Tag Archives: John McGrath

In Conversation with John McGrath – Disability Arts International

Manchester International Festival’s Artistic Director, John McGrath has been a long-term collaborator with disabled artists and disability-led companies. John shares his thoughts on the artists who have most influenced both his own way of working and the wider arts ecology. These include Kaite O’Reilly, Claire Cunningham and David Toole.

An audio description of the interview is available 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

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




National Theatre Wales First Dramaturgs Group Announced.

Earlier this year I ran a post calling for applications for the first ever Dramaturgs group for National Theatre Wales (NTW). As one of the selection panel, I was keen to get as broad a range of applicants as possible, especially as only four of the six would be writers, the other two members could be from other disciplines – directors, scenographers, designers, composers, choreographers, whatever…. Today the results of our deliberation has been announced, in a blog by NTW’s artistic director John McGrath on the company’s community website: http://community.nationaltheatrewales.org/profiles/blogs/first-ntw-dramaturgs-group-announced

John McGrath writes:

Hi everyone, today we’re announcing the members of the first Dramaturgs Group – chosen from over 30 applicants by a panel of Kaite O’Reilly, Roger Williams, Lisa Maguire and myself. It was a very difficult decision, and we could easily have filled the group three times over, but we’ve tried to come up with a balanced and inspiring selection that will push the debate, and the level of support for writers, forward:

Following an exciting discussion about dramaturgy in Wales inspired by last year’s Dirty, Gifted and Welsh event and continued in our online Writers’ Group, NTW has now appointed a group of six dramaturgs to work with the company over the next year supporting writers and exploring the characteristics of theatre writing in Wales. We had an extraordinary set of applications to join the group – over thirty people put themselves forward, including many fantastic writers. It was genuinely a very difficult decision to choose the panel, but we can now announce that the group for the first year will be:

Janys Chambers, Richard Hurford, Mathilde Lopez, Ace McCarron, Louise Osborn and Gary Owen.

During our online discussion we explored a lot of questions, including the thorny issue of the collective noun for dramaturgs – (I think the winner was ‘a question of dramaturgs’), and the more fundamental subject of what exactly a dramaturg is (‘the guardian of the idea’ was a rather nice poetic response). We also agreed that the group would include 4 writers and 2 theatre makers from other disciplines. So Janys, Richard, Louise and Gary are our writers (though several of them do other things), Ace is our designer, and Mathilde our director. Everyone in the group is actively involved in working with other writers and wrote passionately in their applications of all the things a dramaturg could be. It will be an honour to work with them.

The group will meet four times over the year, and we will share as much as possible of the conversations and conclusions online in the Writers Group. (The group has been so intrinsic to this initiative that it feels, for now at least, like the natural home for these discussions rather than a separate Dramaturgs Group.) Members of the group will also be available to writers who have commissions or seed commissions with NTW to give dramaturgical support.

Of course I hope that this will be an initiative with a future, and that many of the people who didn’t end up in the group this time will bear with us and be part of the wider discussion and potentially join future incarnations of the group.

A big thanks to everyone who did the thinking work to get this off the ground.

Making language visual

Turning written text into visual, physical language – transforming words on the page into signs and gestures that take flight….  I love working with Jean St Clair. In her London apartment this week, I worked with her and Sophie Stone, transforming written text from my new play Woman of Flowers into flowing, beautiful visual language.

Jean St Clair's encouraging feedback

Jean St Clair’s encouraging feedback

Although I’ve been working with Jean now for a dozen years on translation and recreating English text into theatricalised sign, I always feel very privileged to be part of the process. We last worked together on Forest Forge’s production of my play peeling, also directed by Kirstie Davis. It’s wonderful to have Jean as our creative sign director.


I send her the speeches from my play which we want physicalised in advance and then Jean asks me questions about my meaning, intention, and preferred aesthetic via email or text. When we gather, she will have already explored possibilities, but will always be led by the performer – in this case Sophie Stone, who will be performing the part in the Forest Forge production when Woman of Flowers tours the UK in the Autumn.


Woman of Flowers is a new play, inspired by elements of the ancient Welsh treasure, The Mabinogion. I’ve been obsessed by the story of Bloudewydd for many years, since I moved to Wales to live.


