Features Published 28 November 2018

Jackie Hagan: “The whole class-rage thing was bubbling and bubbling”

James Varney interviews performance-maker Jackie Hagan about access and telling the stories of "real people who are having a hard time"
James Varney

Jackie Hagan

“We’re all scrabbling around trying to find new coping methods aren’t we?” Jackie Hagan says, about ten minutes into our interview. In between actually talking about theatre and her shows, we’re both a bit knackered. It’s the end of the week and Jackie’s lost count of the interviews she’s done already and I can’t remember the last day I had off. But in the context of this conversation, that’s alright, as long as we both know.

‘Wearing your heart on your sleeve’ is supposed to be a vulnerable thing. Maybe a bit risky or foolhardy. ‘Oh she wears her heart on her sleeve,’ is something you might say to be kind about an Aunty who keeps making the wrong decisions. I want to say, “Jackie Hagan wears her heart on her sleeve,” but in the way that if you’re being boring she’ll tell you – in the way of someone who’s decided shutting yourself off to protect yourself is a bit bullshit. Talking to Jackie makes me think coping mechanisms definitely don’t have to be quiet and shut-off, and they don’t have to be scary and aggressive, either. Jackie Hagan wears her heart on her sleeve, but I just mean that she makes it very apparent what she cares about, and that might not be you, but it’s worth you knowing.

“I think I’ve commodified my personality. I think I have – it’s either that or work in a shop isn’t it?” Hagan is frank, breaking down her life, “I’ve done the factory and the shop and the pub, and being on benefits. And now I can’t go back to factory, shop, pub, I can’t stand up for that long. I’m incredibly attention-seeking and anything bad that happens I like to turn it on its head. Not in a cheesy optimistic way but just because I like to be surprising. Like being a rebel, but without a cob on.” Her openness makes me think about coping mechanisms as group experiences. If you are open and generous with everything you’re feeling, not just the good bits, you’ll be in a room where people understand each other better.

In 2013, Hagan had her right leg amputated, and now walks using a prosthetic she has covered with glitter and coloured tape. This all happened shortly after being awarded a commission to make her first solo show. “I got the commission, then five minutes later I was in hospital, having me leg off and all that shit, so when I was writing it I was fucking off my head on morphine, and trauma, and uncertainty. So the first scratch, the people who were giving me feedback on it said like, “maybe change the ending because it’s for 13 and up and it’s a celebration of the word ‘fuck.’” – which it was but in a lovely way.”

The resulting show was Some People Have Too Many Legs, a bit stand-up, a bit poetry, solo show which charts Hagan’s experience of going into hospital with a painful foot and coming out ‘with one less leg and loads more maturity.’ Beyond the initial commission from Contact Theatre, Hagan also won Saboteur and Creative Literary Future awards for the show in 2015. But 2015 already feels distant. “That first commission… I didn’t really know what it was. A surprise, let’s call it. I think that show was very fluffy – you’ve gotta make amputation fluffy, in a way, for schools. So it was all fuckin unicorns and bubbles and all that and I just got a bit sick of making things fluffy.

“If you’re in a wheelchair people do that sing-song lilt, you know, that patronising tone of voice and put their head on one side, like ‘Oh, you’re in a wheelchair,’ and people do exactly the same when you’re being a bit council estate. It’s like your accent and your teeth and your reference points make people go like, ‘Awww.’ I was getting sick of ‘Awww.’ The whole class-rage thing was bubbling and bubbling. So either I was going to kill myself or someone else or make a show about it.”

Hagan is now reaching the tail-end of touring her second solo theatre show, This Is Not A Safe Space, commissioned by Unlimited. “It took ten years of writing to write about class in an honest light. Because I wasn’t saying it in the right words… I was doing it with tears held back and just fucking massive rage, from real shit experience. And when it’s been your real shit experience you might not be great at putting it into words. And so you might need it to be scripted, you know. And if I’m scripted then people shut up and listen. That’s where This Is Not A Safe Space came from: Fluffy show, Non-fluffy show. That’s how it went.”

This Is Not A Safe Space casts its net wider, looking at the climate for people living with disabilities in the UK. “I just want to tell the stories of real people who are having a hard time. I’m not typical. I’m like a weird, multicoloured-haired, fucking, one legged, fucking unicorn-esque, like bag-lady. That’s not what a lot of people are like, so I went out and interviewed eighty people on disability benefits and thought, ‘Let’s see what other people have got to say.’”

“And I actually thought it was going to be more of a laugh than it was, it was really depressing. I thought I was going to show how we cope with humour, but by the time I got round to doing the interviews the world had fucked up even more. So everyone was just depressed as fuck. When you give people an opportunity to talk, people tell you the grimmest stuff, because there’s so much fucking grim stuff. And then other people really held back because no one ever asks about that stuff, and it’s like ‘Why are you asking? You’re either Benefits Street or the DWP, and you’re gonna grass us up.’ Because everyone’s terrified. It was weird and it was sad, but there was a lot of humour as well.”

