Tag Archives: disability

peeling – new production by Taking Flight Theatre

It may seem counter-intuitive, but there are certain plays we write which we hope will become out-dated: Plays about discrimination, inequality, problematic work practices, about violence and hate crimes. I wrote peeling in the first years of this new century, a commission from Graeae Theatre Company which was first produced in 2002 and 2003, and adapted for BBC Radio 3. It is a playful but hard-hitting piece, a metatheatrical play within a play, featuring one Deaf and two disabled female performers as the chorus of a post-dramatic production of The Trojan Women: Then and Now.

Alfa, Coral and Beaty are ‘the right on ticks on an equal opportunities monitoring form’,  performers cast for their impairments, left on stage, hidden behind the scenery of an inaccessible theatre as the ‘real play’ goes on around them. Throughout the sections where the women are performing as chorus, the relentless waste of war and the position of women in conflict is examined. When the women are ‘off’, they seek light relief. As they gossip, laugh, bitch, gang up on one another and share recipes and anecdotes, the industry’s problematic attitude to difference and diversity is revealed.

When I wrote this play over seventeen years ago, I didn’t anticipate the many productions and readings it has since had all over the world, its issues and themes apparently as relevant as ever. This is bitter-sweet. I’m delighted that Taking Flight Theatre are producing and touring this play with a phenomenal all female cast, crew and company, but I had hoped when I wrote it all those years ago, its themes would have become outdated by 2019….

peeling was hailed as a “game-changer of a play” when first produced in 2002, “a minor feminist masterpiece” with stories pre-dating by almost two decades the current drive for diverse representation on our stages and screens. ‘Cripping up is the twenty-first century answer to blacking-up’ Alfa says – words that shocked in 2002, and have since become a slogan. We are still tussling with the politics of representation and I hope this production will ignite further reflection and debate. If you fancy engaging with me on this subject, I will be at several post-show talks during the Welsh leg of the tour: at the opening, International Women’s Day, 8th March at Riverfront Arts, Newport; at Theatre Clwyd on 19th March, and Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 26th March (Welsh tour dates, below, along with the audio flyer).

I will be writing further about the process of revising the script and my interaction with the brilliant women of Taking Flight’s peeling over the coming days. Hope you can come and join us:




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.

Nothing About Us Without Us: Lecture by Kaite O’Reilly. Singapore. 17 November 2017








Nothing About Us Without Us – What Can Singapore Learn from Three Decades of the UK’s Disability Arts and Culture?

“The British Council in association with ITI, Intercultural Theatre Institute  is pleased to bring to you the upcoming British Council  ‘Knowledge is GREAT’ Lecture featuring distinguished playwright and disability artist and advocate, Kaite O’Reilly.

Kaite is a multi-award winning dramatist who works internationally. Winner of the Peggy Ramsay Award, M.E.N. Most Innovative Play of the Year and The Theatre-Wales Best Play of the Year, she was also presented with the prestigious Ted Hughes Award for her re-imagining of Aeschylus’s ‘Persians’ for National Theatre Wales. A leading figure in the UK’s Disability arts and Culture, her Unlimited Commission In Water I’m Weightless was produced at Southbank Centre by National Theatre Wales as part of the official Cultural Olympiad celebrating the 2012 London Olympics/Paralympics. She is currently developing her Unlimited International Commission And Suddenly I Disappear… The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues: a dialogue about disability, diversity and what it is to be human from different sides of the world. She is patron of Disability Arts Cymru and DaDaFest – the biggest Disability Arts/Deaf Arts Festival in the world.

Since 2003 Kaite has been developing what she coins ‘alternative dramaturgies informed by a Deaf and disability perspective’, working within subversive and innovative disability arts and Deaf culture. Join her as she shares her work over twenty five years, showing video examples of her use of the ‘aesthetics of access’ from In Water I’m Weightless (National Theatre Wales / Southbank Centre / Unlimited Festival), spoken / visual languages in Woman of Flowers and other work from her selected Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors (Oberon).

There will be an opportunity for questions and discussion about the differences between Disability arts and culture, arts and disability, and inclusive arts.

Free tickets here.

20 Questions….. Kiruna Stamell

Continuing the 20 questions series… I ask playwrights, performers, sculptors, directors, novelists, poets, dancers, short story writers and anyone else creative and interesting in between the same 20 questions, with various results. This time I ask the fabulous Kiruna Stamell to participate….