The story tells of a female ostensibly made from the flowers of the oak and trees in the forest to be companion to a young man cursed by his mother never to have ‘a woman of our race.’ Quite what this ‘ideal’ woman might be has enthralled and perplexed me for years. I explored the notion of  computer generated avatars in Perfect, a piece I made with John McGrath and Paul Clay ten years ago at Contact Theatre, and which won the Manchester Evening News best play of 2004.

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on 'Woman of Flowers'

Jean St Clair and Sophie Stone working on ‘Woman of Flowers’

Woman of Flowers, commissioned by Forest Forge and directed by Kirstie Davis, will be very different. A mixture of prosaic everyday dialogue in spoken English, and the poetic inner thoughts of Rose (played by Sophie) using theatricalised sign, will hopefully be visually stunning and emotionally effecting.


Our rehearsed reading at Salisbury Playhouse earlier in the month left some of the invited audience in tears. Many spoke afterwards of the lyrical nature of Sophie’s spoken and signed language, mentored and polished by Jean’s experienced eye.

I have asked Jean and Sophie if they will guest blog about their process, working between spoken and signed language, between Deaf and hearing cultures. They have agreed, and I can’t wait to share more of this part of the creative process, which is often invisible, hidden from view.

Tour details: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/woman-of-flowers 

Dramaturgs wanted – National Theatre Wales

So what is dramaturgy? What does a dramaturg do? Might you be a dramaturg?National Theatre Wales are setting up a Dramaturgy Project to  explore the role of dramaturgy in theatre and in their own company in particular.

I’m delighted to be invited on the panel to choose this group. Artistic director John McGrath, Executive producer Lisa Maquire, co-playwright Roger Williams and myself will select six people who will lead this fascinating project –  four playwrights and two not.

John McGrath writes:

As a result of last years’ Dirty, Gifted and Welsh event, and a very interesting follow up discussion in the Writers Group on this network, I’m pleased to announce today that NTW is setting up a new Dramaturgy Project, to explore the role of the dramaturg in theatre in general and NTW in particular.

The group will involve six ‘dramaturgs’ – four of them playwrights and two not. The group will meet four times over a one year period, and also keep in touch via the online Writers Group. And if you are asking the question ‘but what’s a dramaturg’ then hopefully by the end of the year our team will have some good answers!

Historically the dramaturg has been a more consistent role in European theatre than British. Often this role involves a lot of research and support for the writer and director, but probably more than anything else a dramaturg is concerned with the shape, rhythms and sense of a play or piece of theatre – helping everyone involved to ensure that the production is the best possible version of itself. Dramaturgs may be theatre directors – and theatre directors often do a lot of dramaturgy on the plays they are directing, particularly with new writing – but perhaps most often they are writers who feel they have some skills and insight they can share.

The dramaturgy group at NTW will provide support to some of the writers NTW has commissioned, and will also explore the differing ways that a script and production can take shape, particularly when the usual conventions are being challenged.

The idea for our group grows out of a conversation about ways in which writers can provide support and advice for each other in the creative process – hence the majority of places on the group being for writers. However, there was also an acknowledgement in the discussion that dramaturgy can be equally important when shaping a theatre piece where words are not central. We felt therefore that it would be helpful to have non-writers in our group too.

There’s a small fee of £500 per dramaturg to cover the costs of attending at least three of the core meetings (virtual attendance is okay), plus an average of £1,000 each to provide support and input to writers on commission to NTW. I hope that the group will have a strong presence on this network, so that everyone can follow its development.

Applications to be part of the Dramaturgy Group are now open. Please send a message explaining why you’d like to be involved, plus a CV and a link to your profile on this network to mawgaine@nationaltheatrewales.org  Four writers and two other theatre makers will be chosen to form the group by a panel consisting of myself, NTW Executive Producer Lisa Maguire, and writers Kaite O’Reilly and Roger Williams.

The closing date for applications is May 31 2014.

