Watching over the scene alongside assorted stage managers and crew is a woman who appears to be dressed in a pair of checked pyjamas. While choreographer Mark Smith negotiates the couple's movements as actors Miles Mitchell and Amy Conachan repeat the scene several times, the woman eventually can't help herself, and, as the “My body is yours” lines are being spoken, moves into the playing area and puts Mitchell's hands firmly onto Conachan's breasts. “Touch each other,” the woman says out loud.
The woman is Jenny Sealey, who since 1997 has been artistic director of Graeae, the theatre company founded in 1980 by disabled actors Nabil Shaban and Richard Tomlinson. They wanted to put on theatre in a way that didn't discriminate against disabled actors, but put them at the centre of the action rather than marginalising them. The play being rehearsed is Blood Wedding, Federico Garcia Lorca's steamy tragedy of doomed love rendered in what might possibly be an even more full-on take on things in a new version by David Ireland. Hence Sealey's intervention.
“It's about sex,” says Sealey on a lunch-break as a sign language interpretor relays questions to her, “and sex is about grabbing. You can't be modest.”
Graeae, named after the Greek myth of three sisters who possessed one tooth and one eye between them, paved the way for other disabled theatre companies, and are now regarded as one of the best purveyors, not just of disabled theatre, but of theatre per se. Much of this is down to Sealey, an artistic force of nature who has been profoundly deaf since she was seven years old.
Graeae were last in Dundee with Sealey's production of Reasons To Be Cheerful, a musical inspired by the work of of Ian Dury, who had been struck down with Polio as a child, and whose song, Spasticus Autisticus, was banned by the BBC. Sealey had earlier collaborated with the Suspect Culture company on the play, Static, and her production of Blood Wedding is being co-produced by Graeae, Dundee Rep and Derby Theatre.
Given this context, the young lovers words mouthed by Mitchell and Conachan about each other's bodies is given fresh resonance, especially as Mitchell is a non-disabled actor of colour, while Conachan is disabled.
“We had a development week early on,” says Sealey, “and as it happened the woman playing the mother was deaf, and I started to realise that the relationship between a deaf mother whose son is her main form of signing contact, to lose him is even more profound. She's already lost her other son and her husband to murder, and now she's losing her son who is alive, but she's losing her communication asset, so that moved things to another level.
“Sometimes Graeae makes a choice to refer to people's physicalities and impairments,” Sealey points out, “and sometimes it really doesn't, but because the deafness of the mother is so profound in this it felt appropriate that people's physical differences or ethnicities were mentioned, and that became part of our territory, so there are no elephants in the room.”
This looks set to be the case too in terms of playing style, in which signing and audio-description are woven into Ireland's script, which relocates the heat and dust of Lorca's play to the sticky claustrophobia of a city. The former is a methodology which Sealey has applied to other Graeae works, ever since she directed Steven Berkoff's version of The Fall of the House of Usher with the numerous stage directions being spoken by the actors.
“Maybe it has become a signature thing,” Sealey says, “but with Graeae our work has to be signed and have audio description every night, and with The Fall of the House of Usher we hardly had any money and could only afford three actors. I wrote to Steven Berkoff and asked if we could have actors say his stage directions. That was when we realised the theatricality and sense of ownership in doing that.”
Ownership is something that came to the fore during Sealey's tenure as co-artistic director of the much lauded London 2012 Paralympic opening ceremony. While this spectacular event saw disabled artists move into the mainstream like never before, Sealey has found what has happened since a frustrating experience.
“For my team of fifty professionals who took part in the opening ceremony, I thought the world would be their oyster” Sealey says, “but the only people who rang up months later were Channel 4, asking if any of them wanted to be on their programme, The Undateables.”
Sealey recalls several audience members at Graeae's production of The Threepenny Opera who said that if they'd realised it was being performed by disabled actors they probably wouldn't have gone to see it. Even closer to home was the language used by head-hunters who had approached Sealey with a view to her applying for the then vacant post as artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland.
“The head-hunter asked me whether I would want to continue to audition deaf and disabled people and why, and was Scotland ready to see deaf and disabled people on stage.”
Given the success of companies such as Birds of Paradise, who Amy Conachan recently appeared with in hit show The Wendy Hoose, and learning disability based company Lung Ha's, the question was a strange one. Especially given that only a few years ago Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh instigated Europe's first fully integrated theatre company that featured a semi-permanent ensemble of disabled actors. Sealey withdrew her application anyway.
Despite such setbacks, things have moved on for Graeae and other disabled artists. The fact that theatres such as Dundee Rep and Derby are co-producing Blood Wedding is itself a statement.
“There's been a real shift in the the word diversity,” Sealey says, “and deaf and disabled people are part of that. It's not solely about ethnicity. So theatres have really started taking it seriously, but there's still a long way to go.
“The last two years have been an uphill struggle,” she says, “and that was why doing a play ;like The Threepenny Opera was so important now. It's not just about the effects of austerity culture. It's saying, hang on a minute, we're not going to be sidelined. Doing Blood Wedding is equally important for the same reasons. We're not going away.”
Blood Wedding, Dundee Rep, March 4-14, then on tour to Derby Theatre, March 17-28, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, April 1-3, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 8-11,New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, April 14-15, Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, April 21-25.
The Herald, February 24th 2015