Tag Archives: crip culture

Howl Round: Cripping the crip. Is it time to reclaim Richard III?

This essay originally featured in Howlround

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 redux OR Sara Beer is/not Richard III is a collaboration with disabled actor and activist Sara Beer and Phillip Zarrilli, director of The Llanarth Group. Our co-created performance is based on the following premise:

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,
the shadows,
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.

‘Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors’ review – Disability Arts Online

atypical-plays-for-atypical-actors

Reviews are gold dust. They are even more rare when the publication under the critical lens is a collection of plays. Plays get reviewed in production; they seldom make it into print, never mind being reviewed in print. So owing to this, I am hugely appreciative of the publications who have shown interest and support of my ‘atypical’ and crip’ work by providing critical engagement for my selected plays.

First up is the ever provocative and excellent Disability Arts Online, with a review by  Sonali Shah. I reproduce much of the review here, but you can read the  full text on the website, where DAO readers can find a 30% discount voucher for the collection.

Disability Arts Online: Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors Review July 4 2016 by Sonali Shah.

‘Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors’ is a collection of five unique, but equally powerful, poetic and political pieces of drama composed by the award winning playwright, Kaite O’Reilly. Review by Dr Sonali Shah (University of Glasgow)

O’Reilly’s policy and practice as a writer is to ‘put crips in our scripts’.[…] So with this motto in mind, O’Reilly’s ‘Atypical Plays’ present opportunities for disabled artists to occupy the stage and challenge audiences’ assumptions about disability and difference. The writer works together with her actors in a non-hierarchical and innovative way, continuously and purposefully adapting to each unique movement, to create the five theatrical pieces in this collection: Peeling, The Almond and the Seahorse, In Water I’m Weightless, the 9 Fridas and Cosy.

Written in the 21st Century and from an insider lens, these five plays subvert traditional notions of normalcy and encourage the possibilities of human difference to explore the whirlwind of relationships, emotions, choices and identities that, both construct us and are constructed by us, as we all move through life and try to work out what it is to be human.

These texts portray disabled characters as sexy, active and wilful beings in empowering and provocative stories, cutting against the grain of the trope for most blockbusters of stage and screen, which revolve around medicalisation and normalisation using disabled characters as a metaphor for tragedy, loss or horror.

The first play, peeling, described by the Scotsman as ‘a feminist masterpiece’, is a fine example of meta-theatre that explores themes of war, eugenics, and fertility. Written specifically for a Deaf woman and two disabled women (each strong, witty actors and feisty activists), peeling is a postmodern take on the epic Trojan Women.

Although the three characters – Alfa, Beaty and Coral – are consigned to the chorus, O’Reilly makes them central to this play, revealing their real personalities and hidden truths through vocal cat-fights and heckling matches (interpreted via BSL and audio description) while they wait to play the two minute part they have been awarded in the name of ‘inclusion’.

The Almond and the Seahorse is the second script, and the most structured of them all. Written for a cast of five, it examines the impact of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) for the individual and their slowly fading loved ones. Focusing on two couples (where one partner in each has a diminishing memory) it demonstrates the slow debilitating power of memory loss on present relationships and dreams for the future.

Reading this script evokes a sense of how critical and delicate the human memory is. This is reflected in the words of Dr Falmer (the ambitious neuropsychologist character whose beloved father had TBI) – ‘we should not invest so in such perishable goods’ (p.127). The vibrant clarity of monologue, dialogue and stage directions on the page makes it easy to visualise this play on the stage. Highly affecting, the performed text will undoubtedly give much food for thought for the audiences.

The third play in this collection In Water I am Weightless – is an apt title for exploring the heavy burden disability seems to provoke in society as in water it remains hidden. Written for a cast of six Deaf and disabled actors, and entrenched in crip humour and energy of the Disability Movement, the performance script adopts a monologue and dialogue style to create a mosaic of stories of the realities of living in a disabling society and being seen as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘in need’ by the non-disabled.[…] Performed at Unlimited in London 2012, and inspired by a range of informal conversations with disabled and Deaf citizens, this work is really does put “us” in the slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us”.

