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In Water I’m Weightless: in development... / 21 November 2011

photo of the back of a wheelchair-user turning around to look at the camera. A woman of short stature tands close by

Nick Phillips and Sara Beer in National Theatre Wales’ developmental workshop of In Water I’m Weightless.

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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?

This has been the challenge to National Theatre Wales this week, in development with In Water I'm Weightless, my commission from Unlimited, part of the Cultural Olympiad.

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.