Intersectionality…?

Hi everyone! Long time no see. Sorry for being MIA. I have been a bit busy with finishing the Threepenny Opera tour, which was epic, and diving headlong back into the world of Phd candidate life. The kick off to this was attending a talk given by a queer theorist named Jasbir Puar who is about to publish a book that, according to her website, “takes up questions of disability in the context of theories of bodily assemblages that trouble intersectional identity frames.” …I have to be honest, even after her talk which I found extremely interesting and engaging, I’m still not completely sure I know what that means.

Intersectionality is defined by google as “the study of intersections between different disenfranchised groups or groups of minorities; specifically, the study of the interactions of multiple systems of oppression or discrimination.” As far as I am aware, it also relates to the interactions of identity within individuals, or communities of people. For example, I am blind. I am a woman. I am 31. I am American. I am a performer. I am a daughter. etc. Each one of these statements denotes an identity that sets up a normative set of expectations that are often based in stereotypes, i.e. stating that I am a woman might lead people to assume I’m a good cook (not true) and that I don’t know anything about football (true). Being American might lead people to assume that I’m loud (true) and fat (not true). Regardless, all of these identities come together to make me, Amelia, the person who is writing this blog right now. Furthermore, these identities are fluid and constantly changing. What it means to be any of these labels at any point will constantly shift depending on (to name a few things) where I am, who I’m interacting with and how I am feeling within myself at any moment. I can also change the wording to denote slightly different normative constructs. For example, instead of saying “blind” I could say “disabled” or “visually impaired”. All three are true, but can mean different things. Instead of saying “American” I could say “foreign” (when I’m in London anyway). Again, both are true, but can mean different things.

In her talk, Puar read sections of one of the chapters in her new book. In this chapter, she discusses the relationship between transgender and crip/disabled identity. This in itself is very interesting, and is one of my favorite things about queer theory taking on disability as a subject of study. The majority of disability studies, when looking at the term in a general sense, seems to focus on physical/visual disability. Of course, Puar was not saying that being transgender is a disability. In fact, she was clear to point out that most who identify as trans fight the impairment model, despite various laws and regulations that try to classify trans in this way (i.e. saying someone has “gender dysphoria” which is classified as a mental illness).

I know very little about trans identities, and am therefore not going to get too into that topic at this point as I will almost definitely stick my foot in my mouth if I do. What I will say though is that Puar discussed more than once the discrimination that both disabled and trans people face, and that people who identify with more than one minority culture (i.e. black trans, or gay, woman, wheelchair user) tend to be victim to more discrimination. They also make up less of the visible, identifiable people within these minorities. And, of course, it’s true. I mean, I know a few people who fit these intersectional minorities, such as a black, blind, gay, drag queen… but he’s just one person. And how visible is he, really? How much more crap does he have to deal with than the white, blind, hetero drag queens? (I know one of those too) And where is the representation of all of these queer/crip/race/gender identities in performance and the media? 

I ask this question not as a criticism necessarily, but as a genuine, worried question. It almost definitely speaks to a bigger problem. For example, in my MA, there were 30 of us, most of whom were white, and identified as non-disabled and heterosexual. Each and every one of those people were lovely, talented and had worked their asses off to be in that degree, and to do all of the successful things they have done since. I have since then had many discussions with people who work in theatrical institutions and universities, directors, casting directors and other actors about why there is almost no representation of disability in drama schools, on tv and in movies and on stage. Again, I can’t speak for other minority cultures, but I know that the general stance from the disabled contingent is that chances are not given to disabled people. The doors are not open (or maybe they are, but the building isn’t accessible), which makes it very difficult to get inside. Is that even more so the case with people who are, say muslim and disabled? Queer and disabled? And if so, why? If intersectionality is really about embracing all identities, particularly the ones that sit outside of normative social constructs, how the hell does that get started, really? Why is it taking so long? 

 

Adventures in Partial Sight

It is common when people see me with a mobility cane to assume that I am completely blind. This is much the same as people almost always assuming a wheelchair user is paralyzed, or that a deaf person can’t hear anything, etc. As to be expected, the spectrum of the disability world is much wider than most imagine. Most blindies can see something, most deafies can hear something, most wheelchair users can stand, walk, etc. This is an attitude that I think most crips get use to as part of their inevitable and unavoidable job of educating people not in the disability know how on the reality of disabled life. That’s all fine with me. I expect people to have questions. I certainly would. What I find interesting is that when I tell people that I have some useful vision (I can read large print, see colors, etc) the usual response is “oh thank god!” I.E. “You’re sort of normal, that must be so much nicer for you than other blind people! It could be so much worse!”…

Now, I will state that having some useful vision is helpful, and probably makes certain aspects of daily living easier for me than for someone with no vision. Though I will do my political duty here and say that this is because the world is geared towards people who can see. It has nothing to do with people who are completely blind being less capable. For the record, I also know a fair amount of blind people with no vision who cope and seem far more independent than me… disability is only one factor in how a person copes with his or her life… Likewise, if I were to loose the vision I currently have, I would have to make some huge adjustments in how I operate in that I’m use to being able to read print, see the color of my clothes, and identify large visual cues when navigating a street in order to orientate myself. What I don’t think people are aware of is that there are also many points in my life where I actually think being completely blind would be far more useful than my current visual state. This is no more apparent to me than when I’m on stage.

