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> > > Jo Verrent talks to Rachel Feldberg, Artistic Director of the Ilkley Literature Festival

6 May 2009

Theatre in progress

Photograph of writer

Rachel Feldberg

Rachel Feldberg is currently the Artistic Director of the Ilkley Literature Festival. She is also the person who gave Jo Verrent, and many other disabled would be actors like her, their first job whilst Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company. Over the next few months Jo and Rachel are blogging about the overlaps between art, disability, leadership, equality and more.

At the time when you were at Red Ladder you employed so many disabled performers who are now almost household names (people like Jenny Sealey, for instance, now the Artistic Director of Graeae). What was it that drew you to employing disabled people, often fairly untrained disabled people at that, in a mainstream young people's theatre company?

To answer your question, like so many things, I would have to go back to the beginning.

Before I worked at Red Ladder, Ruth Mackenzie and I founded a touring theatre company called Moving Parts in 1980, straight out of university. From the beginning it was clearly a socialist feminist theatre company - we were all at the start of our working lives, Thatcher was in power and we were on a mission to change the way people saw women and men’s roles.

I had been very involved with the women's movement at university in England and when I had a year out at college in the USA. The hot issue in Moving Parts, to begin with at least, was men and women - how could they be equal. Could we all do the same tasks with a bit of training and support? Was it just conditioning that stopped us?

Every tour we swapped the tasks round so that admin, tour booking, driving, costumes, writing, directing and so on, were done by different people. Inevitably it became obvious that some people were more talented at some things than others (it’s all beginning to sound a bit like Animal Farm…) and we realised it would probably be easier for all of us if we stuck with what we were good at, if only for some of the time.

Once we had at least, partially, got to grips with gender, it became clear we had to look at race. Jatinder Verma (Artistic Director of Tara) came to see a show we did about the family which was touring to young people in youth clubs all over the country and asked me afterwards why all the actors in the company were white. Although I tried, I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer and I realised, as we all did, that sexism was just the beginning of a long ball of string.

Moving Parts slowly became a multi-racial company. It was both inspiring and incredibly tough for everyone involved - not least the black actors who came into a company of well meaning white socialist feminists who knew very little about black culture, black history or black politics.

It meant finding actors who hadn’t necessarily had the chance to go to drama school - lots of the best black actors in the early 1980s went to youth theatres like The Tricycle in Kilburn and to Anna Scher in Islington rather than drama school. It meant that we all had to rethink how the world worked and in the confines of a company van, find out what an integrated company meant in practice.

As we sat in traffic jams on the M1 we talked about eachother's life stories, about why being an anarchist was a cop-out and how to counter the inevitable racism we encountered in small towns and big cities all over the country. There are things that I will never forget - the welcome the white members of the company got in a black club in Bristol’s St Paul’s on the same night the local white run pub wouldn’t let the black company members in. Going to perform in a youth club in Barking which it turned out was run by the BNP (who told me in no uncertain terms that they hated Jews as much as they hated black people) and where the sense of threat from the shaven headed ‘youth workers’ was palpable. The three months residency we did in Moss Side in Manchester, where for once the white members of the company weren’t in the majority and my friend Mal needed to guide me through a world he completely understood and I didn’t.

Artistically, I realised that work we were making as an integrated company was much more exciting than anything we had done before - it drew on this whole rich diversity of art forms, it was much more edgy, it referenced contemporary culture and the audiences found it exciting too.

So when I ended up at Red Ladder it was unthinkable that the company wouldn’t become multi-racial: it was clear to me by then that you only really have two choices when it comes to oppression - you do something about it, or you do nothing and by doing nothing you collude. It might be important to say here that the non English Methodist side of my family were German Jewish and escaped from Berlin in the middle of the night in 1933 - so collusion has never seemed like an a attractive option to me!

