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.
How we live and how we die has never been more topical or relevant to our ageing society that likes to pretend we’re immortal and forever young. It’s universal, as well as our last taboo – a fascinating and compelling subject.
This is why I’m delighted that I’ve been commissioned to write Cosy, a play that explores our obsessions with ageing, self-ownership, and end of life scenarios in the company of a dysfunctional family on the verge of killing one another, if not themselves.
Cosy is a commission from Unlimited, which describes itself as ‘a scheme for arts by disabled artists, delivered by Shape and Artsadmin, funded by Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, Creative Scotland and Spirit of 2012 to create high quality, extraordinary art by disabled artists and get that work seen by diverse audiences.’
I feel immensely honoured to receive this commission, especially as it is the sole Unlimited Commission for Wales. It will enable me to further develop the work-in-progress script then bring it to production, directed by Phillip Zarrilli and produced by Michael Salmon. Cosy will premiere in Wales in 2016 before going on tour and appearing at Unlimited festivals at the South Bank in London and Glasgow’s Tramway in September 2016.
I’ll be working with an inclusive company of six disabled and non-disabled female performers on a darkly humorous character-led play, exploring the means by which we shuffle off this mortal coil.
I want to handle this often feared topic with humorous irreverence, as well as sobriety and respect. What I love about humans is our ability to live joyfully and in the moment, despite the knowledge our time is finite and we will all die one day. How these two opposing perspectives co-exist will be fascinating to explore theatrically – and the deceptions, avoidances, contradictions and confrontations within a family with distinct and different ethical, religious, and political perspectives.
As someone who identifies as disabled, I have long been part of a vibrant community known for its joie de vivre and gallows humour – created, perhaps, from our knowledge of the fragility and resilience of the human body. I want to bring some of the quality of this insight and perspective to the script, in a production I hope will be funny, quirky, honest, daring, and fully engaging emotionally and intellectually.
It means a lot to have this opportunity, and it’s a real privilege to be amongst the gallery of outstanding Deaf and disabled commissioned artists in this round. To find out more about the other work commissioned, please go to: www.weareunlimited.org.uk/commissions/
This blog was reproduced with kind permission from Kaite O'Reilly. Please click on this link to visit the 'Cosy' blog.
We all have to die. My next play 'Cosy' is a darkly comedic look at the joys and humiliations of ageing and how we shuffle off this mortal coil. The rising tensions between three generations of a dysfunctional family ask us to consider what choices we really have in a world obsessed with eternal youth, and whether we truly own ourselves.
I recently befuddled a friend with the title ‘Cosy’. ‘But it’s about growing up, and ageing, and rubbish families and death!’ she exclaimed, ‘That’s hardly cosy material!’ ‘Exactly,’ I said.
This conversation made me reflect on the names we give things and the relationship we may have with titles. With plays, I either struggle and need suggestions and prompting, or I know straight away. I like titles of plays that hint at what I might experience if I attended a production – what’s been called ‘the promise’ is often there in the name.
I also like contradictions, or irony, or something that makes me pause and wonder about the content in an almost metaphysical sense. Beckett’s ‘All That Fall’ or ‘Rockaby’ lingered long after experiencing the text and production.
This then brought me back to a post I’d written about naming characters in our fiction or plays, and why they are important: Shakespeare may have claimed a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but think of the added information that seeps through from knowing the character is called St John or Jerzey; Jonah or Jezebel; Shiraz or Shona, Sankaran or Steve. A sense of cultural heritage, class, social aspiration and period can be assumed through personal monikers.
Names are signifiers and they carry significance; more often than not they are a tip to the audience. It is not by chance that Ben Johnson’s protagonist in his Jacobean satire of lust and greed is called Volpone – Italian for ‘sly fox’.
Names can allude to character and disposition in an efficient, almost effortless way. Traditionally protagonists or heroes have big, heroic-sounding names – Lysander and Titania, Hermione and Ulysses. There is an underlying assumption of what a tragic or inspirational protagonist should be called – an assumption subverted to comedy effect by Monty Python in The Life of Brian.
Giving a character a name can be a significant moment for the writer in the process of making. It is perhaps when the fragmented flitting thoughts start finding shape in human form. When I’ve worked with writers on emerging scripts, some arrive with a name of a character as a starting point, and work outwards from there, guided by a sense of the individual’s personal traits, politics, guiding principles, almost as if they exist in reality and the writer personally knows them. Others, like me, may not have a name until well into the process.
I sometimes have letters or numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4 – chosen simply by the order in which these emerging figures arrived on the page. When I find these numeric names limiting and annoying, snagging on my eye each time I read over the page, I know I have moved onto the next phase of development.
Naming characters always come swiftly. If I stumble between options, or dither, going eeny-meeny-miney-mo, I realise I don’t know enough yet about the character, or s/he is not yet sufficiently drawn to merit a title.
I can truthfully say I have never regretted a name I’ve given to a character, but that act of choosing has a galvanising effect on the way I engage with the character on the page, impacting on the words I put in her mouth, or the actions I give him.
I’m not sentimental about my work, so I never see them as my creatures or (god forbid) some kind of golem offspring – they are vehicles for my thoughts, or ideas I want to explore – but calling something brings it forth into being.
Name it, and it is.
British Sign Language (BSL) creative consultant and performer Jean St Clair has been a close friend and collaborator for a dozen years. She has worked with me on many productions – advising on translation/ reinvention from spoken/written language into visual language with National Theatre Wales (‘In Water I’m Weightless’, 2012), Graeae (‘peeling’ 2002) and now for a second time with Forest Forge Theatre company (‘peeling’ 2011, ‘Woman of Flowers’ 2014). We have also collaborated on our own production with Jeni Draper as The Fingersmths Ltd in 2006.
I have been working again recently with Jean on Woman of Flowers, my latest script and a reinvention of the Bloudewydd myth from The Mabinogion for Forest Forge Theatre Company. We are in the final stages of rehearsals before a national tour 18 Sept – 1st Nov, and of course Jean has been involved, as central to the production in aesthetic and concept are sections of theatricalised sign and visual language.
I’ve written academically about our collaborative process in translation from written English to visual as Fellow of the International research Centre ‘Interweaving Performance Cultures’, Freie Universitat, Berlin. It is endlessly fascinating for me, how concepts and ideas I have shaped in printed words and English become visual and are moulded into something else. There has also been increasing interest in this process, and I’m delighted Jean took some time in the midst of rehearsals to answer some basic questions I asked her about her work and this alchemic transformation:
I trained with British Theatre of the Deaf, run by Pat Keysell. She was trained in Mime so the language we conveyed was called Sign Mime. A combination of mime and stylised signs. It was not the everyday language deaf people were using. It was pretty much the same when I worked with National Theatre of the Deaf in USA where the ASL (American Sign Language) on stage was delivered in a poetic style.
When I did ‘Hearing’ at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, a play with all hearing cast, the language I used was the natural language of BSL. It was the same when I did Children of a Lesser God (nb. Jean toured internationally and to London’s West End in this groundbreaking play).
When fingersmiths was set up by Kaite O’Reilly, Jeni Draper and myself, we were looking into “Equality in both languages, English and BSL”. It was where we experimented with a variety of styles such as where Jeni would speak English and I would sign BSL but independently of each other as opposed to have Jeni interpreting for me. One style was Visual Vernacular (V.V.) which was not based on English. It came from the concept of looking at the world in a visual way and to capture the images by using facial expressions, hand movements and body language without using either English or BSL. There are some iconic signs such as plane, bird and baby which we could incorporate in V.V.
Can you explain the difference between eg sign interpreted performances, theatricalised BSL, sign performance and visual language?
Sign interpreted performances is where a Sign Language interpreter standing at the side of the stage signs what is being spoken on stage or it could be integrated in the performances. Theatricalised BSL is based on BSL but taking on the visuality and expanding on it. Visual Vernacular is independent of English and BSL, apart from using iconic BSL signs.
If you look up the dictionary for ‘Vernacular’, it will come up with ‘A vernacular or vernacular language is the native language or native dialect of a specific population, especially as distinguished from a literary, national or standard language, or a lingua franca used in the region or state inhabited by that population.’ Visual Vernacular can be used world wide, it does not matter which sign language you use, BSL, ASL, or Japan Sign Language, the V.V. is invariably similar due to the way it is presented visually.
When you are working with English text, what is your process when transforming that into a) BSL and then b) visual language?
Both are slightly different. But the basic rule is to understand the text, the meaning, and also to explore whether there is an underlying meaning ‘between the lines’ or whether it is presented in an ambiguous way, then the BSL would need to reflect this. There is no point in signing word for word otherwise the meaning will be lost. For example if one say, ‘you bring sunshine to my life’. We don’t actually use the sign for ‘sunshine’ in that context but to find the interpretation in a sense that we bring sunshine in that person’s life by finding different signs to match the meaning.
With visual language, the process is similar but we look for the visuality and aim to expand the BSL into a highly stylised form. It helps to find pictures and photos within that text to find shape and form
When you are devising yourself – maybe using V.V. can you describe your process?
