Jenny Sealey, who directed a group of Bangladeshi deaf and disabled actors to perform Romeo and Juliet, tells us about working with the cast and whether it is harder for deaf and disabled actors to have a career.
Can you tell us about the cast?
I've run workshops with deaf and disabled people here in Dhaka over the last three years, and the actors I cast were part of the workshops. They are a gloriously motley crew, picked because I believe they have that spark and emotional resonance that you need to be an actor. The whole process of performing a play was very new to them, as they've had little or no opportunity to work on a text, let alone Shakespeare. So it feels like we are trying to climb a very high mountain.
The cast have unique physicality and communication styles, which is exciting for me as a director. They are all discovering many new things about themselves, and slowly becoming more confident about who they are as deaf and disabled people. They have started to own their difference, rather than shying away from it. This is a huge turning point, because they are now much more aware of their rights as human beings, and their right to be part of society and to do theatre.
What's different about directing a cast of disabled actors?
In my career as a director, I have never worked with an all non-disabled cast. Working with deaf and disabled people is what I do and what I know. It's a world I feel very at home in, as I am deaf. Our job is simply to put on the best play we can and to use what we have to inform the process. For example, one of the actors playing Tybalt has short, crossed legs, which he can wrap around the legs of a standing actor to completely floor them. Who needs daggers when you have such powerful legs?
Each of the main characters are played by two actors: one who is physically disabled, and one who is deaf, so all the text is signed and spoken. We are projecting the text of the play in English and Bangla for people who prefer to read text, and there is live audio description, music and soundscapes to help people who are visually impaired. There are many layers of access, so I hope that we'll have a mixed audience of non-disabled, disabled, deaf and blind people.
Has the way that disabled performers are portrayed changed?
Disabled characters are often either uplifting, sweet and simple, or the 'baddies'. For example, James Bond films often cast disability as evil. We want equal opportunities, so we can audition to play many different roles in many different plays - Chekhov, Ibsen, modern classics, and of course Shakespeare.
We have come a long way from the 'freak shows' of the past. Although some disabled people back then did have ownership over some of these shows and were 'actors' in them, there were also sideshows where people went to stare at the 'deformed'. In fact, the UK still has, in my view, a terrible television programme called The Undateables, which finds vulnerable 'undateable' disabled people and sets them up with dates. To me, it has overtones of sideshow. But we do have disabled actors in our major soap operas, and one of my favourite characters is the disabled son in the US television drama Breaking Bad, played by an actor with cerebral palsy.
Is it harder to make it as a disabled or deaf actor?
Acting is a tough profession and, as a deaf and disabled person, you have to work to be better than non-disabled actors. But it's very hard. There's a real lack of opportunity globally for us to be in regular work, where we can practise and perfect our craft. There are also very few training opportunities to learn to be an actor. Drama schools in the UK are beginning to take note of this problem, but here in Bangladesh, it's only thanks to the British Council and the National Theatre of Dhaka that this group has started actor training.
We are light years away from being an equal society. But for these actors, this is the start of taking what they've learnt and, with continued support, using theatre to educate, inform and dismantle discriminatory attitudes. They are challenging the idea that we cannot do certain things. They're already discussing how they can help the rehabilitation of new disabled actors. As for me, I'm already wondering what play we can do next, as I can't bear the thought that this could be my last time here in Dhaka. I've learnt so much and totally love the actors and team involved.
What's special about the relationship between theatre and disability?
Theatre is an incredible way to learn about yourself and others. Placing deaf and disabled people in a narrative which is usually only played by non-disabled actors sends a powerful message that the emotional agenda of this play belongs to everyone. It says that we are human and not second-class citizens.
What advice would you give to deaf and disabled people who want to act?
If you have a burning desire to be an actor, you need to see as much theatre as possible, and find as many different classes as you can. You need to make sure you understand the process of working with text, voice (or sign), movement, and creating characters' emotions. Find other like-minded people and start practising storytelling and performing scripts with them. You can educate yourselves and support each other as critical allies. It is so very important that disabled people keep making theatre.
Jenny Sealey is artistic director of the UK theatre company Graeae.
Watch a documentary [link expired] about the creation of Romeo and Juliet at the Southbank Centre in London from 18 to 30 May 2016.
Graeae has worked with Dhaka Theatre since 2013 to train young disabled actors in Bangladesh. Romeo and Juliet marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Find out about the full Shakespeare Lives programme.