Category Archives: Deaf arts

The Politicized Disabled Body – Performance Matters – Vol 4, No 3 (2018): Performance and Bodies-Politic

The Politicized Disabled Body

by Kaite O’Reilly

Abstract

This is a short excerpt from a public talk that the author gave as part of a residency at University College Cork in Ireland in the fall of 2018. It appears in Vol 4 no 3 of Performance Matters [editor Roisin O’Gormon], a peer-reviewed, open access on-line journal published bi-annually by Simon Fraser University that focuses on all aspects of performance: what it does, and why it is meaningful. Click here for our latest issue.

Minimum Monument, by Néle Azevedo, in Silkeborg-DK, August 2017. Image © Néle Azevedo. Used by permission

The Politicized Disabled Body

Kaite O’Reilly

Theatre could be defined as the study of what it is to be human. For millennia we have come to sit communally—a group of human beings watching another group of human beings pretending to be other human beings. We are endlessly fascinated with each other, yet a place purported to be about the range of human possibility has for too long been circumscribed and limited, especially towards a large proportion of the population.

As I have discussed at length elsewhere (O’Reilly 2017a, 2017b), for millennia in the Western theatrical canon, the atypical body has been used to scare, warn, explain and explore human frailty, mortality, and the human condition. Disability has been a metaphor for the non-disabled to explore their fears and embedded societal values. Although disabled characters appear in thousands of plays, seldom has the playwright been disabled, or written from that embodied, or political perspective. The vast majority of disabled characters in Western theatrical tradition are tropes, reifying the notions of “normalcy.” Some strange untruths have therefore been created and recycled in our dramas for stage and screen: the rich, rewarding reality of our lives replaced with problematic representations which work to keep us different, “special,” and apart. This “othering” of difference (which also includes gender, sexual preference, belief system, cultural heritage, and so on) provides a “useful” slide-rule against which notions of “being normal” and “fitting in” can be measured. These distorted ideas in our entertainment media legitimize the negative attitudes that can lead to discrimination and hate crime.

As a multi-award-winning playwright and dramaturg who identifies culturally and politically as disabled, I have been exploring this territory for several decades, informed by the Social model of disability, working across and between so-called “mainstream” culture and what I coin “crip” culture. I consider disability a social construct—I am a woman with a mild sensory and a degenerative physical impairment, but it is society’s attitudinal and physical barriers which are the disabling factors, not the idiosyncrasies of my body.

In my work I am interested in creating new protagonists, with different narratives, and with different endings, and in challenging and expanding the actual theatre languages at play in live performance through my engagement with the aesthetics of access. I believe re-imagining disability opens up possibilities in content, representation, aesthetics and form—changing the stories we tell, how they are told, and by whom.

Paul Darke (1997, 2003) and other disability performance scholars such as Carrie Sandahl (2005) have written at length about the limited plot lines for the disabled character. Often, as seen again with the 2016 film version of JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You, it is emphatically “better dead than disabled.” In films and plays stereotypes rule—the blind wise “seer,” the evil and twisted mastermind, the hero who overcomes her impairments to “pass” as non-disabled. From Tiny Tim to Richard III to Oedipus, we have been the personification of uselessness, or evil incarnate. These stories and characters are so prevalent, Paul Darke claims the audience believes they understand and know disabled experience, even though it is through a filter that isolates, individualizes, medicalizes or finally normalizes the character. What the audience is experiencing are not the “truths” of our lives, but the long cultural and linguistic practice of ascribing meaning to the atypical body. We are metaphors—something the disabled and Deaf actor-characters in my metatheatrical play peeling(2002) deconstruct, subvert, and ultimately rebel against.

As a playwright, I try to present different protagonists and different stories, often challenging contemporary representations of disability. The survivors of TBI (traumatic brain injury) in my 2008 play The Almond and the Seahorsesubvert notions of brain injury splashed across the media and question who the real “victims” are—if indeed there are any. Protagonists, their journeys and outcomes can be subverted and changed, offering more possibilities and rich, engrossing drama that avoids stereotypes.

