Reasons to be Graeae: A Foreword From Mat Fraser

 

Graeae LogoGraeae Flyer 2Mat Fraser is an English rock musician, actor, writer and performance artist, Mat-Fraser-2who performed with Graeae’s Reasons To Be Cheerful at the 2012 London Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. Ahead of this month’s release of Reasons To Be Graeae: A Work in Progress, Mat shares the story of how the UK’s flagship disabled-led Theatre Company changed the course of his career.
My mum invited me to a play called Ubu at the Ovalhouse Theatre, South London in 1994, by a disabled theatre company called Graeae. I had ‘come out’ as a disabled person in 1992 at thirty years old; I yearned to do something aligned with my disability politics and love of performing. As the son of two actors, I wanted to act but I had been put off badly by kids laughing at me in the school play audition at thirteen years old, the only disabled kid in my school. I had carried with me from then on the idea that disabled people on stage were nothing more than an embarrassment to most others. Acting was not a possible career for someone with as visibly different a body as mine.
Then I saw Jamie Beddard, a man with a good dose of cerebral palsy, shouting on stage at everyone else and showing his arse. He was spitting cake at a wheelchair using woman, Mandy Colleran, who was mocking him and a Deaf woman, Caroline Parker, who was signing. All manner of radically different things unfolded as the whole company romped their way through the most bawdy, anarchic, messy play I had ever seen. And the sold out, mostly non-disabled audience, loved it. No embarrassment but laughter, cheers, applause, and enjoyment. I’ve often tried to describe the feeling that came over me then, a disabled wannabe actor imprisoned by a notion of, ‘body not good enough’. My whole life exploded as I realised there was a place for me to be, to be equal, understood. I had a non-religious epiphany that night. I decided to leave my band the next morning and try to get an audition with Graeae. I was lucky that Ewan Marshall (then artistic director) saw potential in me. I became a member of the company, doing a three-month schools tour of forum theatre with Colette Conroy. I finally got a part in their production of Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw with Dave Kent, Ilan Dwek, Daryl Beeton, and Jacqui Beckford in 1996-7. From there, I got an Equity card and worked off and on with Graeae for a few years before branching off to do my own work. This disabled theatre company had given me the confidence to perform and a belief that I, as a disabled person, had equal value as an arts creative.
Graeae grew over the next few years, got better funding, and Jenny Sealey took over as artistic director in 1997. Her influence included forming relationships with mainstream theatres, training hungry disabled people in basic theatre skills, and bringing in more and more what we might term, ‘inclusive design’, i.e. building accessibility into the show itself. Additionally, any Graeae show these days has BSL and audio description/stage text built into the script and other areas where possible.
From Nabil Shaban forming Graeae in 1981 to now as I write this thirty seven years later, the growth, output, professionalism, profile, and international relationships with other theatres and groups has grown to make Graeae the leader in disability-led theatre. I live in the US and there is nothing like Graeae here, although there are some that try to emulate it.

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– ‘Graeae are an inspiration to the entire industry. [Reasons to be Graeae] is a glorious read.’ – Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre 

Changes to the ethos, such as making the company inclusive in its casting; working on co-productions with mainstream theatres; and making more commercially accessible work have all proved to be successful in raising Graeae’s profile. They are now rightly the most well-known disability-led theatre company in the world. Perhaps more successful is that their influence has reached deep into mainstream UK theatre, which has seen much change although it needs to see and hear a LOT more!
Jack Thorne’s commissioned play The Solid Life of Sugar Water directed by Amit Sharma at the National Theatre, and The House of Bernarda Alba directed by Jenny Sealey at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, are two examples of the heights of the commercial, inclusive theatre profile that Graeae has attained in recent years. I feel super proud of their achievements and influence in UK mainstream theatre—Ramps on the Moon could not have happened without all of Graeae’s work, for example. My last performance work with them was as the drummer on the original tour of Reason to be Cheerful in 2010. I look forward to my next project with them because, as with all the disabled and non-disabled people who have passed through this great company, I will always be a member of their family.

