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Ems Coombes - disability arts online
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Disability Arts Online

Ems interviews reknowned actor and co-founder of the Burmese Theatre Workshop, Andrew McLay / 18 April 2011

Ems Coombes: So this is quite a new project. It’s called the Artist Treasure Hunt.

Andrew McLay: Hello. Thank you for doing the interview.

If you can tell us a little bit about your practice and what you do, that would be grand?

AM: (Laughter) I’m a director and a writer and an actor. I have my own company called the Burmese Theatre Workshop. It is made up of Burmese actors. We meet once a week at the moment and we devise and write script and we perform.

My work tends to be more physical, more improvised, and looks at themes such as prostitution, poverty... and sometimes it’s political. The play we’re looking at the moment and we’re working on is 'Smile as they Bow' and that’s about transsexual/gay medium and the gay scene in Burma.

EC: Brilliant. You are a disabled artist.

AM: That’s right.

EC: Is your art based on disability? Do you class yourself as a disabled artist? Or an artist that happens to be disabled?

AM: I’m an artist who happens to be disabled. That’s what I am.

EC: Do you find that there is a lot of disabled undertones in your work?

AM: Yes, I mean, there is. A piece I wrote a couple of years ago was about disability and about the effect of being a disabled man. Looking at sexuality as well. I tend to look at sex and disability – which seems to be sort of a taboo. Even amongst the disability world.

The stuff I write tends to be about things I experience. So it will be about disability. It will be about oppression. Sometimes frustration. So that – I do tend to write about and incorporate those things into my work. So I will go to causes. Such as Burma. Because of the oppression that takes place there. But it is something I also feel. I will look at disability issues with Burma as well. Those infected by AIDs or HIV. I will look at those.

EC: I find that in a lot of, you know, the issues that you just mention that you bring up in your thing surrounding your disability, like sex and things like that, they crop up in continuously in disability arts. Which is quite interesting. Yes. That – I think they probably – they probably surround people rather than just disabled people.

AM: Exactly – it affects everybody. And everybody has the same feelings.

EC: Yes, definitely.

What was the first moment that you realised you could do what you want? You could be who you want to be?

AM: It was after my accident. After I became a disabled man. A wheelchair user. I realised. Because I came from – I come from a strict Catholic background.

So I had a lot of Catholicism, a lot of guilt shoved on to me. And after my accident, it was a release. Because I just went, "Fuck off!" (Laughter) “God, what a load of bollocks this all is!”

And at the point, I felt – I can do what I want to do! Because nothing worse can happen to me, you know. And I don’t care what people think about me or feel about me or whatever... because this has happened to me. I’ve nearly died. I’m alive. And that’s it. I’m on this planet for a short period and I will just do, you know.

EC: When did you become disabled?

AM: 1987. I was 21, I think.

EC: Right. That’s quite interesting. Because I find that when you become disabled, the earlier the better. Because you haven’t set up a life for yourself as such.

AM: Yes, that’s right. Yes.

EC: But I imagine that if it happened sort of when you’re older, there isn’t that far to go? There isn’t that much movability – for you to place yourself where you need to go. That’s interesting. That your life started and you realised you could be what you want when you became a disabled person. I find that interesting.

AM: (Laughter)

EC: So you are Andrew McLay. What piece of art - or an artist maybe that you’ve found inspirational?

AM: Frantic Assembly. And the piece of work, 'Stockholm'. I found that quite inspirational.It was physical theatre and they were using the space and the lighting and the dialogue and their bodies in an amazing way. And the sets were quite simplistic. And I thought, “This is just..." It wasn’t dance. It was something else. And it was physical theatre. It was taking something from life, from reality, and making it Art. That’s what it was. And that’s what I liked.

And they’d taken something which is mundane and then using it in the space. And I was thinking, “Oh, God. That’s really beautiful. You know? Oh, that's amazing. And it was doing something to me. I found that really fantastic.

