Image description - four disabled women pose in separate portraits. Top left is Liz Carr who is a white woman in her forties with a dark brown bob haircut and is wearing a black top. Top right is Bea Webster who is a woman of dual heritage, Thai and Scottish, with long brown hair and a red top. She is in her late twenties. Bottom right is Mandy Colleran, a white woman in her fifties with long hair and a black top with butterflies on it. Bottom left is Vici Wreford-Sinnott, a white woman in her fifties. She has blond spiky hair and has ared scarf round her neck.
Funny Peculiar is the latest lockdown production from Little Cog as part of the Staging Our Futures programme. Written and directed by Vici Wreford-Sinnott, the piece also stars Liz Carr of Silent Witness fame, Mandy Colleran, a comedian and activist, and Bea Webster who is currently an associate of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and The Playwright's Studio of Scotland.
Vici said, "We are absolutely thrilled to be working with such an amazing cast to tell the stories of disabled women. It feels more important now than ever that we ensure we are visible". Vici is referring to the figures recently released showing that disabled women are 11.9 times more likely to die in the current pandemic than other people. Vici continued, "Terms like 'vulnerable' and 'underlying health conditions' have led to thinking that the deaths of certain groups of people are inevitable. Expected and accepted".
Little Cog decided to challenge that belief and develop work that celebrated disabled women in their rich and complex glory. "We are so excited to be working with Liz, Mandy and Bea. Vici has spent time discussing disabled women's experiences with all cast members and is writing bespoke work for the actors."
Liz Carr is known to millions for playing Clarissa Mullery in the BBC's Silent Witness for 8 years but Liz is many things. She is an actor, comedian and disability rights activist. Others will know her from the Disabled/Deaf women’s comedy group, Nasty Girls or the BBC Ouch! podcast with Mat Fraser or her stand up with Abnormally Funny People, her Criptease routines or her passionate opposition to legalising assisted suicide through both campaigning and her creation of the show, Assisted Suicide - The Musical.
Liz said, “I’m thrilled to have this chance to give voice to and highlight the fears, dark humour and incredible resilience of Disabled women as together we fight for our very existence not just during this pandemic - but always."
Just what is Funny Peculiar and when can you see it?
Zsa Zsa, Raquelle, Blanche and Cuba are in quarantine – four disabled women locked down, locked in, shut up and shouted down. While the rest of the nation is in meltdown, it takes a lot to phase this quartet. The new terrain is worrying and frustrating but these women are prepared - perhaps they have waited for a moment like this their whole lives. In a sequence of four original, cross-cutting, witty and wise monologues, broadcasting from their own homes during quarantine, these women are myth-busters giving their all to expose the lie of vulnerability.
"Writing and rehearsals are under way - this piece is particularly of this moment and we don't expect to see any of our broadcasters making work like this, although we'd love their support, so we just thought, okay then, let's make it ourselves and the response and interest has been phenomenal", says Vici. "There is a danger with a period of potentially prolonged isolation that we could disappear from view, and we were in unanimous agreement that none of us is prepared to let that happen. So here we are making glorious work together."
Mandy Colleran has been involved in Disability Arts since the 1980s. She was a founder member of the comedy trio No Excuses which produced the legendary piece Know My Place, still available to view on youtube. Mandy was also a founder of North West Disability Arts Forum, later becoming it's director. She won a Lifetime Achievement Award from Dadafest in 2007. She was involved in Kaite O'Reilly's In Water I'm Weightless for National Theatre of Wales and has had a long career as a speaker, feminist and campaigner for disability rights.
Bea Webster is a deaf actor who trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She is an actor, drag artist, writer and speaker on Deaf equality. She is currently in rehearsals with the Royal Shakespeare Company for The Winter's Tale, and starred in Red Ladder's Mother Courage and Her Children, and Kaite O'Reilly's Peeling which toured in the UK last year. Bea is passionate about classical and contemporary texts in English and BSL, has contributed to BBC Social, has hosted several events, and has published a poem in both BSL and English titled Long Lost Lover, about her birthplace of Thailand.