Perseus himself could never have imagined the power those three women crips—the Graeae Sisters had, with only one eye and one tooth between them—when they became the theatre company that saved and made my artistic life, as they have for so many other disabled and non-disabled theatre practitioners.

Reasons to be Graeae: A Work in Progress will be published by Oberon Books on 26th April 2018. Click here to pre-order your copy now.

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Devil With the Blue Dress: An Explosive New Political Thriller

Devil With the Blue Dress

January 1998: America is rocked by one of the most infamous political sex scandals of all time.
Slyly exhuming the little blue dress that launched the biggest media circus of a generation, the five women who were at the centre of the Monica Lewinsky scandal collide on stage in a gripping new political thriller from Kevin Armento,
DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS.

This explosive theatrical battle over exactly how it all went down asks who were the heroes and villains, and why, twenty years later, we’re only beginning to grapple with one of the most challenging questions in American political history: How do we respond to women seeking power, and the men who misuse it?
As the world faces a new dawn in how it thinks and talks about both historic and recent cases of abuse of power, we asked Kevin Armento and Joshua McTaggart [Artistic Director of The Bunker where DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS premieres later this month] to talk us through their top five pieces of theatre which explore this increasingly prevalent theme.

JOSHUA: KEVIN and I were sat in a pub talking about abuse of power in theatre and politics, which is a common topic we now discuss over a pint. As we thought about our personal favourite plays that explore these issues, we decided to ensure the five we write about in this blog are exclusively by female writers. In light of what we, two men, are discovering in our otherwise all female rehearsal room (cast, creative and production team), we think this list ought to also celebrate the incredible female voices writing in the theatre industry.

HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE by Paula Vogel

Paula Vogel has so frequently been ahead of her time, and her most well-known play is no exception. Exploring power dynamics, abuse, and so much more through the story of a teenage girl and her encounters with her aunt’s husband, the play brilliantly skates back and forth through time, as a means of exploring the dizzying and lasting nature of trauma – it never leaves you. Interestingly, the play premiered off-Broadway two weeks after Bill and Monica’s blue dress encounter. (Though no one knew so at the time.) – KA

POSH by Laura Wade 

Abuse of power is most often rooted in gender imbalances, but something else I think is important to consider is class, status, and wealth. With the growing conversation about the representation of working class stories on our stages, Laura Wade’s POSH, first seen at the Royal Court directed by Lyndsey Turner, whacks you across the face with a fundamental truth: Many of the men in our cabinet were groomed for power in their youth. But perhaps one of the most stomach-turning aspects of the young men in POSH is how we are drawn to them, their charisma, their charm, and their humour. And yet, they betray that audience empathy with inexcusable and abhorrent actions. Much like many of the men (and women) sitting in parliament this very day. – JM

FAR AWAY by Caryl Churchill

This is one of the best plays of the twenty-first century, full stop. As ever, the structure is totally unpredictable yet impeccably drawn, and the scope appears tiny until you’re sucked in close and then she blows the doors off the place. It’s hard to describe the plot of

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DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS takes us to the heart of the first sex scandal of the internet age.

FAR AWAY, but it’s essentially a dystopian drama that explores abuses of state power and terror, and its toxic effect on the citizen. And this play premiered at the Royal Court just seventeen days after America’s election that would see Al Gore lose to George W. Bush – a result many believe was in part due to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. – KA


THE NETHER by Jennifer Haley

When I saw this play at the Royal Court and the conceit of the play was revealed (SPOILER: Most of the action takes place in a virtual world that allows paedophiles to enact their fantasies on virtual avatars that are controlled by grown adults) I swore out loud. I’m not sure if the person next to me was more shocked by my language or the action on stage. Although the abuse that took place in the play was deemed to be consensual, the moral dilemma we were implicated in as an audience was extraordinary. Defining right and wrong became immediately blurred. The play was – in an unsettling way – presented without judgement. That is what we have tried to do in our production [of DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS]: Present a morally dubious scenario without judgement, and allow audiences to make their own conclusions both during – and after – the performance. – JM