EC: I like the daily matter of fact sort of thing. You know, where you take something - just to bring it back to Strictly Collaborative. Our project at the moment is called 24 Hours In A Day.

So it’s working with that sort of thing. We’re taking routines and regimes and, you know, like boring stuff, and making it more real. And I find that amazingly interesting. I think that it’s overlooked. People think that theatre and performance should be performative. And prescribed and it doesn’t need to be like that at all. Because if you – it’s like people watching. Oh, love people watching. Because there’s always small snippets of performance.

EC: And I think it’s beautiful. Anyone else other than Frantic Assembly?

AM: Well, it will have to be my mum. (Laughter) My mum’s an artist as well. Her name is Lucy McLay. She’s nobody famous. She paints. She's a visual art.

EC: So she’s influential in the way that her art has informed you? Or influential in the way that she’s your mum?

And the only other artist would be Vincent Van Gogh. He’s very – you can look at his painting and you can see the passion there. And that’s what I like to see in a piece of art. Their mind, their body and their soul have gone into it. It’s there.

EC: The thing that interests me about Vincent Van Gogh’s painting as well is, it’s just everyday stuff.

AM: Yes, exactly. That’s right.

EC: It’s just like you were saying. There’s nothing exceptionally exceptional about it. It’s just, you know, Sunflowers. That’s it. I think there maybe – maybe the ordinary is more beautiful than something that is apparently beautiful. You know what they say about people, you know. If you were like a stunner and like gorgeous and people look at you, there is something hollow and base. You know?

You know what they say about beautiful people. And if you’re instantly beautiful, then there is a shallowness. A baseness about yourself. But if you’re quite plain and something, then it, you know, it shines through. And I think having to find the beauty, or seeing the beauty in something that is sort of... Jack Sparrow would say is like 'ugly'. I don’t know why I said Jack Sparrow.

AM: The famous Jack Sparrow.

EC: The famous Jack Sparrow. (Laughter)

EC: Yes, me and Jack go back a long way. (Laughter) So after the last question I will allow you to go home. Maybe. After I lock you in a cupboard.

**AM: **(Laughter)

AM: Three significant changes? Well, one. Well one would have to be my accident.

AM: Well, okay. I had one career in the medical profession. I was a radiographer. And I used to do lots of fitness and teach fitness and stuff like     that as well. And so I saw everybody every person with a disability as a patient. That’s just what I perceived them as. You know. And I would     see them as somebody who was ill. A lesser person. And not very fit.

    And then I had my accident and that made me. (Laughter)

AM: I became that person. Exactly. I became that person. And that’s the reason why – actually, I stopped being a Catholic. So, yes, I became that person.

EC: So not only did it change your life, it also changed your perceptions on everything.

AM: Everything. Exactly. That’s right.

EC: So it changed your perceptions on disability?

AM: Yes.

EC: On religion?

AM: Yes.

EC: On the way you saw people?

AM: Yes, yes. Utterly. Completely. That’s right.

It also gave me more empathy as well. And also it got rid of my inhibitions. (Laughter) That’s what it did. I was somebody who was very, very shy. And after that (Clicks fingers)

EC: Would you say that you became freed?

AM: Yes. It did. It freed me. It did. At the time, I wouldn’t have thought that.

EC: Yes.

AM: I just saw this as, “Oh, God! My life’s over. God! I want to die.” But no. It did. It freed me.

EC: Yay! Right. To be totally honest, I think a number of people that I’ve spoken to feel a very similar way to you.

AM: Oh, okay. That’s interesting.

EC: I am one of them. You know, and I think that you have a different – obviously you have a different outlook if you become disabled. Or if you were born disabled. Probably because we – we see the clouds from both sides now. (Laughter)

AM: Yes, exactly. That’s right. I mean –

EC: To quote Joni – a bit of Joni Mitchell there. As well as Jack Sparrow.

