So I return back to Wales after six weeks in Hong Kong and Singapore, and find myself startled by the vibrant green of grass and the watercolour splashes of pink and blue in the hedgerow as we drive down the narrow lanes. It all feels so very gentle and quaint after the futuristic architecture of Singapore’s waterfront, or the technicolor fantasy that is the newly renovated Sri Krishnan temple on Waterloo Street.
Renovation of the temple on Waterloo Street, Singapore. Photo: Sara Beer
We were fortunate to be staying centrally, in an apartment close to Waterloo Street, and would pass by the temples most days when walking to rehearsals. The Gallery Theatre, where we premiered And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues, is in the impressive National Museums Singapore, built in 1849 and originally called Raffles Library and Museum.
National Museums Singapore
We had a great welcome at NMS, and soon I was acquainted with most of the front of house staff – the curators, security guards, volunteers, and ushers – after giving a series of Disability Awareness Training workshop/talks. There was a palpable interest in making the museum as accessible and welcoming as possible, and it was a real privilege to premiere the production there.
Volunteers setting out the accessible signage
And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues is an international dialogue between Singapore and the UK about difference, diversity, and what it is to be human. Inspired by interviews my colleague Peter Sau and his team held in Singapore, and my own conversations over many years with Deaf and disabled individuals in the UK, the fictional monologues were commissioned by Unlimited, with support from Arts Council Wales and the British Council.
Warming up: And Suddenly I Disappear cast, Gallery Theatre, National Museums Singapore
The production previewed last week, with an audience of students from a series of schools and colleges, who astonished and delighted us with their focus and engagement. We couldn’t have asked for a better first audience – so enthusiastic and curious about the work we presented. I’ve also never been in a situation before, where I had a selfie with a large proportion of the audience.
Part of the preview schools audience for ‘And Suddenly Disappear…’
A real opportunity for discussion and change feels possible at present in Singapore. Diversity and inclusivity are vogue terms here, just as they seem to be everywhere at present, but I’ve experienced less lip service and more action here than in Europe. I am encouraged – there does seem to be a palpable desire for change, and so in interviews, public talks and workshops, I’ve been banging on about the necessity of diversity in our cultural leadership. My concern is that whilst embracing notions of inclusivity and diversity, the same-old, same-old hierarchies will endure, and so a remarkable opportunity to re-examine and reinvent societal structures will be lost.
Our brilliant associate producer Natalie Lim with signage for the production
There is also a misunderstanding about the difference between arts and disability – where the non-disabled provide arts provision for ‘the disabled’ as part of their socialisation or therapy – and disability arts, where disabled artists lead, direct, create and control the product. Disability arts and culture sometimes – but not always – reflects lived experience, and can be a manifestation of identity politics informed by the social model of disability – which sees it is society and its attitudinal or physical barriers which is disabling, not the idiosyncracies of our bodies.
Company members Peter, Steph, Shirley, Ramesh and Grace backstage
My fictional monologues seek to reflect a wide spectrum of experiences, embracing all the possibilities of human variety and challenging notions of normalcy. Love, relationships, extortion, and ‘cures’ are explored amongst other themes. Although many expect me to write ‘disabled themes’ (whatever the hell they would be…), it’s the same material as usual – whatever captures my imagination and makes me want to explore dynamics and situations theatrically – what’s different is the world view and the theatrical languages at play.
I’m wary of ‘telling true stories’, as it is often phrased, when people assume that the story belongs to the actor performing it, or it is the true experience of one individual. As a playwright, I’m interested in finding the narratives and form that makes the story larger than itself – speaking for a community of people, perhaps, rather than one (perhaps unfortunate) individual.
Interview in Singapore Straits Times
The work has now been realised and shared with the Singaporean audiences, premiering last weekend, 25th May. I will share responses and reactions as they emerge in a future blog, and also cover the live-streamed performance, another innovation in the presentation and touring of the work. At present I am dealing with jet lag and adjusting to the Welsh pastoral outside my window, and preparing the publicity alongside new monologues for the next stage of this project: The Singapore/UK ‘d’ Monologues, premiering at Southbank Centre 5-6 September, as part of Unlimited Festival.
Meanwhile – here’s the Singapore poster by our designer Ho Su Yuen….. unusually featuring the director and writer, alongside the cast.
