Tag Archives: Unlimited Festivals

Theatre as a study of what it is to be human

atypical-plays-for-atypical-actors

This September has been a remarkably rich and exciting month owing to the Unlimited Festivals at Southbank Centre in London and the current one at Tramway, Glasgow. Apart from immersing myself in the art exhibitions, performances, discussions and many events around disability culture and issues of diversity at these festivals, I’ve been ‘in conversation’ and launching my selected plays ‘Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors’. On Saturday 24th September, 2-5pm I will be in conversation with Nicola McCartney and then leading a short workshop/talk ‘Atypical in Action’ at Tramway, 25 Albert Drive, Glasgow G41 2PE. 

What follows is a guest blog I wrote about the workshop and talk and my work, collaborators, and why accessible and culturally diverse work is so essential:

The Study of What it is to be Human…. 

Guest post for: http://www.kimaskswhat.online/2016/09/guest-post-by-kaite-oreilly-theatre-as.html?m=1

Theatre could be defined as the study of what it is to be human. For millennia we have come to sit communally – a group of human beings watching another group of human beings pretending to be other human beings. We are endlessly fascinated with each other, yet a place purported to be about the range of human possibility has for too long been circumscribed and limited, especially towards a quarter of the population.

As I have discussed at length elsewhere, for thousands of years in the Western theatrical canon, the atypical body has been used to scare, warn, explain and explore human frailty, mortality and the human condition. Disability has been a metaphor for the non-disabled to explore their fears and embedded societal values. Although disabled characters appear in thousands of plays, seldom has the playwright been disabled, or written from that embodied, political perspective. Some strange untruths have therefore been created and recycled in our dramas for stage and screen; the rich, rewarding reality of our lives replaced with problematic representations which work to keep ‘us’ different, ‘special’ and apart.

That, thankfully, is changing, with more disabled and Deaf artists coming to the fore across artforms. This is partly owing to the fruits of the UK and US disability civil rights movements, out of which disability arts and culture grew, and the disability arts forums, organisations, and festivals which supported and still encourage this growth. It is also down to initiatives such as Unlimited, keen to promote, commission, and embed the work of disabled and Deaf artists in the ‘mainstream’ on a level never experienced before.

As a multi award winning playwright and dramaturg who identifies as a disability artist, I have been exploring this territory, informed by the social model of disability, working across and between so-called ‘mainstream’ culture and what I coin ‘crip’ culture for several decades. I consider disability a social construct – I am a woman with a sensory and physical impairment, but it is society’s attitudinal and physical barriers which is disabling, not the idiosyncrasies of my body.

In my work I am interested in creating new protagonists, with different narratives, and with different endings – and to challenge and expand the actual theatre languages at play in live performance.

Paul Darke and other Disability performance scholars such as Carrie Sandahl have written about the limited plot lines for the disabled character. Often, as seen again recently with the film version of JoJo Moyes ‘Me Before You’ – it is emphatically ‘better dead than disabled.’ In films and plays stereotypes rule – the blind wise ‘seer’, the evil and twisted mastermind, the hero who overcomes her impairments to ‘pass’ as non-disabled. From Tiny Tim to Richard III to Oedipus, we have been the personification of uselessness, or evil incarnate. These stories and characters are so prevalent, Paul Darke claims the audience believes they understand and know disabled experience, even though it is through a filter that isolates, individualises, medicalises or finally normalises the character. What the audience is experiencing is not the ‘truths’ of our lives, but the long cultural and linguistic practice of ascribing meaning to the atypical body. We are metaphors – something my actor characters in ‘peeling’ are fed up with, and wish to rebel against.

So as a playwright, I try to present different protagonists and different stories – often challenging contemporary representations of disability. The survivors of TBI (traumatic brain injury) in my 2008 play ‘The Almond and the Seahorse’ subvert notions of brain injury splashed across the media and questions who the real ‘victims’ are – if indeed there are any. Protagonists, their journeys and outcomes can be subverted and changed – offering more possibilities and rich, engrossing drama which avoids stereotypes.

I am also involved in ‘aesthetics of access’ – embedding audio description into the text of my script ‘peeling’ – working bilingually in visual and spoken/projected languages. As a hearing woman, I have been blessed with generous Deaf collaborators – Jenny Sealey, Ali Briggs, Denise Armstrong, Ruth Gould, Sophie Stone and especially BSL expert and visual language creative director Jean St Clair. Through our experimentation across spoken and visual languages, they have helped me develop into the playwright and dramaturg I am.

What these devices do, along with what I coined when AHRC creative fellow ‘Alternative Dramaturgies informed by a Deaf and disability perspective’, is make work more accessible, yes, but also challenge the ingrained assumptions and hierarchies in contemporary theatre and culture. When we change the bodies which perform, design, direct, create, and commission the work in our pleasure palaces, when we change the theatre languages used, the processes and practice are inherently changed, too. We can then truly be a place which celebrates all the possibilities of human variety, challenging notions of ‘difference’ and revoking the old stories and their predictable endings.

Kaite O’Reilly will be launching her book Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors, followed by a workshop exploring the aesthetics of access used in her award-winning work, at Tramway on Saturday 24 September 2016, 2pm – 5pm

Book tickets here

More information here

“Disability culture brings extra richness.” An interview with the British Council

Earlier this month, as part of the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre, I was interviewed for the British Council website. What follows is a video link and additional material, below.

