Obi Chiejina responds to issues arising from a creative writing workshop led by Kaite O'Reilly as part of the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre
Walking through Waterloo Bridge subway to Belvedere Road I realised for the first time (and I’ve been here more than a dozen times) the Southbank Centre Arts complex is in a state of flux. The complex straddles the boundaries between creative ebb and flow – water falling and rising against the shore, the industrial decline of Lambeth vying with the emerging service sector of Southwark and the celebration of ‘Unlimited Festival: Extraordinary New Work by Disabled Artists’ in a harsh concrete jungle.
So it seems entirely appropriate this dramatic backdrop provided the ideal location for Kaite O’Reilly’s workshop ‘You Say Inclusive, I Say Subversive’ writing workshop.
Kaite began the workshop by asking the twenty or so participants what appeared to be a basic question - what power does drama exert over us as viewers and audiences? We all agreed (good) dramatic performance should inspire, educate and be transformative.
Armed with this knowledge we looked at the current representations of disabled people and disability in film, television drama and theatre performance. Catherine (recently arrived from Australia) touched upon the opening ceremony of Paralympics which had taken place the night before: "I wasn’t surprised to hear the words, heroism, extraordinary and brave being used by journalists, social media commentators and television reviewers to describe the disabled performers, members of the armed forces injured in recent military combat as well as disabled sports women and men."
So if contemporary audiences (non-disabled as well as disabled) want to see drama that is innovative and fresh why do mainstream drama producers and writers continue to churn out dull, ill-formed and repetitive stereotypes? The answer partly lies in the ebb and flow metaphor alluded to at the beginning of this response – namely the art’s establishment endearing but frustrating habit of managing the contraction of old traditions against the vulgar advent of new cultural and artistic developments.
But as Kaite deftly demonstrates it isn’t necessary to get rid of battered clichés of representing disability altogether but instead use these battered clichés to create new narratives, engaging dramatic dialogue and fully fledged characters we can relate to.
So if we subvert the hackneyed phrases from the Paralympics we might have a drama with disabled athlete doubling up as (if you are under the age of sixteen can you look away now) a sex worker or disabled ex-soldier playing the part of Othello or Iago in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. Like the Thames flowing around us we don’t need to get rid of the main river but simply allow the construction of new inlets.