Kaite O’Reilly: Putting the focus on humanity

Derek Smith

Playwright Kaite O’Reilly is seeking to confront and confound people’s perceptions of disability with her latest production, writes Derek Smith

A decade ago, Kaite O’Reilly, the award-winning playwright, poet and disability arts campaigner, created a stir. Peeling, the darkly comic play she had just written for the Graeae Theatre Company, proved groundbreaking enough, but some of the language used to champion her views on disability in theatre, must have caused a fair few in theatre to undergo some soul searching.

Speaking to O’Reilly recently in-between rehearsals for her new show, In Water I’m Weightless, there’s clearly still a burning belief that what the international dramaturg, author, mentor, tutor and honorary fellow at Exeter University said all those years ago hit the bull’s eye.

“One of the lines from that play has become a slogan,” she reflects with palpable pride. “What I said 10 years ago was that ‘cripping up’ had become the new, 21st century answer to blacking up. You know, that Richard III thing when someone pretends to have a hump or lose a leg, and so on. Mental health, disability and impairment roles are in so many plays, but invariably still played by non-disabled actors pretending to have that disability,” she says.

In 2012, it’s still the case, but it is getting better, she says. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done in the area of disability acceptance and inclusion in the arts – a fact borne out by actress Lisa Hammon’s recent comments in The Stage (August 23, News, page 2). “We just have to encourage people to get over their worries and their fears, says O’Reilly. “But, it’s very interesting now because people are getting excited about the challenge and the ideas.”

Now she has the ideal platform for her efforts as her current show, produced by National Theatre Wales, is one of 29 works included in the Unlimited Commission scheme, part of the Cultural Olympiad running concurrently with the 2012 Paralympics in London.

Launched at the Weston Studio, Cardiff Millennium Centre, In Water I’m Weightless transfers to the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room for the Unlimited: the Revelation festival starting on August 31.

The new work, with movement direction by Nigel Charnock and Catherine Bennett, celebrates the athleticism, diversity and skill of the company, while exploring the endless possibilities of human difference. It features a cast of actors and dancers with a range of disabilities performing monologues about people with other disabilities. So, a blind actor might play a character in a wheelchair, the idea being that the cast members can simultaneously escape being pigeonholed by their own disabilities, while still bringing their own life experience to the character.

If audiences think they’re in for an evening of actors just sitting on stools, chatting, Vagina Monologues or talking heads style, they couldn’t be more wrong, O’Reilly says.

“The best way to describe the production is that it will confound your expectations, both in the way that it is presented, the content and with the actors’ performances.

“The starting point was a collection of monologues, but it’s much more than just a string of addresses to the audience. It’s a diverse dramatic experience, with different performers from very varied artistic backgrounds – some are dancers, some are comics, while others come from a burlesque background. “The show is edgy, quite provocative and pretty sexy. It’s a mosaic of the human experience from different perspectives. Sometimes it’s funny, but also in your face and, at times, compassionate. It’s been the most exciting process to write. It’s really allowed me to grow as a writer,” she says.

As for the casting process of any new show of hers, O’Reilly says: “Working in the theatre is all about finding people that you love to work with, and who are appropriate for the specific roles you’re casting. In Water I’m Weightless, there are people I’ve worked with before and known for a long time, but I was also keen to work – again – with NTW’s artistic director, John McGrath and the fabulous designer and media artist, Paul Clay.”

With the writing process itself, given O’Reilly’s extensive experience in exploring all manner of disability issues, she’s got one piece of simple advice to non-disabled playwrights confronting disabled issues – do your research and do it well.

“Make the characters human, don’t use the age-old stereotypes of disabled people. Put humanity into your characters, that’s where you gain the richness and the depth,” she says.

“A lot of the portrayals of disabled people I see on television are very thin, mainly because the producers or directors have seen the disability first and the person second. You need to find the human drama in the person first, not the ‘medical’ drama. The physical impairment is an issue, of course it is, but it’s not everything.”

* In Water I’m Weightless is at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London on August 31 and September 1

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