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In preparation for Graeae’s new season of Crips Without Constraints, Sam Nicholls has a lively conversation with Leanna Benjamin about lockdown, her new play The Gift, and getting a hug from Sharon D. Clarke.

“People just have very different experiences of lockdown. We’re all going through the same storm, but in different boats… and mine has a leak and I’ve run out of Gaffer tape!”

A conversational firecracker, Leanna Benjamin fizzes with humour – we’re meant to be discussing the upcoming second season of Graeae Theatre’s Crips Without Constraints, but every question leads to charming detour after charming detour. A disabled artist, Leanna has spent the last 10 months battling the newfound systemic challenges caused by Covid; she’s exasperated and exhausted, but you wouldn’t tell from her spirited advocations.

“Early in the pandemic, I had to watch two weeks’ worth of groceries sit out in the rain because the delivery staff didn’t have PPE, and I’m immunocompromised/a wheelchair user so I couldn’t go pick it up… I’m a writer, and I just don’t have the words to describe that.”

She pauses thoughtfully for a few moments. “Wait, what was the question?”

Leanna is one of five writers contributing work to Crips Without Constraint Part 2, a follow-up to last year’s 11-week season of new work from disabled artists, produced by Graeae Theatre. The acclaimed series is returning for 2021, offering duologues about everything from sibling rivalry to death by Post-It Notes. An alumni of Graeae’s ‘Write to Play’ course, Leanna was invited to submit some work, but the process wasn’t easy. “I’ll be honest, I felt so deflated. People on the internet give the impression they’re writing reams and reams, and there were months where I couldn’t write a single word”.

What changed?

“I realised my writing was my legacy: what do I have to leave behind? What do I want to leave behind? My writing, so I got to work.”

Her play, The Gift, draws inspiration from her experience of lockdown: Jasmine, a wheelchair user, has called up her mum for a Zoom conversation; it’s her 30th birthday, and she’s got some difficult news to share. “It’s a story that many people wouldn’t have heard – so much of the Covid conversation has been like ‘do we have enough toilet roll, can we go to the cinema etc.’ I’m glad I can put this perspective out there.” Has Leanna had a similar Zoom with her own mum?  “Yes, but with a different outcome. The Gift is ‘semi-autographical’… because I’ve changed the characters just enough so my mum can’t get angry with me!”

Of course, her mother may be pacified when she finds out who’s portraying her: three-time Olivier-winner Sharon D. Clarke. Alongside some up-and-coming disabled talent, Graeae is filling the casts of Part 2 with some of the biggest names in British theatre – joining Clarke are the likes of Dame Harriet Walter and Julie Graham. For Leanna, it’s a dream come true: I ask her how she feels about Clarke appearing in The Gift and she explodes (delightfully) with another anecdote.

“In 2019, for my birthday, I went to see Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic,” she begins: “the night before I’d seen King Hedley II at the Stratford East and bagged a hug from Lenny Henry – that night, I wanted one from Sharon.” She explains, in Ocean’s Eleven-like detail, how she ‘positioned’ her wheelchair deliberately outside the stage door so Clarke ‘had’ to interact with her (“yes, I used my disability; I don’t care”) Unfortunately, however, she got distracted hugging Wendell Pierce and Clarke slipped past her. “We made eye contact, but it’s not what I wanted! I remember thinking: how wonderful would it be to write something good enough for Sharon star in?”

18 months later, Leanna has her answer. “It was intimidating for all of two minutes – Sharon put us all at ease. That’s the amazing thing about projects like Crips: it gives upcoming artists the chance to work with these inspiring names. I was losing my desire to write, but now I’ve found it again.”

Her only regret is that The Gift couldn’t be performed in a theatre. “It’s a completely different experience over Zoom,” she reflects. “This pandemic has allowed me to be commissioned, and I wonder if these opportunities would’ve happened without Covid? I’m don’t know, but I want to get back into a theatre either way”.

Of course, for disabled artists like Leanna, getting into theatre is difficult – both literally and figuratively. On a practical level, Leanna regales me with horror stories of how some “big-name” venues didn’t have the right provisions for disabled audiences, to the point where she literally couldn’t “get into” the building (“saddest taxi ride home of my life,” she sighs).

That’s another benefit of this new season of Crips; it’s accessible. As well as being available online, each play comes with the option of captions or audio-description, meaning all audiences can watch and enjoy. “Going to the theatre normally, access becomes a headache – can I sit with my friend, where can I sit, etcetera – at least online, that’s not a worry.”

Equally, there’s the wider issue of disabled people accessing careers in the arts; an issue Leanna knows far too well. “Let’s call it what it is: systemic exclusion,” she bristles.

“It all comes down to cost,” Leanna explains. “As a disabled writer, you need someone for notetaking, and you also need the adaptive computer software; you need support from the beginning, before you can even start to write.” She shakes her head, again exasperated. “They’re saying they want ‘our stories’, or ‘stories they never heard before’, well then they should equip us to do so – we can’t come all polished; we need mentorship and support from the start”. There’s an innate cost to ‘becoming’ a disabled writer, and it would seem only a few companies (like Graeae) are prepared to put up the cash.

Is this something that she’s worried about impeding her future?

“To some extent yes, but I have to produce more work.”

How come?

“Well, I need to produce more so I can work with Sharon D. Clarke again. This time in-person – I’m getting that hug!”

Crips Without Constraints: Part 2 begins on Tuesday 19th January and runs until the 16th February. For more information, visit the Graeae website.