I spend the majority of my life looking at a blob of blurry color and shape and trying to identify what it is. My brain can’t not do it. Often I’m wrong. This usually leads to very interesting and fun experiences where my brain will invent images (not based in reality) in order to make sense of said blob. I have seen people seemingly sprout wings and watched what looked like a line of gigantic pumpkins parading down a building sight (they were tractors). I’ve also seen repeated shapes that I logically know are something mundane like a couch and constantly identified them as other things in my visual memory. In my childhood best friend’s house, her family had an old grandfather clock next to a recliner, and the two objects together always looked like a strange dragon to me. I even went so far as to name him (Samuel) in my mind, though I was never brave enough to tell anyone of my imaginary friend.

As fun as that can be, and as much as I am convinced that this experience in itself is largely responsible for me leading a life and career in the arts, it can also be exhausting and frustrating, and is something that can only be turned off by closing my eyes. Also, when the shapes are extreme brightness (like a stage light) or extreme darkness (back stage) they actually become uncomfortable and extremely disorientating. Spotlights mean all I can see is light, and often leave me with a glare that hangs around for a few minutes regardless of the actual lighting state, which restricts any useful vision I have. Also, there are points where extreme changes in light mean it is easier for me to operate as though I can’t see anything. For example, in Threepenny, I have one small part where I play the glockenspiel. The first time I play it, it is lit. This particular one is silver so it gives off a glare, thus meaning I can’t see it. The second time I play (as I play it actually) the lights do a quick fade to a much dimmer state, and in my visual brain gives the image of the ground and the gloche dropping out from underneath me. I’m use to it now, but the first few times, it did actually make my tummy jump a bit. (Ironicially, I was more worried about the gloche than my own safety)

I also find in dancing that I am often better with spacial awareness with my eyes closed, particularly when I’m spinning. This is the case in the tango for Threepenny where Macheath and me spin around quite a bit in our dance. Funnily enough, I use a visual cue to find him at the beginning of the dance. He has a white shirt, which to me in the lighting state (which is quite red) glows like a beacon. Then as soon as we’re both down stage and singing he moves to a different place and due to his proximity to the light behind him, he completely disappears so I have to find him through sound (difficult when his voice is coming out of various speakers, including ones behind me) and muscle memory.

Also, when on tour this means everything changes in each venue. This is the case for everyone who performs in multiple venues, but is again one of those things that can be less acknowledged as lighting states, sets, etc. don’t change thaaat much usually. Even the smallest shifts in a set or a light can change everything.

I mention all of this not as a plea for pity at all. I’m very happy with my visual impairment and who I am with this visual impairment. I don’t think that my supposed “issues” make anything harder for me than anyone else. It’s just how it works for me. I mention this because I’ve had a few people (blind and sighted) make comments about how much easier things must be for me for having some sight. While I won’t outright deny it as I’ve never experienced “proper” complete blindness, I will state that making a cut and dry statement like that is not going to be accurate. Visual impairment as it exists for many people (i.e. having some vision and dealing with the various ways that this state shapes the world one lives in) is a vastly unexplored subject outside of the medical world… and in that world most of the exploration seems to be about how to capitalize on the vision that is there in order to make a person as sighted as possible… fair enough. But blindness, like every other disability, and really like every other part of life that shapes a person’s identity, is complicated and unique for each person. Things that are easy for some are not for others and vice versa.

I’ve unintentionally stepped on my soapbox here. I hope you’ll excuse me for that! This is just something that keeps coming up for me, and therefore something I thought I’d share. As always, thoughts are most welcome!

What does it mean to be “stunning”?

So the last few weeks have been epically busy. Threepenny Opera has come up to Nottingham Playhouse, we’ve had a very long tech week and a great press night and opening week. We have had the fortune of getting some amazing reviews as well. It is lovely and extremely fulfilling to be part of a show that is being received well. That being said, we have had some very… strange responses from our audiences. 