Guardian review: In Water I’m Weightless – 4 stars

David Toole and Nick Phillips – In Water I’m Weightless. Photo: Farrows/ National Theatre of Wales

The following is a review by Alfred Hickling, 3rd Augut 2012, reproduced from http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2012/aug/02/in-water-im-weightless-review

The writer Kaite O’Reilly says that she maintains two careers: “the mainstream playwright and the less visible disability artist.” Recently, that balance has arguably been reversed. Three months ago, Sheffield Crucible and Chol Theatre presented O’Reilly’s LeanerFasterStronger – a provocative meditation on biological engineering that predicted Paralympians may one day overtake their able-bodied rivals.

Now comes this Cultural Olympiad commission for the National Theatre Wales, featuring some of the finest differently abled performers in the country. There’s no plot, narrative or characterisation to speak of, though the point is simple enough to grasp. Despite all the advances made in accessibility and civil rights, disabled people still find themselves ostracised, patronised and feared. “We’re a fire hazard. A drain on your resources,” they state – and they’re angry. Very angry. John E McGrath’s production opens in high-concept mode, with much strobing and strutting to loud music that seems to suggest a catwalk show. Then the five performers (originally six – Mandy Colleran unfortunately had to withdraw through injury) take a turn at the microphone and tell their stories. Often these are sardonically funny: in a section entitled Things I Have Lip-Read, deaf actor Sophie Stone recounts someone saying, “Well, at least the phone bill will be small.” At another point David Toole and Nick Phillips compare notes on typecasting. “I’m always the monster, the serial killer or, worst of all, the plot device,” Toole complains. “I got to play a regular criminal once,” Phillips replies, “but they had to change the line ‘take him down’ because of the stairs.”

The cut-and-paste make up of the monologues can sometimes be frustrating: there is a tendency for significant points to be raised rather than developed. But there are some thrillingly vitriolic passages enhanced by the aggressive physicality of the choreography by Nigel Charnock, whose death from cancer was announced yesterday. Mat Fraser contorts his body through a spasmodic sequence of movements to the Sex Pistols’ Bodies, whose sneering line, “I don’t wanna baby that looks like that” sums up the show’s punk-like ethos. And there’s an arresting instance of table-turning when Stone delivers a long speech in British Sign Language without translation. Suddenly you realise how incomprehensible the world would seem if you lost the ability to hear. I couldn’t understand a word, though the final gesture – a middle finger jabbed aggressively upwards – was enough to give the gist.

  •  At Southbank Centre, London on 31 August and 1 September

A thought-provoking, beautiful piece of theatre: In Water I’m Weightless review







Western Mail/ Wales On-line 

Karen Price

IN the centre of the stage, two actors are discussing the roles they are usually offered.

“I’m always playing zombies,” says one. “The sick and twisted psycho,” says the other. Instead, they dream of being cast as the “fish and chip customer” in EastEnders or the “waiting patient” in Holby City. For the actors – David Toole and Nick Phillips – are disabled and they’re sick of being stereotyped.

Their observations are part of a series of monologues and conversations making up National Theatre Wales’ latest production, In Water I’m Weightless. Director John E McGrath has taken the words of writer Kaite O’Reilly and transformed them into a powerful piece of theatre, shattering any stereotypes.

Staged inside the Wales Millennium Centre’s intimate Weston Studio, five disabled performers get their points across effectively through speech, music, film and both graceful and energetic movement.

During the opening scene, we’re made aware of how life can change in a matter of seconds for any one of us and just how fragile the human body is.

The monologues – which are performed in inventive ways, proving they don’t have to just be delivered from a bar stool – cover everything from growing up with a disability and strangers’ perceptions to being comfortable in your own skin.

We’re reminded that almost all of the brilliant generals were disabled, including Napoleon.

“Impairment, gives you an edge – you have to work harder.”

The performers work brilliantly together and the production, designed by Paul Clay, is slick. What’s all the more incredible is that McGrath had to completely rethink the hour-long show after cast member Mandy Colleran was forced to pull out just hours before the opening night due to injury.

In Water I’m Weightless – staged as part of London 2012 Cultural Olympiad’s Unlimited programme celebrating disability, arts, culture and sport – is a thought-provoking, beautiful piece of theatre which makes you realise that everyone is unique – and equal.