Vici is Artistic Director of Little Cog, writing and touring nationally a number of pieces of work including, Butterfly which was named Best One Person Play by the British Theatre Guide, Another England, Lighthouse and her recent commissions The Wrong Woman Discussions and Siege for ARC Stockton and Home Manchester can still be seen online as part of the Homemaker's commissions. She is a lifelong feminist and activist, regularly speaking and campaigning on disability rights matters and the role of culture and the arts in equality. She is a founding member of both Disconsortia and We Shall Not Be Removed.
We can't wait to tell you more about the production - please watch out for regular updates and support us by sharing information about it. Funny Peculiar is a Staging Our Futures Commission supported by Arts Council England, ARC Stockton and will be shared as an internet broadcast at the end of August.
Disabled artists, disabled-led and disability focussed organisations are set to flood social media channels with art and are asking allies and supporters in organisations and venues across the UK to support and share the work.
Disabled artists and disabled-led organisations from across the UK are planning a day of action on social media to celebrate the depth and diversity of inclusive & disability art on Wednesday 17 June 2020. It will be led by artists sharing their artwork online (across all art forms), focussed on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, using the hashtags #WeShallNotBeRemoved and #EndAbleism
The campaign is designed to raise awareness of the magnified inequalities for disabled people working in the creative industries caused by the pandemic, as many disabled artists face long term shielding, loss of income and invisibility in wider society.
Musician and campaigner John Kelly said: “We want to demonstrate solidarity and support for disabled people who are facing a very challenging future because of the pandemic by sharing the rich tapestry of our artworks to raise our voice, of our talent and our resilience”.
The campaign is organised by UK Disability Arts Alliance #WeShallNotBeRemoved. The alliance is a grassroots emergency response led by disabled people for disabled people working across the UK’s creative industries in every capacity and across artforms.
The alliance recently sent an open letter to The Secretary of State for Culture Oliver Dowden and devolved UK culture ministers, from 150 disabled artists and cultural leaders, calling on the government to safeguard and protect the future of disability arts in the UK as a consequence of Covid19 and to ensure the renewal and recovery of the cultural sector offers greater access and representation.
#WeShallNotBeRemoved is a forum to advocate, to campaign and support D/deaf, neurodiverse and disabled creative practitioners and organisations through and after Covid19. The aims of the alliance are:
For further information or to arrange interviews with participating disabled artists, please contact email@example.com
Siege is an ARC Stockton Homemakers commission in partnership with HOME in Manchester, available to watch on the HOME website and can be accessed here.
If a situation or a set of discriminatory life experiences don’t touch a person individually, they have no clue how consistently painful, degrading, dangerous and exhausting that can be on a daily basis. We’re not taught about it in school, in fact we cover it up, and it is certainly not in the interests of those who control the media, history and education, who also coincidentally have a stake in the biggest global brands in the world, to share that information. Discrimination and segregation (physically, literally or in the psyche of a nation) are deliberate acts of division and oppression to protect the interests of a powerful minority. It is not widely highlighted that some citizens have completely unequal and unjust experiences in the few short years we have called ‘a life’ here on this planet other than in sweeping homogenized generalisations, rendering empathy, solidarity and resistance to an apathetic minimum.
The people not affected by brutal injustices, in the name of their society and on their watch, have the luxury of channelling their energies into the living of their lives, and benefitting from the muting and diluting of the brutalities, unquestioningly accepting an assumed inevitability around some people just being ‘second class citizens’, and, if there is a need for human rights movements for groups of ‘others’, they are diminished by being called protestors, pressure groups, rioters and domestic extremists. Activist voices are silenced by the dominant culture with criticism of being ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘snowflakes’, 'lefty luvvies’, ‘moaners’ and ‘virtue signallers’. And it doesn’t take a special kind of person to be an activist, there is no training course – you just have to start by asking questions and standing with others.
A veneer of life continues to bubble along and every now and then when an injustice rises up, something that can no longer be silenced or hidden – a murder, a series of murders, someone taking their own life under pressures from the state, people issued with DNRs by the state, people starving to death due to austerity – will capture the nation’s attention momentarily, and there will be temporary outrage and then ultimately relief when the immediacy of that is over, it becomes old news and everyone moves on.
