Arts Industry20 Minutes, Jenny Sealey, Artistic director of Graeae
19 June 2009
Graeae, the disabled-led theatre company named after the three sisters of the Gorgons in Greek mythology who had to share one eye and one tooth between them, is almost three decades old. It has achieved an international reputation, and since 1997 it has been led by Jenny Sealey, herself deaf. Last week she was presented with an MBE by the Prince of Wales, later this month she moves Graeae into a new Ã‚Â£2.6m home, a converted tramshed in London's East End, and co-directs a new show for the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival, Against the Tide, featuring deaf, disabled and non-disabled artists trained to perform atop 10ft poles.
What is Graeae's message and what is the secret of its success?
The company now has a wide-reaching remit but with the same agenda, which is to profile the excellence of deaf and disabled artists, and to use theatre that is pioneering in style and content and challenges the status quo of who has the right to be an actor and allowed on stage. Graeae seedbeds emerging artists and provides platforms for their work, but also a big part of our ethos is to advocate for success in all areas of performance across the creative sector: that's our ambition for our actors, writers and designers.
What will the new building allow you to do that you couldn't before?
Artistic, creative and functional access underpins all of Graeae's productions and this has been the template for our new home. We have been lucky enough to work with a fantastic architectural team at Artillery Architect and Interior Design, who really embrace the idea of producing a space which was reactively accessible, contrasting grey industrial floors with contemporary design, whilst remaining true to its history. In the past we have had to compromise on functional access in so many rehearsal spaces, and have often had to pay over the odds if they do have good access, so for us to have our own home not only saves time and energy spent looking for space but it means the access we want is there and we are able to focus on our fundamental raison d'etre - making theatre. It is a wonderfully liberating notion!
What were you doing before you became artistic director of Graeae, and what appealed to you about the company?
I was an actor with Half Moon, Red Ladder, Theatre Centre and Graeae. I then won a trainee director bursary with Interplay under the directorship of Jon Palmer where I learnt the while notion of multi sensory theatre and that everyone should have access to theatre - but the question of how we all access theatre is different. This became my working ethos and still is. After creating plays for deaf communities in the East and West Midlands and doing plays / opera for Interplay, joining Graeae felt just right. It was a company where I could continue to be deaf, where I could use my deaf sensibility to inform my work and be in a position to take the work across a broader audience and across generations. I know I will leave at some point but not until I have fully nurture3d and developed our 12 associate artists and have paved the most delightful path for them to follow.
Is the fact that you can make this move a mark of the growing appreciation of the work of disabled artists?
Graeae's new home consolidates ACE's believe in disability arts and the rights of deaf and disabled artists to have space to create new work and that we are part of the whole theatre ecology.
Graeae has always been concerned with training actors and in my time has trained over 50 with over half working (on and off - such is an actor's life). Now we are working with drama schools so that they deliver the training which includes disabled actors and performers. There is always some concern about training disabled actors in that drama schools train people for jobs and this is a key question. But attitudes are changing. In the past it has often been said, "Oh but there are not many plays with disabled characters"; but more recently there is a growing realisation that Shakespeare did not say whether Juliet was a wheelchair user or not and the act of casting is "are they a good actor and can they be right for the job?"
This gradual change is having impact on the industry with the growing visibility of deaf and disabled actors in mainstream theatre, TV, radio and film. It means that drama schools have faith that they are training disabled people for jobs in the profession.
Has the public attitude to disabled performers really changed?
The attitude is changing. The fear and discrimination surrounding physical and communication differences is still prevalent, but directors and producers are finally seeing beyond the wheelchair / the signing / the different speech pattern so that we too can be cast as doctors, lawyers, lovers and murderers. We are getting there but we still have a hell of a way to go: What is good is that the slightly patronising view of disabled people ("ah, aren't they sweet") has evaporated, and it is clear that disabled performers have the skills, passion and ambition to be out there with the best of them and will not be seen as charity cases. If the work is not good, then a journalist or reviewer or audience member will say so rather than patronising us and saying "didn't they do well". At Graeae we are as proud of our stinking reviews as we are of our brilliant ones. This is progress!
How would you like to see Graeae's message carried even further?
Graeae has been part of a collaboration between Push and the Lyric Hammersmith, which was an extraordinary workshop week for a diverse group of artists from diverse backgrounds. This rich mix is being encouraged to go and create new work together. This work alone profiles and demystifies working practice and those questions about how do "the disabled" work with "the non-disabled". The answer is simple: they just do. Good art is in the nature of collaboration and explores what is what and what it can be. Graeae has an exciting time ahead with Just Me, Bell by Sophie Partridge, a new play touring to schools across London; a signed song show; Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll, by Paul Sirett, our co-production with at Theatre Royal Stratford East; a new Jack Thorne play, and many other things up our sleeve as we make plans to create what we hope will be a big splash in the run up to 2012.
The message is about being out there and being equal players. And we are lucky players indeed as we now have the most wonderful space in which to play!