As V.V. is not ‘language-based’, the process is much more free. You look at the world within and find iconic BSL signs, gestures, facial expressions and movement to match the context. For example if I am to describe walking along the high road, I would describe the buildings, people walking past and to add human behaviour, little things that people may not notice but it is there. One way to use a comparison to V.V. is to watch cartoons, the set up is similar. Wide, medium and close up shots of particular objects or a bird. For the close up, I would describe or act like a bird with facial expression, with the medium close up, I would use my arms to move like wings and for the wide shot, I would use my hand to show the bird flying away into nothingness.
Dates and venues for ‘Woman of Flowers’ can be found at: http://www.forestforge.co.uk/shows/woman-of-flowers
A taster of Sophie Stone signing the opening speech early in the rehearsal process can be viewed at:
Kaite O'Reilly's blog has been reposted with kind permission of the writer.
“Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing.”
We are working on my performance text ‘The 9 fridas’ and dealing constantly with Frida Kahlo’s defiance in the face of pain and adversity. One reason why I chose to make this text was a desire to reclaim Kahlo as a disability icon and inspiration, rather than the ‘tragic but brave’ mainstream representations of her in more recent years. Before we coined ‘crip culture’ she was living it… I adore her for her refusal to be constrained by what could be viewed at the time as the limitations of her gender and impairment – for the fact she created extraordinary art the likes of which had not been seen before – for her laughter, her anger, her attitude in her paintings – what Andre Breton called ‘the pretty ribbon tied around the bomb.’
“My painting carries with it the message of pain.”
Frida Kahlo journals.
As someone who also experiences chronic pain, I am drawn to her paintings and the depictions of pain. Sometimes her work dwells, perhaps even relishes, her experience of pain – her face on a wounded deer, the tears and hammered-in nails of The Broken Column, both echoing the martyrdom of St Sebastian. It is something I have addressed in the production of ‘The Fridas’ – this paradox between her laughing at tragedy (as Kahlo acknowledges in the top quotation), and presenting her broken body as tragic.
As a Mexican, death would have been a constant companion and not taboo, nor as feared as it is in so many other cultures. In the script I use references to the ancient Mayan belief system which Kahlo quoted in diaries and letters: the sense all has spirit – even the rocks and cacti and hummingbirds – and that death is a natural state we return to after living. As someone who escaped death many times in her life through accident and disease, and who survived an excessive amount of serious operations, ‘le pelona’ – the bald one/Death – ‘dances around my bed at night.’ This is another aspect which I feel has much resonance for disabled people – the body interfered with, the reality of our corporeal state, the closeness of mortality and the joie de vivre that can arise from this awareness.
Our designer Yy Lim and costume designer YS Lee are having the time of their lives working on this Mobius Strip production for the Taipei art festival. In my previous post I reproduced some of the looks YS has created for our figures who are and are not Kahlo, and props appear daily in the rehearsal room, creating delight or pathos.
This extraordinary corset created by YS, exactly reproducing one of Kahlo’s plaster corsets silenced us this week.
To love so fully, to create such masterly art work despite constant pain and managing her impairments, and to truly live until the moment she died… that’s why I call Frida Kahlo a disability icon.
Kaite O'Reilly's blog has been reposted with kind permission of the writer.
Chevela Vargas, seated taiquiquan, and stinky tofu: second week rehearsals of The 9 Fridas in Taipei
Chevela Vargas haunts me. Her smoky, broken voice is the soundtrack to my dreams and the first thing I become conscious of when I wake.
The raspy passion of her songs play in my head all day and then loop and replay in my mind all night. Torch singer, lesbian icon, rumoured lover of Frida Kahlo, her voice is part of the audio for the Taiwanese production of my script ‘The 9 Fridas’.
The photo of her sexy and supine, her hand casually resting on the breast of a laughing Frida Kahlo is circulating our company like contraband.
We are in the second week of rehearsals with Mobius Strip Theatre Company, working on my performance text for the Taipei art festival. Inspired by the disabled Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, we are an integrated company of disabled and non-disabled practitioners, joyfully collaborating and sharing new skills.
Our director Phillip Zarrilli uses Asian martial arts in the training for his psychophysical approach to actor-training and it has been fascinating observing one of our actors, Chih-Chung Cheng, adapt kalaripayyattu and taiquiquan. Phillip is always very keen we adapt the martial art to the foibles and idiosyncrasies of our individual bodies, and was intrigued to encounter his long-term practice of taiquiquan in a new position – seated on the rehearsal floor, with Chung.
Taipei is lively, friendly, and so much fun. I was invited by the British Council and Taipei art festival to give a writing workshop and a public lecture: ‘Representations of Impairment in the Western Theatrical Canon’. This has been an area of my research for some time, developed partly during my on-going fellowship at Freie Universitat’s International Research Centre: Interweaving Performance Cultures.
In the dinner hour between the events I and my spontaneous girl gang – a group of fabulous creative Taiwanese women – headed for stinky tofu at a street cafe and the auspicious temple for match-making nearby.
The script is becoming more familiar to the actors, who are interrogating the content, asking questions, seeking clarity. It’s a hugely exciting time as the text begins to breathe and take shape. As a playwright, I am constantly editing and tightening the text as the different scenes start coming into focus.
What may work on the page can trip, divert, or slow when put ‘up’ – the dynamics of individual moments, as well as sequences and the flow of the whole piece needs to be taken into consideration. Tempo-rhythm, dynamic and flow is of great importance to me, especially at this point in the process.
Makeshift props are beginning to appear in the rehearsal room and costume designer YS Lee is making some fabulous reproduction accessories from Kahlo’s paintings.
One is his version of the necklace of a dead hummingbird from Kahlo’s self-portrait ‘A Necklace of Thorns’, used to great effect in the publicity for the production.
I can’t wait to see the costumes, including a leather corset he is making, based on one Frida Kahlo wore.
Kaite O'Reilly's blog has been reposted with kind permission of the writer.
We are in the first days of rehearsals with Mobius Strip Theatre Company in Taipei, Taiwan.
‘The 9 Fridas’ is a performance text with multiple protagonists who are and yet are not the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. In the script I’ve taken moments from her extraordinary life and reframed and reinvented them, in contemporary contexts. Using cross-gender, cross-impairment casting, we are creating a mosaic of voices and experiences which, when combined, suggest the whole.
The self-portraits of Frida Kahlo are naturally playing a large part of the visual ensemble work. From the first day of rehearsal director Phillip Zarrilli gets the actors to embody and inhabit some of her paintings. Although they are taking on – with precision – the physical positions of the portraits, they are not ‘being’ Frida – they are creating their own version, working from behind the eyes.
Each morning begins with an hour of pre-performative psychophysical training led by Phillip, to prepare and awaken the bodymind through Asian martial/meditation arts – Chinese taiquiquan, Indian yoga, and the martial art from Kerala, kalarippayattu. Apart from making us all more flexible and fit, this warm-up is building an ensemble dynamic, and heightening the actors’ awareness of each other in the space.
For me as the playwright, this time is one of testing the script, fielding questions, and making revisions. I’ve decided to rewrite one of the scenes representing Frida Kahlo’s political activity so it has even more resonance for the contemporary Taiwanese audience.
Frida Kahlo was immensely political – and was last seen in public participating in a demonstration only days (or hours, according to some sources) before her death. We have been working with this last photograph of her out in the rain in her wheelchair, dark head wrapped in a shawl, a placard with Picasso’s Dove of Peace in one hand, the other fist raised in a defiant salute.
On March 18th 2014, hundreds of students occupied the “Legislative Yuan”, Taiwan’s parliament, to protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. Their action was in protest against perceived undemocratic procedures pushing through this trade agreement between China and Taiwan without fully informing the Taiwanese people what it would entail.
Many feared this would make Taiwan too dependant on China economically, isolating Taiwan from other allies, and therefore vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing. This quickly spread across the city, and soon thousands of citizens gathered on the streets outside the parliament, to support the students inside.
On March 30th, twelve days into their occupation, students organized a demonstration that saw more than 500,000 Taiwanese citizens taking to the streets in support of their non-violent cause. The support was across Taiwan and internationally, with demonstrations occurring in many cities across the world. This became known as The Sunflower Movement – a sign of hope.
With this support, the government had to listen and respond and the action ended officially on April 10th.
I had been following the protest from the UK, aided by translations of news reports and a very active social media, provided by Betty, the translator of the play (Yi-Chun Chen). When I arrived in Taipei last week, I looked for people to interview who had been involved in the occupation – and didn’t have to look very far. In fact, I didn’t have to leave the rehearsal room.
Cast members as well as our excellent stage management Knife Liao and Kuo Yi Chi had been deeply involved. This week’s lunch hours have been spent with them and Po-Ting Chen telling me their experiences and how significant the protest has been in opening up discussions and politicising the younger generation. Knife Liao and Kuo Yi Chin have also shared political stickers and the photographs they took inside the Legislative Yuan during the occupation.