20 Questions… Kiruna Stamell

Kiruna Stamell

Kiruna Stamell

Kiruna Stamell is an actress with more than 13 years’ experience, as well as a classically-trained contemporary dancer.  In 1999 she got her first professional gig while at University, making her début in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. She used the pay cheque to come to England and study Shakespeare and Jacobean Theatre at London Academy of Music and Recognisable for her roles on the BBC’s ‘All The Small Things’, ‘Eastenders’, ‘Life’s too short’ and Channel 4’s, ‘Cast-offs’, she will this year be appearing alongside Geoffry Rush in Guiseppe Tornatore’s film ‘The Best Offer’. Her contemporary dance work has taken place between Australia and Sweden with choreographers such as John O’Connell (Aus), Sue Healey (Aus), Shaun Parker (Aus) and Christina Tingskog (Sweden), as well as Mimbre (UK) for a season at Watch This Space outside the National Theatre.


 What first drew you to your particular practice (art/acting/writing, etc)?

 I think it was a television programme in Australia called ‘Young Talent Time’. I love dancing and as I got older I developed an interest in debating and public speaking too. At high school my speeches moved closer towards performance and monologue. At university words and movement had an opportunity to really mesh when I got involved in the drama society and contemporary dance scene.

What was your big breakthrough?

‘Moulin Rouge’ directed by Baz Luhrmann, it bought me financial freedom to learn to drive and come to the UK. I was able to access new places and communities where my dwarfism was viewed positively and culturally enriching, rather than as a barrier to an arts career (which was the predominant view in Australia). It was an opportunity to get about without my parent’s help and experience a financial and cultural independence.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

Finding meaningful and fulfilling work as an actress with dwarfism. It is the lack of security in being self-employed, that also makes that particularly hard. I could sell out and ‘exhibit’ myself in nightclubs because there is still a market for that in our society and live quite well off that income. However, I want to reflect the real world and change people’s prejudice’s not reinforce their already restrictive ideas. The representation of people with dwarfism in the mainstream media is mostly hostile and ridiculing, with the exception of a few roles.

 Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

Peeling’ a play you wrote had a massive impact. ‘Stone’s from the River’ a book by Ursula Hegi, I wish they’d turn that into a film… maybe I should… Betty Adelson’s, Dwarfs from ‘public curiosity to social liberation’. I also have to mention ‘The Station Agent’.

They all highlighted the richness of the lives of little people and removed themselves from the horrible fascination many things written about us never quite get over and seem to get stuck on.

What’s more important: form or content?


How do you know when a project is finished?

When you begin to feel like you are putting more energy and passion into it, than you are getting out of it.

Do you read your reviews?


What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

Just keep doing it. Toil away and find alternative ways to get your work out there. Don’t be too humble either, good work doesn’t always get noticed. Listen to feedback from people you trust. Pay attention to rejection, it gets you closer to being on the right path and working with the people who do appreciate your talent and want to be on your team.

What work of art would you most like to own?

There is a bookshelf that is really well designed by a French interior designer Olivier Dolle. It is shaped like a tree branch and reaches out from a corner of the room across a long wall. I’d like to have that for my books.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

That it just happens, requires no effort, is not worthy of being a real job. All untrue.

What are you working on now?

Starting up my own company to produce a two-hander stand-up rom-com written by me and my husband Gareth Berliner. The show is called ‘A Little Commitment’. Also I am about to get stuck into some contemporary dance/theatre in Australia with choreographer Shaun Parker and another dance based project with choreographer Marc Brew.

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

I am happy for those original authors/artists to keep their names to their creations. If I had created them, they wouldn’t be the works they are… they’d be something else entirely.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

That an accounting qualification could really help. Or that having something you can dip into casually when you aren’t funded for your creativity can take the fear out of a mortgage.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To change perceptions of difference and challenge the body fascism that’s become so pervasive in our culture. I hope in someways I do this just by being and getting on with my life and vocation. Maintaining integrity is so important to this goal.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

Occasionally, I curl up and ignore the world for a day. I accept support from friends, family and the cultural community.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

“I wasn’t expecting that… I wasn’t expecting that… [repeated several times]” Kimberly Wyatt, when surprised by my being able to actually dance, on sky’s Got To Dance.

And the best thing?

“Petite dynamo sparkles in energetic body of work.” A review of my first ever piece of choreography.

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

It’s a discipline, to which you must apply yourself.

What is your philosophy or life motto?

Each project should aim to be a personal best. This isn’t always going to happen but that should be the aim.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

Getting a casual day job as a waitress or barmaid, if you have dwarfism is almost impossible.

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

I think it asks how much you really wanted ‘it’. 

