Exploring Visibility

This last week I visited 6 shows in 5 days across 3 countries which explored the world of visibility. The first at the Lyceum in Edinburgh gave me the chance to see Barbershop Chronicles which I had missed in all its earlier acclaimed iterations. This energised company are on tour and I think heading to Broadway – they helped make a traditional theatre audience aware of the stories of Ghanaian heritage flowing from the barbershops of West Africa to the vibrant community of Peckham. It was great to see a younger audience and to hear the whoops of joyful recognition as some of the more stereotypical characters in family life were depicted on stage. 

The next night we were at the Traverse Theatre to see Still No Idea by Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence which offers us the chance to try to understand the side-lining of disabled actors and disabled characters in storytelling.  Unless the story is about disability it appears that their lives are invisible or unrepresented.  The final challenge to us was to go home, read a play, listen to a radio drama, read a book and just imagine that the lead character is disabled. Is it so difficult for that person to be blind, in a wheelchair, D/deaf or living with a more hidden disability? Families with disabled members exist and go about their normal family lives with little of their dialogue being about disability. But when an actor is cast to be a non-disabled character with a standard storyline in a soap, experience shows that writers fail to deliver them a character journey and they become, once again, invisible on the screen.  Lisa and Rachael have created a powerful, deeply funny, challenging and welcome show with Lee Simpson.  It will make me think differently – and that’s the power of good theatre.

Next night I was in London to catch up with the Maiden Speech Theatre Festival founded by Lexi Clare to showcase the writing, directing, and performing talent of fellow graduates of Mountview. 50 creatives, 17 new shows plus 11 events/scratch nights at the Actors Centre now till 16th November.  In its 3rd year it is a fabulous showcase of work which “offers fresh perspectives on identity, gender and sexuality through a myriad of stories and styles”. I was there to see the first sharing of a piece by Hannah Cound and Amy Le Rossignol entitled Asper-Girl exploring with music, spoons and sketch comedy the normal world of someone with autism. I am so pleased to have been there because this felt like the perfect place for the early sharing of a new work seeking to make more visible the world that Hannah and many others live with. I hope to see the work again very soon at a Festival near me. 

After seeing one work I bumped into the Associate Producer of the festival, Kayla Feldman, and was really pleased to be able to stay for her piece “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” performed by Anna North with Lexi Clare.  Here they explored the terrifying thought world of someone with Pure O a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Kayla’s writing is powerful, deeply painful to witness and she was blessed by Anna’s intense physicality in bringing to our attention this condition.  The company wanted me to stay for the final show of the night and the post show discussion Brains on Stage, but this piece was too powerful and went too deep for me to take another show in the night.  I am sure this will move forward into a full production run and be an important work to shine a light on Pure O.

Four plays giving me insights into different worlds – and that’s the power of theatre. And next Kath and I went to Shook by Samuel Bailey at Southwark Playhouse, a stunning debut piece selected by Papatango and finely directed by co-founder George Turvey. All I wanted by the end of the play was for the law to change and young men (and women) in care and young offenders institutions to be allowed the tenderness of a hug, the support of a caring system, and ways whereby humanity can enter the grey world of anger and boredom, boredom and violence in which they live. Stunning nuanced performances from Josef Davies, Josh Finan and Ivan Oyik as three young men in care and a heartbreaking reflection from the outside world with Andrea Hall as their visiting teacher helping them understand how to look after for their own children when they are released. This is a play which should be seen by every decision maker & politician who can make a difference. It is powerful and necessary theatre. ,   

And finally last week Kath and I went quickly to Belfast to see Conor Mitchell’s new opera Abomination which uses as its total libretto the public declarations and interview answers by DUP politician Iris Robinson on the subject of the abomination which is the homosexual or lesbian. Mitchell shines a very very bright light on the rhetoric and fundamental biblical beliefs (in my view deep distortions) perpetuated by individuals in power. Rebecca Caine, the musical theatre and opera supremo and long time collaborator with Conor plays the central role being interviewed by the wonderful actor Tony Flynn as Stephen Nolan.  The 13 piece orchestra is conducted by Tom Brady and it, together with the chorus of voices as the DUP members, provide a brilliantly overpowering and emotional driver for this piece.  In the making for a year this work could not have been better placed to hit the zeitgeist and form a central production in conjunction with the Outburst Queer Arts Festival.

The Lyric Belfast was packed to the gunnels with a wonderfully diverse audience – regular theatregoers, new opera lovers, supporters of political theatre, queer theatregoers, and a smattering of national and international arts practitioners there to see how Conor’s work and his whole growing canon and creativity can be brought to a wider global attention. It is hard to think back to just 14 years ago when Conor and Kath first wrote a piece for young people and then went on to collaborate with the young Gary McCann and Heather Young on the premier of Goblin Market.  Everyone knew of Conor’s exceptional talent as a composer even then. Now his Belfast Ensemble is being (too slowly but steadily) recognised with financial and creative support to allow him to shine bright.    This opera offers me, a not too politically aware English man, a visceral musical mainline into the awful struggles which have led to some changes in the law in the last few weeks. 

So 6 pieces of necessary theatre exploring untold stories, the West African life in London, the challenges of invisibility for some actors & disabled stories, autism, Pure O, young offenders in need of one hell of a hug, and the abomination of some political thought for present day understanding of what it is to be human and loving and equal in society.  I wish I had had time to see the final piece offered to us in Belfast – Singalong Calamity Jane – which might have been a perfect release for some pretty emotional and deep pieces. Sadly we had to head back to Edinburgh and prepare for a working week.

Reflecting on my work after the week – So much of my surgery work is with emerging and re-fashioned creative makers who are exploring new ideas and ways to make themselves, their work, and special issues more visible. It is a privilege to work with them to see who is the next person they could/should talk to who can help the steps they need to take or the amplification they need for their stories. In the midst of this theatre and opera fest I spent time with a series of surgeries. We covered HipHop, Cyprus, refugees, gender identity, grief, the civil rights movement and the life of a junior doctor in the NHS. Plus the bringing to life of an iconic pop character for a West End show.  In each case, I hope, I will be around to see the ideas and creative playing come together with the necessary investment and funding to bring these shows to the stage and make them visible to a hungry public.

Theatre is about making visible the stories which can change lives, enrich society, and make a difference. It is also about giving joy and helping people remember that they are allowed to wallow in storytelling be that through the Broadway Musical or through Pantomimes which are, as I write, slowly taking shape across the UK.  Oh yes they are.

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