1 December 2004
Ruth Bailey give an overview of the development of some of the main contenders within Disability Theatre
Disability Theatre happens because of disability, not in spite of it. To get a feel of what this means, consider The Beautiful Octopus Club. This is one of the latest ventures of Heart 'n' Soul, a musical theatre company of people with learning difficulties, which fuses club culture with performance and installation art. This mix makes for a whole new theatrical experience, introducing theatre-goers to contemporary club music and club goers to the world of performance.
This new experience hasn't just been developed by chance or just for the sake of being innovative, although it certainly is that. It has evolved because Heart 'n' Soul is one of those all too rare places where people with learning difficulties are in control. This means that every stage the artistic process is shaped and informed by the culture and experiences of people with learning difficulties.
The performers at the front of the stage all have learning difficulties, as do those taking the money at the door, dj-ing etc. So too do many of those moving around the dance floor, doing whatever is their own thing. There's no pressure to conform here. The ambience, access and performances somehow manage to put everyone at their ease. Everyone here doesn't just mean people with learning difficulties. The Beautiful Octopus clubbers include people with a broad range of impairments - and none. Indeed, The Beautiful Octopus Club took the number one slot in The Guardian Guide's club listing. The reviewer raved:
For once something that isn't tokenistic but beats everything else hands down in it's own right.
So Disability Theatre is all about ensuring disabled people are at the centre of the creative process, and allowing disability to influence that process. More precisely, it can be defined as theatre
which involves a majority of disabled people, explores a disability aesthetic and mirrors in some way the lives of disabled people. [Theatre & Disability Conference Report, Elspeth Morrison. Arts Council 1992]
How did Disability Theatre get started?
Identifying how Disability Theatre started is a tricky. In part, that's because the history of disabled people's involvement in the theatre has yet to be written. When it is, chances are it will say Disability Theatre evolved as a result of several different things that were happening in the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade, Graeae, the first professional theatre company of disabled people, was formed. The aim of its founders, Nabil Shaban and Richard Tomlinson, was to combat the exclusion of disabled people from the theatre.
But Disability Theatre isn't just about combating exclusion. What encouraged and inspired companies like Graeae and Heart 'n' Soul to view disability as powerful and positive force in their work was its links with the Disability arts Movement. This movement, which was part of the broader struggle for equal rights for disabled people, sought to develop art that reflected the experience of disabled people. By doing so, it hoped to celebrate disability and counter the dominant, stereotypical view of the lives of disabled peoples' lives as tragic and helpless.
No doubt because of these links between disabled-led theatre companies and the Disability arts movement, the early work of these companies tended to explore disabled peoples' oppression.
For example, according to one reviewer, New Breed's version of The Birds
provided a stark reminder of how and why the segregation of disabled people, perhaps the last major apartheid to remain 'acceptable' in today's society, was brought about and still perpetuated.
[New Breed - a review, Ian Stanton, Coalition March 1990.]
By the 90s, however, audiences were tiring of in yer face political plays. To survive, Disability Theatre companies had to evolve again, and find altogether more subtle and sophisticated ways of representing disability. This was not easy. Plays with disabled characters or which tackled disability themes were few and far between. Those there were, like for example, Peter Nichol's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, were written from a non-disabled perspective and perpetuated the notion that impairment was nothing more than a tragedy.
So when Ewan Marshall took over the Artistic Director of Graeae he set about identifying and nurturing the work of disabled playwrights. An early result of this was Graeae's 1992 tour of Hound by Maria Oshodi. Set in a Centre that trained visually impaired people to use guide dogs, this explored the negative impact of having to rely on charities for vital services.
Hound was notable for many things, including the depth of characterisation and innovative staging. As Jenny Sealey, the current Artistic Director puts it
This marked an important breakthrough for Graeae, as it established a new voice of disabled artists in British theatre, and challenged the assumption that disability theatre was either 'worthy' or appealing to the sympathy of its audiences.
- Graeae Plays 1, Introduction by Jenny Sealey, Aurora Metro Press, 2002.
Developing work by disabled writers remains a vital part of Graeae's work today.
With the maturing of Disability Theatre, the power of placing disabled performers in any narrative, not just one that has a positive disability theme, has been exploited. For example, Strathcona recently staged an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel Notre Dame de Paris. Its disabled character, Quasimodo, is often seen as a negative portrayal of disability. In Strathcona's production all parts were played by people with learning difficulties. Bringing to the piece an intimate understanding of disability discrimination, it enabled the audience to identify with Quasimodo's pain and anger rather then just see him as the other.
Choice of play is just one aspect of what makes Disability Theatre. The form and aesethics of a piece is influenced by disability too. Sarah Scott and Ray Harrison Graham of Basic Theatre Company pioneered the development of signed song. This involved dramatising popular songs incorporating sign language interpretation of the lyrics. This form of musical theatre was at once accessible to deaf audiences and also introduced hearing audiences to the rich visual quality of British Sign Language (BSL).
Building on this work, recently Graeae has experimented with making BSL and audio description part of a play's production. For example, in its 2002 production of Peeling, the audio description was embedded in the text. This meant that each character's actions were audio described by another character. Similarly, some of the characters used Sign Supported English as well as vocalising their part. By working in this way, Graeae are developing a new disability aesethic, as well as ensuring that its work is accessible to deaf and visually impaired audience goers.
Of course, disabled performers, directors and writers etc don't just work in Disability Theatre companies, although they often face many barriers when trying to get employment in the mainstream performing arts sector. In addition, there are also many integrated performance companies, where disabled and non-disabled people work side by side.
The work of integrated companies is at its best when the needs, values and cultures of the disabled people involved are respected and allowed to shape the artistic process. For Common Ground Sign Dance Company, this means making sure the hearing dancers are invited to work with deaf dancers and on their terms. It wouldn't work, Common Ground say, if deaf dancers were just 'add ons'. As a result Common Ground have developed a style of dance, which fuses BSL with expressive dance and live music.
Disability Theatre in the 21st century
It included eight or so plays written and performed by disabled people, several of who were former Graeae actors who have now set up their own companies and developed their own work. Judging by the reviews of Degenerate received, Disability Theatre will be a positive force in British theatre practice for sometime to come.