In Water I’m Weightless is at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff until Saturday. Box office: 029 2063 6464

Karen Price

Read More http://www.walesonline.co.uk/showbiz-and-lifestyle/theatre-in-wales/2012/08/01/review-in-water-i-m-weightless-national-theatre-wales-91466-31519500/#ixzz22I0xUdQA

‘A powerful call to arms’ – In Water I’m Weightless review

In Water I’m Weightless

Kaite O’Reilly
National Theatre Wales
Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre

From 26 July 2012 to 04 August 2012

British Theatre Guide


Review by Othniel Smith

Commissioned as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, In Water I’m Weightless, National Theatre Wales’s 20th full production, features some of the UK’s most high-profile deaf and disabled performers (although the production was hit by the late, apparently temporary withdrawal of Mandy Colleran through injury, prompting much re-jigging), in what is something of a trippy multi-media cabaret.

Starting with the sobering “there but for the grace of God” reminder that we could all be a second away from ourselves becoming disabled, we’re taken on a whirlwind ride through various aspects of the experience of disability via monologues, dance interludes, and a barrage of text and images (still and moving, live and recorded) delivered via ten spherical monitors and a more conventional screen at the back of the stage.

The text is by Kaite O’Reilly, much—but by no means all—of whose work as a playwright centres around issues of impairment (e.g. her affecting brain-injury drama The Almond And The Seahorse, which was one of my highlights of 2008), and who has done much to foreground performers with disabilities; it is derived largely from interviews carried out over a number of years, although one must presume that the actors themselves have had some input here, given the broad—perhaps too broad—range of realities depicted.

Confrontation is a major theme—the body is described as a war-zone, with cells attacking one another; individuals are constantly at war with the perceptions of others, well-meaning and otherwise; we are reminded of the large number of military leaders whose capabilities have been enhanced by their own disabilities. Director John McGrath, in collaboration with choreographer Nigel Charnock, stresses the actors’ physicality at all times, although some of the most striking moments are the simplest—such as Mat Fraser dancing frenziedly to the Sex Pistols while unseen hands scrawl noise-orientated words on the backdrop, or Karina Jones rolling provocatively on the floor.

Sophie Stone’s riff on demeaning comments “overheard” by those adept at lip-reading provides the most laughs, albeit uneasy ones; one imagines, though, that the skit in which disabled actors complain about stereotyping might be received with a mildly sardonic chuckle by those belonging to other minorities, and perhaps the wider community of mostly unemployed performers.

Reflections on the feelings of dislocation engendered by having one’s hearing restored seem to belong to an entirely different play, and while Nick Phillips’s monologue about having his beer can mistaken for a collecting-tin is amusing, it suffers from being repeated. Just when one is beginning to crave more of a narrative focus, however, David Toole delivers a climactic, angrily polemical speech, a powerful call to arms, and the culmination of a perversely celebratory evening.

Indeed, the cast are uniformly charismatic, and even though the production is technically impressive and the writing as sharp as might be expected, it is the performances which leave a lasting impression.

Provocative and stimulating: In Water I’m Weightless review and links to interviews

A photo from the dress rehearsal, with the full cast of In Water I’m Weightless. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

Reviews and interviews for In Water I’m Weightless continue – see below for links.

The Public Reviews:


Writer: Kaite O’Reilly

Director: John E McGrath

Reviewer: Emily Pearce

The Public Reviews Rating: 4 stars

In Water I’m Weightless is the latest offering from the innovative National Theatre Wales that is insistent throughout in its challenge of the ways disability is perceived. Five performers (unfortunately Mandy Colleran was indisposed for this performance) each speak of their lives, routines and the ideals they hold dear. It is a bold piece, often stark in its ability to flip perceived public assumption, highlighted throughout by Paul Clay’s simple, yet stylish set design.

The pace is unrelenting in its unpredictability; every time there is a hint that the piece may become stagnant, it lurches in an altogether unexpected direction. Lurches is the word though, as occasionally a little more cohesion between segments would have been preferable, but then, perhaps that is the point of the play. Although occasionally an elegant mess – it would be difficult to analyse a structure or plotline – it is nonetheless beautiful in its imperfection and one gets the impression that writer Kaite O’Reilly would have it no other way.

In Water I’m Weightless is uncompromising in addressing the different reactions to disability; from independence to ignorance, there are times when it is easy to be moved to tears by the anger, vehemence, as well as spirit and the sheer the joie de vivre that springs from the different monologues, but that is not what this piece sets out to do. Pity is treated with disdain; sympathy is revealed as patronizing – the play clearly sets out its agenda for challenging what the public might think is acceptable behaviour, often it is revealed as not.