This production doesn’t allow me to go into the protest with any real or meaningful depth – to do so would undermine the main story we are telling – but our conversations about democracy, correct political procedures and Taiwan’s independence have been thought-provoking.
I doubt that I will be able to do justice to the protest and the actions of my company members – but I hope the introduction of resonant phrases and references may bring an additional layer of meaning to our Taipei audience.
There is sun and great heat and tropical plants and Mandarin in the air alongside the song of crickets. There are no sheep, or the blessing of Welsh rain – although I’ve been told to expect a typhoon or two in the next six weeks. In my fridge I have fresh lychee, longan (‘dragons’ eyes’), and green tea with grapefruit.
There are smiles everywhere. As Phillip Zarrilli put it last night after we were showered with greetings coming out of the MRT (underground): ‘In Taipei even the drunks are friendly.’
We are given a celebrity’s welcome by the Taipei International Art Festival, Mobius Strip Theatre company and members of the cast who have worked with Phillip before.
We are then whisked to the studio where Phillip is presented with the Mandarin translation of his award-winning ‘Psychophysical Acting: An Intercultural Approach after Stanislavski’, translated by Taiwanese actors and former students Longlong (Chien-Lang Lin) and Ying-ni Ma. The book will be launched at the festival alongside Phillip’s production of my performance text The 9 Fridas.
On our first day Phillip begins an intensive workshop in his approach to psychophysical acting using Asian martial arts with a mixture of students and professional actors including the cast of The 9 Fridas. Last night we saw the Well Spring theatre, where we will perform, and met with the company and design team to discuss the set and costumes.
After all our skype interventions – conversations and even the first reading of the play in Mandarin – it’s great to finally meet Alex Cheung and Faye Leong, co-artistic directors of Mobius Strip Theatre Company in person. We’re all excited to be finally together, training together and beginning this intensive creative process together.
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.
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.
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
Kaite O'Reilly reports on the final week of rehearsals for 'In Water I’m Weightless' with National Theatre Wales
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’).
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 until 27 July as ‘listen again’ on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01kvdls
Lyn Garder has reviewed the production on show in The Guardian.
In Water I’m Weightless is at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, from July 26 to August 4. There will be a post-show discussion on August 2. The box office number is 029 2063 6464
Kaite O’Reilly on the Cultural Olympiad. An extract from ‘Rich Text’ NWR 96:
It’s 1995 and I’m lying in front of the wheels of a bus in Wood Street, Cardiff. The bus is ticking over, the driver occasionally revving the engine to try and scare me and so dislodge my body from beneath his bumper. As he does so, a thrilling reverberation is sent through the fat rubber of the wheel and into my waist.
I am exhilarated and equally terrified. I haven’t been in an accident; I’m participating in a demonstration by the disability rights movement’s Direct Action Network, insisting ‘public transport’ is indeed public and accessible to all. DAN have brought the centre of Cardiff to a standstill, and other disabled activists have halted the trains at Cardiff Central. My contribution to the protest is over swiftly. Within seconds I’m yanked out by my feet.
I’ve always liked my politics with adrenaline.
I’ve always liked my writing infused with politics – but delicately so.
My involvement with the disability civil rights movement and culture has impacted on the content, form, and aesthetic of my creative work; it has helped shape me into the writer I am.
To read the full article you can buy the summer 2012 issue iof New Welsh Review at http://www.newwelshreview.com/shop.php
When NWR editor Gwen Davies asked me to write an article for the Summer issue of the journal, reflecting on the Cultural Olympiad and my Unlimited commission In Water I’m Weightless, I was happy to oblige.
The Unlimited commissions have allowed me to develop a complex piece of work over a considerable period of time, and will culminate in a performance by Deaf and disabled actors, on a national platform, creating a significant political and cultural precedent. John McGrath of National Theatre Wales will direct the montage of my text, Nigel Charnock’s movement/choreography, and media artist Paul Clay’s video/design.
The article appears in the section ‘Rich Text’, which focuses on process and the technical aspects of writing. It was great to be able to reflect on the relationship between my political life and how those beliefs and actions may impact on cultural expression – how lying down in front of a bus seventeen years ago may have influenced not just the content and form of what I write, but how I perceive myself as a writer at work in the world.
Unfortunately I can’t reproduce more than the excerpt, above, and in a bid to give support and solidarity to what is increasingly an endangered species – the literary magazine – I’d like to give a brief overview of what I feel is a diverse and thought-provoking edition of New Welsh Review:
The opening line of John Harrison’s article on St Kilda grabbed me and plunged me in: ‘ I forget about the face of the young woman in the photo as the massive bird attacks my face’ he begins – and I couldn’t stop reading until his final punctuation mark. The first of a series on ‘Islands on the Edge’, it is evocative, immersive writing.
From out-lying islands to the US, Egypt, and Argentina, there is an international flavour to the issue, with an article by Matthew David Scott on Occupy USA, Grahame Davies’s imaginary visit to Cairo’s St David’s Building, a former department store run by the Davies Bryan family, decorated with Iolo Morganwg’s druidic ‘secret sign’, whilst Sarah Howe explores the work of American poets Elyse Fenton, Dora Malech, and Darcie Dennigan. Richard Gwyn reviews Traveller of the Century, an epic novel by Argentine Andrés Neuman, one of the Bogotá39 list of promising young Latin American writers. Some of TS Eliot prizewinner Philip Gross’s poetry is reproduced, alongside the essential review section.
Translations include a Chinese poem by Xiao Kaiyu, adapted by Pascale Petit, and Tony Bianchi’s story, Eric ’n’ Ernie, translated from the original Welsh by the author. Further information on the edition, plus the new look blog can be found at www.newwelshreview.com
Literary journals and reviews are important to our cultural landscape.They are often our champions as well as our critics, providing a platform for the emerging, and established writer. I always think they are worth supporting – we need to be the readers as well as the writers.
For information on In Water I’m Weightless, please go to: http://nationaltheatrewales.org/whatson/performance/ntw20
We are approaching the end of the run of LeanerFasterStronger at Sheffield Crucible, and have had a fantastic response to the work in the regional press, on twitter, and via the Guardian and Sheffield theatres’ website. This is the start of a period of reflection for me – what lessons might be learnt? How much of my initial ambitions and intentions have I achieved?
When I was approached by Chol Theatre with this commission, I had no interest in sport outside watching Wales vs Ireland in international rugby matches, and no experience of participating other than representing Birmingham in the high jump as an over-excitable twelve year old. I’m a collaborator, not a competitor, so I wanted to understand this drive to succeed – highlighted by the strap line: ‘How far would you go to be the best?’ This was particularly important in relationship to commerce, sponsorship, and big business – the commercialisation of sport and the commodification of our athletes.
Apart from individual athlete characters and their pressures and challenges, I wanted to explore the bioethical issues around human enhancement, sports science, bio- and genetic engineering.
The internet has broadened the field of interaction, commentary and criticism, encouraging dialogue and discussion. Having access to members of the audience’s thoughts and reactions via chats in the bar after the show, to their online comments, can be tremendously useful to a dramatist. It allows a panoply of responses, from the professional critic to the amateur enthusiast, from fellow playwrights and theatre makers to the novice or occasional theatre-goer, perspectives from all walks of life, including sports engineers and elite athletes, the subject and focus of much of the script.
The timing of the production has been pertinent – many have commented on how some of the issues in the production will throw a long shadow across the upcoming Games:
‘…it’s a show bound up with the impending Olympics and the coverage surrounding that,’
The poet Andrew McMillan says on the Sheffield Theatres website:
‘…we’re all invited to be part of the Olympics through all mediums, radio, film, tv, even adverts now, the immersive nature of the piece, casting the audience as delegates watching conversations unfold, to me just simply continued this invitatiom to the Olympics, but examined sides to sport which might not readily be discussed. We debated some of the issues on the train ride home, and that is all an piece of theatre can really hope to achieve…’
‘As the Olympic torch moves around the country, I’ll be thinking and talking about LeanerFasterStronger’
And here we are at the end of week 2 of rehearsals for the Sheffield Theatres/Chol Theatre co-production of the world premiere of LeanerFasterStronger by Kaite O’Reilly. Time has flown by in the rehearsal room, but so much has been achieved – including a rough stagger run on day 9.
The project has been an extraordinary two-year journey of collaborative research and discovery – and my aim now as director is to condense and continue this journey in rehearsals whilst also doing everything we can to realise a bold and vibrant staging of this remarkable new piece of writing, owned by all the artists involved. I want our Sheffield audiences to be thrilled, provoked and caught up in the rapid-fire sweep of the play’s arguments.
Having Kaite in rehearsals for the first two weeks has proved invaluable in terms of tackling nitty-gritty textual and contextual questions to help me, the cast and our designers achieve a shared understanding of the many worlds of the play. It has also been helpful for me to share physical and vocal thoughts on the floor with Kaite so that she can see the choices we are making and – crucially for a first staging – be part of those choices.
