Delivering a full-on collaborative R&D project in which you are the main producer, writer, performer and administrator, is always going to be stressful.
You could say that this is a character-building experience which will look good on your CV, and this is true. But actually it’s bloody ridiculous because what you want to be doing is immersing yourself in the creative process and letting someone else deal with all the partnership and artist agreements, finance stuff, booking access support, etc. etc.
Finance has been a nightmare. It took three visits to the bank and two telephone calls before they sent me a ‘card reader’, and I hadn’t made payments this way before. Is this method accessible? Absolutely not!!!
it took me 2 hours to pay eight people: the card reader would time out, while I squinted to read the weeny figures, double-checked that I’d punched in the correct digits, and panicked that I’d inadvertently pressed the wrong number and some unexpected individual would get lucky and one of my team lose out…
Thankfully it all went through, but this wasn’t a productive use of time.
‘Where’s your Access to Work?’ I hear you cry. I’ve never been that organised and I don’t have any ATW arrangements at the moment. This really stems from the notion that I can do it all myself (which of course I can’t because I’m unable to see half the things I’m doing). I’m not great at asking for help when I need it. But the reality is that I do need help, especially as my sight has deteriorated further in the last couple of years.
When I put the ACE G4A bid together for Learning to See, I’d heard that you could apply for money for your own access support needs. ‘Great!’ I thought, and I put in a smallish figure to support me through the rehearsal process and for a bit of the admin. I had to use some of the money to bring in an audio-describer to help with descriptions of the visual material that was being developed. Whilst I had it, it was fab! I clearly didn’t ask for enough days.
I advertised the role (for 6 days work) and found a brilliant woman who has an excellent understanding of visual impairment and is an artist herself. Because she got the theatrical concept and is a photographer too, she gelled with the team and was able to take appropriate initiative. I really hope I can bring her on board again.
So now I’m faced with the task of approaching Access to Work again. One of the lessons learnt from doing this project will be to find either some project manager support or some input from an independent producer as I build the next bid to take the show on tour. Goodness knows how much longer we’ll have Access to Work, though, what with all these cuts.
I’d better act quickly.
A lot has happened in the last couple of months, heading in the right direction, but a long way to go…
Part of the research and development strand for ‘Learning to See’ is to work with an established writer through New Writing South’s Writer’s Mentoring scheme. I’ve got four sessions with Mark Hewitt. A key aim being to end up with a good ‘draft’ rehearsal script and sketched ideas on how the other arts disciplines; film, sound and musical input etc. will fit in.
Developing this piece I’ve had to dig deep into my world as a partially sighted person and try to get more specific about which bits of my life story I want to share. For sure I’m in active conversation with all the creative team about how to present the literal and metaphoric layers in ‘Learning to See’.
Together we’re exploring how to interweave the traditional material, film and soundwork into my story. The first half has moved on massively and now we are turning our attention to the second half, which presents relatively uncharted territory so far.
One of the exciting areas that’s got ton’s of theatrical potential to play with is around all the stupid things the general public think they’ve got permission to ask or say to visually impaired people and how we think, feel and respond. If we all had a penny each time someone asked “how much can you see?” or “where’s your little doggy?” then we’d all be rich.
The other side of the coin is all the misunderstood communication, partly caused through the obvious lack of eye contact and inability to read facial expression and cope with the environments and stressful situations we find ourselves in.
Over the last few months I’ve been reflecting on my experience as part of VI culture at special school and beyond ‘how I communicate and how others within the VI community communicate and how the sighted interrelate with us. I want my audience to come on a journey with me as I grow and to question their own life assumptions and perceptions.
Half of ‘Learning to See’ examines my life as a partially sighted child and teenager when I didn’t want anything to do with being visually impaired; wouldn’t use a white cane etc – masking vision wherever I could. I hadn’t a clue how to ask for help when I needed it, hadn’t been taught too, I was naively unaware of my identity let alone any disability politics. The challenges of growing up in a world that expected me to conform to be as ‘normal and sighted as I could be’ presented a set of complex problems to unpick and solve.
The more I began to learn about cultural diversity, social justice and accept who I was the more assertive I became. Assertive and direct communication is something that I’ve noticed amongst some of the other visually impaired people I know and in my view, it is definitely part of visually impaired communication culture.
This assertive approach can cause miscommunication and misunderstandings. I’ve certainly been guilty on several occasions (butting in inappropriately and I know I’m known for being direct - not necessarily a great reputation to have)
With 75% of information being received through visual media, we’ve got to find a way to find out what’s happening. If you have a visual impairment you are having to use all your physical and emotional energy concentrating on every aspect of daily living activity and this is extremely tiring and can result in a ‘more’ assertively expressed viewpoint.
Most of the time you’re not going to find out what’s happening unless you ask because we don’t have audio description on tap and many of us don’t have Access or PA support in place.
