Artist and activist Liz Carr has campaigned tirelessly on the issue of assisted suicide. Her first foray into the world of musical theatre, Assisted Suicide the Musical is four years in the making and already in its third incarnation. Joe Turnbull spoke to her about the journey so far.
Fed up with the one-sided portrayals of assisted suicide in the mainstream media, in 2011 Carr decided to do something about it; she felt a responsibility to make the art she wanted to see. But as a self-confessed 'assisted suicide nerd' the musical is really just the culmination of a thought process much longer in the making.
“I became politicised as a disabled person back in 1991 and by that I mean I started to meet with other disabled people who were involved in the disabled people's movement, many were activists but also academics. I was very fortunate, it was a very exciting time – it was almost the golden age for disabled people because there was a really strong community.”
“I learnt about the social model of disability and it was a light bulb moment for me and it totally changed my life. It took the blame off me and put it onto how society was organised. And within all that came the issues of right to life at the beginning of your life and at the end, and how our lives were devalued as disabled people.”
“I started to become publicly vocal about this issue ten years ago. I used to do the BBC Ouch! podcast with Mat Fraser and I loved it. We had six years of it being really anarchic and it was great fun. On the back of that I'd end up being ask to comment on things.”
“So I got invited onto programmes like Newsnight. I didn't have a profile particularly but because I was doing media stuff and I was quite opinionated it was seen that I was good value on a TV debate. And of course as my profile has grown through Silent Witness so have the requests for me to speak out about issues.”
The current Unlimited commission is Carr's third bite of the cherry at creating Assisted Suicide the Musical. Clearly, it's been something of a bumpy ride. But the false starts have also been crucial to the development of the work, helping to focus the project, as Carr explains:
“It's not because there's not been support or I've not been working with brilliant people, it's been that it's never felt quite right. Part of that is because it's so difficult to tell this story, it's so difficult to put this issue across. Most people are coming at this issue supporting it. On face value it's to assist people who are terminally ill to end their lives when they are at the end of it is a good thing. Who wants people to die in pain? Who wants people to suffer? So who wants to be the person that says no to that?”
“So I've learned what we have to do is to get people to see where the debate is currently at and then pull the rug from under them and go 'however, this is complicated – here's a different pair of glasses to look at this issue through'. Because of who I am it was always going to be political but to what degree has definitely changed. This version that I'm working on now is its most political and its most unapologetic to the point where – I don't think this will go out on flyers – but in my head it's a polemic with show tunes”.
“What is different now in this version is I'm going to be in the piece, so now I'm hiding behind nothing. I was in the past: I was hiding behind writing with groups of other people; I was hiding behind not being in it. Now, I'm out front and centre and being far more truthful about it rather than trying to find a nice story or a character, I'm on stage as me. It's exciting and liberating to get those views out there, but it's also absolutely terrifying.”
Musical theatre isn't what you'd usually associate such heavy, controversial and contested issues with. But for Carr the format is absolutely central to the ethos of the piece in a number of very different ways:
“When I was doing stand up it struck me how musical acts on the circuit could write a song, get a ukulele out and they'd start playing and they could say anything. They'd always get an applause for a start, most people would clap along and sing along. It could be about the most horrific things – it could be about terrorism or rape – really edgy or difficult topics, but put them into a show tune and people will still clap along.”
“The other thing was whenever I would watch the TV about this topic, one of the tropes that was used is you'd often see a person sitting in a wheelchair, looking very forlorn, usually the shot of them looking through the window, the world passing by, children in a park. There always was a very sad piece of music playing – as if that image wasn't enough we had to underscore it with the music. And I thought 'music is so powerful'. So I thought can we use it to play on that, parody it, satirise it – to do the opposite?”
“I don't know if I understood this at the start but I understand it now. Musical theatre has become a metaphor in the piece, it's almost a character in its own right. Because musical theatre is a world of glitz and glamour, vitality and health, everything is sparkly in musical theatre world. But also in musicals you go along and you clap along and sing along and you almost don't know what you're singing along to.”
“I feel that's a lot about what the debate about assisted suicide is – people think it's about choice, and that it's a good thing – and they clap along and sing along but they don't really realise what they're singing and they haven't really thought about the lyrics, they've just been swept along by it. That's what the issue has become; we just clap along but we really need to think about it.”
After a successful early showing in September, Carr will be writing the script in earnest in the coming months, with the finished work being performed at the Unlimited Festival at the South Bank in September 2016. Beyond that, Liz revealed her longer term hopes and dreams for the project:
“I hope audiences enjoy it, I hope they listen and I hope they clap along, and I hope at times they feel awkward for that and hope at other times they don't. I don't want it to be uncomfortable but I don't want it to be comfortable either.”
“Sometimes I want an intimate, small-scale show, so that I can tour it easily internationally, because I'm often asked to speak around the world. There's lots of people who are fascinated by my work and take on the world that want to see this piece so I want as many people as possible to be able to see it.”
“That said, my ambition was always a ridiculous title backed up by a chorus line of medical hoists that some disabled people use to move from wheelchair to the bed or toilet and back again. Those hoists are so often used by the media to talk about cuts or the right to die, as they refer to it. I wanted to reclaim that and bejazzle it.”
“I want ten hoists but they're quite big, so you need a massive stage to do that. But why not go that big? Friends say to me 'just go for it, make it that big... be as spectacular as you dare'. I'm trying to keep that in my head because I'm used to limited budgets and I'm used to small scale and I'm used to people seeing what we do as disability art and not giving it the time of day. But actually I have to think 'no, why can't it be on the main stage somewhere, why can't it be big and bold'? And it deserves that.”