One of the reasons I love directing new work is the joy of having the writer in the rehearsal room – that sense of taking collective creative steps into the unknown for the first time. It is both thrilling and daunting, but as director I place my trust in a wonderfully talented team who I know will get us to our destination.
Alongside interrogation of text, character, setting, emotion and logic, we are also constantly playing with the physical language of the play in response to Shanaz Gulzar’s intimate in-the-round design of video projections that interact with building blocks that can be constructed in various permutations – rather like an oversized child’s play set. I’m keen that we don’t try to literally show sporting sequences on stage. We are not trained, expert sportspeople, but rather a bunch of artists interpreting the essence of the athletes for our audiences.
I also feel that a naturalistic physical language would not serve the post-dramatic nature of Kaite’s writing. So we have been playing with various conventions based on broken down scores, shared by all of the performers and interacting with the geometric shapes created by the dispersed set blocks. I have also been playing with the notion that an athlete is still when speaking to us whilst the movement happens elsewhere. This produces the sensation of the athlete being the external observer of him or herself. This serves the text well and helps the audience’s understanding of the thought processes of the athletes we encounter in the play.
We have a wonderful, intelligent and creative team of four actors – each brings generosity, enquiry and complementary skills to the process. My job is to get the cast to a place of embodying the same physical language whilst also celebrating their individuality. With this in mind, and based on the discoveries from rehearsals, our Movement Adviser Lucy Cullingford is charged with empowering the company with a choreographic language that we all understand and can use at various points on the play.
One of my driving forces for making theatre is how we can open up and make opportunities of excellence for others – it flows through all of my work, whether making a large-scale production with an eighty-strong cast of 12-85 year olds for Sheffield People’s Theatre, enabling a student company to tour work to international festivals, or opening up Sheffield Theatres’ spaces to local musicians, comedians, dancers and cabaret artists through the Sheffield Sizzler. It doesn’t matter to me what the scale, level or form of project is, we must find ways of opening up our processes and providing opportunities for others to learn, develop and show their own creative skills.
With this in mind, from the outset LeanerFasterStronger has been designed to carry a range of pedagogical opportunities, including multi-media workshops for local schools led by Chol Theatre, writing workshops and a facilitated play-reading with Kaite and post-show discussion with the company. We are also providing opportunities for members of Sheffield People’s Theatre to work with our cast and become involved in elements of performance as ‘supernumeraries’ (a new term for me). In my role as Sheffield Theatres’ Creative Producer I have been curating a season of workshop opportunities for students reading Theatre Studies at the University of Sheffield School of English. And so I arranged that their final workshop would interface with our rehearsal process.
This is, to my knowledge, unusual in mainstream British theatre practice. The rehearsal room is generally held up as the holiest of holies, not to be disturbed on any account and only accessible to those people most closely involved with the process. And yet we strive (or ought to strive in the publicly funded sector) to provide access to most aspects of theatre-making these days. So why not also the core of making theatre – the working rehearsal room? In the case of LeanerFasterStronger, I not only wanted to provide a workshop based on our process for the students, I wanted to lead a workshop that interfaced with an active actual rehearsal whereby the students would be making discoveries with the cast for the first time.
So it was today that our fabulous company of Morven Macbeth, Christopher Simpson, Ben Addis and Kathryn Dimery were joined temporarily by an extended ‘cast’ comprised of first, second and third year students Amy, Matt, Sarah, Esie, Jade, Naomi and Natasha. Together we were taken through a journey of ‘Viewpointing’ by Lucy, whereby we developed an improvised but highly detailed approach to interacting with the space, set and gestures related to the play. Combined with narrative, character and scenario parameters I set, we jointly developed a rich palette of physical choices that were full of pathos, optimism, moments lived, savoured and lost. The students approached Lucy and my collaborative approach to making work with open minds, focus and great humanity. Until this point our cast had worked as a team of four. Now they were fully able to be observer/participants and step back to observe the bigger physical picture. This was highly empowering and encouraging for the actors – who could see properly for the first time how the physicality of the play would work. Not only that, but the students were excited by the prospect that their ideas would feed into our process – and all of them were keen to come and see the show by close of play.
This got me thinking: why shouldn’t we open up all our rehearsal processes to local students? There cannot be a single creative process from which an aspect cannot be extracted to draw a line of genuine enquiry that can then be explored with students and cast together. Do it – as we did – in week 2. Enough time for the cast to have bonded and know the world of the play, but not too late for things to be set, and there still to be big questions to explore. And not at the delicate, later, highly focused and sometimes high-stakes stages of rehearsal.
Go on theatre directors – particularly those of you in the subsidised sector – plan for it in your schedules. And if facilitating workshops isn’t your forte, talk to your assistant director (if you have one) or a member of the venue’s creative development team. Do it now. What’s your excuse? If in doubt, here’s an extract from an email I received whilst writing this blog from a first year student who took part in our rehearsal:
“I want to say a big thank you to you and your team for letting us step into rehearsals for the day. How refreshing it was to try something different in such a friendly and warm environment! Getting to do work with professionals was also a tad mind blowing! I found the work you were doing really different to all the training I’ve done in the past.”
LeanerFasterStronger runs at Sheffield Theatres: Wed 23 May – Sat 2 June http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/event/leanerfasterstronger-12/
My friend and mentee the playwright Rosaleen McDonagh sent me this link to her article in this month's Irish Theatre Magazine, which I have put on my blog. She talks about "cripping-up" and quotes me, giving some insight into the Irish context, which I think is fascinating (especially as I edited Face On: Disability Arts in Ireland and Beyond' - featuring Rosaleen - some years ago).
Rosaleen McDonagh discusses her new play 'Mainstream' and the challenges of casting and performance: should a disabled writer hold their work back in the belief that there may be some emerging disabled performers who someday will bring their work to the stage?
‘In Peeling I wanted to create women who were witty, sexy, complex human beings who made difficult decisions about their fertility and potential offspring; women whose lives didn’t necessarily differ so much from non-disabled, hearing women’s lives.’ Kaite O’Reilly, playwright.
Peeling was written by a woman who identifies as disabled. Directed by Jenny Sealey, a deaf woman, and performed by three female actors, two disabled and one deaf. Being exposed to Kaite’s work, the politics of identity and representation became much more vivid and important. Such exposure brings with it an emotional resonance that says this is theatre at its best. Not just for someone like me who can identify with all the parts of the three actors but, as O’Reilly says, it was the universality of the women’s lives that made it work. When using 'cripping up', it’s part of a cultural and political mode of language that encompasses self determination. Again O’Reilly said, ‘Cripping up is the twenty first century’s way of blacking up’.
The term ‘cripping up’ in Ireland is not used because it’s understood as being insulting to 'trained' actors. The way in which white men once painted themselves black to get a gig is now understood as being racist, exploitative, voyeuristic and dangerous. For me ‘cripping up’ carries similar dangers. In the disability artistic community, the joke says, if an able-bodied actor wants an award and a director wants lots of accolades, be it in theatre or film, cripping up is the easiest, most unethical way of doing it. Others say ethics in any art form blocks creativity. Either way, whether it’s local, national or indeed even international, the infrastructure for artists with disabilities in any discipline is always an afterthought, an appendix, sometimes we’re told appendix take up too much time and room—they’re not needed. The explanation of the plot is evident in the performance regardless of who or what body that performance comes from, they tell us.
'Mainstream', my new piece explores a love affair disintegrating while people are grappling with identity, age, sexuality, institutionalisation memory, friendship and fear. All the characters from 'Mainstream' have significant impairments. Their impairments are part of how the piece is presented. Their journey as characters is very much tied up with their disability identity. When writing the play 'Mainstream', my politics were compromised due to the standard theatre praxis here in Ireland. What’s ideal is unfortunately limited by what’s possible at the present moment.
Opportunities for training and development in theatre for disabled performers and actors are not de rigueur. This creates a difficulty in getting disabled Irish actors that can play these parts. More affirmative action policies please. The Arts Council and the Arts Disability Forum do have a specific bursary for disabled artists which is €5,000. Arts & Disability Ireland do provide supports to organisations to make their venue and services more accessible to people with disabilities. Access in the form of audio description and touch is also part of ADI’s remit. There are venues, such as the Project Arts Centre who deliver and provide good practice at all levels of their organisation. The Dublin Theatre Festival 2011, when supporting site-specific work, ensured that access to most of the venues was possible, in particular Mark O’Halloran’s Trade in a Dublin bedsit. The Festival ensured that this work was open to all audiences regardless of the venue type. For me, the ultimate sanction and marker of good access would be that companies are not funded by the Arts Council if their work is not accessible to all the public. That public includes people with disabilities. We’re an audience too.