The 9 Fridas use the artwork of the disabled Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, as a lens to deconstruct her biography including her changing social positioning in terms of her disabled and feminist identities. The last play, Cosy, is a dark comedy exploring inevitable ageing and death.

Together the five plays make essential reading, both for educational purposes and pleasure. Informed by the Social Model of Disability, they have the potential to enact a kind of activism and a change in public perceptions towards disabled people, previously shaped by negative representations in popular culture. Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors offers an entertaining and poetical insight into what is means to be human.

 

With thanks to Disability Arts Online. Please check out this essential website – http://disabilityarts.online – an important hub for discussion, reflection and engagement with disability arts and culture.

Atypical Plays Discount code from Oberon books available to DAO readers here

Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors: Selected Plays by Kaite O’Reilly

I’m delighted to make this pre-publication announcement: Oberon books will publish five of my plays and performance texts to coincide with the World premiere of Cosy at the Wales Millennium Centre in March 2016.

The news is so fresh, we haven’t yet settled on the image for the cover. I’ve been liaising with my agents and editor at Oberon about what production photographs to use after drawing up a shortlist by the fantastically talented Toby Farrow and Patrick Baldwin, who documented In Water I’m Weightless (National Theatre Wales) and peeling (Graeae Theatre Company) respectively. Mock-ups of the front and back covers will be made early in the New Year, with publicity bling thanks to Lyn Gardner, theatre critic for The Guardian. My long-term collaborator John McGrath, out-going artistic director of National Theatre Wales and in-coming director of the Manchester International Festival, will write the preface.

What follows is from Oberon books website

9781783193172
Atypical Plays For Atypical Actors is the first of its kind: a collection of dramas which redefines the notion of normalcy and extends the range of what it is to be human. From monologues, to performance texts, to realist plays, these involving and subversive pieces explore disability as a portal to new experience.

Includes the plays: peeling, The Almond and the Seahorse, In Water I’m Weightless, the 9 Fridas and Cosy.

Although disabled characters appear often in plays within the Western theatrical tradition, seldom have the writers been disabled or Deaf themselves, or written from those atypical embodied experiences. This is what contributes to making Kaite O’Reilly’s Selected Plays essential reading – critically acclaimed plays and performance texts written in a range of styles over twelve years, but all informed by a political and cultural disability perspective. They ‘answer back’ to the moral and medical models of disability and attempt to subvert or critique assumptions and negative representations of disabled people.

The selected plays and performance texts exhibit a broad approach to issues around disability. Some, like In Water I’m Weightless/The ‘d’ Monologues (part of the Cultural Olympiad and official festival celebrating the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics) are embedded in disability politics, aesthetics, and ‘crip’ humour. A montage of monologues that can be performed solo or as a chorus, they challenge the normative gaze and celebrate all the possibilities of human variety. The Almond and the Seahorse is different, a ‘mainstream’ character-led realist drama about survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury, with subversive politics in its belly. A response to ‘tragic but brave’ depictions of head injury and memory loss, and informed by personal experience, the play interrogates the reality of living with TBI, questioning who the ‘victims’ are.

peeling, a landmark play written for one Deaf and two disabled female actors, was originally produced by Graeae Theatre Company in 2002, 2003, and for BBC Radio 3. A ‘feminist masterpiece…quietly ground breaking’ (Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman), it has become a set text for Theatre and Drama and Disability Studies university degree courses in the UK and US. Frequently remounted, its lively meta-theatrical form supports its central themes of war, eugenics, and a woman’s control over her fertility, which are as relevant today as ever.

The performance text the 9 Fridas is a complex mosaic offering multiple representations of arguably the world’s most famous female artist, Frida Kahlo, reclaiming her as a disability icon. Performed in Mandarin translation, it was the closing production of the 2014 Taipei Art Festival and will transfer to Hong Kong in October 2016. It is currently being translated into German, Hindi, and Spanish.

