Today we have a guest post from an Edinburgh based playwright Hope Estella Whitmore, writing about autistic experience. Hope’s current project started after she was given the opportunity to work with Graeae, a theatre company specializing in ‘breaking down barriers, challenging preconceptions, and boldly placing disabled artists centre stage.
Experience: Graeae Play Labs
Last year I was lucky enough to take part in Graeae’s Play Labs project. Graeae is a UK-based theatre company with an aesthetic of access for people with disabilities. As part of this agenda they run an annual project called Play Labs. Play Labs offer playwrights a chance to conduct research into a chosen element of disability in a safe environment, whilst being offered support by Graeae. For me Play Labs was a chance to conduct research into autism, exploring common perceptions and looking at the reality of being on the ‘passing’ end of the spectrum, treading a tightrope between being autistic and neurotypical.
Autism is frequently not a simple or visible condition. I wanted to create a body of work that showed the complexity of autism, both in terms ofthe experience of being autistic, and with reference to other people’s experience of coping with and understanding those who are autistic. I decided to focus my script on the individuality and depth of an autistic child’s imagination.
Graeae gave me funding and support to work with this idea. I also had the chance to speak to neurologists, parents of children with autism and people on the spectrum. The resources and support that Graeae gave me, together with the support of my mentor, Carissa, were invaluable during this process and helped me create a body of work. One of the most useful aspects of this support was the ability to attend workshops designed to assist the writing process. These workshops explored the relationship between disability and theatre.
Most interesting was an Open Access Workshop I took in December with other Play Labs participants. I didn’t know what to expect, and when I was told the workshop was about ‘opening up access to theatre for those with disabilities’ I imagined it was probably going to involve talks about Health and Safety, and spaces for wheelchairs. I didn’t realise what a massive topic Open Access was.
When I arrived late, having got lost among the converted warehouses of Hackney, I was invited to join the group, and Amit, who was running the workshop, began by telling us we all had a sign name. The interesting thing about sign names is that they grow organically from you as a person. They are not made up of letters of the sign alphabet; they are a gesture that encapsulates you. At first you are allowed to choose your own sign name but it can change if one of your friends or colleagues identifies a gesture which is very ‘you’, which can then become your sign name.
The creativity of this naming has a beauty to it, and the creation of our own sign names was a great introduction to the workshop. We had to choose a sign name, and then explain the gesture to the others in the group not demonstrating with our hands until they were able to make the sign perfectly. My sign name is as follows: put both arms out directly in front of you; cup your hands together; open your arms and spread your hands as though letting go of a small bird.
We then continued the workshop by exploring what disability is, and our perceptions of the role it plays in theatre. Something I found inspiring was the way in which Graeae’s scriptwriters seek creative ways to integrate disability into every script without making it the focal point. For example, they produced a play about a small boy who imagines conversation with his absent father by describing everything he sees and does. This gives people with visual impairments an indication of what is happening on stage, but is done in a way which stems organically from the story and improves the piece for everyone.
It is too easy for those without disabilities to believe that access is somehow ‘politically correct mumbo-jumbo,’ but this could not be further from the truth. Amit recounted one story of a production where a Graeae staff member stood up and asked all the audience if any of them had bought their own light bulb. When they said no, she flicked off all the lights in the auditorium. Then she asked them all to stand up if they hadn’t bought their own chairs. I think she made her point succinctly: we all have needs, and we take it for granted that those needs will be met. People with disabilities, on the other hand, frequently have to fight for their needs to be met in theatre and in other areas of life. The workshop brought home the importance of wheelchair access, of dialogue screens for Deaf or hard of hearing, and of headsets -audio description – explaining what is happening on stage for people with visual impairments. Yet it also demonstrated the potential for creativity, play, and finding new and exciting ways to create an environment that enabled those with disabilities to have a full theatrical experience.
I love the idea that widening access can involve giving a piece of writing extra depth, rather than adding access features, such as audio description as an afterthought. Graeae has a whole library of scripts that integrate access into their plays, and I would love to read these. My aim is to ? learn how to write theatre that is accessible for people with different disabilities, and I hope that my current project will reflect Graeae’s mission statement in some way: to break down barriers, challenge perceptions and place disabled artists centre stage.
The Play Lab programme currently runs on an annual basis, with applications due in July, and the Play Labs taking place in September and October – see (http://www.graeae.org/news/playlabs-programme-returns/ for more details.