An example of a positive affirmative action was Turning Point in 2010, an opportunity for artists with disabilities to develop a short play. This project, which was supported by ADI and VSA, meant that I and the three other writers travelled to Washington with Fishamble. Our work was performed in a rehearsed reading. At the reading of my play Rings the sign interpreter for the main actor didn’t turn up. Vulnerability, fear and embarrassment were shared by me and the actor. Jim Culleton, director of Fishamble Theatre Company, managed the situation in an empowering and professional manner. Our work as disabled artists is underrepresented and therefore affirmative action initiatives should have a two-pronged approach. This approach would be a specific targeted approach for disabled artists by way of funding and other resources. While at the same time, mainstream theatre, whether it be companies or venues, need to be resourced and supported to be inclusive of disabled artists, practitioners and disabled audiences. This work can’t be done if theatre companies and venues aren’t supported and resourced to do this.
For me the question of cripping up is an exercise purely for the non-disabled ego: the illusion that you can control, modify and contain, if not your own body, then somebody else’s. The dilemma is: what do you do in a country that prides itself on a legacy of being part of the universal canon of theatre but pays no real dividends to disabled artists or performers? ‘Dividends’ in this context is used as a metaphor for cultural inclusion. In short, the authentic disabled aesthetic is erased out of Irish theatre and performances. Brian Friel’s plays Molly Sweeney and Translations were both restaged in Dublin in 2011. The character of Molly Sweeney and Sarah, the non-verbal woman in Translations, had potential to be innovative performances; instead they objectify and infantilise our bodies, to be received by an unquestioning audience.
They say an actor should be able to perform any part, borrow an aesthetic. There are some parts that actors can’t play. Characters are built, shaped, pulled and stretched to envelop an outside reality and bring it inside themselves. Yet, Irish theatre audiences, or at least the majority of them, seem to enjoy the cosiness of knowing these are not real people—they’re acting out. How we know and where we think people with disabilities belong in our society. Our narrative as disabled people must be funnelled through a non-disabled form. From the director to the actor and then it’s bounced back to the audience, people get so caught up in the physicality of our bodies. The emotive manipulation is what’s damaging. That's the bit that hurts. They can only do the outside but they can't bring the emotional, historical resonance to a performance.
These representations are reductive and damaging. Another example of this type of false representation is that of Carmel Winters’ B for Baby. There’s been much chatter about breaking the 'taboo' because this piece attempts to explore sexuality in the context of people with learning or intellectual disability. For me, this piece had nothing new to offer other than the usual stereotypes. The most disappointing element of the piece was whatever groundbreaking crescendo that we were all hoping to reach, the end of the piece reverted and resisted going to the edge where the premise of the play was attempting to go by not allowing the two characters to kiss. They share a bag of sweets instead of a kiss. If that's not infantalisation, well then what is? However, I bought a ticket which means I colluded with something that I’d hoped would be radical; instead, it was pretty mundane. Although these pieces were written by a non-disabled man and woman the very fact that they create disabled characters could be a really positive opportunity to reinvigorate the disabled aesthetic in Irish theatre. The reinvigoration would only come with the call for actors who are disabled for these particular parts. The presumption that non-disabled actors can play our parts so much better is outdated. We Irish can be very unsophisticated and not confident when it comes to taking risks in theatre making. The politics of representation is often outweighed by the so called importance of the narrative – but the narrative comes from a place of representation even if it is almost invisible.
Should a disabled writer hold their work back in the belief that there may be some emerging disabled performers who someday will bring their work to the stage? Or has a writer to compromise and collude with ‘cripping up’ as a way of establishing their work? My Traveller ethnicity, like my disability, cerebral palsy, is an integral part of who I am. It’s how I understand my place in the world. My history, it means I have a shared knowledge and experience with other Travellers and disabled people. This said, the Traveller community or the disability community, are not a homogenous group. We share a common narrative but at the same time, our individual experiences lend themselves to diverse views on art and other matters. 'Cripping up', for some disabled people, is fine. For others, like me, 'cripping up' or 'putting it on' for Travellers, there’s an innate sour taste of a collective, pejorative projection that is not a representation of who and what we are. As a writer, I can illustrate shame but I refuse to carry it, regardless of how and where it’s projected onto me.
Having been exposed to disability arts in the context of mainstream theatre, the spark was lit. Kaite O’Reilly has been a role model and a mentor in many ways for me. I deliberately use the capital D when describing myself as a Disabled artist. This cultural phenomenon gives me reference points to work from, rules, not just for writing but rules for life. Our lives, our experiences and the veins of knowledge that we have as performers, writers and visual artists, need to be nurtured. My ambition for my work goes beyond any special category. While my work is grounded in a particular experience, the writing carries with it a calling for other disabled writers and performers to be part of the Irish theatre community. Being known as the only crip in the community is isolating. This also means often my voice isn’t loud enough to keep making demands on all areas of access for other disabled artists.
Rosaleen McDonagh is a Traveller woman with a significant disability, a playwright and human rights activist. Her short play Beat Him Like a Badger is part of Fishamble's Tiny Plays for Ireland at Project Arts Centre 15th-21st March, 2012.
The acclaimed American crip poet Jim Ferris is coming to Wales in mid-March to work with Disability Arts Cymru. He's doing a workshop and a reading - I've arranged for two other readings in Wales - and have been trying to get some further interest and support from other disability cultural organisations, to seize the opportunity of showcasing his work, getting readings, etc, whilst he is in the UK. Sadly, I've not had any response to date, so am trying again.
He will be in the UK, so there are no international travel costs involved. Might anyone wish to celebrate this fantastic poet and disability artist whilst he is in the UK?
I include information on him, below, and also a link to my blog about his latest work at http://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com
He is a dear friend of many years standing - and an inspiration.
Please get back to me if you have any interest or ideas?
Information on Jim Ferris:
Jim Ferris’s poems have been described as “funny,” “sly,” “Whitmanesque,” and “kind of holy.” He is author of The Hospital Poems (2004), Facts of Life, (2005), and his latest, Slouching Towards Guantanamo (2011). One reviewer said “This prophetic poet asks us to shed the burden of our ego so that differences between ourselves and others can simply coexist without comparison or judgment. Notwithstanding the spiritual weight they carry, these poems are playful, musical, satirical and passionate” (Jendi Reiter, Reiter’s Block).
Ferris has won awards for creative non-fiction and performance as well as for his poetry. His work is featured in the new anthology Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (2011). Ferris currently holds the Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies at the University of Toledo.
Jim Ferris has been described as a “disability culture poet” (Petra Kuppers). Another reviewer said “Jim Ferris' work is almost synonymous with disability poetry. His first book, 'The Hospital Poems', was one of the first books of poetry to be used in disability studies programs in colleges and his essay 'The Enjambed Body' published in the Georgia Review in 2004 was perhaps the first essay ever to try to develop some sort of critical theory of disability poetry” (Michael Northen).
His poems have been described as “funny,” “sly,” “Whitmanesque,” and “kind of holy.” He is author of The Hospital Poems (2004), Facts of Life, (2005), and his latest, Slouching Towards Guantanamo (2011).
One reviewer said: “This prophetic poet asks us to shed the burden of our ego so that differences between ourselves and others can simply coexist without comparison or judgment. Notwithstanding the spiritual weight they carry, these poems are playful, musical, satirical and passionate” (Jendi Reiter, Reiter’s Block).
He has won awards for creative non-fiction and performance as well as for his poetry. Ferris, who holds a doctorate in performance studies, has performed at the Kennedy Center and across the United States and Canada as well as in the UK; recent performance work includes the solo performance piece 'Scars: A Love Story.' Past president of the Society for Disability Studies, he has received fellowship awards in poetry as well as creative non-fiction. His work is featured in the new anthology 'Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability' (2011). Ferris currently holds the Ability Center Endowed Chair in Disability Studies at the University of Toledo.
Praise for his work:
Part memoir, part medical horror story, 'The Hospital Poems' is a stunning collection that keeps you spellbound like a great novel. With power, precision and a healthy dose of savage survivor humor, Jim Ferris reveals monstrous truths about being a crip kid at the mercy of the fix-it fanatics. This masterful work is a significant contribution to the growing body of disability cultural literature.
— Cheryl Marie Wade
In Slouching Towards Guantanamo, Jim Ferris continues to challenge the way we have all learned to think about disability and people with disabilities. These splendid poems navigate between the light touch of tender irony and the arresting perspective disabled bodies can offer our common understandings.
— Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
'Poems with Disabilities,' the opening poem of Jim Ferris' Slouching Towards Guantanamo, is a funny, sly, quietly mocking, often touching take on the disability theme that saturates this collection. This poem, like so many others in this heartfelt and expressive compilation, exhorts us, beguiles us, charms us; and suddenly, as we're reading along – just as he promises – our "angle of vision jumps" and our "entrails aren't where we left them." A precise and eloquent unraveling of life's knottier complexities.
— Terry Galloway
Slouching Towards Guantanamo is kind of holy, more than a little Whitmanesque when Jim Ferris writes, "This is my body. Look if you like." And so we do in these funny, lacerating poems, veering from pain to pain. They sing the body derelict, the body "merely" different. Intensely physical, surprisingly musical, capacious and elegiac at once, 'Slouching Towards Guantanamo' is thrilling work, though things fall apart, as do we all.
— Paul Guest
Kaite O'Reilly continues her run-down of events in 2011.