By 1985, when I arrived at Red Ladder, all the ground work had been laid: I was already used to, indeed loved, working with a really diverse company when people came from different cultural backgrounds and different levels of opportunity in terms of experience. I had spent hours tracking down actors who had started out in youth theatre and were currently working as pizza delivery messengers or Manchester cabbies and persuading them to come and auditions. I hadn’t at that point worked with disabled actors although my family, like many people’s families, is full of people who were born with a disability or acquired one as they got older.

At college in the States my close friends tended to be radicals - well as radical as you could be in America in the late 1970's. We were all into learning sign language - they even had a signing table in the college dining hall which was definitely the most fun place to sit. They took me to see the National Theatre of the Deaf in Washington whose work is entirely in ASL (American Sign Language). And we talked about the politics of disability, as I did with lots of the women’s movement people I knew in London. When I was at Red Ladder I went to see shows by Sheffield TIE and Theatre Centre, both of whom were working with disabled actors at that time.

So I understood the networks you needed to use to involve actors who would otherwise be disenfranchised - apart from Rose Bruford College in Kent, you needed to skip the drama schools and go to youth theatres like the Tricycle or Bulmershe College in Reading which ran a theatre course for deaf people.

You needed to understand the politics so that you could appreciate what it was you were trying to do, you needed to talk to people and learn from them. Without doubt the learning is one of the things I have always enjoyed most.

So, given all that, employing young, talented, disabled actors on national tours to youth clubs seemed pretty obvious really!

Family History

You mentioned your family and their approach to disability – was disability ‘normal’ in your upbringing then?

I suppose my family were the final piece of the jigsaw. My father had epilepsy and died when I was three. His epilepsy didn’t stop him doing sport at school including boxing, fencing, running and then, after dropping out of university (which in the 1950s was pretty much unheard of), starting his own business making harpsichords.

Growing up half German Jewish in a conventional small town in Kent with a young widowed mother who had three small children and a harpsichord workshop didn’t exactly enable us to blend in!

Because my mother was on her own in difficult circumstances, we moved to be near my English grandparents who, along with my great aunt and her ‘dear friend’ and a whole circle of determined older people, became our everyday world. My mother played duets with a brilliant flautist who happened to be blind and learnt all the music by heart from Braille copies and my grandmother was great friends with a young blind man studying to be a piano tuner. Compared to the temperamental professional musicians I had contact with through the harpsichord workshop, these people were a dream.

As time went on, my English grandmother became progressively deafer and my sisters and I learnt not to talk to her when she had her back to us, to pitch our voices lower so she could hear and sit close to her in noisy places. (I have always assumed I would probably loose my hearing eventually too - although actually it's my sisters who are having more problems with that – for me, its my heart that doesn't work very effectively, but that's another story.)

My German grandmother was also very disabled by her hearing impairment and had a serious heart condition which meant she could only walk a few hundred yards, but she was still busy translating the work of leading English writers into German, so that the two countries could understand one another better.

And then when I was around twelve, my cousin Conrad - who has a learning disability - was born. Conrad’s birth had a huge effect on all of us and changed the way my entire family viewed disability almost overnight. All the adults were very upset, but to me Conrad just seemed like a cute and very cuddly baby, just the right size to be lugged around from place to place. I could help change him and give him his bottle in the way twelve year old girls seem to love.

As he got older Conrad became very good at things I could never do - swimming for example - where he competed at a very high level and won medals. He’s exhibited his work as an artist, danced with his sister, my cousin, on Top of the Pops and now lives independently with friends in a shared house in Hertfordshire. We share a love of musicals (which, coming from a family steeped in early classical music, is tantamount to playing in a heavy metal band) and he’s always been a great person to sing all the songs from The Sound of Music or Joseph and Technicolor Dream Coat with. My aunt Jane, Conrad’s mother, explained to me very early on that it wasn’t that Conrad couldn’t do things, it was that he did them differently or more slowly or needed more time, or that he just did and enjoyed different things from the rest of us, and as far as I could see, that was true.

What’s more, having spent a lot of my time as a child with older people I always assumed that I would become disabled by an age-related condition eventually, so for me, there wasn't any 'us and them' - more a 'now and later' continum.