 

http://bit.ly/2cqS87G

 

Can you tell us about your new book, Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors?

It’s a collection of five plays, from Peeling, which I did with Graeae Theatre Company in 2002, right the way through to Cosy, an Unlimited commission that happened earlier this year at Wales Millennium Centre.

Some of the plays in the collection are character-driven and quite realist, but others are post-dramatic and experimental. I’ve been using what I call ‘alternative dramaturgies’ formed by a Deaf and disability perspective.

The word ‘disabled’ can be really problematic. I didn’t want to use the word ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’, and I think ‘atypical’ is a far more interesting term. I decided to use this word because the collection contains plays, performance texts and post-dramatic texts – so they are not one particular thing, and it’s unusual to have a collection like that. Also, the plays are for actors who are not the usual representation of what an actor may be.

How did you come to be an artist? What was your path into the industry?

I started out as an actor working with Graeae Theatre Company in the late 1980s. I was very involved in the disability civil rights movement, campaigning for equal access to public buildings, education and opportunities. The people that I was meeting at that time who worked in disability and Deaf arts opened up all sorts of opportunities for me to be experimental, making work as a writer, dramaturge and maker rather than an actor. I also just fell in love with the use of sign language.

So I became more and more interested in writing and working dramaturgically – and sometimes as a director – working with visual language. Around the same time I was very fortunate to win a couple of major playwriting awards in the so-called mainstream. So I had these two tracks going along in parallel, and the irony was that people in either culture, whether it be the mainstream or disability culture, weren’t really aware of what I was doing in the other track. This is why in recent years I’ve been trying to bring those two together, and the book is partly a result of that.

How do you think the UK and the wider international creative industries are doing in terms of creating opportunities for disabled artists and disabled-led work?

I think there is a huge amount that needs to be done. I am incredibly disappointed at how little has changed. There are lots of organisations that are trying to bring more diversity as a whole, and there are lots of incredible initiatives, but it’s taking much longer than I’d ever hoped. In 1987, I was lying down in front of a bus on a demo, because we wanted just to be able to have accessible transport. That’s beginning to happen now. I feel that I still need to be lying down in the front of the doors of the theatres and buildings that, whilst well-meaning, are still not actually allowing the breadth and variety of artists to make work and be part of that culture.

There are special initiatives, but those special initiatives for disabled playwrights or disabled practitioners, so far in my experience, don’t really lead to what they should, which is proper jobs and proper commissions.

And yet, we are doing far better than so many other places in the world. So I may be complaining, but I’m also really grateful that we have examples and models that we can share with our collaborators internationally. I’m very excited by that, and that heartens me and encourages me. But I still think we really could do better, and how we will do better is by having more disabled and Deaf cultural leaders.

How do you think these opportunities could be made more available, to allow artistic leadership among disabled artists?

I think there’s a big issue here about whether we want to have diversity that is in actual physical bodies or whether we want diversity culturally. If you have a woman making work, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be feminist theatre that she’s making. Just because you have someone who might be disabled making work, it doesn’t mean it’s disability culture. Disability culture encourages us to question normalcy, to question the very narrow, confined representation we usually have of what it is to be human. That, for me, would be the real political shift.

What do disability arts festivals like Unlimited offer audiences and artists?

What would be fantastic is to make sure that we have some of the innovations and the aesthetics of access used widely in the so-called mainstream. I’ve been trying to bring the same kind of innovative work with the same kind of content that I would have been doing in disability arts and cultural context to a mainstream platform. Creatively, it’s incredibly exciting to have more diverse theatre languages in a piece of work. I want us to have more theatre languages, I want us to be more accessible. I don’t want it to be an add-on. I want the sign language, I want the audio description, I want the projections to be integrated and used creatively as something for the audience as a whole, regardless of impairment.

But I also want disability arts and cultural festivals in their own right to continue. They provide a place where people can cut their teeth and can be mentored and developed. Festivals like Unlimited enable us to take risks and to fail – and to succeed – and to take the successes on to reach a wider audience.

Having our disability festivals also just gives more diversity. I really like going to a very specific festival because it also allows those of us that have been doing that for 20 or 30 years to see what’s new, to catch up with the old comrades and colleagues, and also just to keep pushing, questioning, checking, “Are we still needed? Do we need to actually still be out there, demonstrating? Or are we now being completely included in the mainstream?” And I think, at the moment, we’re not being included in the mainstream.

What advice would you give to young and emerging disabled artists who are at the beginning of their careers?

I think the advice that I would give to emerging artists of whatever discipline – and whether they’re disabled or Deaf or hearing and non-disabled – is always the same. We need resilience. We have to take risks. There’s new blood coming through, and they need to shake things up a bit. They have to find their own way of doing things. Find the allies who are trying to bring about change. I would say please remain curious, please remain defiant and questioning and passionate, and enjoy it. It has to be enjoyable, because otherwise, why are we doing it? Know who your forbearers were, acknowledge your influences, but chop it up, break it up, smash it up, make it your own.

Kaite O’Reilly was speaking to Jane Fletcher, Arts Content Editor at the British Council