Cardiff, November 2011: I'm in a studio with a group of outstanding performers, some internationally renowned, others forging reputations as 'people to watch'. Also present is John McGrath, artistic director of National Theatre Wales, choreographer/movement director Nigel Charnock, designer Paul Clay, and emerging director Sara Beer. We're here to develop In Water I'm Weightless and I can't quite believe it's happening.
The project is a long time coming and is only possible because of my Unlimited Commissions from the Cultural Olympiad, funded by the National Lottery through the Olympic Lottery Distributor, delivered in partnership between London 2012, Arts Council England, the Scottish Arts Council, Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council. These awards enabled me to launch The 'd' Monologues, scripts written specifically for Deaf and disabled actors, informed and inspired by interviews and interactions with people from all over the UK.
I've talked to disabled and Deaf friends, strangers, and colleagues about sex and complex interpersonal relationships, childhood ambitions and adult careers, divorce and promiscuity, favourite recipes and aphrodisiacs, societal labels and self-identification. We've spoken about sub- or counter-cultures and the mainstream, prejudices and preconceptions, theatres where performance happen and theatres where surgery is performed. We've talked of discrimination, both positive and negative, of love and loathing, fertility and being sterile, of what it is to be human and how to be truly alive. And this stimuli has prompted several projects and attracted National Theatre Wales's creativity and openness to engage.
In Water I'm Weightless will be NTW's twentieth production, produced at the Wales Millennium Centre in July 2012, setting an important precedent about which practitioners and what content are produced on a national platform. It's rare for the material which makes up In Water I'm Weightless to reach the 'mainstream' - and it is even more rare for such a high profile transcultural experiment to happen.
I write this with confidence as I'm a fellow of an International Research Centre connected to the Freie Universität Berlin’s Theatre Department, which investigates the interweaving of performance cultures and of cultures in performance in the broadest sense. My research through practice focuses on what I call 'Alternative Dramaturgies informed by a Deaf and disability perspective', with particular reference to disability arts and culture and its relationship(s) to dominant, or mainstream culture(s).
As a practitioner, I have one foot in the 'mainstream' and one in disability arts - and previously it was a case of never the two shall meet... It has taken several decades to reach this position where I can openly fold disability content into a 'mainstream' project without having to find clever ways of hiding it and my intentions, or endlessly having to justify this way of being, or why I might want to write about human difference whilst challenging established parameters of 'normality'.
There's often an assumption that this kind of work has no place in the 'mainstream' - or it will be hectoring, or politically correct. Personally, I'm far more interested in the provocatively politically incorrect - and am sure that the combination of NTW's creative team and the witty, subversive performers will ensure In Water... is anything but 'worthy'.
The first part of this post began reviewing the year and questioning whether anything has changed in the relationship between disability arts and culture and majority culture. Given my forthcoming production with NTW, and other developments in 2011 in Scotland, I'm encouraged and given hope for the future.
Both Robert Softley and Claire Cunningham have been developing projects in 2011 with National Theatre Scotland.
Robert's 'Girl X' was an exploration of ethical issues surrounding the rights of an eleven year girl with cerebral palsy, who had the mental age of a five month old infant. Her mother sought a hysterectomy for 'Girl X', believing the onset of puberty would only bring additional, and unnecessary distress to her. The doctors also felt such controversial surgery might improve her quality of life. The play, produced in Spring of 2011 and written by Robert Softley and Bart Capelle, asked questions such as: 'When do private matters become public concern? Is the majority always right? Do wheelchair users know better? Where will it all end? '
In contrast Claire Cunningham's recent dance theatre work explored her twenty year relationship with her crutches - and the (im)possibility of creating her ideal man from these objects, - what she knows best. Ménage à Trois was 'a hauntingly beautiful study of love, obsession, loneliness and manipulation' and, like In Water I'm Weightless, emerged from an Unlimited Commission.
I'm a big fan of both Claire and Robbie's work, so am delighted at this development. It's incredibly heartening that the National Theatres of Wales and Scotland are making unprecedented approaches towards disability artists and content in their commissioning and programming. But it's also clear how central Unlimited and the Cultural Olympiad have been in helping make these changes happen.
Unlimited describes itself as 'a project celebrating disability, arts, culture and sport on an unprecedented scale as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.'
I am writing on January 1st 2012. It will be fascinating to see on January 1st 2013 quite how successful that influence will have been - how far and deep its touch.... For the moment, I am hopeful.
Happy 2012, all. Hope it is creative and provocative and stimulating and joyful.
For an interview between Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of National Theatre Scotland, and Robert Softley on Girl X, go to:
For further details on my research project with International Research Centre Interweaving Performance Cultures in Berlin, go to:
I began this blog back in August 2011 after I realised that 2012 would bring an embarrassment of riches production-wise. As the forthcoming work is diverse in aesthetic, process and content, I felt much might be learnt, and writing a blog might help externalise my learning, publicise the work and document the processes of devising, playwriting, co-creating, collaborative montaging.
I'm excited by what 2012 will bring, and the diversity both of the work and the creative approaches I'll be involved with. It challenges that stereotype of the solo dramatist writing away, misunderstood and alone, in her garret - and the notion that there is only one way of writing plays/drama/performance work (delete as applicable). But before moving forwards into 2012, and The Echo Chamber, the first project (which begins full rehearsals on December 28th 2011 and will be written about, here), I think it expedient to look back over the year at some of the projects I've made and the people I have collaborated with, particularly within disability arts and culture, and ask have we moved on? Has anything actually changed?
'peeling', first produced by Graeae Theatre Company and designed and directed by Jenny Sealey in 2002, had a revival in Forest Forge's production, touring rurally. The director, Kirstie Davies, had been keen to find an opportunity to produce the script for some time and it was fascinating to return to an old script and see what had stood the test of time, what required updating, what was no longer relevant.
Perhaps it's a sign of how far we still have to go in perceiving disabled and Deaf people as equal citizens and not 'other', but we discovered the cultural and socio-political aspects parodied or challenged in the play were still as relevant in 2011 as 2002. The only changes to the script I made were updating celebrity names. The stories in the play of being patronised, feared, or discriminated against still held - and the off-duty conversations we had in the green room about the challenges disabled and Deaf women face when working in the creative industries were as familiar and tiresome as they had been first time round, at the beginning of this Millennium.
As I wrote during rehearsals in February 2011:
Ali, Nickie, and Kiruna are powerful, comical, and poignant... I am congratulating Kirstie Davis, artistic director of Forest Forge, on her superb casting and her liberating, inclusive attitude – for it is still extremely rare. Sadly, in my twenty plus years of professional experience in theatre, I have largely found a reluctance for companies to cast disabled and Deaf actors, even in parts written specifically for them. Perhaps this is based on fear, or ignorance, or uninformed preconceptions – things are certainly changing and improving – but we certainly need more like Kirstie in the industry.
I am also extremely excited by ‘peeling’s rural tour – bringing this work and this company to village halls and community centres. The fact large famous London theatres are still casting hearing, non-signing actors in Deaf, signing parts only highlights how quietly radical Forest Forge’s work is.
This radical aspect to Kirstie's programming was also appreciated by Mark Courtice writing about the production in April 2011 in reviewsgate:
Forest Forge, in taking [peeling] to the arts centres and village halls of Hampshire and Wiltshire, demonstrate the sort of courage and enterprise that make the recent Arts Council decision to cut their grant seem more than usually incomprehensible.
Here is one area where I feel there has been a change: the 2011 reviews of 'peeling' in The Stage and The Salisbury Journal were not as toe-curlingly insensitive or offensive as some had been, the first time round. Perhaps the influence of the Medical Model has begun to wane, but here were no lingering descriptions of the performers' bodies or impairments, nor morbid fascination with physical difference. Thankfully, there was no polarity between 'handicaps' and 'real people' as there had been in The Independent in 2002.
And so from a remounting of old workmade new, to a new piece so new it has not had a production yet: 'Your Tongue, My Lips' is work in progress exploring disability and sexuality, and part of my Unlimited Commission from LOCOG and the Cultural Olympiad, to develop new work inspired by disability experience. In June 2011 I had a residency at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, working with director Peader Kirk and performers Mat Fraser, Kiruna Stamell, Christopher Fitzsimmonds, Sara Beer, Tom Wentworth, Ben Owen Jones and Carri Munn.
I feel there has been a shift in many ways towards some of the work coming out of disability arts and culture - but it isn't necessarily from the mainstream, but from what used to be snootily or suspiciously called 'the avant-garde'. In many contexts disability arts and culture has been viewed as either therapy or amateur expression - I have been wrestling with this for more years than I care to count. It comes then as no real surprise that many of the allies to my crip culture work have been artists working experimentally themselves, or gate-keepers to institutions or venues which value experimentation.
Such was my experience when working with Peader and the actors at Chapter, and my interactions with James Tyson, former programmer of the venue, and Richard Huw Morgan of Good Cop Bad Cop. To listen to an archive recording of an interview about this work go to Pitch on Radio Cardiff. The interview starts 31.58 minutes in at http://www.culturecolony.com/videos?id=6464.
