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.
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.