And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues by Kaite O’Reilly, directed by Phillip Zarrilli and produced in Singapore by Access Path Productions, is an Unlimited International Commission, supported by Arts Council Wales and British Council. The performances in Singapore were possible thanks also to Singapore International Foundation, Singapore Press Holdings Foundation Arts Fund, NSM, and Kuo Pao Kun Foundation.
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….
Ramesh Meyyappan, Sara Beer, Peter Sau, Lee Lee Lim and Grace Khoo: 2017 r&d ‘And Suddenly I Disappear: the Singapore ‘d’ Monologues’
I’m writing from an unusually dreary and rain-lashed Singapore, on the second day of rehearsals for international collaboration ‘And Suddenly I Disappear…. The Singapore ‘d’ monologues’. This Unlimited commission is an international theatrical dialogue of difference, disability, and what it is to be human, from opposite sides of the world. Inspired by previously unrecorded lived experience in Singapore and the UK, I’ve written a mosaic of fictionalised monologues which will be presented across multiple languages in spoken, visual and projected forms, incorporating the aesthetics of access.
I’m currently at the testing phase – trying out material and testing its content, sense, and coherence. It is only day two, but already I’ve been editing and reshaping monologues and thinking of different orders and dramatic structures to create dissonance and counterpoint, shade and light across the various ‘voices’ and experiences I’ve chosen to explore. The cast is an ensemble of experienced and emerging theatre practitioners from the UK and Singapore, who all identify as Deaf and/or disabled. I will be writing more about them and our progress in forthcoming days.
I’m tired now, but it is an excited exhaustion… This production will be the first multilingual, intercultural, Deaf and disability-led theatre project created between the UK and Singapore. After premiering May 24-27 at the National Museum Theatre in Singapore, a version will tour to the UK in September. Further details will follow once the event has been announced in the UK.
Meanwhile, I will endeavour to document the process over the next three weeks as we ask how to make the rehearsals and production inclusive and accessible, whilst also being innovative in our practice and creating new challenges.
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.
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…..
Sara Beer in ‘richard iii redux’. Photo by Paddy Faulkner panopticphotography
And so it comes around… and appropriately, on International Women’s Day – the world premiere of richard iii redux OR Sara Beer [is/not] Richard III… Delighted to discover we’re sold out tonight at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff – it seems such a terrific way to celebrate today – a one woman show, taking on an iconic male role, subverting it, commenting on it, remixing it and making it her own….. And a disabled woman performer in a powerful role, commanding centre-stage…. I am so proud of the work Sara is doing, and so grateful to the talented and committed artists, designers, and crew working with The Llanarth Group.
The past few days have been tech and dress rehearsals, where Paddy Faulkner of panopticphotography took these images. Our final dress this afternoon was crowned with an interview with @MadeInCardiff TV – Sara Beer, director Phillip Zarrilli and I all talking about our particular processes and perspectives on the project, which should be going out over the next three nights.
We also spoke with Nicola Heywood Thomas on BBC Radio Wales Arts Show, which you can listen again to, or download as a podcast here
@Buzz_Magazine also previewed the show in their March 2018 edition, on page 28, here
Sara Beerin richard iii redux. Photo by Paddy Faulkner panopticphotography
We are determined to make the show as accessible as possible, and so I am touring with the production as live captioner. I think this is a first. I’ve never heard of the playwright/dramaturg taking a place in the on-stage tech corner – responsible for projecting her text onto the screens, matching the performer’s spoken words. This is a production where there are no smoke and mirrors – everything is transparent and in view, which matches the metatheatrical nature of the performance. So many productions make a song and dance about captioning one show in a whole run – and that’s great, but not enough… we will caption every single performance, from Cardiff, Aberystwyth, to Theatre Clwyd in Mold, from The Torch at Milford Haven, to Small World Theatre in Cardigan. Captioning makes a production more accessible for all sorts of audience members, and creates an additional interesting aesthetic, as can be seen by Paddy’s photograph, above.
We are so excited to be finally bringing this production before an audience tonight – Sara is ready for her public! – and celebrating international women’s day, putting women usually left off-stage or in the shadows in full light, centre-stage.
From richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III video montage by Paul Whittaker
Discussions of representation on our screens, theatres, and opera stages have taken center stage recently, particularly in arguments about lack of diversity in casting regarding cultural heritage, race, and gender identification. In the UK cross-gender casting has become mainstream with Phyllida Lloyd’s celebrated trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in a women’s prison, Maxine Peake’s 2015 Hamlet at the Manchester Royal Exchange,and Glenda Jackson winning Best Actress in last year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards for her “magnificent” King Lear at London’s Old Vic. So far so good. Yet in the midst of all this welcome talk about diversity and parity, there is an area still overlooked: neuro-diversity and atypical embodiment—and the actors who portray characters with disabilities.
In 2002, Graeae Theatre Company commissioned me to write peeling, a metatheatrical satire on our industry’s relationship to disability, for one Deaf and two disabled female actors. At a point in the play when discussing the Academy Awards, one of the characters rolls her eyes at nondisabled actors being wreathed in awards for impersonating someone like her, a woman with atypical embodiment, and says, “Cripping-up is the twenty-first century’s answer to blacking up.” The added sting is that she and her two companions are professional actors, but are never invited to audition like “real actors, for real plays.” Instead, they are part of the chorus, the “right-on ticks on an equal opportunities monitoring form,” left to languish in the shadows, stuck at the back of the stage behind the scenery when they are “off,” since the backstage dressing rooms are inaccessible.
Sixteen years since peeling premiered, little seems to have changed.
Or has it?
The political and cultural strengths of casting disabled performers and utilizing the aesthetics of access have finally started to infiltrate the UK’s theatre scene, with initiatives like Ramps on the Moon, a collaborative network of six National Portfolio Organisations theatres embedding accessibility and inclusivity in the heart of their process and productions.
Further good news came in 2017 when Northern Broadside cast disabled icon Mat Fraser in their production of Richard III. This delighted me, not simply for the important decision to cast an actor with atypical embodiment in a leading role that is usually “cripped up,” but because as someone who has worked with Mat on various projects, I know that his talents have been mournfully underused. Here, finally, was an opportunity for him to reveal his considerable performance skills and take his place amongst the pantheon of celebrated (nondisabled) actors who have played Richard in the past. As Fraser’s performance was met with critical acclaim, I returned to the original text. The more I reflected on Shakespeare’s play and “his” Richard, the more I was struck by questions about physical difference and representation—questions which would not go away.
In “The Necessity of Diverse Voices in Theatre Regarding Disability and Difference,” I wrote about the necessity for diverse “voices” and bodies on our stages, and how, for millennia, disability has been used in the Western theatrical canon as a metaphor for the human condition. All too often physical difference represents considerably more than the sum of body parts, and never has it been more evident than with the epitome of evil—wickedness personified in the character of Richard III.
As Shakespeare’s villain schemes and murders his way to power, he represents perhaps the original “evil genius.” In act 1, scene 1 Shakespeare lays out clearly the cause and logic of Richard’s sociopathic behavior:
I that am rudely stamped…
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them…
He is “not shaped for sportive tricks/ Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass…” and so is deprived of “love’s majesty.”
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover…
I am determined to prove a villain…
In contemporary drama, this thwarted, bitter, “twisted body, twisted mind” trope serves as a shortcut to character and narrative. According to theatre practitioner and disability performance scholar Victoria Anne Lewis in her essay The Dramaturgy of Disability, the stereotype of physical difference denoting evil is now so ingrained in the public imagination, that screenwriting manuals suggest rookie writers give their villains a limp or amputated limb as a way to instantly signify their dangerousness. Shakespeare’s efforts, of course, cannot and should not be aligned with such “hack” approaches, but nevertheless his “hideous… deformed, hobbling, hunchbacked cripple” (description from Thomas Ostermier’s production of Richard III) is murderous and depraved as a direct consequence of his physical impairment.
In 2016, speaking with The Guardian newspaperabout his interpretation in the Schaubuhne/Barbican production, director Thomas Ostemier stressed the necessity of nondisabled actor Lars Eidinger amplifying Richard’s physical difference with a visibly fake hump, neck and teeth braces, a pronounced limp and an oversized shoe: “For Richard, his disability is part of his suffering, his destiny…” Cassidy Dawn Graves in HowlRound recently addressed Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Richard III and questioned this portrayal.