Cosy is a darkly comedic look at the joys and humiliations of getting older and how we shuffle off this mortal coil. Three generations of a dysfunctional family explore their choices in a world obsessed with eternal youth, and asks whose life (or death) is it, anyway? An Unlimited Commission, Cosy will premiere and tour nationally in 2016, appearing at the Unlimited Festivals at Southbank Centre and Tramway.

The book will be published 1 March 2016 and is available for pre-orders at Oberon and Amazon

 

 

 

Why I think Frida Kahlo is a disability icon: Frida Kahlo on pain and tragedy

From pinterest

From pinterest

“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.” 

Frida Kahlo journals

We are working on my performance text ‘The 9 fridas’ and dealing constantly with Frida Kahlo’s defiance in the face of pain and adversity. One reason why I chose to make this text was a desire to reclaim Kahlo as a disability icon and inspiration, rather than the ‘tragic but brave’ mainstream representations of her in more recent years. Before we coined ‘crip culture’ she was living it… I adore her for her refusal to be constrained by what could be viewed at the time as the limitations of her gender and impairment – for the fact she created extraordinary art the likes of which had not been seen before – for her laughter, her anger, her attitude in her paintings – what Andre Breton called ‘the pretty ribbon tied around the bomb.’

“My painting carries with it the message of pain.”
Frida Kahlo journals.

As someone who also experiences chronic pain, I am drawn to her paintings and the depictions of pain. Sometimes her work dwells, perhaps even relishes, her experience of pain – her face on a wounded deer, the tears and hammered-in nails of The Broken Column, both echoing the martyrdom of St Sebastian. It is something I have addressed in the production of ‘The  Fridas’ – this paradox between her laughing at tragedy (as Kahlo acknowledges in the top quotation),  and presenting her broken body as tragic.

YY's version of Frida's Day of the dead sugar skull. The 9 Fridas, Taipei.

YY’s version of Frida’s Day of the dead sugar skull. The 9 Fridas, Taipei.

As a Mexican, death would have been a constant companion and not taboo, nor as feared as it is in so many other cultures. In the script I use references to the ancient Mayan belief system which Kahlo quoted in diaries and letters: the sense all has spirit – even the rocks and cacti and hummingbirds – and that death is a natural state we return to after living. As someone who escaped death many times in her life through accident and disease, and who survived an excessive amount of serious operations, ‘le pelona’ – the bald one/Death – ‘dances around my bed at night.’ This is another aspect which I feel has much resonance for disabled people – the body interfered with, the reality of our corporeal state, the closeness of mortality and the joie de vivre that can arise from this awareness.

Our designer Yy Lim and costume designer YS Lee are having the time of their lives working on this Mobius Strip production for the Taipei art festival. In my previous post I reproduced some of the looks YS has created for our figures who are and are not Kahlo, and props appear daily in the rehearsal room, creating delight or pathos.

This extraordinary corset created by YS, exactly reproducing one of Kahlo’s plaster corsets silenced us this week.

Designer YS Lee's reproduction of Frida Kahlo's corset for 'The 9 Fridas'

Designer YS Lee’s reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s corset for ‘The 9 Fridas’

To love so fully, to create such masterly art work despite constant pain and managing her impairments, and to truly live until the moment she died… that’s why I call Frida Kahlo a disability icon.

Nothing about us without us…. Kaite’s books on disability for The Guardian

I responded in frustration to ‘The Ten Best Books on Disability’ in The Guardian last week:

‘I don’t believe you have to experience something in order to write about it, I wrote. ‘I’m a female playwright who writes male characters; I don’t advocate the old adage ‘write about what you know’. Writing is all about imagination, making things up, telling lies, entering the skin of a being who is similar to, but absolutely not ‘you’. It is audacious, limitless, empathetic, fictional… So why am I so frustrated at books written by predominantly non-disabled authors being chosen, yet again, as ‘The Ten Best Books About Disability’?

Maybe it’s because I’m tired of the impaired body being used as a metaphor for the non-disabled. Maybe I and many of my friends, family, and colleagues are fed up with the same old preconceptions and misrepresentations being peddled as ‘truth’, when these perspectives often have very little to do with the reality of living with a physical, sensory, or intellectual impairment.

