Graeae Beyond  

Graeae, a cutting edge disabled-led company, has launched Beyond: a new initiative designed to remove barriers and transform the careers of Deaf and Disabled artists across the country. Susan Elkin is our guide.

Eight regional theatres have signed up to offer development support, advice, training, mentoring and the use of creative spaces at every stage of participants’ careers. There will also be targeted micro-grants to help with the development of projects.

Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, co-directed the Paralympics opening ceremony and has an MBE. I asked her whether it is still really necessary to single out deaf and disabled people in this way. “To put it politely. Yes!” she says with an exasperated grin. She and I are communicating via a BSL interpreter through Zoom and it’s working well.

“There are still far too many theatres which don’t have an ethos of inclusion” continues Jenny. “Just doing an occasional signed performance is not real engagement. That’s just lip service. And I think Black Lives Matter has done a lot to expose these gaps. We have to include more people from all cultural backgrounds as well as LGBTQIA+ * people she says. “Amit Sharma is deputy artistic director at Birmingham rep – a disabled man – but he was the first and is the only one! How long have we waited for that? It’s not good enough.”

Graeae asked interested theatres to get in touch if they wanted to be part of Beyond. “Some of the eight are theatres we already have relationships with, but others are new” says Jenny adding that she is especially pleased to be working, for the first time, with Octagon Theatre, Bolton. “All eight theatres are regional. This project is part of Graeae’s outreach work. Although we are based in London, we are definitely not London-centric. Our work is breaking down barriers, challenging preconceptions and boldly placing deaf and disabled artists centre stage. It’s both national and international.”

At present Graeae is working with the participating theatres to ensure that everything is ready as soon as pandemic restrictions are lifted. Deaf and disabled artists are invited to enrol via Graeae’s website where information is provided in BSL, audio and easy read formats. Any deaf or disabled artist with a project or idea in need of a boost – in the form of others’ experience or resources, for instance, is encouraged to submit it now. Overall at least 100 hours of mentoring and 600 hours of rehearsal space will be available across Beyond. 

“Just doing an occasional signed performance is not real engagement. That’s just lip service.”

Beyond has a lot of support. “At a time when Disabilty Arts and disabled artists are in danger of regressing because of ‘Covid fallout’ Graeae comes up with this great idea!” enthuses Graeae patron, Mat Fraser.  “The initiative will, hopefully, lead to an impressive increase in work by, and with, deaf and disabled theatre creatives especially across the Midlands and north of the UK.” Rock musician, writer, performance artist and actor, Mat has thalidomide-induced phocomelia. He played Richard III at Hull Truck Theatre in 2017.

Jill Adamson, Director of Participation at Northern Stage believes that the whole industry needs positive systemic and methodological changes to create a more equitable cultural sector. “Only through collaborating with artists from diverse backgrounds and communities can we bring that about” she says.

Jenny Sealey describes the last few months as “truly terrible” but also mentions the “silver lining” implicit in Arts Council England’s awarding Transforming Leadership funding to Graeae just before lockdown. “We were acutely aware that if we did not act fast in setting up Beyond, deaf and disabled artists would – in this current climate – get left out of the conversation. That is NOT going to happen!” she declares. And I, for one, believe her. She is not a woman who tolerates passivity. And she’s very good at getting things done.

*Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, Queer, Intersexed, Asexual +   

Theatres participating in Beyond
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Curve, Leicester
Nottingham Playhouse
Cast, Doncaster
Hull Truck Theatre
Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot
Live Theatre, Newcastle
Northern Stage, Newcastle