A similar tack was taken by Anthony Sher in his book The Year of the King, which documents his process of creating and performing Richard III for the RSC at Stratford in 1984. Conferring with his personal psychologist, Sher concluded Richard’s “wickedness” was an act of revenge directly linked to the lack of his mother’s love and the pain, self-loathing, and lack of a “sense of self” such withholding of affection creates.
This notion of disability or physical difference being embroiled in suffering is ubiquitous in our theatrical canon, and points, to a major misunderstanding. Although it occurs in a huge number of plays, seldom have the writers been disabled themselves, or written from that perspective, which might explain why theatrical depictions of disability differs so significantly from lived experience. Of course, there may be those who do feel they “suffer from” a particular condition, but the majority of people who identify culturally or politically as disabled don’t necessarily perceive themselves as “suffering” or being the victim of some kind of tragic misfortune. However, this equation of “suffering equals revenge” ignites dramatic deadwood, and has been widely used as a kind of psychological “truth.”
Which brings me back to the tragedy of Richard III and my concerns.
Mat Fraser’s casting as Richard III last year was a significant milestone in the struggle for parity and representation in our UK theatres. Yet, given how monstrous Shakespeare’s Richard is, and how far he deviates from historical accounts of the real monarch—is having a disabled actor play a distorted disabled part “enough”? It may create more diversity on stage, but what has been termed “authentic casting” does not challenge problematic underlying assumptions and negative associations of difference in the script.
It is of course absurd to expect Shakespeare to have a twenty-first century sensibility, and I am wary of political correctness, but engaging with Richard III has raised an important challenge for me: Given how I would never wish to bowdlerize classic texts, nor criticize them for failing to have current cultural and political perspectives, how might I as a theatremaker dialogue with these issues and Shakespeare’s magnificently malignant Richard III?
Is it time to reclaim Richard—and to recrip the crip?
Richard III: Bogeyman. Villain. Evil incarnate. Or is he? What if he is she? What if the “bottled spider” is portrayed by someone funny, female, feminist, and with the same form of scoliosis? How might the story change, the body change, the acting change, and the character change when explored by a disabled actress with deadly comic timing? And how would previous nondisabled Richards measure up?
Director and co-creator Phillip Zarrilli explains:
Richard III redux is not a performance of Shakespeare’s play. Rather, it is a roughing up, remixing, and revisitation of the problematic set of assumptions and premises on which Shakespeare (falsely) (mis)shaped his Richard as a “poisonous bunch-back’ed toad,” “deform’d, unfinish’d…villain.”
Our approach has involved historical research into the “real” Richard III, discovering a popular, reforming monarch, who was ferocious in battle, who led thousands of willing soldiers into conflict during the long War(s) of the Roses. Following the discovery of his skeleton in a car park in Leicester in 2013, we know he was indeed disabled, with a form of scoliosis, but he did not have the withered arm, limp, club foot and other physical deformities which have been layered onto his fictive body since the Elizabethan era.
History, we are told, is written by the victors—and it seems like the record of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets, was besmirched by the commentators and documenters of the new Tudor royal house once Henry VII claimed the throne after the battle of Bosworth, where Richard was killed. Intriguingly, there is compelling evidence that Shakespeare’s creation of the monstrous Richard can be viewed as character assassination and Tudor propaganda, to please powerful patrons.
This demonizing fiction has been further magnified in contemporary “star vehicle” turns in which actors like Kevin Spacey, Anthony Sher, Al Pacino, and Lars Eidinger have distorted Richard’s body to make him even more repugnant. Their interpretations of the role, plus their colorful and often ingenious use of prosthetics have also come under the lens as we deconstruct this “othering.”
The performance is a one-woman show, a mosaic with several alternative lenses, voices, and roles through which Sara Beer’s richard iii is remixed. As a company all identifying as disabled, we are working from a disability perspective, but true to crip culture, the tone is joyously irreverent as we interweave stories about acting, difference, and a maligned historical figure through an unreliable narrator.
As Phillip Zarrilli’s opening text goes:
I… one of those from the margins,
come here now to stand before you
and reclaim what is mine-own:
this crooked shape,
this self-same body
that has been taken
from me and mine.
It is a reclaiming. There is also something immensely powerful about a small woman, gilded in chainmail, standing proud and crooked, saying these lines.
This essay originally appeared in Howlround, with thanks.
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