RUINED by Lynn Nottage

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winner is a searing portrait of Congolese women, set in a bar within a small mining town near the edge of the rainforest. The play unpacks various meanings of war against women, ultimately zooming out to examine women as the battlefield itself. It beautifully utilises specificity in character and setting to render an ecosystem writ large, one that echoes out far beyond the confines of Mama Nadi’s bar. RUINED premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on November 8, 2008, four days after Barack Obama was elected president – which he won, of course, after defeating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. – KA

 

The play text of DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS will be published to coincide with the shows premiere on 29th March. Click here to pre-order your copy.
DEVIL WITH THE BLUE DRESS will be playing at The Bunker from 29th March – 28th April 2018. Click here for more information and tickets.

Making Dance Theatre – An Introduction

Award-winning choreographer Mark Bruce’s aim as an artist is to tap into the subconscious, our hearts; transcend our everyday lives and hopefully stumble upon some truth along the way.
Here he introduces his new invaluable new artists guide On Choreography and Making Dance Theatre, describing the essential ingredients that form the foundation for his Dance Productions.

A choreographer is an artist whose means of expression is movement. Whether to touch a viewer emotionally, challenge, entertain, tell a story, a concept – whatever they want; a professional choreographer should have the skill to open a viewer’s subconscious and communicate using movement as their primary tool. But to be a choreographer you can’t just be good at creating movement and putting it together. There are many other skills and knowledge one needs to produce a piece of work. If I was to describe the basic foundation or ingredients of my version of dance theatre I would state: Movement, drama, sound and vision. You can spend your whole life studying just one of these crafts. A choreographer has to study all of them to the best of their ability and learn how to combine them.

Leonard Cohen wrote of ‘The Tower of Song’. In my mind this tower, lonely as it is, is full of a thousand great songwriters. The tower of literature must be heaving with great writers, the tower of painting, theatre, music, film… but the tower of choreography? In my mind this would be a lonely place. Dance is a powerful art form. Like music, it can communicate beyond words. It is ritual. It is animal. It is ancient and universal and has been around since man first started to draw on cave walls; maybe even before. But once you remove traditional dance, why is the art form of choreography so young? ‘Modern dance’ was only officially invented in the last century whereas literature has evolved since it was invented. Look at the journey of music. The wealth and range – you can’t begin to fathom it. Film, only possible within the last hundred years or so has grown, despite the great expense and logistics of producing it, and there are thousands of ground-breaking films out there, many great film makers, and any number of books written about how sophisticated and diverse the methods of producing it are.

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– The Mark Bruce Company Performing Their Current Adaptation of Macbeth

How many books are written about choreography compared to those written about other art forms? How many ‘experts’ on choreography are there? Make a list of great choreographers, then write another of great writers. The writers’ list is going to go on and on and back through the centuries. You could spend your whole life reading great writers and only scratch the surface of what is out there. But I suspect your great choreographers list will run dry pretty soon and all will be within the last hundred years.
There are great choreographers. But not thousands of them. Choreography is an obscure and rare talent. Knowledge, experience and craft can produce better, even good, choreographers. But real talent, that ‘something else’, I suspect one is born with.

There are many skills needed to become a professional choreographer, and they don’t always sit well together. I will write about the skills I need as I go through the process of making a dance work from scratch, and highlight how, despite making work for several decades, I feel I have so much more to learn.
But something to think of: Muhammad Ali had the two basic prerequisites to becoming a choreographer. He had a keen mind, but he had the talent and discipline to put his mind to rest and dedicate himself to the laborious rigours of physical training he needed to become a skillful, creative and powerful animal able to step into the ring and beat the crap out of anyone, and dance as he did it. In short, he could compete in two rings – that of the mind and that of the body.