 There has been a long tradition of assigning meaning to the impaired body. Since Aristotle, impairment has been used as a vehicle to explore notions of frailty, mortality, evil, pity, change – the human condition. What perhaps galls me and sends me hurrying for the right to expand this focus is the sense disability is consistently viewed from within the troublesome and limited stance of ‘normalcy’ – a place that gives little value to human variety, whilst often inviting prurient curiosity (TV reality ‘documentaries’ – the new freak shows? Discuss).

 There are certain disability narratives that have been circulating for millennia, and others since the Industrial revolution when humans became commoditised and valued according to their efficacy as a workforce.

 We are tragic but brave. We are evil personified. We are weak and pitiful, deserving of charity and pity. We are cheating wasters who contribute nothing. We are wise, with supernatural powers. We are kinky freaks up to no good. We are inspirational figures who ‘overcome’ our limitations.

 They’re all good storylines, and many can be viewed regularly in the media, like last year during the ‘Superhuman’ Paralympic coverage and currently in much of the spin around ‘scrounging’ disability benefit cheats. As a writer I can appreciate their pulling and lasting power. But I want something more – something which makes me perceive existence in a different way, which subverts and challenges notions of what it is to be human. And there is a rich body of this innovative, award-winning work already available, written by Deaf and disabled writers, which is why perhaps I am frustrated when more of this work isn’t included in round-ups of ‘The Best’ about disability.

Disability arts and culture in the US and the UK grew out of a civil rights movement, believing it is society with its ideologies, values, prejudices and love of inaccessible architecture which is disabling, not the impairment. This is a radically different stance from the majority of depictions in work by hearing or non-disabled writers identifying the character through diagnosis, putting the body at ‘fault’. Disability culture takes a different perspective, celebrating difference and informed by the phenomenological, embodied experience of being in a disabling world.’

I’m delighted to say I was commissioned to write a more user-friendly version of this for their book blog, which was published this morning on the following link. I’m encouraging others to add their books (I have many many more book titles to include which friends recommended. These weren’t included in the article owing to lack of room – but I shall add those on a different blog post).

Have a look and add your comments:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2013/jul/11/authors-disability-personal-experience#start-of-comments

As a ps, can I say the final line of the Guardian post about ‘what books have opened your eyes?’ was not written by me. As a visually-impaired woman, I would not use such a comment based in normalcy – which is actually what my original feature was all about….

The Stage, Disability Arts Online, and Sparklewheels on In Water I’m Weightless.

I started this blog a year ago, wanting to document process and hopefully reveal some of the skills and experiences I as a dramaturg/performance writer may go through when making work in a broad range of styles.

I also want to have this as a place for discussion and reflection – dialogue, if you like.

My most recent production, In Water I’m Weightless, with National Theatre Wales, closed at The Purcell Rooms, Southbank Centre, London, as art of the Cultural Olympiad and celebratory Unlimited Festival, between the Olympic and Paralympic Games. I am now working in Berlin, but receiving more reactions to the work – interviews, reports, and reviews. I will partly reproduce them here, with the link to the relevant website so you can read further, if you so wish.

What follows is a mixture of opinion and perspectives – from the so-called ‘mainstream’ speciality industry publications (The Stage), disability culture (DAO) and a personal blog, informed by a disability perspective (Sparklewheels). It might be an illuminating mix!

Kaite O’Reilly: Putting the focus on humanity

Friday 31 August 2012Derek Smith for The Stage

Playwright Kaite O’Reilly is seeking to confront and confound people’s perceptions of disability with her latest production, writes Derek Smith:

 

Photo: Hayley Madden

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A decade ago, Kaite O’Reilly, the award-winning playwright, poet and disability arts campaigner, created a stir. Peeling, the darkly comic play she had just written for the Graeae Theatre Company, proved groundbreaking enough, but some of the language used to champion her views on disability in theatre, must have caused a fair few in theatre to undergo some soul searching.

Speaking to O’Reilly recently in-between rehearsals for her new show, In Water I’m Weightless, there’s clearly still a burning belief that what the international dramaturg, author, mentor, tutor and honorary fellow at Exeter University said all those years ago hit the bull’s eye.