For further information on Kiruna, see:

www.kirunastamell.net and www.alittlecommitment.com

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




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:





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



.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:


‘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:


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.

‘Funny, yet tender; gutsy and still poignant’ – In Water I’m Weightless review

Cast of In Water I’m Weightless (Mandy Colleran excepted). Photo: Toby Farrows.

Tom Wentworth on In Water I’m Weightless.

Disability Arts Online. August 1st 2012.


Punching right between the eyes from the first second, In Water I’m Weightless is truly an energy-packed, relentless spectacle. Written by Kaite ‘O Reilly (The Persians, LeanerFasterStronger) and directed by National Theatre Wales’ Artistic Director John E. McGrath, the show manages to be funny, yet tender; gutsy and still poignant, whilst maintaining its integrity for an audience as a highly truthful exploration of life with a disability.

One of the greatest strengths of the production is its ensemble cast. Performers Mat Fraser, Karina Jones, Nick Phillips, Sophie Stone and David Toole (unfortunately, due to an accident, Mandy Colleran was unable to perform but hopes to re-join the company soon) perform a complex lattice work of monologues, chorus pieces and dance and movement sequences to a range of music, (including a wonderfully comic and sexy routine to ‘Hey, Big Spender’ by Choreographer Nigel Charnock).

dig deep into the fundamental nature of disability and impairment, exploring the body as well as constantly seeking to question our perceptions. (“How do you describe seeing?” asks Karina Jones provocatively at one point.)  The cast each have their own set pieces with Nick Phillips providing us with a central image: “In water I’m weightless,” he tells us. However, the sequences are never isolated; but flow seamlessly.

Kaite O’ Reilly’s complex mix of word play, rhythms and imagery within the text provides the heart beat throughout the production, which has been developed as one of the Unlimited Commissions for the Cultural Olympiad.

Using the metaphors of war to give an insight into the way the body reacts to its own internal warfare through illness or disability is just one very powerful device through which the audience are drawn in, to experience a fresh, and often surprising, perspective on the unspoken, unseen minutiae of human existence.

There are lighter moments too. Sophie Stone’s part signed, part spoken piece entitled ‘Things I Have Lipread’ is both warm and engaging (the production integrates British Sign Language – often in unexpected ways – throughout.) Even during the darkest and bleakest moments, the humour of the show shines through.

The show is always visually stunning. Designer Paul Clay has created a spectacular set (suspended balls onto which are projected text, images and live video as the actors put a camera into their mouths to observe the tongue.) Clay has also employed a large cyclorama which displays a wide range of images from diagrams showing how a Cochlea implant works to fantastically breathtaking video of actors suspended.) The costumes too are bold and designed to make a statement – and they do.

‘In Water I’m Weightless’ is ultimately a feast of textures. Seeking to question, explore and surprise, the production manages to do all of this throughout; holding the attention and being – to use the production’s own ‘water-imagery’ – completely immersive. Most impressive of all, however is the production’s strength to empower its cast, crew – and ultimately its audience. A must see.

In Water I’m Weightless runs at the Wales Millennium Centre until the 4th August, after which it will play as part of the Unlimited Festival London’s Southbank Centre on 31st August – 1st September.

Tech rehearsal – In Water I’m Weightless

Karina Jones – In Water I’m Weightless – tech rehearsal

I love technical rehearsals – it’s when all the elements come together and we begin to get a sense of what the show, with all its components, will look like. Never is this more the case as when working on such a large collaboration with so many aspects – spoken, signed, and projected text; live action and choreography; live and pre-recorded film.

DSM Sarah Thomas standing in for actors in tech’.

This is also the time when the work of our fabulous designer and video artist, Paul Clay, truly comes into its own. It’s hugely tempting to reveal his work, so it is with restraint I reproduce these incidental images and hold back on his more spectacular visuals.

From monologues written alone, over an extended period – words on the page – we move into this complex, multi-layered theatrical experience – and I feel incredibly fortunate in what I do.

Slow mo’ filming, audio description, and the Radio Wales Arts Show








Mat Fraser recording his part of the audio description CD/download for In Water I’m Weightless.

It is, I think, a most peculiar way to make a living. No two days are the same and my working life at the moment is of such a surreal quality, normally loquacious taxi drivers are silent as I outline the activity….

‘Today at work I’m observing slow motion filming of water being poured onto various parts of various actors’ bodies…’

Still, that’s probably nothing compared to what Jacob probably said when he got home for tea that night (‘Well, I hung off the top of a ladder and had to pour a stream of water from a glass jug onto a specific mark on the bare shoulder of Karina Jones, whilst a group of men watched and filmed it’).