This reconsideration of narrative and “protagonist” is just one element in what I coined “Alternative dramaturgies informed by a D/deaf and disability perspective” while Arts and Humanities Research Council Creative fellow at Exeter University’s drama department (2003–06), and latterly while affiliated with Freie Universität’s International Research Centre “Interweaving Performance Cultures” (2012–18). “Alternative” to what? To the mainstream, ableist, hearing perspective. By “alternative dramaturgies” I mean the content, processes, structures and forms that reinvent, subvert, or critique “traditional” or “conventional” representations and routes.

A further example would be the “aesthetics of access”: using access “tools” creatively, and from the start of the process rather than as an “add-on” for a particular stratum of the audience, identified through impairment (“audio description and touch tours provided for the visually impaired…”). I’m interested in a holistic experience, where the entire audience engages with the theatre languages at play through their individual modes of communication: embedded audio description; bilingual work in visual and spoken/projected languages; creative captioning integrated into the scenography design as a central element of the set.

These devices make the work more accessible, but most importantly they challenge the ingrained assumptions and hierarchies in contemporary theatre and culture. When we change the bodies who perform, design, direct, create, and commission the work in our pleasure palaces, when we change the theatre languages used, the processes and practice are inherently changed as well. We can then truly be a place that  celebrates all the possibilities of human variety, challenging notions of “difference” and revoking the old stories and their predictable endings.

Change is coming, with more disabled and Deaf artists coming to the fore across artforms. This is partly owing to the fruits of the UK and US disability civil rights movements, out of which disability arts and culture grew, and the disability arts forums, organizations, and festivals that supported and still encourage this growth. In the UK it is also down to initiatives such as Unlimited, keen to promote, commission, and embed the work of disabled and Deaf artists in the so-called “mainstream” cultural sector on a level never experienced before.

Inclusivity and diversity are currently buzz-words internationally, and although I applaud initiatives that aim to integrate more Deaf, disabled and neuro-diverse practitioners into theatre productions, I have a caveat: the atypical body is not neutral, and placing a disabled figure on stage is not necessarily a radical act in itself. Much relies on the framing, and the controlling artistic perspective, for the atypical body can be used dramaturgically by the director/choreographer to express content and meaning beyond the actuality of the body—and sometimes without the actor’s awareness or participation. My Unlimited/National Theatre Wales production, In Water I’m Weightless, part of the official Cultural Olympiad celebrating the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, is a case in point. Featuring six of the UK’s leading Deaf and disabled performers, and directed by John E. McGrath, the actors chose the content they performed from my authored collection of monologues and also controlled how they were placed and represented on stage. Several of them had had bad experiences of previously being used as a dramaturgical tool to express subtext or create additional material and meaning beyond the content of the performance text.

For me, this is central: having a politicized disability perspective informed by the Social model of disability brings a broadening in attitude, in values, and enables an avoidance of narrow definitions of “normality.” This perspective, when disability-led, encourages impairments not to be viewed as something to be cured or overcome, but rather as an incitement to embrace the diversity and modes of communication, and use these artistically.

Perhaps in the aesthetics of access we can begin changing the experience of theatre along with its languages, and start escaping the tyranny of normalcy.

Copyright (c) 2019 Kaite O’Reilly

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Notes

[1]Unlimited is an arts commissioning program that enables new work by disabled artists to reach UK and international audiences. See https://weareunlimited.org.uk.

Bibliography

https://howlround.com/necessity-diverse-voices-theatre-regarding-disability-and-difference

Darke, Paul. “Everywhere: Disability on Film.” In Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media, edited by Ann Pointon and Chris Davies, 10–15. London: British Film Institute, 1997.

Sandahl, Carrie. “From the Streets to the Stage: Disability and the Performing Arts.” PMLA120, no. 2 (2005): 620–4.

Rieser, Richard. Disabling Imagery?: A Teaching Guide to Disability and Moving Image Media. London: British Film Institute/Disability Equality in Education, 2004.

