‘d’ Monologues. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

This week is also one of interviews and engagement, with the national newspaper, The Straits Times, featuring an (inaccurate at times) interview with Singaporean collaborator Peter Sau and myself. I’m gratified that the arts correspondent Akshita Nanda focused on my desire in the monologues to challenge notions of normalcy and embrace all the possibilities of human variety. Many of these notions are quite new to Singapore, which largely follows the Charity model of disability. Although the UK is far from perfect and has been going backwards in recent years, I have been privileged to be part of the UK’s disabled peoples’ movement and our Deaf arts and disability culture for almost thirty years. My work in the ‘d’ monologues is informed by the Social model of disability, perceiving disability as a social construct, rather as gender, and that it is society’s physical and attitudinal barriers that disable, not the idiosyncrasies of our bodies.

Interview in Singapore Straits Times

This past week has also involved public talks, workshops and engagement around disability awareness training. I’ve given three workshops to the ‘front line’ staff of National Museums Singapore – those engaging with the public, from security guards, to the ticket and information desk, ushers and volunteers. I’ve enjoyed this engagement hugely, warmed by the genuine interest of the participants, keen to dialogue and share perspectives on how we can make the venue as barrier-free as possible, for all. I also love the mischief of walking through the museum, greeting the curators and security guards by sign name…

Sadly, all too quickly, this remarkable project will pass… We open this week, and close this Sunday – and tickets have almost completely sold out throughout the run, thanks to the sterling efforts of our producers and and all involved in bringing this international collaboration to the Singapore theatre-going audience. We will be bringing a version of this work to the UK in the Autumn – announcements of that tour will follow.

As I revel in the dark intricacies of technical rehearsal, I hope this is the start of vibrant, home-grown disabled and Deaf-led professional theatre work in Singapore. Very exciting times….

 

A rehearsal photo diary

We gather speed, hurtling down towards our opening next week.

Daniel Bawthan in rehearsals. Photo by Shai

Shai, our captioner, captured images of the working rehearsal at our new rehearsal space last night.  We have finally moved into National Museum Singapore,  where we will have the world premiere of And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues on May 25th in Gallery Theatre.

Cast in rehearsals ‘In a Row’ Photo: Shai

I have written a series of monologues, which we are presenting in a variety of ways, across spoken, projected and visual languages. The theatre style is shaped by the aesthetics of access, where we are using ‘access tools’ creatively, as an integral part of the work rather than an ‘add on’ – part of the theatre languages at play.

Evelyn our SgSLI at work with director Phillip Zarrilli. Photo: Shai

Last night, we experimented with the audio description to be used during a silent  eight minute sequence our visual language director, Ramesh Meyyappan, has created. Working with Lee Lee Lim, one of our guest performers who is visually-impaired, we have been striving to find the balance between Deaf culture and hearing culture – not overwhelming the visual language sequence with spoken word, but not leaving our VI audience in mystified silence, either…

Ramesh Meyyappan. Photo by Shai

It has been a fascinating dialogue and learning opportunity for all as we create an ensemble piece together – and one that is Deaf and disabled-led, a first for Singapore.

Writer and Stella, stage management, conferring over audio description text. Photo by Shai

Tickets now available….

 

Time to Kill All Your Darlings…

David Mamet had it when discussing various uses of the knife…. Cut, cut, cut and kill all your darlings….

It’s not a phrase known amongst the And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues team, so I had to explain I wasn’t about to commit bloody murder, but start sharpening the editing pencil and serving the script….

And Suddenly I Disappear is a collection of fictional monologues informed by the lives of disabled and d/Deaf people in Singapore and the UK. My colleague Peter Sau with Lee Lee Lim led the interviews in Singapore, collecting experiences and perspectives never previously recorded here. I led the UK interviews and questionnaires, starting almost a decade ago. This material has inspired the monologues I’ve created, but as I believe we are our stories, I haven’t used anyone’s words or experiences, for that would feel too close to theft for my comfort.

