Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae, a theatre company that boldly places D/deaf and disabled actors centre stage, writes about directing a new production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted at RADA.
Many years ago, when Graeae wanted to do a show, we didn’t have any money for an audio describer or a sign language interpreter for every performance. We integrated access into the whole production – saving money and it meant we could create a fully accessible production without the additional costs.
Since then, we have developed Graeae’s unique ‘aesthetics of access’ approach, which ensures we place access on the stage in a meaningful, creative and theatrical way. To be successful, everyone on the production has to own accessibility as an aesthetic which enriches the work – and not treat it as an add-on.
Sarah Kane’s Blasted is a gift when it comes to this approach. When I first read it, it was evident that everything included in the script in round brackets –“Gulp down a gin”, “Light a cigarette” – could be a spoken line. When I directed the play for Graeae in 2006, I used this bracketed text and stage directions as the audio description.
I’m trying to dispel the myth that sign language is ‘other’. If a group of actors are working on a scene, some might express that through their voice, and others with their hands – but we’re all working from the same text. It’s not just D/deaf and visually impaired audiences who benefit. Access is so embedded into the theatrical experience that it becomes part of the production for all the audience. A sighted or hearing person can always filter out and ignore sign language or audio description if they really want to. But I’d encourage them not to: if someone ever questioned the value of audio description on stage, if they can see without it, I would say: are you really looking? It encourages an audience to sincerely look at what’s in front of them and see it in a new way. There’s a similar benefit for all the cast in Blasted at RADA. We’ve found so much richness in the play by having the two languages: spoken English and British Sign Language (BSL).
My challenge as the director is to make sure the two languages beautifully weave together. The process of translating from one language to the other has been useful for all the actors, because it makes them truly explore the meaning of a line: we have to consider carefully what the right sign is and whether it fits with the emotion we’re conveying. Another result of this way of working is that none of the actors can really have an ego, because each role is being played by two people: one hearing actor from RADA’s BA (Hons) in Acting, and one D/deaf actor. Ego can be a healthy word – I don’t think you can be an actor without one – but it can’t be inflated, and the openness and generosity which I regularly find in the D/deaf and disabled artistic community has also been present in this rehearsal room.
It’s been brilliant having the RADA tutors and students on board. All the hearing actors are picking up some sign language and getting used to thinking more carefully about visual cues, peripheral vision and using their intuition to locate themselves and their fellow actors in the play. I hope it has been a valuable, eye-opening experience for them: RADA student Francis Lovehall, who is playing the Soldier, reflected that “working on Blasted with Graeae has truly been the most humbling part of my training at RADA. It has reinforced in my mind the importance of language and its universal power to connect us all. It is our responsibility as artists to ensure the stories we tell can reach everyone”.
What’s been especially lovely is how the technical theatre and stage management students have also embraced this new way of working. From the stage manager starting to use sign language in the rehearsal room, to technical students helping out with audio and BSL flyers – they have all got on board and, I hope, learned a lot along the way.
It’s recently been reported that the RSC are employing more D/deaf and disabled actors, and the Globe are doing the same. More non-disabled theatre directors are also starting to explore the ways that Graeae works, so I’m hopeful these aesthetics of access are spilling into the mainstream. By working with RADA, who are also a partner on our Ensemble programme, I hope we can pave the way for more D/deaf and disabled actors to have opportunities to come to RADA and experience drama school training.