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Spoken word artist Penny Pepper: ‘Disabled people are still fighting to be seen as part of the human family’

Penny Pepper. Photo: Kaye Sayer Mayers Penny Pepper. Photo: Kaye Sayer Mayers

Appearing at the Together! 2017 Disability Arts, Culture and Human Rights festival, the poet speaks to Roda Musa about accessibility in the performing arts industry…

What drew you to spoken word performance?

I wrote my first play when I was 10, then I directed Sleeping Beauty when I was about 13. Then I became a dedicated punk. When I saw the Sex Pistols in 1978, it changed my life completely. As a performer, incorporating my own material, I could get away from prejudice and my own shyness. Like many performers, I’m actually incredibly shy, but using a persona I’ve created enables me to get out there. I was also a singer, had my own band and made an album in 1992. I’m privileged to say I’ve been on the stage of London’s Hackney Empire.

How did you get involved with the disability arts festival?

In 1983, I was alert to anything revolving around disabled people in the arts, and came across Artsline, which was responsible for Attitude Is Everything – a charter to improve access to live music for deaf and disabled people. The London disability arts forum was in its early stages. I was very committed and went to one of the first disability arts festivals in the UK – we had Ian Dury as a guest. That was a turning point for me: the thrill of being surrounded by all these other creatives was amazing.

Are the arts becoming more accessible to disabled artists and audiences?

There has been a change, but we are still up against it. The issues are profound: disabled people are still fighting for equality in society and to be seen as part of the human family. Being disabled has its challenges but it is just one aspect of the human condition. This feeds into how we are represented and who represents us. As a huge minority, we are scarcely visible in media, TV and theatre. There is much more willingness and engagement at a grassroots level. I’ve been in cabarets and in the spoken word open mic circuit for many years, and most venues are not accessible for wheelchair users. It is not necessarily intentional or malicious, but is often to do with a lack of funds. The situation is much better, but it is still not good enough.

What do you have coming up?

I’m working on new collaborations and partnerships. I try to include spoken word in all my performances and readings. I like to tweak them, but everyone expects me to do a few rowdy poems. It is very exciting to be developing new projects that I’m hoping to tour next year.

What’s been the highlight of your career?

Releasing my memoirs – at the launch, I had amazing support from friends and people who came along to see me. To have the actual book in my hand was like a coming together of everything I had worked for. It really manifested everything I had done.

CV: Penny Pepper

Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 2002
First professional role: Performed at Jacksons Lane in London, 2007
Agent: Renaissance One

The Together! 2017 Disability Arts, Culture and Human Rights festival takes place in locations across London until December 15