O’Reilly, Kaite. peeling. London: Faber & Faber, 2002.

O’Reilly, Kaite. Henhouse.Oberon contempory plays 2004.

O’Reilly, Kaite. Woman of Flowers. Aurora Metro. 2014

O’Reilly, Kaite. Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors.  London: Oberon Contemporary Plays 2016.

O’Reilly, Kaite. The ‘d’ Monologues. London: Oberon Contemporary Plays 2018.

My resignation as Patron of Disability Arts Cymru

It is with the greatest regret I am stepping down as Patron of Disability Arts Cymru owing to irresolvable differences with the chair and board about what constitutes transparency and good governance procedures.

I thank the chair and the board for the time and effort given to responding to my concerns, which have not, however, been allayed. Having been closely involved with the organisation for nearly thirty years, fifteen of which as a board member, I do not withdraw from that relationship lightly.  I will always wish Disability Arts Cymru well and continue to support the staff who are working hard to do a good job, and whose knowledge, expertise and skills are more important than ever.

Kaite O’Reilly

 

It’s Delightful… It’s Delectable…. It’s Disability…

Posters, slogans and imagery from the Disability Arts Movement, launch of NADACA

What a few days it’s been! As one of the patrons of DaDaFest, I was honoured to attend part of the 2018 DaDaFest International Festival in Liverpool this December 3rd – the international day of disabled people. Flying in from Norway, where I’d been part of The Elders Gathering at Norwegian Theatre Academy in Fredrikstadt, I landed immediately into a discussion about the past, future and present of disability arts. Editors Colin Hambrook and Trish Wheaton of the very excellent Disability Arts Online led a provocation which was live and live-streamed, asking Are we in an era post-disability arts? I personally feel we are not (I almost wish we were, but equality and inclusivity have much further to go before I’m giving up on this provocative, innovative cultural expression) and some lively discussion was had by all. Trish and Colin’s original provocation is available here and I would highly recommend it…

Introducing the discussion was the ever powerful Allan Sutherland and his radical poetry transcription work – ‘Transcription poetry as a vehicle for documenting the lives of disabled people’. Allan performed ‘Thalidomide Acts’, a cycle of transcription poems based on a series of interviews with the performer Mat Fraser.

Mat Fraser in action… Photo courtesy of D4D. http://d4d.org.uk/thalidomide-acts-mat-fraser-electric-bodies/

‘Thalidomide Acts’ is the first outcome of the ‘Electric Bodies’ strand of the D4D project: Disability and Community: Dis/engagement, Dis/enfranchisement, Dis/parity and Dissent. This is an AHRC-funded research project which investigates the evolving ways in which we as disabled and non-disabled people express, perform, experience and practice ‘community’. Allan’s fantastic presentation was ‘responded to’ by his colleague on the project, the great Colin Hambrook.

The afternoon progressed with two more titans of our movement, Tony Heaton and David Hevey (Chief Executive of Shape Arts), launching the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA) – some wonderful provocative art archived, remembered, and celebrated. Tony selects his top five pieces of disability art here 

Again, I would hugely recommend a visit to the archive at www.the-ndaca.org: Telling the Heritage story of the Disability Arts Movement.

My extraordinary December 3rd continued with the UK launch of my latest collection of fictional monologues written specifically – and solely – for D/deaf and disabled performers, inspired by lived experience.

 

I was thrilled to introduce and launch ‘The ‘d’ Monologues’ at Unity Theatre, Liverpool, with a sterling cast of unexpected readers – and by that I mean few of them were ‘officially’ performers – but highly experienced public speakers, provocateurs, educators and activists…. major figures from the disability movement and disability and D/deaf cultures. I was honoured to have my words in the mouths and hands of the artistic director of DaDaFest, the brilliant and talented Ruth Gould; sculptor, visionary and disability arts activist Tony Heaton, senior Unlimited producer and diversity guru Jo Verrent and the magnificent director, writer, performer, firebrand and general all round mayhem-maker Julie McNamara appeared via video. Further input on film came from excerpts from my recent Unlimited International commission ‘And Suddenly I Disappear’ with the sublime Sophie Stone (featured on the cover of my book, above) and emerging artist, beatboxer, rapper Danial Bawtham, contributing from Singapore.