On Choreography and Making Dance Theatre by Mark Bruce is out now.
Click here
to buy the book.

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The Mark Bruce Company is touring their adaptation of Macbeth until
Friday 18th May. Click here for further details.

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DumbWise Theatre Presents: Sophocles’ Electra

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With their national reputation for re-imagining classic and modern stories into ground-breaking shows, DumbWise are one of the most exciting theatre companies currently creating new works for contemporary audiences. This month they bring their reinvention of the murderous Greek myth Electra, told as a lyrical modern epic with a live punk-rock score, to London’s newest Off-West End theatre The Bunker. We caught up with DumbWise Artistic Director John Ward on his inspiration for this brilliant new musical work.  

A few years ago I saw Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother, and it blew me away.
The opening was incredible; a string orchestra hovering in mid-air, suddenly hijacked by a full-throttle metal band which levitated above them, while down on the bare stage a troupe of dancers fizzed and crackled with energy. There was a punk-like energy to the choreography which was astonishingly original and very addictive. I’d never seen ‘dancing’ like it before, nor since. The world of music was also incredibly rich. Beautiful middle-eastern scales blended seamlessly with hard-rock drum rhythms and classical music; demonstrating perfectly how sound worlds can create vivid and pregnant theatrical atmospheres. As a director who works with actor-musicians and pursues the boundaries between live music and theatre, I always love seeing productions where the energy and the sound of the music are integral to the ‘life’ of the production.

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Backstage on the Promotional Photo Shoot for Electra

The sheer scale and ambition of the piece was breath-taking, but there was more to it than that. Even though the cast was huge, it celebrated a kind of ‘poor theatre’ that is very brave; bodies in the space, music and layers of meaning. I was dreaming up our latest production of Electra at the time, and the themes of revolution, oppression and liberation chimed strongly with our adaptation. This production gave me the confidence to explore these themes through language and live music, and the license to do so whilst embracing DumbWise’s own brand of ‘poor theatre’.

Electra is playing at The Bunker theatre 27th February – 24th March.
Click here to buy tickets.
The play text will be published by Oberon Books on 27th February.
Pre-order your copy here.

 

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Jen Silverman: A Playwright in 5 Queeries

Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman is the award-winning New York based writer, whose formidable theatre work has been taking U.S. stages by storm. As independent theatre company antic|face bring to life the UK premiere of her outrageously funny, yet undeniably poignant new work Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties (showing at Southwark Playhouse until 17th February) we put our questions to of one of Oberon‘s most exciting new playwrights.

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties showcases the lives of five Queer women who collide at the intersection of anger, sex and ‘theat-ah’. As they meet, fall in love, revel and rage, they realise that they’ve been stuck reading the same scripts for far too long. What are your thoughts on Queer representation in theatre? Have we been ‘reading from the same scripts for too long’? 

We’re finally seeing more queer protagonists in theatre, as well as in TV and film, which is thrilling. But we’re not there yet, especially as it concerns queer women. A lot of amazing material by and about gay men has entered mainstream culture — this of course is a good thing, but it highlights for me the relative invisibility of queer women even within stories about the LGBTQ community. I think this is partially the reason why queer women’s identities are seen in straight culture as more ‘negotiable’ than those of gay men. The gay male identity has been visibly established via a multiplicity of complex and sympathetic protagonists; queer women, however, are much less visible, and therefore still seem ‘up for grabs’. Gay male narratives are and remain crucial, but I would argue that we can do better on the *queer female side of things.
(*queer is intended here as an umbrella term for lesbian/bisexual/gender queer/trans women, etc.).

In Collective Rage Betty 3 finds inspiration and purpose after going to the thea-tah. What inspired you to write for the stage? 

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Betty 3 Stages a Production of “A Summer’s Midnight Dream”.