I don’t know how far we’ll get in representing some of this but these reflections inform every aspect of ‘Learning to See’.
It’s absolutely brilliant to be given funding to develop your own creative ideas, exciting yet the responsibility is daunting.
I’m fascinated about our life stories and how we choose to tell them and how they interrelate with traditional stories and songs where disability appears (either symbolically, metaphorically or literally) in my case visual impairment.
Learning and telling traditional stories is one thing, kind of pretty spontaneous for me really you hear or read the story, break it into sections, relearn it and tell it improvising and playing with it’s shifting nuances provoking different audience responses. To tackle my own life and weave it in and around folk/fairytale and song is proving to be a different experience. I’ve wanted to find a way to share my story for years and I eventually want to encourage others to tell and share their stories too.
In late 2012, I began the process on a course led by Mark Hewitt through New Writing South. Actually writing my life down getting specific about some of the things I wanted to say. After receiving positive feedback from the small sharing of extracts I decided to go for G4A funding. But it took me a while to realise what it was that I wanted to develop. And it took a networking event led by Young Vic and National Theatre and one conversation with one of the directors to encourage me to think differently actually to think bigger.
I’m so used to working on my own it easy to stay in my own box, and the four crucial words that Sarah said to me: ‘what about creative play’, pushed me into action.
Lesson one: attend every networking event you can you never know where conversations may lead you.
My story explores ‘learning to see’ living in that half world of light shade shape colour shapes shifting, so there’s scope for playing with colour and sound. My story has strong themes around identity and acceptance, there are symbolic and metaphoric links between my tale and several folk and fairytales waiting to be woven together.
It does work as a stand-alone piece as reflected upon after my recent Together sharing commented upon by Stephen Portlock, but to push myself beyond my usual practice and flesh out it’s full theatrical potential I needed a dream team and I think I’ve got one.
Lesson 2: have as much in place as you can and think of your own access needs
Before you fill any form, you’ve got to try to get as much of your plan and partners in place as you can. It’s not easy and can take months. (ACE’s access fund is invaluable go for it if you find form filling in difficult)
Inspired by Sarah’s words I approached who I wanted to work with and the result is impressive. Mark Hewitt to direct (from Lewes Live Literature), Sound artist Joseph Young, who’s also got a fab singing voice and will help me explore the musicality of the work, Filmmaker/ documenter, Abbie Norris to explore the look, Rachel Gadsden to provide live visual art on stage and the dynamic Caro Parker and Roger from STAGETEXT to help me investigate creative captioning and Deaf access. I got the people in place fairly quickly but securing a Brighton venue to mount my play days proved much more challenging, because sadly we just don’t have enough accessible spaces available.
I’ve had to make some compromise, but the partners I’ve amassed are exciting, New Writing South, Nightingale Theatre, MAC Birmingham and Half Moon YPT.
I don’t just want to research the creative potential but I also want to find out what different audiences think and how they respond to the performance styles used especially young people so attached to the creative play are a series of ‘sharings and Q&A’s which will lead to me being able to develop a tour.
Through creative play we can push this work into a new direction and I will grow and have something new to invite professional audiences to come and see me working in a different way.
Okay so I’ve not been idle over the last few years I’ve been telling stories in different settings but I haven’t been seen on the disability arts circuit for a few years and it’s time I changed that.
Lesson 3: You don’t have to take your clothes of to have a good time but you can be inspired by others who do!
Not long after I received the fab news that I’d received the funding. I had the enormous pleasure of catching Mattt Fraser’s wonderfully sexy interpretation of ‘Beauty & The Beast’ at the Young vic. I’d seen this piece in it’s infancy at Dada-Fest several years ago when Mat was first weaving his dream. I provoked Mat to think about the metaphoric links around disability in this dark and beautiful tale and I was delighted that through Improbable’s Phelim’s imaginative direction Mat and Julie’s true love story was intrinsically woven into their theatrical retelling of the classic fairytale.
This was such an inspiring piece of work powerful and extremely funny it completely validates the model for disabled artists exploring the role of their own life histories and the magical world of folk and fairytale.
In the bar afterwards I congratulated Mat, Julie and Phelim and told them that I was about to embark on my own creative journey and perhaps there may be similar theatrical devises employed - although you can be reassured I don’t have any immediate plans to take off my clothes! (well not yet anyway)
Lesson 4: Learning to let go and fly
Mat said one of the hardest things he found was learning to let someone else take your initial ideas and lead you into new territory, but you have to trust and then you learn to fly. On the train home I reflected that that’s what I’m just about to do. I’ve always respected Matt’s approach he dreams an idea, develops and nurtures it, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t but you don’t get anywhere without taking the risk! So I’m going to go for it.
Thank you ACE