Jacob, Karina and the crew slow mo filming

We are in the final week of rehearsals for In Water I’m Weightless with National Theatre Wales – a week filled with media activity as well as intense rehearsals and run-throughs.

It is our designer, Paul Clay, who has brought the slow motion filming and mediatised elements into the production. An accomplished designer and artist, he also live video mixes in the underground club scene of New York, where he lives.

The design and visual world of the play is a response to the poetic conceits at work in the text – the weightlessness from floating in water, and the sense of freedom and liberation this creates (see my earlier blog about filming stunt dives).

This is in direct contrast to the weight of prejudices, fear, and preconceptions usually loaded onto the disabled body. It was our director (and artistic director of NTW), John McGrath, who pulled out this quotation ‘In Water I’m Weightless’ from the large body of monologues I have written over the past few years, and from which the text of this montaged production is taken.

This is my second show with Paul, and John. The first, Perfect, at Contact Theatre in Manchester, also had a strongly visual component and won Paul the M.E.N award for best design of 2004, whilst I won best play. It is wonderful to be back in a rehearsal room with both, aware of the growth in experience, skill, and stature since we last collaborated.






Designer Paul Clay recording a description of his set, costumes, and visual/video artwork on In Water I’m Weightless for visually impaired and blind audience members.

As In Water I’m Weightless is an Unlimited commission, part of the Cultural Olympiad promoting the work of Deaf and disabled artists, we are keen to make the work as accessible as possible – which brings us to the second mediatised experience of the week.

Karina Jones, one of the cast, suggested we prepare a pre-show recording for visually impaired and blind audience members, so they would have a sense of some of the visual and physical aspects of the work. One performance at the Wales Millennium Centre will have live audio description (a headset is provided for audience members, if required, and during the performance a description of action and visual elements is relayed), but we were all excited with Karina’s suggestion. I provided bullet-points for the performers to use as stimulus – a description of their bodies, costumes, and the dance/movement sequences – and Paul spoke about the visuals and his design concept. Mike Beer recorded them, and this should be available prior to the show at Wales Millennium Centre as a CD, and also hopefully as a download from NTW’s website.

The final media experience of the week occurred on Thursday, when cast member Nick Phillips and I were guests on the BBC Radio Wales Arts Show, with Nicola Heywood Thomas. The interview will be available for the next few days as ‘listen again’ on:


Jake Arnott: My hero, Mandy Colleran

I first met Mandy Colleran twenty six years ago in Liverpool and here we are, collaborating on National Theatre Wales’s production of In Water I’m Weightless

I’m grateful to my friend and fellow writer Sean Lusk for alerting me to the following article from The Guardian Review on 6th July 2012: Jake Arnott writing about the performer and cultural activist Mandy Colleran:

Mandy Colleran by Jake Arnott


Mandy Colleran

Mandy Colleran: ‘She­ ­is constantly engaged in the life around her – as a participant, not just an observer.’ Photograph: National Theatre of Wales

Mandy Colleran is an actor currently in rehearsal for the National Theatre Wales’s production of In Water I’m WeightlessI’ve known her for years as a friend and something of an inspiration. I doubt she’ll take much to the term “hero”, and I’m not so certain about it myself. Because there are dangers of applying “heroism” to people with disabilities – it is often used to portray a “tragic but brave” life, and she’s fought against that for decades as a campaigner for equal rights and empowerment. I’m sure she’d always prefer a ramp to a pedestal. But I admire her, as an actor and an activist, but above all as a bon vivant.

Colleran goes everywhere and sees everything. She gets out so much more than I do – to the theatre, to talks and concerts. I suffer from the writer’s vice of withdrawing from the world. She makes that world accessible to me. She has highly tuned cultural antennae, and always seems to know what’s going on.

Full of ideas and opinions, she is constantly engaged in the life around her – as a participant, not just an observer. She has an insatiable appetite for books and a direct and easy manner of criticism. She would be ideal for a review show. And she has an explosive sense of humour, with a laugh that sometimes can be heard throughout most of Clerkenwell.

In any struggle against the odds Colleran often reminds me that we can do it on our own terms. One winter the snow lay inches deep in central London. I was finding it hard to get around and was suddenly possessed by the thought that she might need some assistance, if only to pick up some shopping or something. I phoned her and heard that familiar scouse voice cutting through a cacophony of shouting. She wasn’t stuck indoors, she was at a demo in the West End, taking action as usual as I tiptoed cautiously along the icy pavement.

• Jake Arnott’s The House of Rumour is published by Sceptre.