Thinking outside the box…
… which box? The 'Access' tick box that is meant to help monitor inclusivity. Or less exclusivity, depending on how you view it. Don't get me wrong, I think in itself, monitoring accessibility is hugely important, but the notion of ticking it off, or it being stuck like a label onto a whole body of work, sits uncomfortably with me. Making accessible, inclusive work is definitely at the heart of what I'm doing. Ticking boxes, is not.
It’s something I feel impassioned to address as I get my brain, heart and soul in gear for the first day of rehearsals, listen to what others are saying and asking about Great Odds, consider what’s true to my intention and help re-direct any chat that I feel could be veering off in the wrong direction.
Great Odds is a story that explores universal struggles, like not fitting in, following dreams and finding the courage and conviction to tell your own story, in your own language and it's a show that happens to integrate British Sign Language (BSL) as a form of creative access, meaning both d/Deaf BSL users and non BSL users can access the story on a mutual level. Also central is the integration of sound, puppetry, live music and visual storytelling... and a narrative where deafness and/or disability is never discussed!
This is a show for everybody. It’s not niche, it’s the opposite. It’s for a more diverse audience than your typical mainstream children’s show - and yes, you and /or your children will definitely understand it if you don’t know BSL.
The story is set in 'Grimsbidge', a fictional town suffering hardship, cuts and booming rent prices. It is a world where no one bats an eyelid that the Big Boss is Deaf and each of the other three characters communicate through a different language; one through music, one through English and the other through BSL. Throughout the structure of the play, the development of the characters and in the construction of 'Grimsbridge', I have very deliberately observed a view of disability that leans towards the Social Model.
Disability Arts organisations and publications play a vitally important role in championing the work of the many outstanding disabled artists and companies making work today, however, as a hearing, non-disabled theatre-maker, I feel I ought to point out (because I have been asked with such regularity) I'm not 'into Disability Arts' any more than I am 'into Mainstream Theatre'. I just want to tell a really good and accessible story.
Of course, observing genre headings like 'Political Theatre', 'Physical Theatre', 'Performance Art', etc, can be a relatively useful way of filtering shows when buying or advertising tickets or for finding a short cut to refer to a specific style of performance. However, from a creative perspective, I think it's useful to question how helpful all these headings are when they begin to compartmentalise and segregate art and performance into types, which surely co-exist, overlap and don't behave according to our label obsessed culture.
Who hears those famous notes of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and thinks ‘Ah! Disability Art’? No-one. It is just music. Brilliant music, composed by a genius deaf composer.
I'm cautious to put this blog out there because the last thing I want to do is suggest 'Disability Arts' does not have a hugely important part in the culturally rich world I have been lucky enough to grow up in, been informed by and love. It really does. Nor would I want to put anyone off discussing how theatre can and should be more accessible. Recently Perdie Bargh from our partners at Lighthouse Poole, wrote a really brilliant blog entry (here) about 'Accessible Theatre' and what that means to her. I couldn't be happier that this show might evoke some of those thoughts and conversations. I'm glad it makes an interesting talking point and I'm very aware it does so because it’s not necessarily standard practice to work this way. I'm just keen to add to that conversation and the regular 'what got you into disability arts' question, a blog that talks a bit about my original 'why'.
So as we near the first day of rehearsals, I'd really like to go back to that.
Why have I made this show and why am I making it now?
When I was 8, I made a 'replica' version of a model box set I had seen in a glass cabinet at the Polka Theatre, of The Borrowers. It took me a day, without stopping for any breaks and when I’d finished, unlike the end of most days now, I looked at my work and thought what I had made was utterly marvellous. Not because I wanted anyone else to know about it or think it was good, but because it would serve perfectly for playing with. I remember the butterflies in my stomach when I looked at it and imagined tiny people living in it.
When I was 32, while working as a Communication Support Worker I attempted to translate ‘you should follow your dreams’ from spoken English into BSL to someone who was completely unfamiliar with the concept for a multitude of reasons.
I went away questioning how much I truly understood of this phrase myself. It’s very conceptual. Literally, the phrase conjures quite an abstract, fairytale-like picture, and on unpicking the concept, I thought about ambitions, aims, hopes, wishes and a fire in the belly. I thought about how those things have driven me, but the subject of ‘my dreams’ has often changed and then I thought about how I’ve never actually caught hold of one or experienced (that really weird idea) of ‘living’ one.
There was a horrible irony in the situation which I won’t go into now, but the experience left me simultaneously frustrated and fascinated by our use of language and how these common English phrases get thrown around, without being truly understood or interrogated. It drew me towards wanting to explore more about what it means to follow a dream in a world that can be so brilliant and at times, so unfair.
My 8 year old self, met my 32 year old self, the optimism of those storytelling butterflies challenged my adult scepticism of how anyone could ‘follow a dream’ these days. That is my 'why'. Also is the adult realisation that this 8 year old was very lucky. Her voice was nurtured and she was encouraged to keep trying, to find a way under it or over it, if going through it wasn't an option. She was told that trying her best would always be good enough. I think that is a message worth making a show about. Trying to make that show inclusive of a wider than average audience, is surely just one of many important parts of the overall picture.