Victims, villains, metaphors, parodies, benefit scroungers or inspiration porn stars…. Kaite O’Reilly was tired of the way disabled characters were portrayed in the media and frustrated by the limited range of parts available for disabled and D/deaf actors. So decided to do something about it, and initiated The ‘d’ Monologues in 2009. Now, with international collaborators and an Unlimited commission ‘And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/U.K. ‘d’ Monologues’ opens at Southbank Centre 5thSeptember and concludes the tour at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff 11-12 September.
Theatre is often presented as a place of communication and exploration, of dissent and inquiry: a place of dreaming, of solving, of challenging the present and imagining the future. It’s that communal place where all the possibilities of what it is to be human can be expressed… apparently. So why are the majority of representations still so limited in scope and variety, and the potential of those bodies so prescribed?
I have been angry most of my life. Identifying as a working class Irish immigrant disabled female sounds like the start of a right-on joke, and the jostling identity politics certainly creates friction, a blistering energy I’ve found best directed into cultural pursuits. Beyond bigotry, intolerance and the socio-political status quo to rage at, I’m angry at stereotypes and the lazy representations of difference in our media, stage, and screen. I get apoplectic by the churning out of lies representing disabled peoples’ existence: tragic but brave, benefit fraudsters, inspiring over-comers, or helpless figures of pity.
Since the Ancient Greeks disabled characters have appeared in plays, but rarely have the writers been disabled or written from that perspective. The vast majority of disabled characters in the Western theatrical canon are tropes, reinforcing limited notions of what it is to be ʻnormalʼ rather than broadening the lens and embracing all the possibilities of human variety. So common is the atypical body in our stage and TV dramas, the audience(s) assume they know and understand the realities of disabled and D/deaf individuals’ lives, yet few of these narratives are informed by lived experience, and so misconceptions and ableist notions of difference, shaped by the medical and charity models of disability, are reproduced and reinforced.
Some years ago, somewhere along my raging, cursing way, I encountered Gandhi’s advice about being the change you want to see. I decided to ditch much (but not all) of the anger and make instead a body of work solely for disabled and D/deaf performers, informed by the social model of disability. Like gender, I believe that disability is a social construct, and it is the physical and attitudinal barriers which disable us, not the idiosyncrasies of our bodies. And so the project The ‘d’ Monologues was born.
I began my explorations of the monologue in 2008 on a Creative Wales Major Award, courtesy of Arts Council Wales. As part of my development, I had interactions with world class exponents of the form including Eve Ensler, who strengthened my love of the monologue form for being portable, flexible, and affordable to stage. My first ‘d’ Monologues, In Water I’m Weightless, was directed by John E McGrath for National Theatre Wales as part of the Cultural Olympiad celebrating the 2012 Olympics/Paralympics. And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/UK ‘d’ Monologues, directed by Phillip Zarrilli for The Llanarth Group, is the latest manifestation, an Unlimited international commission in multiple languages, inspired by lived experience.
My leading Singapore collaborator, Peter Sau, followed the interview model I established in 2009, and instigated a series of interactions with disabled and D/deaf Singaporeans, many of whom had never been afforded such respect or interest in their lives before. These raw conversations inspired fictional monologues I wrote, mixing Mandarin, Cantonese, English, Welsh, Singaporean and British sign languages, thanks to our talented, multilingual cast. A triumph at its world premiere in Singapore in May this year, this Deaf and disabled led intercultural production was hailed by the British Council as “a real game changer.” It’s with great relish I bring this revised production to the UK, hoping it will be part of an on-going conversation about difference and that once-sexy, now over-used word ‘diversity’.
The company consists of pioneering artists exploring new form, with the aesthetics of access – audio description, captioning, sign language – at the very heart of the work. The show isn’t about access, it’s about the innovative use of theatre languages, mixing visual and spoken storytelling in dynamic form. I’ve been exploring ‘the aesthetics of access’ for over two decades, and constantly find the dramatic possibilities for layering meaning and multiple channels of storytelling exhilarating.
Live and pre-recorded sequences tell little-known stories physically and visually, with integrated audio description and creative captioning throughout. Ramesh Meyyappan, a brilliant physical and visual language practitioner leads the sequences relating to Deaf experience, accompanied by a mediatised Sophie Stone. New members to the company include Garry Robson (currently at The National in Pericles) and Macsen McKay, who makes his debut alongside Welsh disability icon Sara Beer – his mum – and Singapore performers Peter Sau (National Best Actor award winner) and Grace Khoo. Other Singaporean collaborators who were unable to travel with the production appear in filmed cameos.
As we have new performers, I have written new monologues in a variety of styles, pithy, funny and painful, reflecting the experience of disabled people now, in the UK. These texts, alongside others written over the past decade, will be published by Oberon as The ‘d’ Monologues, to coincide with the tour. Together with the perspectives from Singapore, the performance montage creates, I hope, a symphony of experience – sometimes harmonious, other times discordant, with pace, tempo-rhythm, lyricism and counter-point. It is a snapshot of our times, a dialogue across multiple languages from one small nation to another. We invite you to be part of the conversation.
2018 TOUR DATES:
Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room (London)
5 – 6 September 7.45pm [Unlimited Festival performances]
The Old Fire Station (Oxford)
8 September 7.30pm
Attenborough Arts Centre (Leicester)
9 September 7pm
Chapter arts centre (Cardiff)
11 – 12 September 8pm.
And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues is commissioned and supported by Unlimited, with funding from Arts Council of Wales and British Council.