I wasn’t raised going to the theatre – I stumbled into it by accident when I was 18 or 19 and was absolutely electrified. I thought I’d discovered something secret and magic, I thought that nobody else had ever felt the way I was feeling… and then I grew up and participated in the super-not-magical industry of making a living from theatre.
But I’m still inspired by that remembered feeling of theatre being a secret shared directly with me. When I’m making a play, that’s the feeling I write from: Let me tell you something that’s just for you. My work isn’t for everyone – it’s a little twisted, pretty queer, the comedy is dark and provocative – and I’m OK with the fact that some people love it and some people hate it. For me that’s the whole point of theatre: if you hear me, I’m talking to you. If you don’t hear me, there’s a bunch of other playwrights out there whom you might hear and love. We each need to find and witness the plays that were made for us, and that we were made for – the second you feel that down-the-spine thrill of ‘this is a secret made for me’, then you’re home.

After entering a rage that doesn’t make Betty 1 feel any better, she decides to throw a dinner party. Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? What would you discuss?

My theatre-family and I spend a lot of time cooking dinners together – we often make work together, sometimes out of town, and we usually end the rehearsal day with a small family dinner. So I feel like in some ways I keep having the dream dinner party… but, if I could invite those who have gone before, I’d really want a chance to sit down with Sarah Kane and Ted Hughes. I have so many questions for both of them – about the things they made, about how much of themselves they put into their work and how much they tried to bury or encode. Oh yeah, and Edna St-Vincent Millay. She was wild. She’d be an amazing dinner companion.

Betties 4 & 5 spend a lot of time working on their trucks and discussing love. What are your other passions/pursuits outside of writing?

I write in a number of different media – I have a collection of interlinked stories coming out 1st May with Random House called The Island Dwellers, and my day-job at the moment is writing for a TV show in LA. When one form of writing becomes the thing that pays my rent, the other forms start to feel like hobbies – in a deliciously free, exhilarating way that makes me want to spend my free time practising them. Social media feels daunting for me, but the way I’ve been able to participate is by creating an Instagram platform for a particularly depressed panda who goes on adventures (@this_panda_is_sad, if you’re curious).

After watching a documentary about lions, Betty 2 is compelled to share something profound with us. What was the last thing you saw (documentary, film, play, etc) that made you to feel something profound?

I absolutely loved Ruben Östlund’s The Square. It’s incredibly subversive – you think you’re being taken on one kind of journey and it’s actually a completely different and much bleaker one, but hilarious. I love work of any kind that can successfully pull the rug out from under me. Recently, I’m obsessed with the poet Kaveh Akbar. I’ve been reading Calling A Wolf A Wolf over and over again. Everything that his brain does is surprising and beautiful and raw. I just keep going around like a lunatic, giving different friends copies of his book, saying, ‘read this, read this!’. The last time I did that was Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts – her entire body of work is an obsession of mine.

Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties is out now at Oberon Books, and is also included in Jen’s first plays collection Jen Silverman: Three Plays.
To find out more about Jen Silverman, you can visit her website.

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Introducing The Believers Are But Brothers: The Award-Winning One Man Show From Javaad Alipoor

 

The Believers Are But Brothers is the bold new one-man show from writer and theatre-maker Javaad Alipoor, which explores the smoke and mirrors world of online extremism, anonymity and hate speech. This blog is taken from the introduction to the play, written by Madani Younis, Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre.

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Against the backdrop of fake news, Trump, Iran, Mugabe and the ongoing reality of Libya, Syria and Egypt, we are living through a time in which political ideologies on the left and the right are being both stretched and unpacked in new ways. Exposing, uniting and revealing both sides with unprecedented speed of reach are social media. These platforms have empowered both the alt right in the US and ISIS in the Middle East but also the people of the Arab spring who organised on Twitter and Facebook in 2011.

The Believers Are But Brothers reveals how important technology is to democratise, assimilate, re-imagine, provoke and disturb culture – in a word, it’s power. This play looks urgently and questioningly at the quality of the disruption of communication that’s taking place.