It also references what happens when a disability is reversed; in this case Sophie Stone’s hearing is restored. She describes the longing for silence and how even the heart pumping disturbs after years of blissful peace. Her defiant statement, “I love my body,” resonates and returns many times throughout the play.

What sets In Water I’m Weightless apart is that although disability is the topic of choice, the play transcends this. The actors don’t just describe living with a disability, they depict lives filled with emotion, circumstance and a vulnerability that everyman can identify with. This is a celebration of humanity, of the body, of character and resilience, in all forms.

The fantastic David O’Toole ends with the almost Shakespearean monologue; challenging the very definition of disability in the war-cry like rallying call of “You marvel! You scientific enigma! You medical conundrum…that both proves Darwin and disproves Darwin!” After witnessing this provocative and stimulating play, you’d be hard pressed not to agree with him.


KOR writes:  Please do note that In Water I’m Weightless is a series of fictional monologues I have written, montaged and performed by the cast. Like any other professional performer, they are playing fictional parts written by me, with no connection to their actual lives and experiences. Therefore please assume the reference to Sophie Stone, above, is outlining the story of a fictional character Sophie plays (one of many) and not her personal experience.


To listen to an interview with Sophie Stone on Radio Cardiff, please go to: – http://official.fm/tracks/8cur

To listen to Kaite O’Reilly and Sara Beer on Big Scott’s show on Radio Cardiff, please go to:

A rallying cry almost worthy of Shakespeare. In Water I’m Weightless review










In Water I’m Weightless, National Theatre Wales

Five disabled actors give an impressionistic glimpse of themselves

by Tuesday, 31 July 201

Adrian Burley MP would probably call In Water I’m Weightless “leftie multicultural crap”. I’d like to bestow similar praise. In common with Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, director John McGrath’s exploration of issues facing disabled people is a bit of a mess, a bit of a tick-box exercise and thoroughly enjoyable.

The play is a rallying cry for the civil rights of the disabled, and wears its politics somewhat heavily. But despite some meanderings in the middle, by the time we reach writer Kaite O’Reilly’s epic final monologue, a paean to the “gen of the genome”, “the glorious freak[s] of nature” who “broaden the scope of homosapien possibilities”, worthy almost of Shakespeare in its rhythm and intensity, and wonderfully delivered by David Toole (pictured below), there is a feeling that we have been confronted.

But with what? For the most part, the play is a loosely connected series of impressions: sign language, fragments of text, anecdotes, powerful music in a bewildering array of styles. There is little to connect these disparate elements but the fact that all of the five members of the cast have a disability. They are partially-sighted, deaf and dumb, paralysed or somehow physically deformed. Not too long ago, the only type of theatre open to these performers would have been in a freak show. In Water I’m Weightless is not without humour, and there is a moment of comedy when two of the actors discuss their recent roles: “always the monster”, “misunderstood evil genius” or, “worst of all, plot device”.

There is no such danger here, as the five actors are offered a rare opportunity to give us a glimpse of themselves, or at least a version thereof. Against Paul Clay’s simple but effective backdrop of projection screen and giant globules, which act variously as thought bubbles, water droplets and bodily cells, the cast each give a fantastic account of themselves. “Don’t patronise me,” says Karina Jones’ character at one point, and among all the familiar and less familiar things we hear that disabled people have to put up with on a daily basis – there is also a section titled “Things I Have Lipread” – this would seem to be one which grates the most.

Jones (pictured left)also has the pleasure of delivering some of O’Reilly’s best passages, a layered metaphor about “your very being a warzone carried out at molecular level” culminating in the horrific image of “that fleshy Dresden”, which nevertheless the character has learnt to love. Ultimately, In Water I’m Weightless is a celebration of disabled human beings – their bodies, their minds and their souls. And although it oscillates rather wildly between wigging out to the Sex Pistols and Shirley Bassey and reflections on perceiving other human beings in terms boiling down to use of taxpayers’ money like the theatrical equivalent of a loud/quiet/loud Nirvana song, it succeeds far more often than it fails.