Tag Archives: Creative Wales Award

“It’s like The Vagina Monologues for Deaf and disabled actors.” The Stage interview.

My recent work in Singapore, developing my Unlimited international r&d commission, seemed to catch peoples’ curiosity and interest. What follows is an excerpt from an interview I gave to Joe Turnbull for The Stage. The full feature can be accessed here. 

O’Reilly’s collaborators Ramesh Meyyappan,
above centre, and Peter Sau, right, with Grace Khoo in And Suddenly I Disappear. Photo: Wesley Loh, Memphis Pictures West

Playwright Kaite O’Reilly’s latest groundbreaking production sets out to challenge the way disabled people are perceived in Singapore. Using disabled actors, she was determined to tell the stories of those who are not normally heard in a country where previous generations were locked up and left to die, as she tells Joe Turnbull

Five years ago, disabled playwright Kaite O’Reilly pushed the humble monologue into new creative territory with In Water I’m Weightless, an Unlimited commission for the Cultural Olympiad as part of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The show featured an all deaf and disabled cast. It had no discernible plot and experimented with dramaturgical form, incorporating access elements such as audio description and sign language into the creative material.

Now, O’Reilly’s latest project And Suddenly I Disappear…The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues, sees her return to this approach of creating a play out of a series of fictionalised monologues – sometimes delivered chorally – which are inspired by stories about the lived experiences of deaf and disabled people. It’s arguably even more ambitious than its predecessor.

Its development spans nine years, five languages and two continents (three if you include the trip to America that inspired it all). Not only that, it seeks to challenge the way disability theatre is both produced and received in Singapore and smash deep-seated preconceptions about disabled and deaf experience along the way.

“I received a Creative Wales Award in 2008-9, which allowed me an extended period of exploration and development,” recalls O’Reilly. “I spent time in New  York very briefly with Eve Ensler of the Vagina Monologues and Ping Chong and his Undesirable Elements series. I hung out with a load of disabled people that he’d interviewed who he then got to perform. I began thinking about that as a vehicle for challenging preconceptions and hopefully subverting some of the old narratives that are problematic – that are connected to what I would call the ‘atypical body’ – whether that’s neuro or physically or sensory. I interviewed over 70 deaf and disabled people from the UK and the material it inspired me to write became The ‘d’ Monologues, which provided the text for In Water I’m Weightless.”

O’Reilly’s affinity with Singapore predates even that, having had a relationship with its Intercultural Theatre Institute since 2004, and teaching there for the last six years. It was in 2004 that she met two of the main collaborators for And Suddenly I Disappear. The first is Peter Sau, a graduate of the institute and winner of best actor in the 2015 Singapore Life! Theatre Awards. Sau is associate-directing the project and managing much of the work being carried out in Singapore. The other is Ramesh Meyyappan, a deaf Singaporean visual and physical theatremaker now based in Glasgow, who will be overseeing the physical language elements of the project.

O’Reilly explains how she first met Meyyappan all those years ago: “He had just finished a performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and The Masque of the Red Death. People were telling him this weird ‘ang mo’ [Singaporean for white foreigner] is waiting outside and says she won’t leave until she speaks with you. We just about managed to have a conversation, partly through Singaporean Sign Language and me with British Sign Language and sign-supported English. It all got very funny.”

O’Reilly reconnected with Sau in 2015 when he came to UK to do an MA. “We started to hatch the idea of what I would call an international dialogue of difference, diversity and disability and deaf experience from opposite sides of the world,” she says. The piece received an Unlimited International R&D in March 2017 and has been in proper development since.

“Although we hadn’t worked together before, I thought I had to have Ramesh on board as well. I explained to him that he would be the bridge. He knows Singaporean sign language and he understands both Singapore and the UK. Also if we’re going to do this work – and I’ve always done this – I want it to be disability-led and deaf-led. So Ramesh is leading the deaf cultural parts of the project.” Everyone else involved in the project also identifies as disabled or deaf, both culturally and politically. Sau and his team have been collecting testimonies of disabled and deaf people in Singapore, with O’Reilly doing the same in the UK, which have inspired the latter to produce a series of fictionalised monologues – some abstract, some character-driven. The monologues are delivered across multiple languages – English, Mandarin, Welsh, British Sign Language and Singapore Sign Language. O’Reilly is keen to stress it’s not verbatim.