The collection was well and truly launched, and with such magnificence from all my contributing readers… Thank you, I am so grateful (and not nearly as hung-over as I anticipated…).

A 30% discount on the full price of The ‘d’ Monologues may still be available via the website, with code DMONO30 at https://www.oberonbooks.com/the-d-monologues.html

Returning to Wales, I was delighted to receive the poster for a student exploration of my post-dramatic text about the brilliant Frida Kahlo the 9 fridas.

Poster of the 9 fridas by Kaite O’Reilly – an exploration by students from University of South Wales

In the programme notes written to accompany the experimentation, I wrote:

I’ve been obsessed with Frida Kahlo for most of my life. I first came across her startling, uncompromising self portraits in my teens and quickly joined the ranks claiming her as inspiration and a disability icon. We were the community of freaks, crips and ‘difficult wo/men’ (and i reclaim these terms and use them admiringly) who were frustrated by traditional representation which invariably reduced Kahlo’s fierce and multilayered life to one of tragedy. Disability has long been used in the western theatrical canon dramaturgically – what David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder describe as “narrative prosthesis” – and as a metaphor to explore nondisabled values and fears. This astonishing and powerful woman has numerously been presented as a little broken betrayed wife, reduced to an ableist heterosexual cliche. ‘the 9 fridas’ is a response to these narrow depictions.
From my close study of her paintings, biography, personal letters and journals, I began to understand quite how remarkable her life and art were, and remain. I began to note her multiple identities and their inherent paradoxes: a communist who embraced consumerism and appeared on the cover of Vogue; an artist claimed by the Surrealists who insisted that what she painted was her own reality; a promiscuous bisexual monogamist who longed for a traditional family; a ‘fem’ who cross-dressed and darkened the hairs of her monobrow and top lip…She identified her cultural heritage as pre-Colombian indigenous on her maternal side and European Jewish on her paternal line and herself as a citizen of Mexico and the world. A life-long radical, she refused to allow her childhood polio and the devastating road accident aged 18 to limit her activities and ambition. The invalid in a full-body plaster cast hidden away in the back room of her childhood home had a mirror hung above her bed and picked up a brush and changed art… Her story is defiant, she is the protagonist of her own life (‘I give birth to myself’) who constantly broke out of the restrictions of her gender, disability and age.
In response to the reductionist depictions of her life, I decided to write ‘the 9 fridas’ with a mosaic dramaturgy – multiples of figures who both are and are not Frida Kahlo – each figure with distinctive detail and perspective, but which, when combined, would give the ‘full’ and whole picture of her many-faceted self.
I’m delighted that the students presenting this exploration are claiming both the text and Kahlo as their own…. and can’t wait to experience THEIR 9 fridas….
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Hours after writing these words (on a train travelling from Norway to Liverpool), I opened up negotiations for a possible production of the performance text in Spanish in Costa Rica next year. Despite the text having been translated into several languages, the only other professional production to date is the world premiere, directed by Phillip Zarrilli for Möbius Strip and Hong Kong Repertory Theatre at the 2014 Taipei International Festival, later transferring in 2016 to Hong Kong. It is a huge delight that the text is being picked up and proving of relevance to our current and future generations of theatre makers.
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The final course in this extraordinary banquet of disability arts and culture came this morning, with the audio trailers for Taking Flight’s 2019 production of my play ‘peeling’. Both texts – ‘the 9 fridas’ and ‘peeling’ are published in my collected ‘Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors’ by Oberon.
I will be writing further about Taking Flight Theatre Company’s production – directed by Elise Davison and produced by Beth House – with news of the cast, our dates and opportunities for engagement during the tour (I will be doing some post-show discussions for some of the Welsh dates). I am also going to lead a workshop for women leading up to the opening – more details later, as they emerge.
The production opens on International Womens’ Day, 8th March 2019, at The Riverfront, Newport, then touring Wales, with an English tour in autumn 2019.
Here is the English language audio trailer:

In shadow, never centre stage, 3 performers await their brief moment in the light. But who would want to explore these bodies? Who will receive their stories? Their words have been buried in dust, through the long corridor of time. We will unearth them here. We will hear them echo in the darkness.
This city will fall.

