Theatre is all about diversity, but for an artist with a disability the challenges start by just trying to get a seat front of house – let alone the chance to get onstage
THERE WAS an unusual happening at the Project Arts Centre on the last day of March, where a sell-out audience filed in to the Space Upstairs in anticipation of a free theatrical event called Turning Point.
The stage is bare except for seven chairs – three facing four on either side of the stage; two music stands; and a small narrow screen at the foot of the playing area. The lights dim and eight actors enter from the wings, seven of them sitting down upon the chairs, the eighth – a wheelchair user – brings his own seat with him. A dark-haired woman dressed all in black takes her place downstage, the audience’s focal point, as the preliminaries for the evening’s events begin.
As is common with theatre these days – so aware of its own artificiality, so eager to prove its invention – the fire announcement becomes an integral part of the theatrical event. “Welcome to Project Arts Centre,” familiar words to regular audience members, flash up in bright orange upon the digital screen, while the dark-haired woman, Caroline O’Leary, begins signing with her hands; the beautiful fluid balletic movements animating her pale face.
For hearing-impaired and blind audience members, these are not aesthetic decisions, theatrical signs, to be decoded by a reviewer sitting up near the back. But in the context of this one-off showcase, organised by Fishamble: The New Play Company and Arts and Disability Ireland, these audience aids are a powerful symbol of the exceptional nature of disability culture within mainstream theatre practice in Ireland.
For mainstream audiences, captioning is associated with translation in opera; but for audiences with hearing difficulties it is an occasional service (like signing for deaf audience-members or audio-description for the visually-impaired) offered usually only once in a production's run: if offered at all. As Rosaleen McDonagh, one of the artists participating in Turning Point, and a wheelchair-user herself, puts it "access is still a huge issue for the majority of people with a disability. Sign interpretation, audio description, we are told are 'extras'. Extras need budgets and the excuses go on."
And yet the focus of Turning Pointis not to highlight the issue of access for audience members with disabilities, although that will inevitably come to the fore in the context of an event like this. Turning Pointis dedicated to showcasing four short plays by four writers with disabilities, whose work will tour to Washington in June as part of the International VSA Arts Festival, at the invitation of Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.
Pádraig Naughton, director of Arts and Disability Ireland, who makes a brief address to the audience before Turning Pointbegins, draws attention to the contradiction inherent in issues surrounding arts and disability in contemporary Ireland. "The challenge [for artists with disability]," he says, "is to be viewed and critiqued in the context of mainstream arts practice."
To judge them on their own terms, then, the four short plays in Turning Pointtake a refreshingly varied approach, both in theme and in aesthetic. Steve Daunt's conversational two-hander How Very Normalpits a pair of estranged friends against each other; a narcissistic wheelchair-user and his taciturn peer who is unable to directly address his former friend's disability or his new aggression. It is an unsympathetic characterisation of an embittered soul as well as a disabled body.
John Austin Connolly's Ellipsis, meanwhile, is also a study in the unsaid. Written in a spare and oblique Beckettian style, a man and wife try to come to terms with the suicide of their son, whose mental health problems have disabled him from full participation in life. It is emotionally brutal, as the aftermath of suicide is. Should Have Gone To Lourdesby Stephen Kennedy is a hilarious dialogue between two brothers, one a wheelchair user, in a brothel in Amsterdam. The exploration of physical intimacy is made all the more poignant by the physical disability of the central character, while the fact that the wheelchair-user is played by an able-bodied actor (John Cronin) draws attention to the troubling aspects of representing disability on the stage, although this may be an oversight rather than intentional.
Finally, Rosaleen McDonagh's Rings!breaks the naturalist frame of the evening in a startling manner. The simple premise of father-daughter misunderstanding is made uncannily prescient by the nature of the character of Norah's disability. Deaf and mute, her thoughts are communicated to the audience by voiceover, as well as through caption and signing, mediating the experience of alienation for audience members who have a disability and those who don't.
More significantly, by creating a distance between Norah (played with grace in mere gesture and facial expression by Mary Murray) and her thoughts, McDonagh represents the alienation of the young Traveller woman from the society around her in a sophisticated and emotionally challenging manner.
Turning Pointwill be presented at the International VSA Arts Festival, Washington June 6-12. See the website vsarts.org for more
THE WRITERS, THEIR WORK AND THEIR DISABILITY
The big question for disabled artists is cultural. Disabled artists and practitioners want to be heard and respected. But we want to participate in the arts and theatre on our terms. Why would one want to avoid being defined as a disabled artist? My personal choice is to celebrate my disabled aesthetic. I understand it to be beautiful and perfect as it is. It works as a creative and political tool. It informs my life. My disability spills into my writing. Identifying as a feminist writer or as an Irish Traveller is powerful and liberating.
I think there are two sets of challenges facing an artist with a disability. The first being common to all artists: the need to make a living. Then the disability thing kicks in. Will you be seen as “the new Christy Brown?” Will you be seen as just coming from a happy, clappy community arts perspective? But is being defined as a disabled artist such a bad thing? Disabled experience is ripe for artistic exploration. It only becomes an issue if your work isn’t as good as it should be. It’s all about the quality and recognition of the work.
JOHN AUSTIN CONNOLLY
The best way to avoid being defined [by your disability] is to forget about it. If you’re able to write, you’re able. That’s the bottom line. Anyway, all writers are disabled. They’re dying of cancer, or deaf, or have MS, or they’re just fucked up. If they’re successful, maybe they’re pompous or egotistical, and if their peers are successful, they’re disabled by envy or hatred. We are disabled in different ways at different times, and our disabilities can stop us working at other times. Life, never mind living, can be a handicap – but hey, then you get a piece accepted or win something and it’s pure magic.
The challenges facing all artists in the contemporary climate of theatre-making in Ireland are lack of funding and lack of good theatre facilities. I mean, I’ve even had to rehearse with actors on roof tops of apartment blocks. But these challenges exist for all artists, whether they are disabled or not. I think the way to avoid being defined by one’s disability is to produce work so strong that people don’t even register that you have a disability. Despite being partially sighted all my life, and writing a good bit down the years, my play for Turning Point was my first time writing a play about a disabled character.
ACCESS ALL AREAS
ACCESS TO theatre for wheelchair-users in Ireland remains the most potent physical challenge for audiences with disabilities. Most theatres in Ireland have only a limited number of seats available to facilitate wheelchairs, if they have such facilities at all.
At the Gaiety, the maximum capacity is four, with a complimentary seat provided for carers. At the Olympia, capacity for wheelchair users is limited to two for standing gigs and four for seated shows. As Rosaleen McDonagh puts it, “If you use a wheelchair you get assigned a certain place in the auditorium. But if there are more than two wheelchair users, at one performance, you may get turned away.”
New, purpose-built venues provide better facilities and the Project Arts Centre represents good practice in access. There are eight wheelchair spaces available in the Cube; twelve in the upstairs space; and an infrared system for hearing-impaired audiences. The Project also has wheelchair accessible dressing rooms and a control room for artists with disabilities.
The lack of access for wheelchair-users at the Peacock Theatre continues to be a major talking point. Following an official picket outside the theatre prior to the premiere of No Escape, earlier this month, director Fiach Mac Chongail conceded "shame" and "embarrassment" about the situation, followed quickly by an announcement that "an architect has been retained to design, cost and work out a schedule to implement the changes necessary to make the Peacock Theatre fully accessible."