Young Ambassador Robert Wood interviews Jenny Sealey MBE, CEO/Artistic Director at Graeae Theatre
Is the process of helping actors with accessing scripts a standardised one or a personalised one?
Well in all manner of things, we never help, it is not how we do it. Rehearsals are rehearsals – it’s our job to make sure all the right accessible methods are in place to enable that actor to be the best actor they can be – our ensemble, a group of eight young people from 18 to 28, have just done their showcase, which they wrote and devised. It’s very abstract but it’s very personal to them, about how they feel about being disabled people in this current world. So for one member Ashton, he has his script on his phone with headphones so he’s being line fed through his phone because he has no memory – he’s got physical memory but he struggles with remembering words. His character plays a Lost Boy who is constantly glued to his phone.
With other actors we also use line feeding, especially with deaf or blind actors who don’t read Braille. I do it with a lot of hearing actors, because it’s getting the script away from them and they only have to think about how they are going to deliver that next line – if you can hear – not for deaf people though. With deaf people we project the script onto a screen so they have the freedom and they can sign – but then they are playing, looking up at the lines in front of them, walking up and down, it becomes very static, so we have to try to break them and take the lines away – but everyone has different learning methods. It’s always a question of balancing where everyone is at in terms of their learning potential and how they learn. And then hopefully by the time it gets to tech week, everyone is up to where they need to be.
Dave who was in our ensemble two years ago has a different voice pattern – for blind audiences, they would not always get Dave, he uses a voice high gaze. He blinks and the words come out in a very electronic voice like Steven Hawking. I said to him this electronic voice doesn’t feel as though it belongs to your character in this play – so I want you to say your lines in your own guttural way of saying them, but what I’m going to do is find a young actor whose got the same energy as you, a speaking actor, and you will conduct that actor, so you will blink to Steven Lloyd and he will say the lines at that moment – you with your voice and Steven Lloyd with his voice, so we’ve got the picture of both. We did exactly the same with Jamal who is deaf and uses sign language – so blind people won’t hear him and Ness the central character is blind herself, she said I can hear him making noises with his hands but I don’t know what he’s saying. So, it’s how do you adapt? That was a really, really, interesting dynamic. So it is really interesting exploring all the ways in which we can continue to work.
Are you working to help other theatres into ways of being more inclusive?
Graeae has been influencing theatre for the last 38 years and the National Theatre is now employing deaf and disabled people, also smaller companies are now thinking how better to work with deaf people through sign language; the impact of the company has been huge. But the biggest thing is that there is now a consortium called Ramps on the Moon which is comprised of six theatres – New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, Birmingham Repertory, Leeds Playhouse, Nottingham Playhouse, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Sheffield Theatres and the Graeae. Every year they do a big integrated, inclusive production. The first year they did The Government Inspector, the second year they did Tommy and last year, they did Our Country’s Good. They are using all the aesthetics of access that Graeae started developing all those years ago. They’ve taken them on and started to play around with them in those productions, and this means there are many more opportunities now for deaf and disabled performers, which is very exciting and who knows what the future holds? And the next big production? It is worth getting in touch with Ramps to find out.
If you could change the process through which actors are hired in order to equalise the playing field for actors with disabilities. What would you do and how?
I think the biggest change we need in this country is an attitudinal change and for people to really understand the social model of disability. There’s still that thing out there of ‘what’s wrong with you?’ It is like, hang on a minute, no, we belong to a social model which is access, and it’s everyone’s responsibility, and the Arts are – a human right. Our engagement with the Arts is a fundamental human right, but it’s the attitude we have to change and the thing I come across still, to this day, is ‘Oh but there are not many parts with disabled characters’, it is not the point. Acting means you can play anybody, it really, really does.
So that’s the biggest thing we have to do, and I think that when audiences get more used to disabled people in regional theatre and in the National Theatre, the more commonplace we become, they will say, ‘oh there’s no one disabled in this production, why?’. That’s the point we want to get to.
How did you decide your disabilities we’re not going to hold you back in your career?