Alfa, Beaty and Coral wait… wait while once more the action plays out elsewhere. Once more they form the chorus to someone else’s lead.
But… this city will fall.

With interwoven BSL, live audio description and English captions at every show, peeling challenges you to experience theatre afresh. Whose stories do we tell? And who will be there to bear witness?

Here is the Welsh language trailer – and we will no doubt have posters, flyers, and BSL trailers soon!
What an incredible end to a year – and a sense of such engagement and interest in disability arts and culture…..

DaDaFest International 2018 and call for artistic uprisings

In celebration of international disability day on December 3rd 2018, I and various guests will be reading from my latest collection The d Monologues at DaDaFest International Festival. This is a particularly meaningful event for me. Apart from being one of the patrons of this brilliant organisation, I am thrilled to be having the English launch of the book on this auspicious day.

The monologues are fictional, but inspired by over one hundred interviews and conversations with disabled and D/deaf individuals across the world over the past decade. The publication includes the Singapore/UK dialogue of difference and diversity And Suddenly I Disappear, an Unlimited International Commission which premiered on both sides of the world earlier this year.

For years I’ve been inspired by Eve Ensler’s ‘V’ Day, where people around the world stage “an artistic uprising” – a global movement to end violence against women. With disability hate crime on the increase, and so many of the rights disabled people successfully fought and campaigned for now being eroded, I feel our visibility needs to increase, along with our ‘voices’.

Engaging so closely with disabled and D/deaf peoples’ lived experience when writing this collection has had a major impact on me. I have tried to reflect the rich, rewarding experience of disabled lives in the monologues, the immense joie de vivre, ingenuity and fuck-you attitude which for me characterises many of my friends and collaborators. I also have not pulled any punches regarding the discrimination and prejudice so many of us face – but all laced with a liberal dose of what I call Crip’ humour.

This December third myself and various leading figures from our culture and community will join me in presenting short monologues at Unity Theatre, in Liverpool. I am hoping that this might be the first in a series of readings, where simultaneously, wherever you may be, people join in celebrating all the possibilities of human variety.

As I write in the introduction:

I’ve always dreamed of an international event challenging negative representations of difference and showcasing the very real talent which exists within our often over-looked communities. The monologue form is portable, flexible, and affordable to stage, either alone or in groups, script-in-hand with little rehearsal, or fully produced in professional contexts. I imagined a chorus of individuals and groups in cities or rural outposts, in theatres or at the kitchen table, in pubs and clubs, hospitals and community centres, schools and colleges, live or live-streamed, coming together across the world in a simultaneous celebration of diversity and what it is to be human. We already have our International Day of the Disabled Person on December 3rd… Perhaps now, with the publication of these texts, we are taking the first actions towards our own ‘d’ day…?

This is a pipe-dream, perhaps – but it is a hope. If anyone reading this would like to stage their own contribution of a ‘d’ Monologue this December 3rd – at their kitchen table or somewhere more public – please let me know – for even if we can’t yet connect or livestream, I could announce the performances happening simultaneously at the event. I already have contributions from my collaborators in Singapore… If this idea appeals, please get in touch through a comment, below, or via the contact button on my website: http://www.kaiteoreilly.com

And if you are in the Liverpool area, come along – the event is free and information and tickets can be booked here. In addition to BSL interpretation, a lipspeaker will be available.

The ‘d’ Monologues launch: 8:00pm Monday 03 December 2018

Unity Theatre,  

1 Hope Place, Liverpool, L1 9BG  

Telephone: 0151 709 4988

https://www.dadafest.co.uk/event/kaite-o-reilly-s-the-d-monologues

A project supported by Unlimited with funding from Arts Council Wales.