Lee Lee Lim making adjustments to her braille script

We are now in the second week of rehearsals in Singapore, and I’m only now in the position to be able to start testing the material, cutting the surplus and sensing the flow as the performers become more familiar with the text. I tend to over-write, something I would always encourage other writers to do, for it is far easier to nip and tuck in rehearsals than suddenly be faced with the daunting task of filling a yawning hole in the script. The stage management team and I are trying to keep on top of the changes – and I was impressed by the speed and dexterity of Lee Lee Lim, making adjustments to her braille script in rehearsal.

The production is a series of discrete monologues presented in different ways and form, some character-based, others choral and collective, some individual stories intercut to create a mosaic of experience, and yet more are without spoken words. Ramesh Meyyappan has created a sequence in visual language which now requires audio description, so today we started exploring possibilities, trying to ensure the spoken word did not dominate.

Grace Khoo and Ramesh Meyyappan – in rehearsals for And Suddenly I Disappear,,, The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues

It is an on-going process, using the aesthetics of access, using tools creatively rather than as a simple ‘add on’. Captioning, visual language, and integrated audio description are shaping the aesthetic and the performance style of this Unlimited international collaboration. It is an immensely exciting dialogue, and one that I hope will go on for quite a while…

Meanwhile, it’s back to the now heavily marked and crossed-out script in search of further darlings to excise….

 

Hong Kong, Singapore, Womenspire 2018!

Mid April already, richard iii redux completed for the time being after a terrific Wales-wide tour – and now far-flung travel beckons. I leave next week for Hong Kong, where I will be leading a six day workshop on inclusivity and forms of storytelling for ADAHK

I was last in Hong Kong in 2016 with my performance text about Frida Kahlo, the 9 fridas, directed by Phillip Zarrilli and produced for the Black Box International Festival at Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, in association with Mobius Strip, from Taiwan.  It will be fascinating to spend more time in Hong Kong working with local theatre practitioners, learning about their approaches to inclusive practice. I’m hoping to have an opportunity to see new work as well as explore the art centres and galleries of Kowloon, where I will be based.

From Hong Kong I will fly directly to Singapore, to begin rehearsals on my Unlimited International Commission And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues. We have just released tickets for the World premiere of this dialogue about difference, disability and diversity from opposite sides of the world, premiering on 25 May 2018 at National Museum of Singapore Bit.ly/and suddenlyidisappear

The production will tour to the UK in September, and I will give further details of the venues in England and Wales, plus special guests, closer to the time. My thanks, as ever, goes to our funders and supporters: Unlimited, Arts Council Wales, and the British Council, who alongside Singapore International Foundation and Centre 42 will make this innovative intercultural project possible. Meanwhile, here’s the glorious video featuring Sophie Stone, Ramesh Meyyappan, Sara Beer, Peter Sau, Grace Khoo and Lee Lee Lim, made by James Khoo with director Phillip Zarrilli:

.

I was wonderfully surprised earlier this week to get an email from Chwarae Teg, informing me I had been shortlisted for their Womenspire 2018 Awards. Chwarae Teg is a charity working to redress the gender balance in the workplace in Wales, with a vision to create: “A Wales where women achieve and prosper.” I didn’t know I had been nominated for the Culture award, so to discover I’ve made the shortlist of four has been an incredible pleasure and privilege, making this quite a week. I’ll be celebrating the talent, passion, and vivacity of women in Wales at Womenspire 2018 at the Wales Millennium Centre on 5th June.

 

 

Last night of richard iii redux – responses and reviews

Sara Beer in ‘richard iii redux’. Photo by Paddy Faulkner panopticphotography

It is with a sad (but tired) heart I write this in the beautiful Small World Theatre – @theatrbydbychan – in Cardigan, the end of the richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III tour, and the venue closest to The Llanarth Group’s base. I’m writing in the darkened auditorium as our intrepid stage manager and general all round good egg Jacqui George focuses the lights and prepares for this evening’s performance. I love get-ins and techs – unusual, I am consistently told, for a playwright. I believe that theatre is a collaborative process and this is when the blueprint I wrote comes into being…

Setting up in Small World Theatre (the view as I write)

We’ve had an incredible response to the project, and already receiving invitations to festivals and other venues, so I’m sure this will not be the last time ‘the brilliant Sara Beer’ takes on the role of Richard…. What follows in this blog are links to reviews, articles, and interviews.

