Playwright Kaite O’Reilly tells us how she’s exploding myths and stereotypes of disability and difference in And Suddenly I Disappear, Saturday 8 September.
For over a decade I’ve held the ambition of creating a body of work specifically for disabled and Deaf actors, reflecting lived experience. Why, I’m often asked? Actors who have physical, intellectual, or sensory ‘difference’ are usually overlooked and disabled characters on stage and screen are often portrayed negatively – think villain (Richard III or Bond ‘baddie’) or victim (Tiny Tim). I wanted to present different characters, with different stories – tales from disabled and Deaf individuals about life, rather than continuing the stereotypes or problematic storylines (bitter and twisted; tragic but brave…).
Disabled characters appear in many plays, both contemporary and historical, yet seldom have the playwrights been disabled, or written from that point of view or experience. I wanted to explore what would happen if we rejected or challenged the old lies, tropes, or misunderstandings, and made something new, closer to life – and informed by the social model of disability, which sees the barriers in society (both physical and attitudinal) as the disabling factor, not the individual’s body.
To embark on the project, I invited disabled and Deaf people to engage either in interviews, conversations or questionnaires. We talked about their dreams, hopes, families, their jobs, love lives – virtually everything but the ‘d’ word – disability. These interviews have now grown to over 100 in number, and they inspire the fictional monologues I write. It’s very important to me that the monologues are fiction and the characters from my imagination. I feel we ‘are’ our stories, so to take someone’s story and put it in a script would feel like theft. Besides, in my experience, real life is invariably stranger than fiction – and no one would believe some of the real stories I’ve been told, were I to put them on stage.
‘And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/UK ‘d’ Monologues’ takes this basic model of interviews and brings it into the international arena. It is the first multilingual, intercultural Deaf and disabled-led project between Singapore and the UK. It is hugely ambitious and visually stunning, mixing live action and pre-recorded video across five languages – predominantly English, but also Mandarin, Welsh, British Sign Language and Cantonese. It is wry with an at times laugh out loud humour, poignant and powerful – audiences who saw its world premiere in Singapore in May 2018 said it was eye-opening and gripping, a rollercoaster of emotions that was ‘a real game-changer’.
The production, directed by Phillip Zarrilli, is an international cast of UK and Singapore-based actors, including Garry Robson, currently on stage at the National Theatre, London, and featured on video Sophie Stone, currently on stage at Shakespere’s Globe, but known for her roles in Doctor Who and The Crown. The work is fully accessible, where so-called ‘access tools’ are imbedded into the creative process – there are sequences in theatricalised sign language and visual language, led by internationally respected Deaf Singaporean performer Ramesh Meyyappen, and the performance is captioned throughout. It is a joyous event, a dialogue between two small nations, celebrating all the possibilities of human variety, exploding myths and stereotypes of disability and difference.
Kaite O’Reilly is a multi-award winning poet, playwright and dramaturg, known for her pioneering work in disability culture and the aesthetics of access. Prizes include the Peggy Ramsay Award and the Ted Hughes Award for new works in Poetry, awarded by the Poet Laureate for ‘Persians’ for National Theatre Wales. Widely published and produced, she works internationally, her work translated into eleven languages.