“One of the lines from that play has become a slogan,” she reflects with palpable pride. “What I said 10 years ago was that ‘cripping up’ had become the new, 21st century answer to blacking up. You know, that Richard III thing when someone pretends to have a hump or lose a leg, and so on. Mental health, disability and impairment roles are in so many plays, but invariably still played by non-disabled actors pretending to have that disability,” she says.

In 2012, it’s still the case, but it is getting better, she says. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done in the area of disability acceptance and inclusion in the arts – a fact borne out by actress Lisa Hammon’s recent comments in The Stage (August 23, News, page 2). “We just have to encourage people to get over their worries and their fears, says O’Reilly. “But, it’s very interesting now because people are getting excited about the challenge and the ideas.”

To read more of this interview, please go to:

http://www.thestage.co.uk/features/feature.php/37207/kaite-oreilly-putting-the-focus-on-humanity

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The official image of Unlimited Festival by the superb Sue Austin.

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.Paul F Cockburn for Disability Arts Online (DAO) Talks to Kaite O’Reilly and the Cast of In Water I’m Weightless about the production:

After an acclaimed run in Cardiff, National Theatre Wales and a cast of deaf and disabled performers brings the award-winning Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘In Water I’m Weightless’ to London as part of the Unlimited festival at the Southbank Centre.But how did such an imaginative, poignant and funny work come together? Paul F Cockburn, dropped in during the final week of rehearsals last July.

The morning DAO drops in on rehearsals, the cast have been working on In Water I’m Weightless for four solid weeks. With opening night now only a few days away, the momentum is palpable as the show’s ensemble cast — Mandy Colleran (who has to drop out after injury), Mat Fraser, Karina Jones, Nick Phillips, Sophie Stone and David Toole — physically flex and warm their bodies to the soundtrack of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

The morning, according to NTW Media Officer Catrin Rogers, will be spent primarily doing ‘tech’. This is the first time the cast have been given their costumes, so the focus will be on going through the ‘tops and tails’ of scenes, focusing not on performance but the practical issues of stage positions and costume changes.

Director John E McGrath underlines how the cast should raise any issues they have from this process, not least visually impaired Karina Jones, who at one point has to dance in a big dress while wearing high heals. She’s up for it, but there are concerns: “You have a go at everything, because you’re fearless,” John tells her, though he later wonders if the question of her shoes will “haunt the whole production”.

The afternoon is dominated by the first proper run-through of the piece that brings together not just the cast but also the technical team with the music, soundscape and visual projections which are an integral part of the show. “Focus on meaning, on the work that’s been done on a scene,” John tells the cast.

“There are no happy endings. There are just run-throughs,” responds popular cast-member Nick Phillips, humorously paraphrasing what all too quickly becomes as an important theme of the work, repeated through the production.

Nick is the ‘original find’ of this production. Although professionally trained as a dancer, he had given up on performance after a car accident. It was involvement in an earlier NTW production that helped change his mind.

“I kind of just came to the conclusion that, actually, it was no different to what I used to do; it just happens that I have my wheelchair now,” he explains. “I’m still a bit wary of this not being my usual projected image on stage. My safety net is the others around me. I think I would have a different feeling about it if I was on my own — that first step onto the stage would be a lot scarier if I didn’t have these guys around me.”

To read more of this please go to: http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/?location_id=1873

Two further reviews of In Water I’m Weightless is also on the Disability Arts Online website.

Rehearsal photo of In Water I’m Weightless, by Kaite O’Reilly.

Finally, the fabulous Nina of Sparklewheels.blogspot writes about the panel I was part of ‘Making work for Deaf and hearing Audiences’, plus reviews In Water… on her blog.

‘In Water I’m Weightless’ starts off like a fashion show. Pounding music and bright lights is the backdrop as the five actors enter the stage in elaborate gowns, suits and striking headpieces. The characters take turns in shouting at the audience, shouting that we are all the same, we are all mortal. After this impressive beginning, ‘In Water I’m Weightless’ goes on to explore how the story of the five characters overlaps, and how it overlaps with everyone’s story.