First up, the essay I wrote for Howl Round about ‘Cripping the Crip’ and reclaiming that poster-boy of embodied difference, Richard III. Buzz magazine interviewed performer Sara Beer, and she wrote In my Words for Arts Scene in Wales. Director and co-writer Phillip Zarrilli reflected on revising, remixing and reinventing Shakespeare for Wales Arts Review

The joys of rural touring….

Our reviews universally complimented Sara’s performances – here’s some soundbites and links, below:

 Disability Arts Online Magazine: ‘Sara Beer is ‘really funny. I mean, very, very funny…[she] has…oodles and oodles of on-stage charm. Audiences love her, whether she’s sending herself up as a would-be diva or revealing her younger self. This audience was no exception, laughing one moment and then the next hanging on her every word… go and see it. You won’t regret it.’

richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III

Arts Scene in Wales: ‘…unpredictable… evokes laughter and reflection in equal measure…intimate…witty…ingenious…commanding and nuanced…thought provking…uncompromisingly funny…great power and impact…brave…’

 British Theatre Guide: ‘…a bold, informative…. and irreverently amusing 70 minutes of theatre.’

Weeping Tudor Productions (5*): ‘dynamite theatre… an absorbing exercise in personal insight, humour, pathos and historical amendments’.

Theatre Wales Review: ‘Sara Beer’s Richard is…captivating…confirmed by the loud, loving, standing ovation…’

Wales Arts Review:  ‘…Redux is a strong piece of work… Redux is full of grenades…dropped with disarming gentility by Beer….Beer is…charming and erudite, extremely good company…a damning indictment of an industry that actively discourages disabled actors from entering…’

We thank all the audiences who came and laughed, who listened so intently who engaged and applauded. We thank our funders Arts Council Wales and the venues who invited us into their realms. We shall be back…..

 

 

 

Exeunt Magazine: On the poster boy of embodied difference, Richard III

richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III

Exeunt magazine feature:

Kaite O’Reilly writes on creating a witty, feminist, alternative disability perspective on “that veritable poster-boy of embodied difference, Shakespeare’s Richard III.” Original article here.

A female Richard III…. There’s nothing unusual about that in these days of cross-gender casting, and the success of Glenda Jackson’s King Lear at the Old Vic, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet at The Royal Exchange, or Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in a fictional women’s prison. Cross-gender casting has all but gone mainstream, a positive part of the on-going discussion about parity, diversity, and representation on our screens, theatres and opera stages. In film, we’re going through a welcome phase of older women leads and central mother/daughter relationships (Lady Bird; I, Tonya, et al) There is also heartening change in the representation of people of colour, with the release of films including Moonlight and The Black Panther. Yet in the midst of all this welcome change, there is still one aspect largely overlooked, especially in our theatres: the representation of physical difference and the actors who portray characters with disabilities.

There are many parallels between race and disability in both historical portrayal and popular culture representation. People of colour on stage and in film have been limited until quite recently to negative and supporting roles, while the disabled character is largely either the victim or the villain… But at least black and minority actors got to play these roles, however problematic – very few disabled performers have had the opportunity to play any part, however stereotypical, whilst leading disabled character roles are largely the preserve of celebrity actors. It seems that physical or neuro-diverse transformation is still perceived as the pinnacle of actorly challenge and skill, an opinion reflected in the industry, which is why playing a crip’ as a non-disabled thesp’ is invariably an award-winning role.

As a dramaturg and playwright who works in disability arts and culture, as well as the so-called ‘mainstream’, I’ve spent much of my career trying to follow Gandhi’s maxim of being the change I want to see in the world. This has largely entailed writing parts specifically for Deaf and disabled performers that lie outside the usual narrow confines of victim, psychopath, or as inspirational porn. I’ve tried to write complex, sexy, funny, dangerous, lovable, cheating, loyal, sensitive characters who are as fucked-up or sorted as their hearing, non-disabled counterparts. I’ve tried to find narratives that are more than medical dramas linked solely to a diagnosis, or the character’s relationship to herself as outsider.