“I’ve always said people’s stories belong to them. As long as something says ‘by Kaite O’Reilly’ it has got to be by Kaite O’Reilly, otherwise it’s theft. I think it’s to do with my Irish cultural heritage – your stories are who you are. Ping Chong got around verbatim by getting the interviewees for Undesirable Elements to perform it themselves. I’m not saying verbatim is necessarily bad practice, there are ways of doing it well. It’s just my personal position.”

But some of the testimonies coming out of Singapore have been deeply concerning to O’Reilly, a lifelong disability rights advocate, whose activism includes lying down in front of buses on Direct Action Network demos.

“The central thing I’ve got so far listening to the interviews from Singapore is how people are completely invisible, hence the title. I’m hearing the most terrifying stories of disabled people being kept in the back rooms, never actually going out. A lot of them in previous generations were left to die at birth. So what we’re doing here is really radical. I’m encouraging them to record the interviews as well so there’s an oral archive. These are voices, experiences, perspectives that have never been paid attention to previously.”

To read the rest of the article, please go to: https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/2017/writer-kaite-oreilly-on-singapore-d-monologues/

With thanks to Joe Turnbull, The Stage and Unlimited

Talking with poets

Penglais woods, above Aberystwyth. Walking the bluebell trail with Chris Kinsey, April 2017. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

For the past few years I have been undergoing a slow transformation, partly documented in this blog. It has been sedate but determined, rather like the growth of lichen on a tree,  so perhaps a better term might be evolution…

For years my performance texts and plays have been described by reviewers as ‘poetic’ and my writing as having a ‘lyrical’ quality. When I won the Ted Hughes Award for my version of Aeschylus’s Persians in 2011 I almost argued with the judges, asking how could I win such a prestigious award when I was a dramatist, not a poet? (Thankfully the judges were sage enough to ignore my protestations, insisting in their wisdom I was indeed a dramatist and a poet, despite my cries ‘But I don’t write poetry!’)

Many conversations on this subject have followed over the years, some referenced in this blog. I often wondered if my resistance was not towards poetry  per se – I have too many learnt by heart to be considered a poetry denier – but to the idea of me trying to write it. I also suffered from a rather limited definition of what poetry might be.

As my resistance (fear, perhaps?) weathered away, I became aware of how many of my new but close friends were practising poets. When I became seriously ill in 2015, I found what I wanted to read was, of course, poetry, perhaps because, as Robert Frost put it: ‘Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

My friend and poetry-whisperer Chris Kinsey has accompanied me along this journey, generously sharing reading platforms (at Oriel Davies where she was poet in residence) as well as work in progress. Interesting articles on form are sent my way, along with illuminating quotations on writing alongside her extraordinary engagement with the natural world in language. It was a masterclass in itself and a great privilege to witness the creation of her latest pamphlet, Muddy Foxpublished by Rack Press. We ruminate on process, often – to my huge pleasure – when walking along hidden tracks in different parts of Wales. As a former winner of the BBC Wildlife Poet of the Year, she is  attuned both to the natural world and ways to express it. We exchange work and encourage each other in our writing, but never once has she suggested I try writing poetry, not even covertly… (I am confident in asserting this, for as a playwright, I am skilled in detecting subtext and ‘what lies beneath’).

Aberystwyth from above the town. Walking the gorse trail with Chris Kinsey April 2017.

So it is she, alongside Samantha Wynne Rhydderch and Gillian Clarke who have and continue to patiently incubate my on-going evolution as someone who now experiments with poetic form. I have wonderfully stimulating lunches with Sam overlooking Cardigan Bay in a cafe which was previously the post office where Dylan Thomas sent his manuscripts to London – a detail we both find entertaining. The hours disappear in our varied and diverse conversations on live performance, poetry, writing, the voice. Gillian has recently become a more formal encourager, meeting me for ‘masterclass encounters’ as we coin them, part of my Creative Wales Award, granted by the far-sighted Arts Council of Wales (read about this incredible initiative here).

It is only now I am beginning to fully understand the power and influence of talking with poets. These conversations guide, stimulate, provoke, engage, and encourage growth and change. Talking to poets (particularly along the by-ways of our beautiful Ceredigion) should be available on the NHS.