Living with disability

You mentioned your own heart condition – when that emerged, how did it change things for you? You are clearly determined, political and extremely active – did it change how you saw yourself or how others saw you?

There is something about finding out that your heart doesn't work properly which is deeply undermining. I've talked to other people with various heart conditions and many of them say exactly the same thing. It's like having an unpredictable bomb inside you which could go off at any moment.

I directed a show with Taffy Thomas, the Cumbria- based story teller, called Take These Chains - which Taffy wrote about his own experience of having a lifelong heart condition and a major stroke in early middle age - he expresses so well exactly how it feels. I had no idea that there was anything wrong until I was well into my thirties, so I didn’t have the childhood experiences so many of my disabled friends and colleagues described to me of people regarding me as disabled, of special schools or teenage bullying.

The first time I had an episode, years ago, it came completely out of the blue (although apparently a classic scenario for an inhereted condition like mine which often doesn’t show until your mid 30s - I was 37) and was ridiculously dramatic. We were waiting for an Arts Council team to turn up from London and carry out a major appraisal. As they walked in, I collapsed and was hustled out and the rumour ran round the small Yorkshire arts network that I had had a heart attack - completely untrue but a great story!! The minute I was back on my feet I felt I had to show people I was just as capable as before. The arts can be a macho business, particularly if you are in a managerial role. However the reality is that I do have to take things more slowly (although slowly for me, as people have pointed out, is actually probably pretty normal for other people as I’m generally working on three or four projects at once).

But there’s no doubt I lost a lot of confidence - could I trust my body to do what I wanted? Could I still do all the things I used to? Should I take lots of medication 'in case', Should I change the way I live? The cardiologist suggested meditation as an alternative to beta blockers. Well I tried - a bit. But you are always wondering when it will happen again and there is no getting away from the fact that it is immensely frustrating - there are just some things I haven’t got the stamina to do. I am frequently very tired, catch every bug going and keep it for twice as long as everyone else and when I have an episode, which isn’t very often, my blood pressure tends to plummet and I can’t stand up – I just have to lie around watching day time TV until it all goes back to normal. It has inevitably changed my life - but it many ways it was the trigger which has enabled me to focus on a world outside the theatre. I doubt I would have helped build an arts centre in my home town without it, or be running a literature festival.

When I tell people, it’s often more for their protection than for mine. If I am working with someone, it’s only fair that they know, just in case something happens, but then I have always been a great ‘assess the situation and plan for the worst’ person. I make sure I explain that all it means is that I get tired more quickly than they would and that I try not to get too stressed (a contradiction in terms of course for all of us working in the arts) but other than that, they probably won’t see a difference.

I think most people forget about it fairly quickly, because there are no visible signs but there are some people who will insist on asking you in a meaningful way every time you see them ‘How ARE you, no really, are you OK?’ and throwing sympathetic looks in your direction. Which drives me to ‘care rage’! It has made me acutely aware of how it could be to have the kind of impairment where everyone treats you like that all the time - and it’s really strengthened my resolve to say ‘we can offer this, let me know if there’s anything you need’ - and then leave people to it. I go to salsa classes and I always warn the teachers I’ll be dropping out for a rest now and then (mainly so they don’t think I hate their session or am a lazy slob who can’t be bothered). Some of them are fine, others go into unspoken panic, and treat me as if I might break at any moment and watch me intently for signs of collapse.

The people I work with are great. They leave me to get on with it but are incredibly flexible if, say, I need to change a meeting to another day because I am particularly tired. The Ilkley Literature Festival board have been very supportive about bringing in Assistant Directors who work with me during the Festival so that I don’t have to do all those early mornings, late nights and daytime events alongside weekends and evenings. The result is we have been described as one of the best run literary festivals in the country with someone always on hand to offer a cup of tea. And by and large, despite all the pressure, as a team we don’t do stress - which has to be good for everyone.

Making the difference

How do you set things up in the organisation so it works around you and with you rather than in conflict with you?

