Review of Reasons to be Graeae

By Ensemble 2020 artist Sophie Tennison , July, 16 2020

Sophie Tennison is a Graeae Ensemble (2020) artist. She is a member of the National Youth Theatre and a young trustee of the CVI Society. Sophie leads The Missing Percent campaign (@Missingpercent), promoting increased representation of Disabled artists in media, film, TV and theatre.


Review of Reasons to be Graeae

The Graeae Ensemble 2020 were all given the Reasons to be Graeae book at the start of our course. With the course on a break at the moment (but still meeting each week online), I had the perfect opportunity to sit and read it. Being a slow reader, for me, it’s a beast of a book.

For starters, the book is broken into topics, ranging from education, to outdoor work and international. Each topic features writings from people who have had a hand in the history of Graeae. As someone who accidentally found Graeae and had no idea of their history, or really anything about them, it was massively important to me to read this book. I gained insight into this place, this history, which I am now a part of.

Because of the subject matter, there were moments during people’s testimonials that certain acronyms or words became lost on me. That is one thing that could improve this book in addition to a glossary of sorts that explains words for people that don’t have the initial knowledge.

Discovering how Graeae was formed and established, by people who had the same mindsight as I made it clear that, in some respects, things have changed, but in others not a lot has changed at all. Reading about Nabil Shaban (Graeae’s co-founder) was fascinating and I hope to one day meet him. 

Growing up, I had no disabled role models. None. I mean in some respects I’m a little jealous of disabled kids growing up now because there is more representation. It’s trickling in, but we need more. Having read this book and discovering so many people to look up to means I too have positive role models.  

The London 2012 Paralympics was a massive event for Graeae. I went to one day of the Paralympics. I sat up in the sky, but I was there. I cannot tell you the feeling of seeing disabled people being celebrated, rather than pitied or infantilised – it was a rush. I came away from it thinking I could be like Libby Clegg who we had seen win gold. Well that dream crashed literally the month after where I broke my elbow and ripped the muscle off! But the effect the Paralympics had on disability was palpable. I think some aspects of that buzz has continued.

A chapter I was massively interested in was the topic of education. Bearing in mind this was released in 2017, when the cuts to education were really kicking in and so many schools had little to no arts education offer. I have lived experience to say it’s true. I went to a school for ‘physically and neurologically impaired’ students. To say the provision for the arts was poor is putting it lightly. We didn’t even have access to GCSE’s. We weren’t presented with arts being an option. In all honesty, I don’t think we were expected to have any options.

Another thing I love in this book, and it’s quite daunting in a weird way, is I know some of the people in the book. Being part of Ensemble, I have had the chance to meet and work and learn from Nickie Miles-Wildin (Graeae Associate Director), Christopher Holt (Voice Coach), Jodi-Alissa Bickerton (Graeae Creative Learning Director), and the legendary Jenny Sealey (Graeae Artistic Director). I’ve also been involved in companies like Extraordinary Bodies who I was fortunate to be part of a project with. Not bad for someone who has not had access to much education and little experience of the arts.

It’s funny reading the moment when Jenny and Jamie Beddard (Freelance Director and Co-Artistic Director of Extraordinary Bodies) wrote back to the reviewer of peeling; I could hear Jenny’s voice as I was reading it.

Reading about the work that Graeae does internationally was really interesting for me, as sometimes I forget that disability is worldwide. I think because it’s not as widely seen.

Another piece in the book that stood out to me was Jenny Sealey talking about a show they had done, The House of Bernarda Alba. She writes about they could have done things differently access wise. It has stuck with me because we (disabled artists) are put on a pedestal sometimes, often being seen as knowing everything when it comes to creative access and access for each other, when really, we are all just learning together with the social model and our lived experiences as the foundation of this knowledge. To see Jenny openly say, ‘we could have done better’ was refreshing.

 ‘Finding the perfect balance between creative experimentation and equal access for all audiences is a constant challenge. It is always such a blow when we fail or if attempted solutions do not work as planned. The House of Bernarda Alba demonstrated that we still have a long way to go before we have a perfectly accessible, artistically brilliant show. … I would give anything to remount this production knowing what I now know. I want the opportunity to get it right…. I know in my heart of hearts we will do it again, somewhere, somehow.’

My only experience of seeing disability on stage before joining Graeae’s Ensemble, would have to be watching Deaf West’s Spring Awakening. It’s one of my personal favourites. Reading how Graeae makes their shows was fascinating – the process of creating the show and then the added elements of access, how they work the access in. I must admit it’s an element I am interested in, as I want to create work that factors in access to all from the beginning.

Coming to Graeae was something I have wanted to do for a while now. I came to the realisation that the job that I could only dream about could become reality quite late. I didn’t have a lot knowledge on Graeae, or on disability arts in itself. I felt quite alone coming from a place where I felt like the lone disabled person fighting for everything that Graeae believes in. And that being the only thing I had done. Coming from a school where we were expected to be happy with our lot. Coming to Graeae has been amazing for me. Confidence boosting. Disability pride. Creatively pushed but liberated. And I am still learning. I feel like I’m finally finding my feet. Finding my tribe. My place.

And that is the main takeaway of this book. The visibility of disability arts. The feeling of family and support that has been cultivated since Graeae began. The vast talent. The power of change. The amount of people that have become part of the Graeae family and story. I often think what and who I would have been if I had known about Graeae when I was younger. How I wish there were a book like this back then, so people at my school could have read it. This book will be a guide to so many, to be who they are. That finding your place, once you get there, will change everything.

Reasons to be Graeae can be ordered by clicking here.