AM: I’m impressed with Joni Mitchell. Yes. I’m quiet impressed with Jack Sparrow as well. (Laughter)

EC: (Laughter) Right, so. Becoming disabled is one significant moment.

AM: Yes.

EC: Number two?

AM: Number two would be my first job as an actor. Yes. That was actually working with Adam Benjamin. We did a piece called 'Staircases'.

And that was very freeing as well. Because he used me in a way which was unusual and the wheelchair as well. And he decided to set the piece on stairs. And I had to go up the stairs. And so he kept me in the wheelchair and he span the chair up. So it kept, you know – he span me up the stairs to get to the top. And I thought, “This is really clever.” (Laughter)

EC: Was this the first time that you’d done anything like out there with your chair?

AM: It was the first time like that, yes, with the chair. Yes.

EC: Adam Benjamin actually did some work with Strictly Collaborative. And we had three or four wheelchair users.

And even Mya who is a dancer. She had never been off all four wheels before. So she was amazed by the stuff that we did. Well, that Adam had done. Not me. I hadn’t done anything.

But I think that – I think that it’s very, very special for disabled people. But wheelchair users mainly. To realise that they are not just four wheels.

AM: Yes, exactly. That’s right.

EC: And I – everyone was amazed by it. But Adam does some really, really amazing work. And from a non-disabled person as well.

AM: He’s very good. Yes. It was I did that in ’97, ’98, I think it was. And that was really an enjoyable experience. Interesting and, again, inspirational. It was the way he used things. Using the staircases and using the lifts. Again, everyday objects. It was really good. And the way he span me up the stairs. And he had everybody there supporting me. Making it look so easy getting up there. And I’m delivering all these lines as well. Dialogue. And it was really good. Yes.

EC: Again, freeing.

AM: Yes, exactly. That’s right.

EC: I think this is what is coming out of a lot of the things I have talked about lately. Is ways to free up your body and mind.

AM: Yes. Yes.

EC: It was interesting what you said about guilt. And being brought up in a Catholic sort of environment with the whole guilt thing. Because I found that, I’ve always been a quite guilty person. I feel guilty at everything. I think the human race, you know, that is what we have on us. We feel guilty for everything. But since I’ve been disabled, I’ve found that I’m still quite guilty. I feel guilty for being – I feel kind of fraudulent. For being disabled but not always disabled. So I have a – you know, I’m just like I’m a bit – I feel a bit guilty.

AM: (Laughter)

EC: But, yes, I think guilt is definitely a good issue to bring up. Not just for disability, as I said, but for just the human condition. If you know what I mean?

AM: Yes, yes, yes.

EC: Right. This is your last significant change, Andrew?

AM: In my life? Well that would be getting married. Meeting my wife. We’ve been together five years.

EC: For all you lovely radio people out in the world, LuWin has joined us. That’s Andrew’s wife. Well, how did you meet or how did that become – so obviously, it’s because you’re beautiful and lovely.

AM: And she’s very supportive and it’s just nice to have somebody who loves you for who you are. Not as a disabled man. A man. As a human being. It’s nice to have that. And it does affect the way you work. And also it sets your priorities. Because you stop thinking about yourself. And you start thinking about somebody else. And that’s always important, I feel.

You can get – as an artist, you can become very self-indulgent. And you get so bogged down. And oh, and that tends – it does tend to affect your art. And when you’ve got somebody else to care about, it’s – it improves your art, I think.

EC: So do you think it influences?

AM: Oh, yes. It does, it does.

EC: With your theatre company as well.

AM: Yes, exactly, that’s right. Yes. And you – and you see another – because LuWin’s from Burma. So another perspective of life as well. So, yes.

EC: Well, Mr McLay. Thank you very much for the interview and for working with us throughout the weekend. I hope to see you again.

AM: I hope so too. It’s been very good. Very enjoyable.

EC: And thank you very much.

AM: Thank you.