 To read more of the above, plugs coverage of Unlimited Festival at Southbank Centre, please go to Nina’s blog:

http://sparklewheels.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/unlimited-day-2-in-water-im-weightless.html

‘Theatre has to get to get over itself and put crips in its scripts.’ Guardian Comment is Free.

The Guardian Comment is Free asked me to respond to Lisa Hammond’s Open Letter to Writers: Put Crips in your scripts (reproduced on this blog at: https://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/lisa-hammonds-open-letter-to-writers-put-crips-in-your-scripts/)  

What follows is their edit of my article.

I think it is edifying to read the forty plus comments on the Guardian website in response to the article. You will find the article and the comments at:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/30/theatre-disability-crips-in-scripts

Theatre has to get over itself and put crips in its scripts.

Kaite O’Reilly. 

Guardian Comment is Free.

I was delighted to read Lisa Hammond’s open letter to writers as part of this year’s TV Drama Writers’ Festival – Put crips in your scripts. It’s a sentiment I support, and have for some time. As a playwright, I’ve been trying to put complex, seductive, intelligent characters who just so happen to have an impairment into my scripts for decades. It is only in rare cases I am commissioned to write such a play; usually I have to smuggle it in like a Trojan horse, with disability politics and what I call “crip humour” in its belly.

Disability is often viewed as worthy, depressing, or a plethora of other negative associations I (and many others) have been trying to challenge and subvert in our work for years. I find this representation astonishing, for the vast majority of my disabled friends and colleagues are the wittiest, most outrageous and life-affirming human beings I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with.

I identify proudly as a disabled person, but am often struck how to those without this cultural identification the impaired body is “other”. Disabled people are “them” – over there – not a deaf uncle, a parent with Alzheimer’s or an acquaintance who has survived brain injury following a car accident. Although the vast majority of us will acquire impairment through the natural process of ageing, through accident, warfare or illness, disabled people are still feared, ostracised and set apart.

The western theatrical canon is filled with disabled characters. We are metaphors for tragedy, loss, the human condition – the victim or villain, the scapegoat, the inferior, scary “special” one, the freak, the problem requiring treatment, medicalisation and normalisation. Although disabled characters occur in thousands of plays, seldom have the writers been disabled themselves, or written from that perspective. It is also rare for actors with impairments to be cast in productions, even when the character is disabled. As I scornfully stated in my 2002 play Peeling, in which Hammond performed: “Cripping up is the 21st century’s answer to blacking up”.

As Hammond suggests in her essay, the theatre profession just needs to get over it – their fear, concerns about expense, about difference. There are fantastic deaf and disabled performers in the UK, just as there are talented and experienced choreographers, directors, visual artists, sit-down comedians, and writers. I hope that the Paralympics, and Unlimited at Southbank Centre,  part of the Cultural Olympiad, will change preconceptions just as the Olympics did regarding sportswomen and abilities.

For “putting crips in our scripts” means we have different protagonists with different stories, which don’t always have to revolve around yet another medical drama. The active, sexy, wilful protagonists of In Water I’m Weightless are an anomaly simply by being protagonists, and in control of their lives. The work is a montage of movement, visuals, excerpts from fictional monologues and not, as most of the reviewers assumed, the actors’ autobiographies (as director John McGrath said, “that’s called acting”).

We need characters who are not victims, whose diagnosis or difference is not the central drama of their lives, but multi-faceted individuals with careers and relationships, dreams and challenges. I want characters who are full of themselves, their hands and mouths filled with a swanky eloquence. Whether in signed or spoken languages, words can dazzle and dip, shape form, shape meaning and shape a perspective that counters the previously held.

We need to have crips in our scripts not just to reflect the society we live in, but, as one of my characters says, to “threaten the narrow definition of human variety … [to] broaden the scope of human possibilities”. And we need crip actors to perform these parts, not yet another non-disabled actor doing an impersonation, with an eye on an award.

(c) copyright Kaite O’Reilly 30th August 2012.