I had to think quite hard to identify what exactly it is that makes the difference, and made me realised that the changes, although important, are small.

I’m in a privileged position because of the nature of the work I do: planning, programming, liaising and evaluating means a lot of time spent on the phone and in front of a computer, and because Ilkley Literature Festival is a small organisation, with a supportive Board and I’m the boss, it’s relatively straightforward to set things up in a way that enables me to work effectively - not least because when I came into the organisation I was able to establish a whole variety of new structures from scratch rather than having to fit in with other people’s working patterns.

Two fundamentals are at the basis of everything I do: careful planning, which means I can pace myself, and flexibility, so that things can be done in different ways. I am incredibly fortunate to work with understanding colleagues who will change the time of a meeting talk on the phone or via email rather than in person; partners and funders who accept that I have limitations and go the extra mile to accommodate me; a Board who have never questioned the need for additional staff to share my work load and a Festival team who literally run around when I can’t. I largely work from a home office - if I am particularly tired or have caught yet another bug, I will work from my bed, with the laptop, mobile and landline spread out on pillows in front of me and I love the fact that whoever I am talking to has no idea. And when I am exhausted I will sleep for an hour or so during the day and then work in the evening. If I have had a rough week energy-wise, I will catch up on work at the weekend.

The digital revolution has made an enormous difference: wifi broadband; email; the internet; next day deliveries..I wouldn’t be able to do my job without them. They not only make working from home possible; in many ways it’s preferable.

Of course these kind of working patterns are not just beneficial to me. We’ve recently taken on more core staff, and being able to tell people that we are flexible about issues such as working hours, child care and other caring responsibilities - and trust people to get the job done - meant that we had a huge number of really good candidates. The kind of systems that I need work well for people in general - stress and inflexible working structure aren’t good for anyone.

All the Festival staff work incredibly hard and they always deliver but there are times when they need to swap their days or do three short days rather that two long ones or work from home to manage the innumerable other aspects of their lives.

During tthe Festival itself we employ additional event management staff, who deputise for me by looking after venues and events, which of course comes at a price. I work out intricate schedules which enable me to appear and meet and greet with the best of them, but also not to over exhaust myself. Very sadly I also have to turn down exciting invitations from authors to join them for post event meals because if I don’t, I know I won’t be fit for anything the next day. Saying no to people whose work I really admire is the hardest part - but there’s nothing else for it. All the assistant directors are brilliant and incredibly versatile, quite often we will swop events round at the last moment depending on how things are going. The up side is that I don’t hog all the starry headline names for myself and other people get a crack at the whip.

The other key attribute of the organisation which I know you are interested in is that we ‘don’t do stress’. Sometimes, it’s inevitable, but we try really hard not to get ourselves and everyone working with us into a terrible state. In the last analysis, the worst that can happen is hundreds of people looking forward to an interesting evening out are disappointed because an event is cancelled (saying it like that it does seem pretty bad…), but while I will do everything I can to prevent that and to ensure they have the best possible experience, it isn’t life or death. My sister on the other hand is a surgeon and works in a theatre where lives really can be at stake. She says one of the reasons she always appears so calm is that you have to be able to maintain a clear head while things are in mind-blowing and blood-spattered chaos around you.

At the Festival we take time to communicate exactly what everyone needs to be doing to make all the pieces fit together when things are really hectic, and we explore in advance what to do if there’s a problem. When there is a crisis the first thing I do, always, is to analyse the critical pathway. Unless it’s a 999 type of emergency, I jot down what needs to happen, in what order, to address the problem and who needs to be told. It turns an intractable problem into manageable, bite-sized pieces.

It’s incredibly annoying to be told that stress is a state of mind and all you have to do is think about it in a different way, but it’s irritatingly true. In my experience, much of the arts thrives on stress, I was certainly addicted to it and in many ways still am. But nowadays when I get beyond it, at least I recognise the signals telling me to pull back! Although I haven’t managed to achieve an entirely Zen-like approach just yet…