I don’t think I decided on a course of action actually, I just knew that I wanted to be an actor and that’s a very good question. I mean I am self-taught because I went to a mainstream school which was just a nightmare, and I’m very good at lip reading but you can only lip read for so many hours a day. The same was true of Middlesex Poly, I didn’t go to any lectures, they just gave me the reading lists and I went and read it in the library, but I went to all the practical classes. I wanted to do dance but they wouldn’t let me on the drama course because unfortunately they were worried about whether I’d pick up cues and all that bollocks, sorry, all that stuff. You know when people have low expectations of you, that sort of lights a fire in your belly, no one should say you can’t do something, you need to do something about that and say ‘Oh but I can’. You know people have said you can never do a musical but Graeae did ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, a punk musical, of course we can. Or – ‘you can’t do Opera’, so we went to the Royal Opera House. Or – ‘deaf and disabled people can’t be on these sway poles, these 4m high bendy poles’, excuse me I think they can and so for that we did the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony (among the performers were 73 deaf and disabled people and among the volunteers were 68 people with disabilities). One of the co-directors, Steven Bunce, a double amputee, climbed a 4m high bendy pole, took off both his legs and was floating in his stumps in front of the Queen. We were told there was no way a disabled person could get up those poles, but we said yes they can.
So, I quite like being told no, something can’t happen, it’s like the next challenge. But with Graeae I’ve been very lucky because I have dialect interpreters. They are my lifeline and I wouldn’t be able to do my job without them. Well I would but I’d only be operating on about 10 percent of information which is what I did throughout my education. I don’t have to do that anymore, I’m surrounded by extraordinary skilled interpreters, one of whom is sitting behind you, Jude. It’s nice that I don’t have to go anywhere on my own, so at any events or parties, my plus one is always my interpreter. It’s a learning process watching how interpreters process – I meant there are times when I’ve been in a meeting and I’ve wanted to cry because I’ve thought of the times I had been in these meetings, a long time ago before I had interpreters, and I didn’t get any of it, but now I am getting ALL of it.
My ambition has always been to make enough money to put a roof over my head, to buy proper coffee, beer (that’s not good but it used to be fags but I’ve stopped smoking), and enough money to pay my bills – so it’s just always been having enough and my ambition hasn’t really changed that much in that respect.
You were asked by the TV show ‘The Undateables’ to recommend disabled actors that might be interested in participating on their show…
I am really annoyed that I have failed to get that programme closed down, because the very commissioner of that programme left to go and work in a club. I was that close and now it’s being rolled out as a franchise across Europe. And the European government know that disabled people are not happy, as you can imagine.
I’m trying to raise awareness of what car crash television ‘The Undateables’ is but when they emailed me they said ‘we want you to be part of our empowering programme’ but there is nothing empowering about it. I think that is something we need to be more active in – we need to go to those places, those production companies and try to raise awareness. And to this day, we can carry on Tweeting, Facebooking and trying to raise awareness of how awful it is. On the flip-side ‘First Dates’ is a lovely programme because it’s about a first date, not people that are ‘undateable’, I mean, how they can even be able to make something like that in the first place is beyond me.
I have been having a conversation with Channel 4 and Sky Television about how the work we do could create really good drama that educates people. There’s a really good programme called ‘Cast Offs’ written by Jim Thorn and Alex Bulmer, and Tim Gebbels, the blind actor I mentioned earlier, was in it. One of his story lines was a Shakespearean actor who goes blind, so they might say how do you do this if you are blind? And it’s just him, he’s taking the mickey out of this actor, and the penny drops and then it’s very, very funny, very tongue in cheek. It’s one of those things where the penny drops and the audience goes ‘ahhh’ – it’s all the things programme makers should be thinking about. If you ever get a chance have a good listen to ‘Cast Offs’ it’s brilliant. We need more programmes like that, there’s not enough.
I don’t know if you saw, ‘My Mouth and I’ with Jess Thom who has Tourette’s. She’s just done a production of Samuel Becket’s ‘Not I’ with all her Tourette’s ticks in it, she says ‘biscuit’ around 6,000 times a day and other words so the text is peppered with her biscuit. It’s compelling, it’s her, it’s real. She’s a brilliant actress and it should go a long way to changing people’s understanding of Tourette’s, and what she articulates brilliantly is the social model of what disability is. We all have a responsibility to make sure that everyone is aware of the social model. We are all responsible.
Written by Robert Wood