Time to represent
For my final blog post I wanted to discuss representation, more specifically the representation of d/Deaf and disabled characters in British theatre and television. I’m currently part of a television writers group and last week we were looking at Children’s Television. There’s some great stuff out there for kids, a real range of different genres and narratives, and while I couldn’t really connect with it (it was aimed at 6-9 year olds) I was pleasantly surprised at how challenging and diverse the stories were. The stories covered themes such as: terrorism, religion, adoption and domestic violence. Stories that we try and protect children from were being discussed in an open and honest way that they could connect with. While it was great to see such a diverse range of stories being told I also couldn’t help notice the diverse range of characters who were telling the stories. In most of the shows I noticed a real diversity in the representation of people of colour and people with disabilities.
The representation of disabled characters is something us Graeae writers often find ourselves talking about. Graeae theatre champions d/Deaf and disabled artists and puts them at the forefront of theatre. A challenge that sometimes can feel like a losing battle. In the UK, disabled actors account for just 1.2% of actors appearing on our screens. A depressing thought which I try and forget by reminding myself of the amazing artists around me working hard to change things for the better.
Like any writer, I go to the theatre a lot, probably on average 2-3 times a week. This can include the big ‘have you heard about this’ shows, but also the smaller (just as important) shows at theatres and fringe venues outside of London. Yet I can count on one hand the amount of times I have seen a disabled character in a play. Now some people will state that a character doesn’t need to be specified as disabled, that a disabled actor can play any part, and of course they are right. But how often does that happen? With more and more stories of actors ‘cripping up’ for parts, we can see that disabled actors aren’t being cast even when there are parts specifically written for them. I do agree that a disabled actor can play any role, and that directors and casting agents need to be more imaginative and creative in casting. However, I grew up surrounded by disability, I’m deaf in one ear, my brother has low-functioning autism and my dad had polio as a child. For me, disability is an integral part of my family’s life, yet it’s something I rarely ever see represented on stage or screen.
Writer Vinay Patel wrote a blog post a few years ago discussing race in which he created 4 stages of representation, and while the representation of race and disabilities are two very separate political issues with their own complications, his description of stage 4 representation is something that spoke to me. He states:
Stage Four – Ethnics exist as a main character (in a mainstream work). The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world. But it’s not an overwhelming part of the show. They are great. They are flawed. They are you.
We discussed this blog-post during one of our first Graeae Write to Play meet-ups earlier this year, and we agreed these categories evoke the type of representation we want to see for disabled characters: that they exist as a main character, and their disability and the background the characters brings with them inflect the story and their world. However, their disability doesn’t encompass their entire being; it is not the make or break of them; they are great characters that are flawed but real and an audience can relate to them.
So how do we achieve this? Access to the arts is an integral part of this aim. Drama schools are currently failing disabled applicants, but with little funding from the Government for the arts, they have limited resources to support students. Again theatre’s like Graeae are really leading the battle in creating change. Through their Write to Play programme, Ensemble group and writer residencies they are really championing unheard voices. This trickle of change seems to be having some effect as various theatre schemes have popped up over the last 12 months, but it’s just as important to ensure that the support and access is in place for artists within the theatre industry once these schemes are over.
This change is already happening in Children’s Television, and I hope that for the next generation of artists that portraying a more inclusive and representative creative landscape will be a given. It’s a long battle but an important one that every one in the theatre and television industry has a responsibility in. If you’re a director it might mean considering how you cast a play, if you’re a commissioner really think about whether you are including voices representative of all of society. For me as a writer my job is to keep representing disabled characters as fiercely and passionately as disabled people live their own lives. Because just maybe the unheard voices have something to say, something people might want to hear. And if we’re not given a platform to voice it, we’ll have to find another way, and shout louder and louder until we can no longer be ignored.
Where do you get your ideas?
Settling on an idea for a new play is difficult. As writers, we are often bombarded with buzzwords: it has to be urgent, relevant, now, but it also has to be something you can commit to spending (most likely) the next couple of years obsessing over.
So where do we get our ideas? A quick message sent out on the Write to Play Whatsapp group brought an array of different answers. One writer compared writing to a jigsaw; having lots of different ideas and pulling it all together piece by piece. Another writer said they just instantly know the characters and the story they need to focus on once they hear an idea. A fellow Write to Play writer said they were inspired by places; for example seeing a partially demolished building and trying to imagine what was happening just out of view.
My ideas tend to start with character. I am inspired by people I see in the street, historical figures, and by the vivid and amazing people in my own life. I will then build and develop a story using that person as a starting point. In writing, story is key, but for me, the most important thing is character. When I’m writing a piece, I live with those characters; they refuse to stay on the page and instead ingratiate their way into my everyday life. When I’m walking to the shops or waiting for the bus, I’ll be thinking about what that character would do in this situation, or how they might be feeling. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on reality when the story you’re currently working on is floating around in your head.
Throughout the last year’s attachment with Graeae, we’ve had various master-classes with amazing writers, directors and industry experts who suggested different writing exercises to generate play ideas. The exercises that resonated the most with me were the ones that focused on character. The main thing I focus on when writing character is what the character wants and what is stopping them from getting it. These are my integral factors when trying to refine a play idea.
