In crip and queer theory, there is a concept that is simply labeled as “trouble”. The use of this word is not just about what happens when someone breaks a rule, though that is inevitably part of the meaning. Trouble is a space of tension and uncertainty where things can, and maybe should, fail and thus, “offer more creative… cooperative [and] surprising ways of being in the world.” (Halberstam 2011, 2) It is an active term in that causing trouble shakes up the normative structures that are constantly perpetuated in society. It is also an important and exciting factor in all the best kinds of art (in my opinion), is part of what makes a culture change and grow, and is something that I experience personally on a daily basis.
I am a blind actor. Those who know little or nothing about disability find this statement shocking. They can’t believe that I can move around a stage without falling off, let alone while singing, dancing, acting and doing whatever else a performance may require. It is because of this that I find myself in a constant state of trouble, having to prove time and time again not only that I am a talented performer, but that I am a capable human being – something to which I would imagine many of my disabled peers can relate. Luckily, I am not alone in the battle for equality. Graeae Theatre, one of the UK’s foremost disability led theatre companies, has been pioneering for equal rights in the arts for many years, and has certainly paved the way for artists such as myself.
Graeae’s newest production, The Threepenny Opera, has the company working with four different reparatory companies across the UK. I have the privilege of playing Jenny Diver, a hard skinned lady of the night, and Mack the Knife’s ex squeeze. This play is by far Graeae’s most ambitious to date, and has been full of all kinds of “trouble” that has ended with an extremely innovative piece of theatre.
Graeae makes a point of creating art that is fully inclusive in ways that are unique to the company. The phrases that are used to describe their process is, “aesthetic of access” or “creative access”. This means that British sign language, audio description, supertitles, various soundscapes, and other access tools are integrated directly into the action. Doing this creates a hyper-sensory experience which serves as a constant reminder that access is a necessary part of performance. In our production of Threepenny, I would also argue that creative access could be considered a very Brechtian tool.
Brecht’s concept of “verfremdungseffekt,” which has been translated as distentiation, estrangement effect, defamaliarization effect, and (incorrectly) as alienation relates quite closely to the concept of trouble. Both seek to strip away the familiar and self-evident, thus creating a sense of curiosity and questioning. Adding access brings a sense of irony, because one has to ask why disability is so unfamiliar in mainstream settings. Why is access almost always a hidden afterthought? What is so strange about having a wheelchair user on a stage or the set described live by an actor other than the fact that it is not considered “normal”?
In process, this play has also been full of trouble. It is inevitable in a piece this complicated. On a practical level, most of the actors, including myself are also musicians, and have been given the task of playing Kurt Weill’s challenging score alongside the acting, singing and dancing. This is made all the more complicated for myself when one of my tasks is to navigate a stage full of musical instruments and people (in heels) in order to get to a drum kit, piano, or to… well, act and sing. Again, none of the access around this is hidden. I often take people’s arms, and use my cane on stage, not only to signify that I am playing Jenny as blind, but as a safety tool and an extension of my identity.
I am also aware of the fact that various access needs clash with each other in an integrated group. The beautiful BSL interpretation in the show is likely to hold less significance to the blind audience members than to those who can see. The audio description is mainly delivered live over scene changes, or via various actors (including myself) on stage through a microphone that transmits to headsets during the scenes and songs for the audience members who can and choose to listen. On top of all of that, there are also people who might think Graeae’s use of creative access is distracting and a bit rough at points, but I would argue that this is the point. The concept of using access creatively is still raw, because it is new and vastly unexplored territory in the theatrical world. This is what makes it so exciting.
Graeae and it’s repertory theatre partners in crime have embraced the trouble that is inherent with a production of this calibre, and a manifesto as important as full inclusivity no matter what. This production revels in the trouble it causes both in process and performance and is all the better for it. The show meant to be as unsettling and intellectually hardening as it is funny and entertaining. If you watch it and leave with more questions than answers, good. That means we did our job.
Reference: Halberstam, J. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. USA: Duke University Press.
The Threepenny Opera is at Nottingham Playhouse, 21 February – 8 March, New Wolsey Theatre, 12 March – 22 March, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 27 March -12 April, and West Yorkshire Playhouse, 24 April – 10 May 2014