This blog was due to come out to coincide with the release of Siege Part Two, a short digital performance commission by ARC Stockton and HOME Manchester. An opportunity I didn’t invite but feel really lucky to have had and, as a disabled artist, I have felt seen and valued. The piece, as with all my work, aims to shine a light contemporary, and centuries old, systemic abuse and discrimination of disabled people which has led to our low status as citizens, a situation where our lives are often viewed as both useless and not worth living. The commission of Siege was originally set against the backdrop of global coronavirus pandemic, which has revealed that some lives are more expendable than others, enshrined in the strategies, policies and actions of our Government. In the case of coronavirus, the most expendable lives are those of older people, disabled people and Black and Asian people.
The blog also now comes out a time of the global protests of the Black Lives Matter Movement, brought to a head by the appalling murder of George Floyd in the US, by a serving police officer whilst arresting him. Centuries of oppression through enslavement and apartheid are finally receiving global attention. We are questioning everything, including the history we have been taught and the history which has been hidden. Every single Black Life Matters every single day, and I also draw attention to the lives of Black disabled people to ensure we acknowledge their deaths at the hands of police officers, other murderers and an unjust system, and to the lives lived experiencing injustice and discrimination every day. I want to also acknowledge and value with gratitude the work of many Black disabled artists, their work, their voices and their activism. We must work hard to ensure that Black disabled people are elevated in the Disability Rights Movement and the Disability Arts Sector, and that we develop anti-racist actions in our movement.
I develop my work in the Disability Arts Movement as an activist and artist.
We have had a decade (and beyond - this has been going on for thousands of years) which has seen systematic abuses of the human rights of disabled people in the UK, as reported by disabled peoples’ organisations, the United Nations and Amnesty International, and the estimated deaths of over 100,000 people due to governmental austerity policies, which are set to get much worse. We have seen research statistics from a Ruderman Family Foundation Report in the US estimating that half of all deaths caused by police officers in the US are of disabled people. Why such fear of us? Why such hate? Along with members of the disability rights movement across the world, in all our diverse intersections, those of us who can, must continue to raise our voices, acknowledging those disabled activists on whose shoulders we build, and with responsibility for those in our communities whose voices are not heard.
My activism comes through the theatre I make, an artform I trained in, to challenge our cultural thinking by questioning history and telling stories from those less heard, from disabled people, disabled women. Dominant culture is the site of so much oppression through its mis-telling, its stereotypes and its erasure. I have worked my life long to challenge that.
And my work is about ensuring that the sum total of us is not defined by our oppression – we are not pity parties, we are not tragic but brave victims. We’re bloody gorgeous, complicated, living, breathing, three dimensional human beings full of passion and a commitment to asking questions of the society we live in and share with others.
So where does Siege Parts 1 & 2 fit into my work and my efforts to disrupt thinking. I am a writer/director because when I started making work in the early 1990s I couldn't find stories that felt relevant to me, or my community, so I knew I had to create my own. And, due to my punk roots, I wanted stories that could be told in edgy, radical, dark and funny ways. I am collaborative and try to be democratic in my process. My audience is usually my first thought and bringing the voices of others into the creative process. I can’t pretend to represent a community, but I can certainly be informed by as wide a perspective of experiences and viewpoints as possible. And as an artist who aims to make gob-smackingly good theatre, it is all the richer for collaboration.
As a result, I knew my commission for HOME and ARC would need to be in two stages – the first would be discussion and the second the creation of a piece of new work. And that's what we have - an incredible series of five short films, featuring an afternoon discussion with the amazing artists Bea Webster, Tammy Reynolds, Melissa Johns and Julie McNamara. I knew that they represented a really rich set of intersections in many and layered ways, in terms of where they work in the arts, how they position their work and the identities they reflect and represent in their work. The perspectives included are mixed race, Romany and traveller, queer, crip, non-binary, drag, TV industry, RSC, live art, contemporary theatre, writing, performing, directing from women with a broad range of conditions under the umbrella known as disability and disabled by society.
Our voices aren’t part of the canon. Our voices aren’t part of national policy discussions. Our voices are not valued enough. Our voices are not really even a part of willing, liberal, diversity initiatives in mainstream theatres around the country. Some members of our community may be given places in these spaces, but when is this actually led by us. How long is it for. A transitory fad. Our voices are silenced.