You can have that for your next play” is a line I hear at least a couple of times a week from family members and friends. Although I’m inspired by the people in my life, it’s hard when people assume everything you’re writing is autobiographical. While the people in my life might inspire the characters I create, I’d very quickly run out of ideas if I only wrote stories I’ve directly experienced over the past 25 years. This also raises the question of who has the right to tell certain stories; an issue that might have to be the focus of my next blog post instead.
So for writers, ideas can come from anywhere: an old building, an overheard conversation or just a deep, churning need to tell a certain story. The important thing is to always be open to ideas and to write the story you need to tell the way you want to tell it, because only you can do that.
I thought I’d write a blog post about where I currently find myself in the writing process: writing-limbo. You know the place: you’ve just handed in your first draft and now you have the process of waiting for someone to read it and feed back to you on your work. So what do you do with yourself?
If you have other deadlines to meet, you can start working on a different piece of writing straight away, but if you don’t have any other work to distract you, you’ll find yourself in this weird ‘writing-not-writing’ place. You worry every day, consumed by the idea that someone is quickly reading through the thoughts that took months (maybe even years) of care to put down on the page. The temptation to start working on your second draft before getting any feedback (or giving it space to breathe) is strong. But resist if you can. I’ve learnt throughout this year with Graeae that the time away from writing is almost as important as the time spent writing.
The time after meeting a deadline can feel odd. You should feel elated, but often in my experience, you feel a bit lost. The piece of writing that you’ve been obsessed with is now suddenly out of your control and in the hands of others. But there are positives to this: taking space away from your writing can help you to come back to it with a clear head. Even if you’re not actively working on the piece, your brain continues to tick over plot issues or character motivations, and you’ll find yourself walking to the shops or sitting in the pub only for an idea to come swimming to the front of your mind; as if you had misplaced it rather than not thought of it before. It’s important to note these ideas down and keep them in mind when you pick up your first draft to read again.
The time between writing also allows you the space to be inspired by other people’s work. You can lift your head from the keyboard (or notebook) and see what else is happening in the theatre world around you. I love all types of performance and since handing in my first draft, I’ve been to a comedy show, a musical and two very different plays. From each piece, I learnt something I could apply to my own work: “make it funnier”, “make it darker”, “surprise the audience”, and “up the stakes– take it even further”. If you can’t afford to see plays, read them. I learnt so much about dramatic form after discovering the small drama section at my university library.
It’s easy to feel guilty when you take a break from writing. All around you, your fellow writers are busy working away and you feel like a naughty school kid skiving off. But the time away from writing is still part of the writing process. When you eventually come back to your piece, you’ll notice things that you hadn’t seen beforehand. You’ll be able to figure out which parts work and which parts need a bit more attention. Most importantly, the break away from writing will give you more energy for when you start rewriting. So enjoy the writing-limbo, because once you start redrafting, the real work starts.
Am I a writer?
I thought that for my first blog post, I would explore a question that I’ve struggled with for the past few years: Am I a writer?
It sounds silly. I was fortunate enough to be selected for Graeae’s amazing flagship writing programme, so surely I am? But it’s a term I’m still getting used to using.
My day job is in publishing. I help edit other people’s books and plays and listen to authors complain that publishers don’t understand the artistic process. So when I try to offer the comfort that I myself write plays (and I do understand), I get asked the question: “Are you a writer?” I never know how to answer. If you answer “yes,” the follow-up question is usually something like “Would I have seen anything you’ve written?” The answer to this is “probably not, unless you’ve found yourself in a rehearsal space in the back of a theatre on a Wednesday afternoon, watching a script-in-hand reading.” My fellow Write to Play writers have had similar experiences, most of which involve obscure family members asking (without sarcasm) if we’ve got anything on the West End yet. So I wonder, is being a writer reliant on other people seeing your work?
As the six of us sat chatting over dinner the other night, I asked them all, “When did you first call yourself a writer?” For some of us, it’s something we’ve only started daring to admit since we started working with Graeae. Others started admitting it a while ago, to stop friends and family badgering them about sitting in their rooms for hours on end. But despite how long we’ve all owned the term, it seems it’s still something we’re getting used to.
Most of us grew up in the Midlands. I grew up in a small village that forms part of Telford. “Where,” you ask? The usual exchange is as follows:
“It’s in Shropshire.”
“About 50 minutes from Birmingham.”
Until a few years ago, I spent the majority of my life living “50 minutes from Birmingham” with the closest theatre showing pretty much exclusively pantomimes all year-round. The idea of theatre to family and friends means either panto or London’s West End; awareness of fringe theatre, site-specific theatre and regional theatre is non-existent. Not that I can blame them; they have far more productive things to do with their time than follow which playwrights have been commissioned, which director is causing controversy at which theatre and how a certain playwright managed to win that theatre award. But as any writer will know, writing for theatre is a long game. It’s basically a game of stamina: only those who can stick it out will survive. This means that we’ve committed ourselves to a life of sitting behind a keyboard, typing away with the dream of one day being able to share our work with an audience. So it seems that a writer is someone who writes with the hope that someday, someone will be listening. To paraphrase a writer at one of our masterclasses recently, the term ‘writer’ is a badge of honour, not one of shame. In that case, I guess it’s a term we Write to Play writers should start getting used to.