Jenny Sealey: ‘Drama schools aren’t embracing the talent of disabled people’

Jenny Sealey. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts
Jenny Sealey. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts
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Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, the UK’s foremost disabled-led theatre company, would have liked to return to the fringe before now but has been wary of the risks involved. “Is it 12 years we’ve not been at Edinburgh? God, bloody hell, that’s gone quickly, hasn’t it?

“We do try to go to Edinburgh, and we have tried to get there with other things, but some of our productions, like Reasons to Be Cheerful – that’s huge – and there’s a real risk of making such a big financial loss. In this current climate you have to be very careful about what you spend the money on.”

Jenny Sealey cvThe Solid Life of Sugar Water, a two-hander by Jack Thorne about a couple trying to rebuild their relationship after a stillbirth, is a project that Sealey feels is worth the risk. “It’s a gem of a play,” she says, “and it feels ‘Edinburgh’, if you know what I mean.”

Sealey isn’t directing the show – Graeae associate Amit Sharma is taking the reins on this one – but she’s excited about returning to an Edinburgh that feels like it’s finally taking disability arts seriously. While the number of shows at the fringe involving disabled artists or catering to audiences with diverse access needs is still just a tiny proportion of those on the programme, Sealey is positive about the direction of travel.

“When Graeae was at Edinburgh with Peeling all those years ago [in 2003] we were probably the only company doing anything that was remotely accessible or had any disabled people in it, and that has changed – although it’s only over the last two or three years, so it’s been a very slow change,” she says.

“The disabilities art block will always take care of each other in that we try to make our work as accessible to each other as possible. So it means this year I can go to the festival and see more that’s accessible than I would have ever been able to see in my life.”

The battle for access affects the director on a personal level – she lost her hearing at the age of seven and relies on sign-language interpreters in much of her professional life – but there’s more to it than that. Improving access – to the arts, to training, to work, to education – has been one of the great motivating factors of Sealey’s career.

The activism and the art have always been impossible to separate, she says, recalling the early days of the London Disability Arts Forum, which Sealey helped to set up after three years studying performing arts at Middlesex Polytechnic in the mid-1980s.

“I was very green behind the ears when I left college, but just starting to see the world, and seeing the injustice and the segregation of deaf and disabled people. And also the fact that, trying to get a bloody job in the mainstream world as an actress, nobody would give me the time of day. Nobody. But Graeae did. That’s when I first started acting with Graeae, my first ever acting job.”

Sealey’s first acting job was with Graeae in Tash Fairbanks’ A Private View
Sealey’s first acting job was with Graeae in Tash Fairbanks’ A Private View. Photo: Sheila Burnett

That show, an all-female production of Tash Fairbanks’ A Private View, led to roles with Theatre Centre, Halfmoon Young People’s Theatre and Red Ladder, companies that she remembers with great fondness.

“The 1980s was a very generous time, it was a good time to be deaf or disabled in a way, certainly with small companies like Theatre Centre,” she recalls. “They always get it right: they are hot on diversity, they are hot on inclusion. The big mainstream institutions have a lot to learn from those smaller companies.”

It was from here that Sealey made the leap to directing. Pregnant with her son Jonah (now 21), she was aware that it might be “a bit hard touring with a baby”. She spotted an advert in The Stage for a trainee director on a production with Leeds-based Interplay Theatre, applied for it, and got the job. Productions of The Tempest, Mike Kenny’s Stepping Stones and his opera Mad Meg followed at Interplay, as well as a series of shows with theatre in education companies including Gazebo and Nottingham Roundabout.

“They gave me so much support to cut my teeth,” the director remembers. “It was that that gave me the confidence to go to Graeae because I’d managed to get something under my belt.”

The company has grown hugely since Sealey took over as artistic director in 1997, creating increasingly ambitious work including the Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ musical Reasons to Be Cheerful, an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for BBC Radio 4 and a series of large-scale outdoor spectaculars in collaboration with the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival.

Jenny Sealey Q&AUnder Sealey’s leadership, Graeae has been particularly influential around what’s known as the ‘aesthetics of access’ – integrating access for disabled performers and audiences creatively into the very fabric of a piece of theatre, as opposed to taking it into consideration after the fact. Audio description, captioning and signing are always very much part of the show.

“We tried lots of new things and that’s now really seeped into the whole sensibility and around other theatremakers, certainly in the disabled world,” says the director, proud of this aspect of Graeae’s work, yet typically modest about it too. “It’s been nice to be at the start of some of those journeys.”

Co-productions are another area in which Sealey has made great strides. Graeae is working with Theatre Royal Plymouth on The Solid Life of Sugar Water, and in the last few years the company has enjoyed fruitful collaborations with groups including the Dundee Rep Ensemble, the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and Brazil’s Circo Crescer e Viver.

The partnership with the New Wolsey – in which Sealey joined forces with the theatre’s artistic director, Peter Rowe, to create The Threepenny Opera in 2014 – will soon be bearing more fruit. In May, Arts Council England awarded £2.3 million to fund the first three years of Ramps on the Moon, a six-year touring project involving seven UK theatres.

Designed to teach organisations how to integrate disabled artists into their work and develop disabled audiences, the project has the potential, Sealey believes, to effect change in the sector. It also has positive repercussions for another of her projects: a six-month work-based training programme for six deaf and disabled people aged 17-26, due to launch in October.

