Actor, writer and producer Naomi Yeboah is also a community learning disability nurse. As part of a series of Q&As celebrating the contributions of theatremakers during the coronavirus crisis, she tells Giverny Masso how her work with learning-disabled people has encouraged her to think about accessibility in theatremaking…
How did you get into theatre and nursing?
Acting came first. That started when I was about eight years old. I wasn’t a very confident child so my mum put me in classes. When I was 13, I got involved with the Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and Contact Theatre and it just grew. The nursing side came when I was 18. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at university. Even though I knew I could act, I wasn’t very self-assured, so I kind of let that go and did the learning-disability nursing. After I finished that, I came back to acting, because I realised it didn’t need to be either/or: they complement each other. I have a full-time job at the moment, and I write and produce as well as act. Because I’m lucky enough to get my work commissioned, I can make that work around me.
What were you doing just before the Covid-19 crisis?
I was about to have a screening of Your Hair Proceeds You, one of my commissions with Eclipse Theatre. It consists of comedy sketches about black female hair, looking at the daily challenges we face – not necessarily with our hair but with people’s perceptions of our hair. It will be rescheduled after the shutdown.
What does your nursing role involve?
We work with people with learning disabilities in their homes. A lot of my work is about helping people with learning disabilities to understand their health conditions and encouraging them to be really active in the decision-making process about their healthcare. I’m currently working full-time from home. I’m not able to see my clients, but we are conducting welfare checks and there is talk of us being moved into other areas where they need nursing support.
Has your nursing role influenced your work in theatre at all?
For sure, because I’m always focusing on accessibility and looking at non-verbal gestures and how I can get that across to people. I was speaking with the Manchester International Festival – which I’m working on a commission with – about ways of integrating different forms of communication, because sometimes I feel it can be an add-on. British Sign Language, for example, is often just thrown in there, but what if you had a deaf character signing all the way through? Often when I’m working with people with learning disabilities, I encourage them to see shows and they tell me that there’s only one accessible show and it will be in the afternoon. It’s assumed that people with learning disabilities don’t work – and that’s simply not true.
Has your work in theatre affected your nursing work?
Seeing therapeutic uses for the arts is encouraging me to implement that in my work as a nurse, by helping people find different methods of expressing themselves and encouraging people to take part in social activities. We are setting up different groups to encourage people to take part in therapeutic activities rather than just focusing on medicine. Theatremaking has definitely has helped me become a better nurse, because I’m seeing different ways of supporting people.
First professional role: Blind Eyes, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (2013)