Features Published 19 May 2014

A State of Independence

Natasha Lewis - fresh from the UK tour of The Threepenny Opera - on the campaign to save the ILF.
Natasha Lewis

“You have to kill your neighbour to survive, it’s selfishness that keeps a man alive” scream the lyrics in the Act 2 finale of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. These words could be interpreted in many ways but I believe they’re particularly applicable to our current climate.

The epic ‘opera for beggars’ that is The Threepenny Opera – reviewed here – has just competed its tour of the UK, an ambitious co-production between Graeae Theatre Company, New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse. This piece has been a pioneer for diversity with a 21 strong cast of disabled and non-disabled actors, and actor musicians of all races, shapes and sizes. A true representation of society today.

It was recently announced that the Government are closing the Independent Living Fund  set up in 1988 in order to give disabled people more choice and control to live independent lives. This decision was made despite an initial landslide victory for disabled people back in November 2013 at the Court of Appeal where it was agreed that “the Minister for Disabled People had breached equality duties when making the decision in December 2012 to close the ILF” (Statement from Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors following the November 2013 Court Ruling). The ILF is a central government fund to which disabled people with high support needs can apply in order to manage their own personal support routine, as an example, by employing their own personal assistants.

The fund has already been closed since 2010 to new applicants in anticipation of this government choice which is the ultimate antithesis of the fund in the first place. Rather than closing the fund many feel that it should be broadened and expanded out to more disabled people. The closure to new applicants has meant young disabled people who could previously have applied no longer have this option, diminishing their right to freedom and control. In essence, closing the fund is taking the Independent Living movement back 30 years.

John Kelly in the Threepenny Opera.

John Kelly in the Threepenny Opera.

Currently over 18,000 people rely on the ILF, one of whom is actor John Kelly, who played the Narrator in The Threepenny Opera. With the help of the ILF John is able to employ his own personal assistants to support him daily, within a weekly rota system, to live a regular life – work, rest and play and, of course, tour the country as an actor and pursue his career which would otherwise be virtually impossible. Access to Work covers his support at work, but on tour there are other hours outside of work to be addressed.

Without the ILF it would prove very difficult for shows such as The Threepenny Opera to power along with the spirit that it did. Peter Rowe, Co-Director of The Threepenny Opera and Artistic Director at the New Wolsey Theatre said “Having just directed this major production with a cast combining disabled and non-disabled actor musicians, I have been made acutely aware of the importance of the ILF in the lives of some of our company members”. He then continued, “John Kelly, for example, is in many ways the spirit of the piece and depends on the ILF to live, as its title suggests, a full and active independent life. Without it he would not be able to play such a critical part in the production and the show would not be the same without his unique personality and talent”. This is a feeling that has been reciprocated by the reviews and social media feedback that the production has received and, in a time where integration and diversity is being more widely recognised, the closure of the ILF would surely only have a detrimental effect on this, certainly from a theatrical perspective.

In a production where we were encouraged to enhance our passions and actions as ‘activists’ putting on a play, the relevance of this piece currently could not have been more paramount. Making a statement about the ILF closure whilst witnessing the effect this is having on a work colleague and friend, and what a detrimental effect this would have on our show should John not be a part of it. Pete went on to say that “the beauty of the company is that there is such a diverse mix of disabled and non-disabled actor musicians and singers combining and interchanging on an entirely equal footing. Removal of the ILF would mean that John would not be able to contribute in this way and we would all be deprived of a unique and extraordinary performer”.

The Threepenny Opera became an immediate vehicle of speech on the day that the closure was announced, as moments after the news had broken, the onstage activists who, as part of the show paint banners, were able to react and there were placards across the stage bearing ‘Save The ILF’ slogans. Anarchic? Possibly. Relevant? Absolutely! A true representation of company camaraderie in a Brechtian environment! To quote the book, “when the real paupers come….they’ll be coming in their thousands!”

Jenny Sealey, Co-Director of The Threepenny Opera & Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company, who was the Co- Artistic Director for the London 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony, stated that “the narrative of the ceremony was built on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article No 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The ILF made it possible to have disabled people in the show, sending a worldwide message of equality, inclusion and rights. As Jenny stressed, “Many of disabled actors have been, to date, empowered by the ILF which gives them the freedom to take on work with us and other companies. It is essential to remember that the afore mentioned declaration needs to always be a reality, not just a paper document.”

Although a huge amount of energy was expended to win the High Court Appeal in November there has to be more in order to ensure that this decision does not extinguish the freedom of the thousands of people that it affects. In essence, the word needs to spread so that we can help the government change its mind and not make this choice a wrong one! In the profound words of JJ Peachum, “We all deserve prosperity and freedom and happiness is everybody’s right…but let’s be practical, it isn’t so.” Wouldn’t it be something if it was.

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