Colin Cameron responds to a rehearsed reading of Rosaleen McDonagh’s ‘Mainstream’ held at The Projects Arts Centre, Dublin on 13 October to discover a play that gives insight into disabled people's experience of oppression
In Kaite O’Reilly’s DAO blog posted on the 14th March this year, reproduced from the Irish Theatre Magazine, Rosaleen McDonagh discusses her concerns around issues of non-disabled actors ‘cripping up’. ‘People get so caught up in the physicality of our bodies. The emotional manipulation is what’s damaging… They can only do the outside but they can’t bring the emotional, historical resonance to a performance.’
Given the Irish context, in which trained disabled actors are few and far between, McDonagh wrestles with the dilemma a disabled playwright must face: hold back their work in the belief that there may be some emerging disabled performers who someday will bring their work to the stage, or to compromise and collude with ‘cripping up’ as a way of establishing their work.
As the event at The Projects Arts Centre, in front of a full theatre, took the form of a rehearsed reading rather than a performance, I think some of these issues may have been avoided. Three of the four readers from Fishamble Theatre Company and Arts and Disability Ireland – Debbie Crotty as Mary Anne Rooney, Don Wycherley as Jack and Liz Fitzgibbon as Eleanor – appeared to be non-disabled performers, while Donal Toolan, who read Eoin’s part, is a wheelchair-user.
What came across was the emotional, historical resonance McDonagh desired. I have seen performances at The Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh of plays written by non-disabled writers, about issues other than disability issues. It hasn’t been till about two-thirds of the way through these plays that I have noticed or remembered that I am watching disabled actors. This certainly hasn’t been anything about ‘in spite of impairment’, just that in being drawn into the play impairment hasn’t seemed important. Watching this reading in Dublin I found it easy to forget or to overlook the fact that these actors weren’t disabled. The lines they read were authentic.
In McDonagh’s words, the play ‘explores a love affair disintegrating while people are grappling with identity, age, sexuality, institutionalisation, fear’. Its structure involves Eleanor (Ellie), a young disabled researcher in her early twenties who has the same progressive impairment as Mary Anne but less advanced, looking to gather material for a half-hour television ‘lifestyle’ documentary, making contact with Eoin, Jack and Mary Anne to talk about their lives, their families, their jobs.
Jack and Mary Anne are in their mid- to late thirties, Eoin is a few years younger. Mary Anne is a strong disabled woman, a woman of resilience and character. Jack is angry, a heavy drinker bent on his own destruction and the destruction of opportunities for closeness with other people. He was once a successful wheelchair basketball player, but that went wrong when he ‘signed a contract with Jack Daniel’. Eoin is a gay disabled man who grew up being used for sex by the older guys in the institution and who had liked it and the privileges it bought. Eoin is the funny one. Mary Anne and Jack are trying a break from their relationship. Eoin is acting as a go-between. Ellie does not identify as disabled, she is mainstreamed.
The others are wary about her motives, suspicious of intrusion and objectification, and worried about what might be revealed. As Eoin says:
You want people to talk about the past. You’ve no idea what they are going to come up with.
Their shared background, having grown up together shut away within the same institution, is the source of both their closeness and intense dependence on each other. Their shared knowledge is of the systemic cruelty and abuse experienced as normality within such institutions and of a dark secret that has involved them all. There is a strong sense, too, of shared guilt. For each other, now they are beyond the institution, they are family.
McDonagh draws on her own experience to entwine narratives which hold to the light not only the depths of hurt inflicted upon disabled people, but also the strength that disabled people gain from one another. At its heart, the play wrestles with a theme of identity central to the disabled people’s movement, both in Ireland and beyond. It is about the roots of the movement in disabled people’s oppression and about the future direction of the movement.
Oppression breeds resistance and it is the shared experience of oppression which moves these characters, once they emerge from the institution, to struggle for social change. The younger Ellie can see no reason to want to be, nor any advantage in being, with other disabled people. She is too busy fitting in, in overcoming, in being what the mainstream expects and allows her to be. Mary Anne draws attention to the paradox that while her generation campaigned for an end to the segregation and exclusion of disabled people from the mainstream, ‘the mainstream thing hasn’t really worked’. It involves being mainstreamed on the terms of the non-disabled in a way which, to borrow a term from Rod Michalko, regards impairment as ‘useless difference’.
There is a veneer of tolerance extended to disabled people, but this is conditional on the basis that they will do their best to cover up impairment. This is very different from the point of the struggle in which Mary Anne, Jack and Eoin were involved, which had been about embracing difference and making a claim for the right to be valued as equals on their own terms.
McDonagh interweaves her narratives to produce a play that is simultaneously challenging, distressing, intriguing and entertaining. At almost two hours without an interval it was long and yet, talking about it afterwards with other audience members, there was a consensus that we had all been shocked when it came to an end. No fidgeting or shifting our arses on the seats to get comfortable, this had been engrossing. ‘Mainstream’ concludes with the revelation and explanation of the dark secret.
In the preface to her story ‘A Dying Breed’ (posted on DAO) Ann Young stated that:
When I was a child in the 60s and 70s it was common practice to send disabled children away to boarding schools to be 'looked after'. Many children never went home again, going from one institution to another and some children died there. These are realities that we lived with throughout our childhood. However the most damaging aspect of these places was the bullying that went on at every level. These days we would call it abuse but back then we had no vocabulary to describe what went on and this made it easier to perpetuate.
In ‘Mainstream’, McDonagh has produced a work which gives an insight into the oppression experienced by many disabled children who experienced institutionalisation and the scars left on the souls of the adults they became. There is much that is disturbing here. Yet the play is not without ambiguity, for it affirms disabled identity and reminds us that there is a way of looking and being that is shared by disabled people which, for all their cleverness, the non-disabled will never begin to understand. It is not that we want to be like them, but that we want the right to be ourselves.
Someone, somewhere, some producer, some theatre group – preferably a theatre group of disabled people - needs to get in touch with Rosaleen McDonagh to get this play staged as a performance.
Directed by Jim Culleton
Produced by Marketa Dowling
Dramaturgy by Kaite O'Reilly
Stage Manager Kate Ferris
Captioner Ruth McCreery
The reading was both sign language interpreted and surtitled.