The d Monologues published by Oberon

It’s been quite an autumn, and the leaves are still burnishing the trees… September has been a blaze of touring, festivals, and launches. My Unlimited International Commission And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/~UK ‘d’ Monologues premiered at the Southbank Centre in London prior to a whistle-stop tour taking in Leicester, Oxford, and Cardiff, garnering 4 and 5 star reviews along the way – more of which in a future blog.

The Llanarth Group brought richard iii redux to Grenzenlos Kulture Festival in Mainz, Germany, where I launched my latest publication after the performance.

The d Monologues is the culmination of ten years work, featuring solos I have written specifically for Deaf and disabled performers, varying in length from audition-size 3 minutes monologues to the 70 minute one woman show richard iii redux co-written with Phillip Zarrilli. Monologues from my recent international collaboration are included in the book: And Suddenly I Disappear, along with In Water I’m Weightless, my Cultural Olympiad production with National Theatre Wales, featuring extended, new, unperformed and previously unpublished monologues. It also has A Preface in Three Voices, written by John E McGrath, Ruth Gould and Jo Verrent. Below, an excerpt from the introduction.

For a limited time, the collection is available from the Oberon website with a 30% discount, using code DMONO30

The ‘d’ Monologues by Kaite O’Reilly.

 from The Introduction

I like to think of theatre as a place of communication and exploration, of dissent and inquiry: a place of dreaming, of solving, of challenging the present and imagining the future. It’s that communal place where we can express all the possibilities of what it is to be human – so why are the majority of representations still so limited in scope and variety, and the potential of those bodies so prescribed?

I have been angry most of my life. Identifying as a working class Irish immigrant disabled female creates a certain kind of friction, a blistering energy I’ve found best directed into creative pursuits. Some years ago, somewhere along my raging, cursing way, I encountered Gandhi’s advice about being the change you want to see, and so the project The ‘d’ Monologues was born.

These collected solos are the culmination of a decade’s work trying to instigate change through writing work specifically for D/deaf and disabled actors, ‘answering back’ to the largely negative representations of difference in our media and the Western theatrical canon.

Since the Ancient Greeks disabled characters have appeared in plays, but rarely have the writers been disabled or written from that embodied or politicised perspective. The vast majority of disabled characters in the Western theatrical canon are tropes, reinforcing limited notions of what it is to be ʻnormalʼ rather than broadening the lens and embracing all the possibilities of human variety. So prevalent is the atypical body in our stage and TV dramas, the audience(s) assume they know and understand the realities of disabled and D/deaf individuals’ lives, yet few of these narratives are informed by lived experience, and so misconceptions and ableist notions of difference, shaped by the medical and charity models of disability, are reproduced and reinforced.

I wanted to make work solely for disabled and D/deaf performers, informed by the social model of disability. Like gender, I believe that disability is a social construct, and it is the physical and attitudinal barriers which disable us, not the idiosyncrasies of our bodies.

This collection is the culmination of ten years work, with fictional monologues inspired by over 100 interviews, conversations, and interactions with D/deaf and disabled individuals internationally. It brings together new and previously unperformed texts alongside monologues from In Water I’m Weightless (National Theatre Wales/Cultural Olympiad 2012), the 70 minute one woman show richard iii redux, and the multilingual, intercultural And Suddenly I Disappear.

I’ve always loved the notion of disabled and D/deaf performers all over the world presenting with pride and political urgency performance texts which did not reduce them to parodies, metaphors, villains, or inspiration porn stars – different narratives using alternative dramaturgies, theatre languages and channels of communication. These texts did not exist, so following Gandhi’s advice, I decided to be the change I wanted to see.

To buy the collection with a 30% discount, go here and enter the discount code DMONO30 at check out. This code is available for a limited time.

‘I write disabled characters who aren’t evil, piteous, or helpless.’ Read an interview with Kaite in The Guardian Society here

 

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….