Hagan’s practice also sets its sights on the structures of theatre, who feels at home in them and who the art is made for. I ask her what it’s like working alongside larger institutions making her shows and trying to reach audiences. “I’ve been trying to fight that corner of making it so that people can come, which is hard as fuck. Theatres put flyers in their own foyer. It’s not getting far is it?” Jackie’s approach to meeting audiences is literal, “You’ve gorra sort of go out there. I was a bit idealistic at the start and I realised that actually there is loads of restrictions and it is really difficult but I have been getting people in. Lots of disabled people. Mainly by me going on all the time to people about theatre in pubs and stuff and sort of being passionate about it without being a dickhead.

“They’re like ‘Well what is it?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s me! It’s just me doing this onstage!’ And they’re like, ‘No.’ As if I’m not allowed to do that cause you’ve got the same amount of teeth as me. I think that gets it in, just that it’s just a normal person. If your life is represented back to you onstage then it makes you feel more valued. And it makes you feel like your story’s worthwhile.”

Jackie Hagan’s work is inseparable from her as a person – more than an aesthetic thing by dint of her performing her own solo work; the personality, the treatment of people and their stories in her work is unmistakeably Hagan. I have Jackie on facebook, and always know when she’s writing something because she’ll post a status and crowdsource responses to an image or sentence she’s come up with. “I worry that people might think that that’s really lazy, but I don’t want things to just come from the inside of my head. I am probably, literally, odd in terms of psychiatry. I need to check with people, that I’m on the ground floor, you know, this down-to-earthness is real, and this isn’t just some bollocks that only relates to me.

“I don’t want to lose anyone. So that’s why I like things like, the Argos catalogue and Kinder Eggs and Kwik Save, shopping trolleys and stuff. It makes you feel grounded, doesn’t it?”

‘Not wanting to lose anyone’ is a typically Jackie Hagan way of talking about access: “It’s about, when you start making a show, thinking at the very start. Imagine that everyone wants to come to your show. And then, if you make it so that everyone can come to the show, then they can. You can’t get it perfect, but you shouldn’t be worried. Just try anyway.” Hagan’s language is functional. She’ll never lose you in conversation, she’s a master of keeping your attention, one-to-one in the smoking area or as part of an audience of five hundred.

Hagan’s currently working on a Christmas show, produced by Contact, The Forest of Forgotten Discos!, ‘for children of all ages (and the older ones who look after them!)’. Cosmetically, it might seem different to her other work: a play about a gang of bears living in a forest where everyone has forgotten about disco. At its heart, though, are the same politics of inclusion and society in her other work. “One of the bears just happens to be Deaf, and it’s not a big deal. It’s just like if you had someone Deaf in your family. I’m really against, when you’ve got a show and it’s like late-night on channel 4, like if you watch something at 3am and there’s a signer just plopped into the corner. Theatres, the real person is on stage with you so you don’t need to plop them into the corner, you can make it more creative.

“In the Safe Space show, I’ve got a signer and we’re mates and we talk to each other and I sort of reference signs that she does, because sometimes BSL really comes into its own when you’re talking about rolling a turd in glitter to represent your world view, things like that. It should be a really normal thing and not a precious thing, not a tacked-on thing. [In The Forest of Forgotten Discos!] it’s the same sort of, very down-to-earth signing. Where it’s not like, ‘Now this person is signing to the audience.’ It’s very naturalistic. It means that no one’s left out, anyone in the audience who is Deaf can tell what’s going on, but it’s not a BSL person stuck in the corner.

“The bears all sign to each other and we teach some of the kids sign, but not in a naff way. I’m really really sensitive to naff stuff around disability. It’s just in a way that’s not going ‘We’re being educational about disability now!’ It’s very down-to-earth. And then the different disabilities that people have got in the room are just there.”

It’s the roll-your-sleeves-up-and-get-on-with-it attitude that makes the integrated access in Jackie’s work radical. There’s an acknowledgement, vital to it, that disabled people are just other people. If you have a conversation with them and you’re honest about what you don’t know they’ll respond like anyone else would. “Where both of the shows are coming from is society undervaluing disabled people and me trying to say, ‘Look. Disabled people aren’t this funny, other species that we have to be scared of. Just because we might be asymmetrical, or have needs that you might not instantly understand, that doesn’t mean that we should only go to theatre on a Tuesday matinée.’ You can make everyone be involved in something.

“They’re both about people not being left out. That’s it. Both shows are about not leaving people out, and valuing everyone in society and understanding differences.”

The theatre industry is a mess, there are all these conversations going on, as we try to diagnose the problems and how to fix them and which parts need burning down. But thank fuck Jackie Hagan is here, taking a multi-pronged approach to challenging audiences on class, disability and how we all connect to each other. She’s taking on multiple generations all at once, and as much as the world is shit at the moment, it seems like there might be some hope for the future. “Kids are great at disability – they come up and hug my leg, rather than go ‘Oh excuse me, I’m very sorry, can I just ask you a personal question, ohh how’d you lose your leg?’ They just hug it and then pull a bit of glitter off it and run off laughing, which is great.”

The Forest of Forgotten Discos! is presented by Contact at Hope Mill Theatre, 11-23 Dec. Each performance is accessible to D/deaf audience members through the use of creative sign, involving the use of sign language, and visual storytelling used throughout. The performance on Saturday 22 December, 2pm will be also BSL interpreted by Kate Labno. More info here.

This Is Not A Safe Space is produced by Unlimited and tours to the Wales Millenium Centre 1 Dec.

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James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.

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