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As someone also from Bradford, who has known Javaad for many years, it comes as no surprise to me that an artist like him should be making work from a perspective that rarely reaches our stage. His voice has emerged in a city soaked in political resistance. It’s the home of The Mills, the Asian Youth Movement, the Chartists and the Independent Labour Party. He sits within a long tradition of artists like Noël Greig, Fun-Da-Mental and Albert Hunt, facing inequality of class, gender, sexuality and race.

To understand the play, we have to understand Javaad’s work in the city’s communities: his proactive engagement with government over counter terrorism policy since 9/11 and the grassroots activism he’s been engaged in with educating young people at risk of radicalisation. The Believers, like the rest of Javaad’s art, has been made from discussions with those who wouldn’t usually engage with mainstream theatre. This play reveals aspects of a narrative unheard and unspoken in the popular imagination, which extend from his involvement in the city of Bradford.

The Believers shows that the ideas of extremist fundamentalism are not ideas privileged to brown folk, or people of colour from the Middle East. It puts on blast the level of intolerance that exists online and exposes the homophobic, racist and grotesquely sexualised things people are willing to say in chat rooms and forums. There is deep cowardice in the digital anonymity of contemporary extremism. It is freedom of expression without accountability and so we each have our own responsibility to know about the dark web, 4chan and the unfiltered threads of reddit. We need to consider as a society how hateful voices can be made answerable, not to censor them, but so that they are not shielded by anonymity.

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Kirsty Housley’s collaboration with Javaad [on The Believers] has clearly informed the theatrical language of the play, a great example of artists tackling material together that feels so raw. The play shares with its audience the journey of its making from a sense of honesty. There’s no trickery. It doesn’t make you feel like a fool. It’s saying from a generous place, “I don’t know what these things ultimately mean but they surprised me and should surprise you. What are we gonna do about this?”

Having seen each stage of the development of this work, I had a real sense of what it was going to become visually and theatrically. What I couldn’t predict was how people would respond. It has been applauded for its ambition, technological innovation and divisive subject. Edinburgh Fringe tends to have pretty white, liberal audiences who in general are good people wanting to understand this stuff better. But for me, as someone who is brown, there was something powerful in knowing – with how few of us there are – the courage and the risk and emotional understanding expended to tell these stories in our own words.

The Edinburgh Festival has often been a harsh reminder to me of what privilege in British theatre looks like. But Javaad, alongside Selina Thompson, Yolanda Mercy, Urielle Klein-Mekongo, Inua Ellams and many more, stood out at Edinburgh in 2017 because they spoke of something that was uncomfortable but was so necessary. It confronted audiences with realities that were not their own. Before Javaad, we had not found a language to talk about the things in this play. Ultimately, it reminds us all of the importance of theatre.

The Believers Are But Brothers will be published by Oberon on 24th Jan, and is showing at The Bush theatre 24th Jan – 10th Feb.
Pre-order the book here.
Buy tickets to the show here.

 

The Writer’s Toolkit

 

Books for writers – to enlighten, encourage and inspire!

Oberon Books proudly announces the launch of The Writer’s Toolkit, which gathers together a list of helpful guides and inspirational memoirs to encourage and inspire professional and aspiring writers of all kinds.

Written by some of the finest practitioners in their fields, including David Quantick (Veep, The Thick of It) Ron Hutchinson (Moonlight and Magnolias, Traffic) and Glyn Maxwell (One Thousand Nights and Counting, Drinks With Dead Poets). Covering genres from screenwriting to journalism via poetry and drama within their pages, there’s a book for every type of writer.

As the UK’s foremost publisher of plays and books on the arts, Oberon Books is also fast becoming the go-to publisher for those who teach writing, and their students. The Writer’s Toolkit comprises six titles in all, with full details, blurbs and reviews being found HERE.

Books in the Series