I think when one is trained in theatre, particularly musical theatre, music theatre and (to a certain degree) opera, you get use to having some kind of audience reaction. In particular, after a musical number, one learns to expect at least some polite applause. And with this show, I mean for goodness sake, the music is extremely challenging, and some of the songs are really freakin’ catchy. In short, we’re working our asses off to keep this show entertaining… so why aren’t people applauding?

This was our reaction after Saturday’s matinee and evening performances. Both had very little audience reaction during the show, and then very strong and enthusiastic applause in the curtain call. Along with this, there are some very funny lines in the piece that have previously gotten laughs that weren’t yesterday… All the while, the cast had felt that we had done strong performances. The dialogue was well paced, the singing was strong, the band played well, etc. We chalked it up to weird audiences… then we went to the bar and had a chat with a few people who had seen the show.

Apparently people wanted to laugh, to applaud and react. They didn’t because of the subject matter. Yes, Mack the Knife is a catchy and well known song, but it is about a man who rapes and murders people. “He’s a sadist, he’s a rapist and they haven’t caught him yet!” is the final lyric. And yes, there is a lot of dry humor in the piece, but it is around very serious political and social issues. People that we spoke to said that they felt by laughing, clapping and otherwise having a good time they would be somehow condoning the horrible things that happen in the story. 

They also said that they were “stunned” for most of the play, particularly in the first act which does hit you a bit like a sledge hammer after our pre-show antics. People were busy analyzing the large amount of intellectual and sensory information they were receiving, which left less space in their minds to be “entertained”. In this sense, our show is “stunning” in a much more literal way than one may usually use that phrase in relation to art. People watching it apparently couldn’t move!

Add to that the fact that a large majority of the audience is probably not use to seeing disabled actors on stage… disabled actors who are often cracking jokes in and around disability politics that might leave people unsure of the PC way to respond… there is a hell of a lot to take in with this piece. 

That or they thought we were shit and were being nice… ha! (I don’t really think that is true. The responses were very enthusiastic, articulate and thought out, which is hard to simulate when lying)

It makes me think that we would be doing Brecht proud with this version of his show. We’ve made people think, feel disgusted by the way of the world and wish for change. They spend the whole piece not knowing what is coming, so they can’t engage with the story in order to just be “entertained”. In fact, most people have said things like, “I don’t think I could call this piece enjoyable. It’s hard to watch, but it’s a fantastic show.” This must be what Brecht’s V-effect (distentiation, estrangement effect, whatever you want to call it) is suppose to do. 

As actors, it is important for us to remember that we are not doing a standard musical piece, which means we won’t get standard audience responses. It’s very easy to think that little or no audience responses = shit show, which can be damaging to the moral of a cast and a piece. With this one, I think it’s best we stay strong, trust the piece we have, and keep on working our asses off. We’re certainly having a blast, which always helps!

That being said, if any of you come and want to clap, laugh and cheer, you are more than welcome… none of us will think you’re condoning rape or murder if you do!

There is one more week of Threepenny at the Nottingham Playhouse. We close here on the 8th of March and then move to the New Wolsey Ipswich from March 11th-22nd. After that we have Birmingham and Leeds to look forward to! Full tour information is here: http://www.graeae.org/productions/the-threepenny-opera/

 

 

Accessing Brecht… AKA, now how is this going to work?

I am currently sitting in the comfortable… if not a bit chilly, Jurys Inn in Nottingham after long and fairly uneventful travel day. (We caused quite a stir with the national rail staff at the train station, but that always happens when there’s more than one crip in a public space… particularly when each has luggage to carry) Tomorrow marks week four of rehearsals for Threepenny Opera, and one of our last chances to iron out the details… of which there are MANY. On a personal note, as an actor, I have never felt so secure at this phase in a rehearsal before. I am completely off book, and have been for the last week or so, which is no small feat considering that most of us are in the band as well as singing songs and delivering lines. This has allowed me to start to “really” play with how I’m going to do this whole acting malarky with Jenny Diver, and this is the bit I love. It’s where many of the big discoveries are made. I’m also surrounded by some of the most lovely, supportive and talented people I think I’ve ever been surrounded by, which is particularly important as I will be spending the next three months in close proximity to all of them. 

Some of the things that get layered on this week are set pieces, costumes, a space that can more easily accommodate the size of the show, and various other technical bits. We also get to start finalizing how the audio description is going to work. I say “we”… I think my input will be appreciated as one of the resident blindies in the cast, but I certainly won’t be writing it for obvious reasons. I have to say, I do not envy the person/people who have that job. This show is extremely wordy, fast paced and has tons of characters to remember, most of whom come in for small sections only to disappear for long stretches of time. Along with that, the songs are almost always only loosely in context with the actual story, as is the Brechtian way. (i.e. making political comments on some of the issues in the play, “alienating” the audience from getting too sucked into the story so they too can reflect on how they are being brought down by the man, etc) And usually, once a song finishes, the setting completely changes in order to introduce a whole slew of new characters to learn about that then disappear for ages. Alongside that there is a set that moves and changes, a veritable army of actor/muso’s doing all sorts of interesting things as they play, a screen showing various images related to the play and/or the political topics the play references, choreography, signing of the songs and many of the speeches…. This piece will be a feast for the eyes of those that can see. So how does one translate that all to the ears and imaginations of the blind?

