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