Since the Ancient Greeks disability has been used as a dramaturgical tool to scare, warn, explain, or remind us of our mortality, and the inevitable, inescapable cycle of life. Fearful and negative human traits have been personified by disabled characters for so long, these harmful fictions have become ingrained and considered ‘truth’, disability studies academics maintain. One of my passions and great joys as a theatre maker has been to try and ‘answer back’ to these negative or reductive portrayals of difference, and to redress or subvert some of these fictions.

Which brings me to my current project, and that veritable poster-boy of embodied difference, Shakespeare’s Richard III, the personification of evil.

This surely is the non-disabled actor’s Everest, the part to relish deforming and making as monstrous as possible. And in richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III we have deconstructed them all, from Olivier’s nasal psychopath to Spacey’s leg-braced Gadaffi, McKellen’s black shirted fascist to Sher’s double-crutched “bottled spider”, Cumberbatch’s life-like prosthetic to Eidinger’s cushion-hump in Ostemier’s post-dramatic production…

I have known performer/collaborator Sara Beer since the 1980’s when we were both involved in the Disabled People’s Movement and the emerging disability arts and culture scene. Sara was the obvious choice for this project when I first conceived the idea of a one woman show about Richard, from a disability perspective, performed by someone with the same physicality as the historical Richard. It wouldn’t be the first time a disabled actor has played the part. Mat Fraser played Richard III in Northern Broadside’s 2017 production, but given how monstrous Shakespeare’s Richard is, and how far he deviates from historical accounts, I started questioning whether having a disabled actor play a distorted disabled part would be ‘enough’? Would it create diversity and balance, or simply reinforce notions of ‘normalcy’ and negative representations of difference? Out of these questionings with co-creator and director Phillip Zarrilli, the project was born – this would not be a production of Shakespeare – rather, a response to Richard’s portrayal both in Shakespeare’s text and through the actors who have embodied him, viewed through a lens which is female, disabled, and predominantly Welsh.

Phillip is a renowned scholar, director, and actor-trainer, and so has brought a wealth of knowledge about acting to the production. We’ve been joyously irreverent, deconstructing the process of acting itself, as well as the process of creating a character. This expertise has enabled Sara to play various personas, many of them comedic, but ultimately serious, taking the audience on three simultaneous journeys in response to Shakespeare’s Richard III:

– a child’s self-awakening as she unexpectedly finds ‘herself’ IN Shakespeare,
– a professional performer’s journey toward playing Richard, and
– a personal journey through Wales in search of the historical ‘richard’ on the route to Bosworth Battlefield.

It was only after Phillip shared his historical research on the ‘real’ Richard III that I realised just how revised Shakespeare’s hatchet job is. Here is another parallel with the experience of people of colour: just as black figures have been white-washed or erased from history, disabled figures have been either normalised or transformed into the hideous, fearful Other – and in Richard, we have character-assassination of the highest order. It’s a double-whammy. Not only did Shakespeare exaggerate Richard’s atypical embodiment and contort it to represent evil, he also re-wrote history, transforming a reforming, popular King, who led thousands into battle despite his scoliosis, into an evil, murdering coward, ready to give up his kingdom for a horse (contemporary sources state he was offered a horse to flee the battlefield, but he responded his fate would be decided there – either to die at Bosworth, or live as King). It comes perhaps as no surprise that many consider Richard III as a piece of Tudor propaganda, written to please powerful patrons and reiterate their (tenuous) claim to the throne.

But what I’ve outlined here isn’t about saying Richard III should never be performed by someone who isn’t disabled – I’m not censoring or bowdlerizing the Bard, and I have great fondness for old “crook-back” Richard. What we seek to do with richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III is to provide an alternative disability perspective in response to Shakespeare’s construction of evil on the disabled body, which is historically inaccurate. And having a bit of fun as we do it.

Richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III tours Wales in March, playing Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Aberystwyth Art Centre Studio [SOLD OUT}  Theatr Clwyd, Mold, The Torch Theatre, Milford Haven and Small World Theatre, Cardigan

With thanks to Exeunt magazine.