Playwright Kaite O’Reilly discusses Forest Forge Theatre Company’s production of Peeling, touring Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset
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, Europe’s foremost company of practitioners with sensory and physical impairments. 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.
But the women in ‘peeling’ are actors in a post-modern production of The Trojan Women – Then and Now. They are sometimes ‘on stage’ and sometimes ‘off’ – gossiping and arguing in the shadows, revealing their recipes alongside their secrets.
A triumph in its original production, ‘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.
‘Cripping up – the Twenty First century’s answer to blacking up’ one of the characters says in the play. 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...
The three brilliant performers in ‘peeling’ prove this is not the case. Ali, Nicky, and Kiruna are powerful, comical, and poignant. We are only at the end of the first week of rehearsal at the time of writing, but already I am congratulating Kirstie Davis, artistic director of Forest Forge, on her superb casting and her liberating, inclusive attitude – for it is still extremely rare.
Sadly, in my twenty plus years of professional experience in theatre, I have largely found a reluctance for companies to cast disabled and Deaf actors, even in parts written specifically for them. Perhaps this is based on fear, or ignorance, or uninformed preconceptions – things are certainly changing and improving - but we certainly need more like Kirstie in the industry.
I am also extremely excited by ‘peeling’s rural tour – bringing this work and this company to village halls and community centres. The fact large famous London theatres are still casting hearing, non-signing actors in Deaf, signing parts only highlights how quietly radical Forest Forge’s work is....
Although I’m loving every moment of rehearsal, I also can’t wait for the ‘peeling’ tour to begin. I’m keen to discover how the audiences of Hampshire respond to the play.
Kaite O'Reilly's blog was reproduced with kind permission from Forest Forge Theatre Company's website