“What’s so fantastic about having the money from the arts council is that we can say to those young people, ‘We are training you for jobs; there’s going to be work for you’,” says Sealey.

Rehearsing for Belonging with performer Jez Scarratt
Rehearsing for Belonging with performer Jez Scarratt. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

The launch of the new training programme is bittersweet for the director: she’s pleased to be able to run it, but intensely frustrated that it’s still necessary over 15 years after Graeae first set up the groundbreaking Missing Piece training course for disabled actors.

“We’re starting up an ensemble because drama schools still aren’t really embracing the talent of disabled people,” she says. “It’s not so much the drama schools’ fault. It’s more about the fact that they get their funding on the basis of how many people get employment afterwards.” And with disabled actors still so poorly represented on our screens and stages, these young people are regarded as just too big a risk.

“There’s still a slight mentality of, ‘There’s not enough disabled characters’. That’s missing the point really – a play can be lots of different things. So it’s trying to dismantle that.”

Garry Robson, Dan McGowan, Nadia Albina and John Kelly in Reasons to be Cheerful (2012). Photo: Patrick Baldwin
Garry Robson, Dan McGowan, Nadia Albina and John Kelly in Reasons to be Cheerful (2012). Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Increasing visibility is crucial to the process of changing preconceptions about disabled people – both in the arts and in society in general – but that can only happen if more disabled actors are given the same sorts of training opportunities as their non-disabled peers. It’s a catch-22 that Sealey is hoping to bypass with the help of her new ensemble and the major touring project, as well as the rest of Graeae’s creative collaborations.

“We really are trying to be in as many different places as possible, because it’s when we’re in and around those places that change will happen. That’s when the penny drops. That’s when the fear gets dismantled.”

The London Paralympics and Unlimited, the huge programme of disability arts commissioning that accompanied it, brought about a significant shift in attitudes, Sealey says. What she doesn’t mention – never willing to blow her own trumpet – is the impact of the opening ceremony of those games, which Sealey co-directed alongside Bradley Hemmings, artistic director of Greenwich and Docklands International Festival. An audience of 80,000 watched the ceremony – with its dozens of disabled performers – in the Olympic Stadium, while another 7.6 million tuned into the live broadcast on Channel 4. If you’re talking about putting disability arts in the spotlight, it’s difficult to imagine a brighter one that that.

Jenny Sealey on...All that progress is threatened, however, by recently announced changes to Access to Work, the government scheme that provides funding to disabled people and their employers to help them overcome work-related obstacles from disability. As part of a money saving exercise – one that is short-sighted, says Sealey, given that Access for Work offers a healthy return on investment in terms of taxes paid and benefits saved – the government is introducing a cap on the total amount individuals can claim. This and other tweaks to the way the scheme is run will have major implications for the disabled community, artistic and otherwise.

“The huge worry is that if deaf and disabled artists don’t get that ‘Access to Work’, companies are not going to want to employ them because it comes with a cost,” says Sealey, who was announced as spokesperson for the Stop Changes to Access to Work Campaign this spring.

The fact that Sealey herself – the UK’s best-known deaf director, an MBE and a recipient of the Liberty Human Rights Arts Award – has been personally affected by these changes goes some way to demonstrating the seriousness of the situation. It’s reached the stage where Sealey and her team are considering having to limit her hours, which is madness given her role as chief executive as well as artistic director at the company.

“The last year, I have felt the most huge burden to Graeae. I’ve cried more than I’ve cried in my life. But we’re really worried. I’m going to cry now.” And she does, before taking a deep breath and continuing her thought. “It does feel horrible, because you just don’t know if you’re going to be able to carry on doing your job.”

Sealey has been an activist for a long time, but she’s never considered herself a lobbyist, she says. That’s all changed now. “We really need the backing of the arts council to help us challenge [changes to Access to Work] and ensure that we don’t just disappear. [Peter Bazalgette] is talking about real diversity, and by real diversity he’ll be including deaf and disabled artists – and we’re not going get that if we don’t get the support.”

The threat may be dire, but Sealey is in her element – she’s a fighter, one of the strongest-willed people in the business.

“I’m buggered if I’m going to let this thwart the company’s ambition,” she says of the double whammy of Access to Work changes and potential funding cuts. “I want to expand. I want to have Graeae’s sister, which would live upstairs and be our young people’s theatre company. We’d train them, they’d take all the work into schools, all the education outreach and work on new plays with new people.”

Jenny Sealey top tipsThe director has plenty of things on her own personal to do list too. Having ticked off musical theatre and circus in recent years, cabaret, film and opera are all still very much in her sights.

“Oh, I’d love to do a deaf opera,” she says, after pointing out how few deaf and disabled artists the UK opera houses employ, despite the huge public subsidies they receive. “Oh my God, can you imagine? It’d be fucking fantastic!”

Sealey has been at Graeae for 18 years – “which is terrible really” – but isn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon, she says.

“Every time I think, ‘Right, time to go’, something new happens and I think, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to do that, we’ll see how this pans out’. So it constantly feels new, and I’m very lucky. I think the day that I feel bored is the day that I know that I will have to stop. But there’s no way we can be bored.”

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