As artist-in-residence at Milton Keynes this year, Jenny Sealey is shaking things up with a groundbreaking, female-led opera project. She tells Nick Awde how her company’s mission to fight for the access needs of D/deaf and disabled artists and audiences is empowering festivals worldwide to open their doors to all
The UK’s international festivals are top-notch when they’re genre-led – such as Great Yarmouth’s Out There, Birmingham’s BE Festival, London International Mime Festival, London International Festival of Theatre and, of course, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – but the country has struggled to produce multi-arts festivals that follow the European ‘municipal’ model. In recent years, however, we’ve seen interesting leaps in the shape of events such as Greenwich and Docklands International Festival and Manchester International Festival.
This year, the biennial IF: Milton Keynes International Festival will make a leap for inclusion and engagement with the appointment as artist-in-residence of Jenny Sealey, artistic director and chief executive of Graeae, which places D/deaf and disabled artists centre stage.
Sealey’s appointment promises to shake up the international format by applying the Graeae model to the inclusion and engagement programme at IF, which is produced by local music arts centre The Stables.
It’s a logical pairing, says Sealey: “Graeae has been involved with IF over the last 10 years presenting The Iron Man – which is off to Hong Kong in March – Against the Tide and a concert version of Reasons to Be Cheerful. I have been on discussion panels and led workshops for the festival, and when its artistic director Monica Ferguson asked: ‘Do you fancy opera?’, it was a moment of serendipity because the journalist Selina Mills had just told me of her desire to do an opera about Maria Theresia von Paradis. Monica said: ‘Okay, let’s go,’ and so here we are.”
Founded in 2010 by the Stables (itself founded by jazz legends Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine), the biennial festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
With audiences of about 500,000, the 10-day festival is a multi-arts programme large-scale and family events that take place across central Milton Keynes, including parks, public squares and boulevards, and the Stables Spiegeltent – as well as in the digital realm.
IF was awarded an EFFE Label 2017-18, the quality stamp for Europe’s most ‘remarkable festivals’.
The opera has all the elements worthy of an international festival highlight. A contemporary of Mozart, Von Paradis was a blind pianist and composer. “She played in salons across Europe but her life was blighted by her parents’ constant desire to ‘cure’ her,” says Sealey. “She was subjected to poultices on her eyes, electric shock treatment and more. She remained resolute that she did not want to be cured. Being blind was what she knew and it was a core part of her creative strength.” Her music was heard two years ago, played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
Disabled writer Nicola Werenowska and Mills, who is visually impaired, have written the libretto. Errollyn Wallen, who composed the music for Graeae’s choir for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics, is composer, and musical director is Andrea Brown, who was musical director for Graeae’s contemporary opera for Greenwich and Docklands International Festival in 2018, This Is Not for You.
“So, when they say there are not enough women in opera,” says Sealey, “we have five as part of the creative team and the cast will have at least three women, as will the band.”
But it has been hard to get partners on board, and Sealey does not have a track record of doing opera. “There is an elitism with opera – and a D/deaf director is an odd thing to consider. Monica is totally behind me, but has suggested we give ourselves a longer lead-in time to bring this to full fruition.”
‘Access is so much more than a ramp, or sign language, captioning or audio description’
With this in mind, for the 2020 festival Graeae will be doing behind-the-scenes sharing of the production’s journey with extracts, talks and workshops about the process and an open debate on how to make opera accessible, not just as an aesthetic but to a wider audience who do not think opera is for them.
Sealey and Graeae are synonymous with their boundary-pushing approaches to the challenges of fundraising and their ongoing battles with access to work, fighting the corners of D/deaf and disabled artists who are struggling to have their access met working in mainstream organisations.
“Graeae is in constant pursuit of what is a truly fully accessible production: how do we make all our training and everything we do truly accessible?” says Sealey. “Access is so much more than a ramp, or sign language, captioning or audio description. One person’s need for constant clarification is another person’s sensory overload, one person’s need for some silence with the audio description is another person’s panic that they are missing out on what is happening.”
Sealey found herself in Russia as part of Graeae’s development of its work with deafblind people and to explore various models of access for both artists and audiences. She worked with a deafblind company in Moscow and then took the production to the National Theatre for a one-off performance with two UK deafblind artists within the show.
‘I want to look at a more artistic approach so the experience of being at the festival feels more immersive’
Sealey’s progress on IF’s inclusion and engagement programme will be watched with great interest by festivals the world over. “IF has always had access at the heart of the festival, but we plan to unpack what is already there and see where the gaps are. I want to look at a more artistic approach so the experience of being at the festival feels more immersive.”
A key part will involve bringing in audio describers, deafblind interpreters and sign-language interpreters into the process as early as possible so they have time with the artists and directors to embrace the essence of a show. IF is also working with the UK’s Attitude Is Everything, which specialises in accessibility of festivals, and it’s significant that a range of D/deaf and disabled artists will be premiering their work this summer.
The international aspect of Graeae’s work is important because it allows the company to learn from the theatremaking process in other countries, to share its own practice and to come together to create work that embraces a real cultural exchange.
Sealey says: “I am doing The Tempest – Swimming for Beginners, words by Shakespeare and Pamela Carter, with a D/deaf and disabled cast of five Japanese, two Bangladeshi and three UK artists at Owl Spot Theatre in Tokyo. I am also supporting the development of D/deaf and disabled directors from each country. It is a huge project, and I am quietly terrified as I wonder if I have bitten off more than I can chew.”
So how are the moves made in the UK towards disabled representation in the performing arts viewed in countries and communities overseas? “I was in Perth last year developing 4:48 Psychosis, and was told that the Australian disability community get somewhat hacked off that the UK is heralded as leading the disability arts movement. This hurt somewhat.
“But the fact is that the UK has been doing it for more than 40 years – quietly for the first 15 years and then loudly ever since. This has been because of our tenacity and fight for equality which has been supported by proper financial resources from the Arts Council and British Council. So, we are slightly ahead of the game and when we work overseas we share what we know and then artists there start developing their own practice and building their resilience to fight for resources.”
Similar to Graeae, springing out of the UK are also companies including Unlimited, Heart n Soul, Candoco, Stopgap Dance Company, Claire Cunningham, Birds of Paradise Theatre and Daryl Beeton, all catalysts for change across the world and supporting the development of a disability arts infrastructure.
“But it is always a process of sharing and exploring new ways of working,” says Sealey, who points to overseas festivals doing this: “Wendy Martin has just finished her fourth festival in Perth and, following her work on Unlimited at Southbank Centre in 2012, she went on to ensure D/deaf and disabled people were profiled within Perth festival. Iain Grandage, the new director there, is equality committed.
“Various D/deaf and disabled artists have been part of many festivals across Europe. Graeae has been part of the Olympic and Paralympic Cultural Olympiad in Brazil and we will be remounting our production of The Garden in Tokyo this year,” Sealey says.
“It’s clear today that there is a real desire from festivals to include D/deaf and disabled people as artists and audiences and to think of access in broader terms.”
Graeae places D/deaf and disabled artists and theatremakers centre stage. It tours to traditional theatres and outdoor spaces, and also runs a creative learning and training programme for emerging, young and mid-career D/deaf and disabled artists.
Founded in 1980 by Nabil Shaban and Richard Tomlinson, Graeae is an Arts Council England national portfolio organisation.
Jenny Sealey was appointed artistic director in 1997. She works nationally and internationally to share and develop the company’s pioneering productions, to create and sustain a new language for diversity and inclusion in the arts and beyond.