So the work of Siege is a disruption of that, and gives a platform, through Little Cog, Home and ARC online, for voices to be heard, for our transgression of expectation and our agency to be heard.
The discussion films now come under the collective title The Wrong Woman Discussions, which is a reference to a term Julie McNamara uses in her theatre practice and research. Tammy, JulieMc, Melissa, Bea and myself discussed what we think is expected of disabled women and why that is, and we discussed our experiences of being ‘looked at’ both in public and in our work. We talked about how we transgress traditional assumptions, and we talked about how we have agency, in spite of the challenges presented by a dominant arts world centred around a patriarchal canon, a patriarchal capitalist society and an art world full of inaccessible buildings run by inaccessible people with inaccessible mindsets.
The videos are full of powerful testimonies told in solidarity no matter how many different directions we are all coming from. I am grateful to Bea, JulieMc, Melissa and Tammy for agreeing to put themselves out there. It is not without risk to do so. And I am immensely proud of who they are and the intervention we have created together in theatre and performance thinking.
And this all came from seeds around a piece called Siege, which I planned to make as a national touring show for 2021. Annabel and Dan at ARC, where I am an Associate Artist, had already said they wanted to support the development of the show and I was excited to make a piece exploring disabled women’s experiences of performativity and performance. Mim was to be a character fully fed up of feeling looked at through various lenses and deciding that hostage would become hostage-taker – metaphorically speaking. Or am I?
I spent a couple of weeks working with Tammy Reynolds on my character script, discussing Mim, her crip cabaret credentials, the differences between live art and theatre, and where the character of Mim met and differed from Tammy’s own amazing live art alter ego and trailblazer, Midgitte Bardot. In the end the timing wasn’t right for Tammy to perform Mim (lockdown 2020…jesus christ…so hard) but I am incredibly thankful to her for her insight and time on the piece.
So at the moment, Siege has become a 12 minute character film exploring and introducing Mim, performed by the incredibly talented Philippa Cole. We had a day of rehearsals and a day of filming with her wonderful husband Daniel Griffiths on camera, and me on zoom, behind the camera with him. Fortunately Pippa and I have a kind of shorthand, as we worked together on my national touring show Another England, and so in the most bizarre set of circumstances (lockdown 2020…jesus Christ….so hard) we shot the script. It’s presented as neither a beginning nor an end but just where we are at the moment.
The piece is clearly informed by the conversations we all had, and is also multi-layered and metaphorical in disabled women’s experiences of culture, or the machine of culture. It is Mim being edgy, radical and funny about disabled women’s experiences of being in the middle of the radar, with her shame-free approach to disabled women’s bodies and experiences.
And it will move on and become something else, and hopefully if all is safe, we'll see you on the road in 2021 on a national tour.
"Only human connection, tenderness, compassion, only love will win the day"
Image description - Two female actors in rehearsal, Fatima Niemogha and Shereener Browne who play Kem and Elaine/Elsie, presenting two women of African heritage experiencing the mental health system. The actor in the foreground is working script in hand and has her arms outstretched, speaking to someone she is clearly appealing to. The actor in the background looks on, concerned.
Here at Little Cog we love and admire the work of London-based Vital Xposure theatre company and are thrilled that they are premiering their latest national tour at ARC Stockton on 19 March. We invited the visionary artistic director of the company, Julie McNamara, to write a guest blog about what we can expect.
Julie McNamara here, Artistic Director of Vital Xposure and writer of all manner of mischief for the stage. We are about to tour a small scale production portraying two extraordinary stories of women defined as ‘mad’ in the societies in which they live. These stories are set two hundred years apart and yet so very many features of the way the women are relegated as flawed, hysterical, less valued in society, and how they are treated accordingly, are scarily similar. Little has changed.
