1 March 2010
Animate explores the rich history of Disability Arts through talks and workshops. Colin Hambrook asked theatre practitioner Julie McNamara what aspects of her work as a performer, writer, musician, poet, and arts development worker, she intends to present at Shape on 4 March 2010.
Theatre! I am first and foremost a theatre practitioner. I am a playwright and producer. I wrote my first play 'Sensing Freedom' at 14. I worked alongside John Godber and Stephen Jeffreys in the 80's. I brought three plays to Edinburgh. Then I had a spectacular crash and landed in the mental health system.
Years of tumbleweed followed. I wrote one woman shows but did little in mainstream theatre again. Then, initially as a commission for the Xposure Festival of Disability Arts in 2002 I wrote Pig Tales. Pig Tales was superbly successful in touring arts and mental health spaces; conferences for development of services and so on.
It finally came to the notice of the Arts Council, because I had pulled in more international development funds than the small scale theatres in London were doing. So it attracted touring funds for 2007/08.
Now I am growing in the work I make, the people I collaborate with and the opportunities I am able to create for other artists. At the last count, Crossings has created work for 21 people across all three stages of development. Ten are disabled people.
Currently I am looking for four creatives who will be given the bare bones of a story, a list of questions and a map to the venue. What we intend to create will be devised from the work brought to the table by the four selected artists once they have arrived at that destination.
You've come some way with Crossings since the pilot version of the play was commissioned by DaDa for DaDaFest 2008. Crossings explores issues around race and gender historically, and in contemporary society. I'd say it also broaches disability in the wider sense of exclusion. Where do you think it sits within those boundaries?
The play is based in Liverpool, on a ship berthed in Liverpool - one of the most notorious 'ships of shame' in our histories. But it is first and foremost about the sexual enslavement of young women in gangs.
I chose to weave the connections with real stories of women in Liverpool's history who were enslaved and forced to migrate as I wanted to ask the audiences to consider what we might have learned from the past, from slavery in Liverpool and elsewhere?
It reads as an urban Scrooge for contemporary stages with Shelley being called to account for herself by two ghostly voices from the past who fought back and survived incredible odds.
Shelley is dis-abled by the circumstances forced upon her. She lacks the inner resources to act as witness to her own life story and is utterly disempowered by the Gang to whom she has been bound. The powerful voices from the past confront and challenge her until she has to fight for the life of her unborn child.
This is NOT 'Disability Arts' in that we are not working together to reveal our stories from the place of oppressed disabled women on board that ship, although there would have been many.
I am a woman who has been disabled by the mental health system, by the social stigma around my experiences as a Mad woman and by the continuing prejudices in our communities surrounding mental health issues. But I have not written 'Crossings' from disability experience per se.
I am pleased to say that the work is Disability-led in that the production was created very much with disabled people in mind at every stage. Six of the team working on Crossings are disabled people, artists and technicians with enormous talent.
One of the lead roles, Nzingah was written very much with Margo Cargill in mind. Margo is visually impaired so the set was designed with particular features that were intended to make movement on set easier to navigate.
At stage one Margo described the original set as 'My dream set, I can move about it very easily...' but later extensions to that set made movement less easy to navigate. It reads like a ship's deck grounded at the side of a jetty at some jaunty angle with enormous sails for visual projections. Not your dream set to tour...
We created an audio description script with Anne Hornsby's help and with feed back from visually impaired audience members at the earliest stages of development. We included a strong soundscape to add to the viewing experience for visually impaired visitors to the show. But we still met with problems at venues were they were not equipped to deliver audio description and in some cases, unwilling to try.
We incorporated British Sign Language throughout the production which meant that each and every show was interpreted and we invested in our own loop system too. We attracted many more Deaf viewers than I've previously experienced. Some of that has to be because there were more dates to choose from and we have Hetty May Bailey on board who has an extensive network amongst Deaf and hearing impaired communities.
We still didn't get it right for everybody. Some people don't read BSL, their first language may be English and we had requestes for 'Stage text' which frankly I hate. I don't know what the solution is. I still need to explore possibilities, but I am more and more convinced that the 'access' should never get in the way of the aesthetics of the craft.
One of the ways we chose to use BSL was to bring the character of the narrator centre stage. Hetty May Bailey signs the headlines of each scene so that Deaf viewers were ahead of the action. Non-signers were not too sure of what was happening until the scene unfolded. That turns the usual experience in theatre on its head. Deaf people are usually having to play catch up, constantly playing visual tennis from one side of the stage to the other.
Crossings also provided a training opportunity for a learning disabled technician who wanted to learn more about stage management and lighting. That has been a great success for Alan Clifton, who gained so much confidence that he finally achieved a life long dream and passed his driving test after 20 years.
You've toured Crossings in the UK and more recently in Ireland. How has the play been commented on/received by the media here, in comparison with Ireland?
We have had little response from the mainstream press in England, which I think is further evidence of the lack of interest in Disability-led theatre in this country.
We did have a fabulous review from Julie Bindel of Guardian newspapers. She came to review the work at two stages and was passionate about the feminist storyline. But that review was never published as something far more interesting came up for the Editor.
In contrast we were the darlings of Ulster press in Ireland. Audiences and artists are often unashamedly political in their approach to the Arts. We were featured on BBC Ulster Radio, Arts Xtra, Ulster Television Arts Review.
All gave us headline features and considerable coverage. The reviews were in general an astute interrogation of the intention behind the writing - to examine the way women were and remain enslaved and to make the connections with Imperialism.
Congratulations on the Arts Council England Diversity Award presented at the South Bank Show Awards. How does feel to get that recognition?
I had NO idea this was on the cards. Even when I was invited to the awards ceremony I was convinced Clean Break would walk it, because of the fabulous work they have produced over the past few years. I know Jenny Sealey was up there too in the nominations, but she had a gong last year and I just thought it was Clean Break's turn.
I am not naive enough to think that I have done the work on diversity. Nobody has got there yet. It is a life-long mission. Black and Minority artists in this country are still not getting the opportunities or the recognition they rightly deserve.
Just look at the evidence in our own back yard. Look at the profile of Disability Arts! Similarly disabled artists across all communities are not getting the opportunities. That's why I am plugging people into each and every project I create.
I have worked on three productions that led to this award. But people continually leave out the other two as they didn't attract much interest in England. I am very very pleased with Steak and Chelsea Out to Lunch which has just attracted funding from Richard Llewelyn Trust for further development.
Rachel High needs a gong here as she worked so hard to push herself in creating this piece and as an artist with learning difficulties she has come a long way since she first wrote to me and asked me to mentor her all the way out there in Adelaide!
I am very humbled to have been awarded the South Bank Show Award and I am aware of the responsibility that this carries. I just hope I can continue to make good work that gets the message across and that creates creative opportunities in the Arts for so many excluded voices.
Lastly, I'd like to thank everyone who has helped over the years. Many thanks go to Karena Johnson who directed Crossings at stage one. BIG thanks go to Paulette Randall who took over the Direction and has led this team ever since. It was an enormous leap of faith. I am not known in the mainstream theatre world and Paulette had never worked in Disability-led theatre before. It has been an extraordinary partnership.
My continued thanks go to Caglar Kimyoncu, long-term collaborator who has sat beside me in some very dark places and remains one of the most inspiring visual artists I know.