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all female cast, crew and company, but I had hoped when I wrote it all those years ago, its themes would have become outdated by 2019….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:
- 8th & 9th @ Riverfront Arts, Newport – https://tickets.newportlive.co.uk/
- 13th @ Redhouse, Merthyr – http://www.redhousecymru.com/
- 14th @ Theatr Brycheiniog – https://brycheiniog.co.uk/
- 19th & 20th @ Theatr Clwyd – https://www.theatrclwyd.com/en/
- 21st @ Parc & Dare Treorchy – https://rct-theatres.co.uk/
- 23rd @ Y Galeri, Caernarfon – http://galericaernarfon.com/
- 26th @ Aberystwyth Arts Centre – https://www.aberystwythartscentre.co.uk/
- 27th @ The Torch, Milford Haven – https://torchtheatre.co.uk/
- 28th @ The Borough Theatre, Abergavenny – https://boroughtheatreabergavenny.co.uk/
- 29th @ Blackwood Miner’s Institute – http://your.caerphilly.gov.uk/bmi/content/welcome
- 2nd @ Pontardawe Arts Centre – https://npttheatres.co.uk/pontardawe/
- 10th @ Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli – https://www.theatrausirgar.co.uk/en
- 12th @ Pegasus Theatre, Oxford – https://pegasustheatre.org.uk/?post_type=shows&p=11780
- 30th – 2nd May @ Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff – https://www.chapter.org/
‘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.
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.
Posted in Disability arts and culture, on performance, on writing
Tagged Comment is free, crip culture, disability, disability arts and culture, disability experience, disability politics, disabled stereotypes, drama, Kaite O'Reilly, Lisa Hammond, playwriting, script development, scripts theatre, The Guardian, theatre, writing