Graeae has done some wonderful things with audio description in the past, which is no surprise considering their manifesto for full inclusivity in theatre and insistence on creative access. (Integrating access tools like sign language and audio description directly into a piece as opposed to layering them on top of a finished show after the fact… which is what normally happens) And I believe that as challenging as this show will be to AD, if any company can do it, it’s Graeae.

In my humble opinion, AD works best when it is acknowledged that while description is a form of seeing in that it requires the listener to visualize, it cannot function in the same way as seeing. It just can’t. Seriously. Look out the window for five seconds and then think about how much you can remember seeing. Now try to describe that image in the same amount of time with the same amount of detail. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. Because of this, I think that most blindies accept that AD gives you a flavor of the visuals, and the rest is up to individual imagination and interpretation. The question here is how best to do it? What information is necessary when there is soooo much happening at once?

I also am aware that in rehearsals thus far, the BSL (British sign language) that will be incorporated into the show has been dominant from the beginning. This makes sense as a large portion of the AD is about things like set, lighting, costumes, blocking, etc. and we don’t have a lot of that yet. In all likelihood, the completed AD script won’t be able to be written until tech. It does make me wonder though if there is something inherent about BSL that makes it… I’m not quite sure how to put it… more inherently “theatrical” maybe? And does that inherent theatricality make it easier to incorporate into a piece than something like AD? Is it that translation of an image into word is more complex than translation of one language into another? Is it simply that sign language has already been established more firmly as a create tool in performance than audio description, which would mean there are more guidelines for what might work?

Access for sensory impairment is an interesting and complicated topic, particularly when it is made into a creative force for performance. I am very curious to find out how both the BSL and the AD work in our show, and how the spectators respond. I do think it is safe to say that whatever happens, it will have it’s own Graeae flare, whatever that becomes, and that it will be a much different experience than watching a standard ADed play. As far as I’m concerned, that in itself will always be a good thing. 

The beginning…

Hello! So, I’m a performer. I act, sing, play musical instruments and dangle from various aerial circus contraptions (trapezes, silks, ropes, etc) whenever I get the chance. I’m also a Phd student, and my research is focused on performance… though try as I may to avoid it, a bit of philosophy keeps sneaking in as well. I am hoping to use this blog to help develop my voice as a researcher, and to discuss questions, themes and troubles in my research. Discussion is highly welcome, so please follow and comment! Oh!  Also, I’m registered blind (or legally blind for my American peeps). I state this not as inspiration porn; I’m not looking for sympathy or admiration. I mention it because it’s part of my research and my identity, and is therefore important. My research is based in…

It’s always a bit daunting to try and explain your research when you’re in the middle of it… often because you’re not quite sure what it is going to be yet. However, throughout these blogs, hopefully it will become clearer to everyone… including myself.

I will also state for the record that I do not want to become an academic that uses language that no one can understand… that being said, to a certain degree, dense wording is the language of the academic world. If you want to live in it, you have to learn to speak it. So I will occasionally throw words out there like “ocularcentric,” or “performativity” or “normative” or “phenomenological”. Needless to say, if I stop making sense, please tell me, and I will try to explain myself.

I won’t go too in depth about my research at the moment (every time I try I write a novel, which makes me think it needs its own blog) other than to say that I am looking at how disability, visual impairment in particular, interacts with various performance practices, processes and techniques. This is particularly interesting for me at the moment as starting Monday, I will be going into rehearsals for Graeae and The New Wolsey Theatre’s production of ThreePenny Opera by the lovely and very German Bertolt Brecht. Info for the show is here: http://www.graeae.org/productions/the-threepenny-opera/

Come and see if you can! I’ll be playing Jenny Diver, and I have to say, I’ve never been so excited to be classified as a hooker… or maybe I should say, “lady of the night”. A friend of mine once joked that the difference between a “slut” and “lady of the night” is the pay bracket… How she knows that is anyone’s guess. Anyway, I digress!

Graeae is a disability led theatre company with some unique and exciting ways of working and presenting theatre, and Brecht plays use a very specific style of performance, so this is a golden opportunity for me. I anticipate that I will get tons out of this experience, and hope you enjoy me sharing my findings as I go.