I am the writer of ‘Monstrous Daughters’, which is my resurrection of a story lost inside the archives of Bethlem Royal hospital. This is a story driven by the records I pored over and more personally, it is driven by my own Mother’s ‘madness’; her grief and her experience of treatment after the death of her first baby. That story will be presented alongside ‘Medicine’, a gut wrenching response to the treatment of Black women inside the mental health system, presented for us by Fatima Niemogha and Shereener Browne who play Kem and Elaine/Elsie. Elsie is based on the treatment of Elsie Lacks, daughter of Henrietta Lacks - both Mother and daughter were experimented on during their lifetimes and afterwards, for the gains of modern medicine. Kem is a contemporary character, trying to negotiate the mental health system and stay sane in a benefits system led by bureaucrats. Elaine has been diagnosed so often, she’s lost confidence in her own intuition, her own judgement and in the voices of her ancestors trying to reach her through the veil and through a cloud of prescribed drugs.
I am profoundly touched watching the intensity, the energy and the vitality of our two actors who embody the stories in ‘Medicine’, a beautifully written first play by Omikemi; a London based, award-winning spoken word poet and performer.
As a writer, it can sometimes feel like a thankless, frustrating and isolating occupation – until we surrender the script to those in the rehearsal rooms who work their magic and lift it off the page. I feel like a ventriloquist, as part of my process is to read the script aloud, moving from chair to empty chair in my tiny wee studio at home. The magic of making theatre is when the creative team comes together, bringing their creative pulse, their unique skills and imagination.
So here we are, in week three of rehearsals and the atmosphere is electric. It has been thrilling to witness the careful nurturing, the coaxing and the finely- honed craft of Director, Penelope Freeman, breathing new life into the words I wrote too long ago. Lisette Auton plays a fabulously layered Mad Mary, rattling in with an energy that contaminates the stage as she veers between visceral grief and desperate cunning in her rabid search for the bones of her dead infant; a long-dead baby festering in the bowels of a medical museum. Lisette is playing opposite Eden West as Walter Riddle, who is superb as the grinning guardian of all things shiny in the wet collection of the museum vaults. These two weave their stories together so seamlessly on stage, it is hard to believe they only met three weeks ago. I can’t wait to see them in full flight in the forthcoming production due to open at ARC Stockton on March 19th.
Here are two powerful stories telling tales of brutal betrayal and dereliction of duty of care. I left the studio late today, feeling galvanised into action, determined to make changes, somehow, some way.
Only human connection, tenderness, compassion, only Love will win the day.
© Julie McNamara
Photo Credits: TG Film and Photography
Image Description - a slide which says On Whose Shoulders We Build - a history of the disability arts movement in the North East of England. The photograph is credited to Black Robin and features Karen Sheader and the late Lindsay Carter, who is holding a toy dog which is wearing comedy glasses, and was taken at Arcadea's Metamorphosis Ball, held at the Sage Gateshead in 2006 as part of the Mimosa Festival.
Heralding a new wave of Disability Art in the North East of England, Little Cog Theatre Company is delighted to be working in collaboration with Black Robin, who has secured funding from Arts Council England and support from ARC Stockton, to develop a living archive which will create a platform to share work from disabled artists past and present. The North East has a rich and proud tradition of self-organised disability arts practice, which has remained largely discreet and hidden. It is essential to collate and raise the profile of the strong body of work created by the disability arts community, which is currently not reflected in the artistic heritage of the region. On Whose Shoulders We Build will also share and acknowledge the tireless and ongoing work undertaken by many disabled artists and activists to bring about the change we have today.
We think it's a brilliant time to introduce this project to the North Eastern landscape. There are sources of disabled-led work going back at least 35 years, and yet, we know that advances in the equality of disabled artists still have a long way to go. On Whose Shoulders We Build coincides with disabled artists in the North East coming together to create Disconsortia, an artist-led consortium working towards making artistic change happen. And this is also a time where there is pressure on the arts to do more about diversity. On Whose Shoulders We Build will champion, celebrate and showcase a passionate, vibrant community of artists who so often are ignored and undervalued by mainstream arts.
On Whose Shoulders We Build is in its first phase of development and involves a variety of activities including a series of interviews, workshops & written commissions, ensuring that the specific & rich nature of disability art in the North East is put centre-stage. The project will launch with an exhibition running from 29 June - 10 August 2020, in the main gallery at ARC Stockton, celebrating pioneering work. It will be filled with fascinating portraits, quotes and artefacts reflecting the voices, contemporary work & thinking of disabled people from our region. We will post more information nearer the time.