In the second part of this blog, I will write about my work in the latter part of this year, working more in the 'mainstream'.
I am delighted to see 'In Water I’m Weightless', my Unlimited Commission to be produced by National Theatre Wales in 2012, was included in the preview guide to London 2012. ‘Britain’s biggest ever cultural festival’ over the weekend.
I quote from a story within the festival supplement, titled 'Stories that Come to Life'
A character hears sound for the first time, while the audience reads sign language in back-projected subtitles in a powerful experimental work that treats disability as entirely normal, exploring the endless possibilities created by “human difference.”
Writer Kaite O’Reilly, herself visually disabled, spent three years talking to deaf and disabled people, creating a collage of fictional monologues that is poetic, moving, challenging and often very funny. Six of Britain’s leading disabled actors, often performing outside their own disabilities, take part in a dynamic, expressonistic staging that contrasts the warmth and intimacy of stories told direct to the audience with dance and live projections.
In Water I’m Weightless will be performed at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, July 26-August 4 2012.
Many text-based productions are straight-forward in content and form: they are interpretations of existing scripts. So what's the process for a ensemble piece using music, design, movement and selected monologues, with a newly-formed company who have never all met, never mind collaborated before?
We have a sterling cast of emerging and established performers: Mat Fraser, Mandy Colleran, David Toole, Karina Jones, Nick Phillips and Sophie Stone working alongside director John McGrath, designer Paul Clay, movement director Nigel Charnock and emerging director Sara Beer. It's a dream creative team - almost an embarrassment of riches. And the prevailing question in the weeks leading to this research and development period was where and how to start?
John decided for us, feeling the actors should lead this part of the process. The text we will eventually use in the production next year will be culled from a large body of work I've been developing over several years: The 'd' Monologues, which have been created specifically for Deaf and disabled actors. I've written elsewhere on this blog about the issues surrounding casting (Cripping up is the twenty-first century answer to blacking up) and John felt this was a creative place to begin. Alongside the texts sent to the cast in advance, John posed several questions, including asking the performers to select parts they'd love to play but would never usually be cast in, and to identify sections which had resonance for them, which felt closest to their 'voice'.
What followed was a fascinating exploration which challenged casting to 'type'. As a way in to the work, we cast across gender, age, impairment, and sexual preference, reading the speeches the actors felt they would never usually get to play, making some wonderful discoveries - for example, a middle aged man can play a part written for a child without prompting unintended humour. We also found a universality in this non-traditional casting - our characters became Everyman and Everywoman, rather than the monologues being seen as autobiographical, specific only to that individual. . Aided by his fantastic music collection, Nigel got the company moving, magically (and almost invisibly) creating shared physical vocabulary, so by the end of the week the actors were presenting physical scores and short choreographed sections. Combined with the projected animated text and live camera work Paul introduced, it was an impressive start to a process.
Those who saw our work-in-progress sharing on Friday were struck by the sense of a tight ensemble dynamic already in existence. Our only complaint as we parted after the intense week was that seven months will have to pass before we get together again.
When I received the Arts Council Wales Creative Wales Major Award back in 2008, I spent a year exploring the form of the dramatic monologue, seeing solo work in Europe and the US, meeting and being mentored by experts of the form, like Sara Zatz and Ping Chong Company in New York. I shadowed part of Ping Chong’s 'Undesirable Elements' series, watching testimonial theatre in various school halls and community centres in Brooklyn, the participants/performers using their own autobiographies to address the experience and reality of being disabled in NYC.
Throughout this period, I was writing monologues in a variety of styles and dramaturgies, informed and inspired by my interactions with Deaf and disabled people across Wales. Unlike Verbatim, or the testimonial theatre of Ping Chong Company, I chose not to use the actual stories I had been told, but used these anecdotes and experiences as inspiration, and created fictional drama informed by these interactions.
At the end of the year, the experiment proved to be a success and worth persevering with. A script-in-hand sharing of early work at Unity Festival at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff brought outstanding reviews and I later brought what I coined ‘The Cymru Crips’, a group of performers I’d been working with in South Wales – Sara Beer, Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds, Kay Jenkins and Macsen McKay – to The National Theatre Studio in London, for a further script-in-hand showing when I was there on attachment in 2009.
I was further encouraged by receiving an Unlimited Commission from the Cultural Olympiad, part of the celebrations to develop the project across the UK. But that is a further story…
Some years ago I received a Creative Wales Major Award from Arts Council Wales, to begin a project I called The ‘d’ Monologues – short dramatic solos written specifically for Deaf and disabled performers. There is a dearth of plays with disabled characters, and when these are produced, the parts are invariably played by non-disabled or hearing actors.
Those who know me and my play 'peeling' will know I’m not a fan of this kind of casting. As one of the characters says in peeling, a play all about performance: ‘Cripping up is the twenty-first century answer to blacking up.’
The Western theatrical canon is full of disabled characters: From the pathos of the blinded Oedipus to the personification of evil in Richard III, the impaired body has often been used as a metaphor for the human condition. But seldom have the plays been written from a disability perspective, or performed by disabled actors.
This was the impetus for my writing 'peeling' in 2002 for Graeae Theatre. I wanted to write an edgy, inventive, and humorous play specifically for Deaf and disabled actors, which used Sign performance (theatricalised British Sign Language), and reflected the experience of disabled and Deaf women. Unfortunately so often in the media, we are portrayed as the victim or the villain – the object of sympathy, or charity, or superhuman inspiration. In peeling I wanted to create women who were witty, sexy, complex human beings who made difficult decisions about their fertility and potential offspring; women whose lives didn’t necessarily differ so much from non-disabled, hearing women’s lives.
A triumph in its original production, directed and designed by Jenny Sealey, and remounted earlier this year by Kirstie Davies of Forest Forge, 'peeling' garnered prizes alongside outstanding reviews and is now seen as a watershed moment in the relationship between disability arts and culture and the ‘mainstream’ media. It was arguably the first production written, directed and performed by disabled and Deaf practitioners to be reviewed widely and seriously by all national press. A similar response came from within the specialised disability press: 'Disability art grows up' was one heading. The play was – and remains – controversial in elements of its content, politics, and depiction of disabled and Deaf women – but also for my refusal for it be performed by anyone other than Deaf and disabled performers.
I find non-disabled actors impersonating people with physical or sensory impairments extremely problematic – akin to the now offensive ‘blacking up’ of white actors to play Othello. This is not me being overtly PC, simply my rejection of what that message implies – that there are no black or disabled actors good enough to play these parts and that Caucasian non-disabled actors will always do it better…
I remember when it was announced the first black performer was going to play Othello at the RSC. If my memory serves me right, I was in my early teens at the time and horrified when this came up, presented as some kind of celebratory cutting-edge news item on the local television station. “What?!’ I remember thinking. ‘There hasn’t been a black performer playing that part until now?!’
Everyone interviewed seemed to be most relieved this prejudice had been finally put to bed and shook their heads over the onerously-held negative opinions of actors of colour in the past. There would be no more boot polish and burnt corks smelling out the dressing rooms of the RSC or the UK regional repertory theatres. Caucasian actors blacking up to play the Moor owing to their supposed superior acting skills, knowledge of the Bard and ‘his’ language no longer held sway… And I look forward to the time – in my lifespan, I hope – when a similar change occurs regarding disabled performers and characters with impairments, whether congenital or acquired.
In the meantime, I’ll grit my teeth when every Oscar-hopeful pulls off their studied gimp impersonation and offer resistance by writing what I hope are interesting and subversive parts for Deaf and disabled actors. I’ve been writing plays with disabled protagonists for almost twenty years. Throughout that period I have heard the same argument from theatres and directors from both sides of the Atlantic: How will they cast it? Where will they get good, experienced, professional actors who identify as disabled or Deaf? They just don’t exist! The audience or critics or theatre cat won’t accept it! and yada yada in finitum blah de blah until fade…
These preconceptions are incorrect. There is a vast collection of talented, professional performers, theatre practitioners, and live artists – and the numbers are growing. An incredible amount has been done to change perceptions and open up opportunities for training and professional work since my acting debut with Graeae Theatre in 1987. There is an army of the great unsung who have worked tirelessly and continuously to raise the portcullis of fortress professional theatre in the UK and elsewhere – but this has also predominantly been our own actions, created or ignited within the disabled community, working with allies.
Bringing this talent and experience centre stage on major platforms has become something of an obsession, and I’ve spent the past four years developing several projects which now are coming to fruition – projects I’ll be writing about on this blog in coming months.
Part of this blog originally appeared in: www.forestforge.co.uk/posts/45
I have a love-hate relationship with publicity materials and the PR machine. I know production images, blurb and press releases are essential for the successful publicising of a production, but that still doesn’t lessen the pain of trying to create material that bears some relation to the content of the show, whilst also keeping artistic integrity, and not giving the game away….
I know it’s a personal predilection, but I dislike publicity material which tells me too much. I’m not interested in knowing what successful production this new one could be compared to (‘if you liked Mamma Mia, you’ll love this…’). I don’t want to be directed too much in how to perceive the show, nor do I want to know the age, inner thoughts, or inside leg measurements of the characters in the pre-show blurb. I intend to see the performance to experience all that. I want the briefest sense of what the production is about – the theme or subject matter, the company and collaborators – director and creators or playwright – and that’s good enough for me.
I’m currently travelling in North America and Canada and have been surprised by some live performance publicity which have been the equivalent of a film spoiler (I think that’s a more appropriate term than ‘film trailer’). It’s not that I need to be in a heightened ‘what’s going to happen?’ thriller-like state to go and enjoy a performance – I’m a serial-Beckett fan and so have seen multiple versions of the same plays, and will continue to do so in the future – it’s all to do with tone and being spoon-fed.
So pity Sheffield Theatres creative producer Andrew Loretto and Chol Theatre’s artistic director Susan Burns, who approached me recently about the blurb for our 2012 production LeanerFaster Stronger…
I’m fortunate in that I’ve always written or been centrally involved in the publicity material for any play I’ve written. I’ve found that this becomes a necessity when the work is disability-led, or features actors who have physical or sensory impairments – which much of my work does. I have lost count of the number of altercations I have had with journalists, newspapers and marketing departments about inappropriate or even downright offensive language used in regards to my work, or my talented collaborators.
Several years ago I reduced the marketing department of a theatre to embarrassment and tears after I deconstructed their publicity material, revealing how it not only adhered to the Medical Model of Disability, but also reduced my feisty, outrageous, foul-mouthed crip protagonists into pathetic victims defined merely by their condition. The fact this treatment was then extended to defining some of the company members was unacceptable and much debate and consultation followed. I admired the company’s willingness to learn and make amends, but know many similar well-meaning but problematic errors are still being made, despite the many Disability Equality Training initiatives companies participate in. A disability awareness takes time to be absorbed fully into the body of a company, and until my crip normality is if not the norm, at least relevant and valid, I’ll continue to write the blurb for my plays.
In the case for LeanerFasterStronger, I’m working with companies which are not only disability-aware, but positively disability-welcoming, and the director is a fellow viz imp. I had few qualms, then, when looking at the material they suggested for publicity. After a few tweaks we got our collectively-created blurb, which follows, below – but not yet the defining image for the production. The exploration continues. Watch this space.
Chol Theatre & Sheffield Theatres present
24 May – 2 June 2012, 7.45 pm
Matinees: 2.15pm, 31 May & 2.15pm, 2 June at Crucible Studio Theatre, 55 Norfolk Street, Sheffield, S1 1DA
0114 249 6000
How far would you go to be the best?
What if bio-engineered body parts and medical science were on tap to make you leaner, faster and stronger?
Would you fight it; or embrace the brave new world?
A darkly humorous and provocative theatre experience which explores the limits of what human means.
Written by Kaite O’Reilly (winner of the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry 2010), directed by Andrew Loretto, designed by Shanaz Gulzar. LeanerFasterStronger is a Chol Theatre and Sheffield Theatres coproduction.
I'm in Canada, revising the next draft of LeanerFasterStronger, the Cultural Olympiad commission from Chol Theatre in a co-production with Sheffield Theatres. The project is part of Extraordinary Moves, a major strand of the imove programme, which celebrates and challenges the relationship between people and their moving bodies through a series of arts projects across Yorkshire.
One of the processes I use when redrafting is to go back and revisit all the source material I've found that when there is a 'hole' in a developed draft, or a problem to be solved, invariably the missing link is offered up somewhere in the research material and earlier drafts. So it is with delight I'm in the process of reviewing my documentation of our research week at Sheffield Hallam Sports Science Lab, organised by Susan Burns of Chol Theatre in partnership with XMoves co-producer Dr David James I'm further aided in my revision by a documentary directed by Andy Duggan to be shown later this year at Leeds International Film Festival.
'Extraordinary moves celebrates human movement', Laura Haughey said, introducing me to the motion capture lab, where performers, choreographers, dancers, directors, scientists and this writer spent a week exploring movement potential and our relationship to moving bodies
My first introduction to sports science technology was through infra red cameras 'Dots' applied to the joints and other parts of the body 'captured' the subject in space and reproduced the physical sequence on a computer screen as lines of movement This in effect erased the human form, creating instead an arresting constellation of dots When these were joined up, 'stick' men and women moved on the computer screen, clearly revealing how very different bodies move in space.
Some participants didn't distinguish the avatar body as their own until they saw a recognisable movement trait, or an interaction with a cane, or what we coined the 'magic carpet' levitation provided by an unmarked moving wheelchair.
There has been a long cultural and linguistic practice of assigning meaning to the impaired body and I was particularly interested in discovering how this changed when the body was represented in such a different form Part of my role was to facilitate discussion and reflection after the sessions, so I asked the politicised disabled performer/ dancers how they responded to this 'new' mode of representation of themselves.
'I liked the experience of seeing a non-disabled version of myself' Kiruna Stamell said. 'It meant the movement could be analysed without social judgement of the body, without judgement of the politics Just to see the pure movement! The judgement around my physicality is more about my physical relationship as a disabled woman to an environment I'm in, not a judgement on my body as a judgement on my body'
Other activity that week included a physical workshop led by Andrew Loretto, working with two disabled and two non-disabled dancers, working with high speed cameras to capture the subtle movements and interactions not seen by the naked eye.
'We're interested in how people move, and what moves them' Laura said t'We're interested in how people move, and what moves them' Laura said to camera at the start of the day What struck me was the speed and intensity of engagement - the immediate and complex negotiations of equal bodies and space - the marked moments of tenderness, or of pure joy
For further footage of this extraordinary research week, please view Andy Duggan's award-nominated film at: http://www.yorkshiretelly.com/extraordinary-moves
I get an email from Andrew Loretto, creative producer of Sheffield Theatres. It is short, focused, almost telegraphed, as is the nature of missives from scarily busy individuals.
How about if the title is presented as a continuous energy as follows: 'LeanerFasterStronger' he asks enigmatically, except I know what he is referring to, and it’s a great suggestion.
Andrew will direct one of my commissions next year, a co-production between Chol Theatre in Huddersfield and Sheffield Crucible, and it is the title of the collaboration we are mulling over. The project is part of Extraordinary Moves, a major strand of the imove programme, which celebrates and challenges the relationship between people and their moving bodies through a series of innovative arts projects across Yorkshire.
‘imove explores how we feel in our moving bodies’ the website states ’whether that is in our daily lives going to work, to the shops, to school, achieving our personal best over 26 miles and 385 yards, or making slow painful progress from one side of the room to the other. We all move, maybe in different ways and at different speeds and for different reasons, but we all move all the time. Even when we are still, we are moving inside. Movement can mean picking up everything we own and ending up in another place, so imove also explores the movement from one part of the world to another.
Extraordinary Moves looks to challenge perceptions of disability through an exploration of human movement. My commission for a new performance is one of the activities Chol are spearheading for 2012.
I assume one of the reasons I was commissioned is because I identify as disabled and as a disability artist. I’m a veteran both of the UK Disability Rights Movement and its burgeoning culture since first working with Graeae Theatre Company in 1986. I’m one of the surfers of that first wave, once chased down the street by the police for taking direct action against inaccessible public transport (lying down in the street before the wheels of a Cardiff bus), now invited to be Patron of disability arts organisations, or to write and edit disability culture publications.
Disability politics, the experience of living with impairment, and what I call crip culture inform me daily. They are both foundation and subtext, running like rock strata under everything I do. LeanerStrongerFaster (if indeed we decide to call it so) will look at the underbelly of professional sport, informed by bioethics, sports science and the future of enhancement: Posthumanism, for want of a word.
I have already become widely read on the philosophical and ethical concerns of transhumanism, for want of a second word. It would be my specialised subject on Mastermind were I the competitive sort to enter such an arena. But I’m not, and that’s another reason for accepting a commission about highly competitive professional sport. I don’t understand it. What’s more, I dislike it. I only show interest in Wales vs Ireland international rugby matches as there no-one reallyminds who loses (as Ken, my former Caaaardiff neighbour used to tell me, the Welsh are the Irish who couldn’t swim). My favourite team sport was watching One Man and his Dog with my Father when he was alive, his own Welsh border collie racing in confused circles in the yard outside, obeying the whistled instructions off the telly.
And so it seems a particularly perverse action for someone who is at best indifferent towards sport to take on a commission with that as its subject. I always advise writers to work from their passion, their fascination, but this can also be acquired. As I anticipated, the research for the project has been fascinating. Apart from my long reading list, I’ve interviewed former world class athletes and several Paralympians, who have all had one thing in common: astonishing, jaw-dropping drive. The level of sacrifice young sportspeople and their families make for the chance of getting up on a podium and having a ribbon put round their neck has both humbled and terrified me.
Sport, the competitive spirit, and this form of commitment is something I will never fully understand. But until the production opens in May 2012, I will spend the next months trying to.