A black and white photo of Jenny Sealy directing. She is standing with a performer who is using a wheelchair. Jenny is pointing to something out of frame.

Our history

Since its official opening in 1980, Graeae Theatre Company has been an international leader and innovator in accessible world-class theatre.

The company was founded by Nabil Shaban and Richard Tomlinson after the duo met when Shaban was interviewing for a place at Hereward College in 1972. Shaban had a great desire to be an actor, however, at the time drama schools refused admission based on disability. Tomlinson, finding out about Shaban’s ambition for the stage, invited him to come work alongside, and eventually act in his theatre workshop. The workshop allowed participants to break the myths and stigmas that surround disability, and it was out of this workshop that Graeae was born. 

Graeae is founded on the mission to create theatrical excellence through the vision and practice of Deaf, disabled, and neurodiverse artists. The experiences of these artists are part of Graeae’s genesis, the early productions devised by the company were specifically written to combat societal expectations of disabled people. Over time, the company has produced original works, cabarets, Shakespeare, musicals, and everything in between. While not every show specifically speaks to the Deaf, disabled, and neurodivergent experience, they are all inherently Graeae.  

Graeae’s presence in 2023 was not anticipated by the company’s founders. Throughout the company’s forty plus year history, there has been some progression in the way of accessibility and disability inclusion in the world of performance, but the industry and training to become part of the industry is still highly exclusionary. Graeae represents the individuals and stories that have been portrayed by those without the lived experience of deafness, disability, and neurodiversity throughout history. 

Graeae would not be the exception to the rule. Ideally, Graeae would be considered a preeminent theatre company for their context exclusively, not for their content and the noteworthiness of those who create that content. The tenacity of Graeae’s team has never wavered. Perhaps Artistic Director/CEO, Jenny Sealey OBE said it best, 

“We are living in fragile times and everywhere Deaf and disabled people are fighting cuts and for basic survival. Graeae is needed more than ever to create political platforms through artistic engagement and to be visible, reminding people – we are here and we ain’t going anywhere!”

Researched and written by Chloe Vollenweider as a part of an ongoing PhD research project between Graeae and Queen Mary University London.

Timeline

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Performers on stage. Three are in wheelchairs, one is lying on the floor, and two a stood up. All appear to be looking at the same fixed point in the distance.

1970

The 1970s saw massive waves heading towards the Disability Rights movement. While Graeae would not officially be founded until 1980, founders Richard Tomlinson and Nabil Shaban, met and began working towards the vision of Graeae throughout the decade. Productions, Ready Salted Crips and its eventual definitive version, and Graeae’s first production, Sideshow took shape during this time. 

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A black and white picture. Two men, one is sat on a row of chairs looking disinterested; the other is stood on the chairs pointing forward.

1972

Company Background

In 1972 Nabil Shaban interviewed at Hereward College in Coventry to do a course for the Ordinary National Diploma (OND) in business studies where Richard Tomlinson sat on the interview panel. When asked by Richard if he had any interest in drama, Nabil informed the panel that it was his greatest desire to be an actor.

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A black and white blurry action shot; someone in a top hat quickly pulls a large blanket off of someone in a wheelchair.

1978

Founding Graeae

In 1978 the United Nations announced that they would be designating 1981 the International Year of Disabled People (IYDP). Richard recognised this as an excellent opportunity to take advantage of and it was time for Nabil and Richard to launch their company. Launching at this time would not only utilise the international spotlight on disabled people, but there was a potential for additional funding opportunities throughout that year. Nabil and Richard then made it their goal to be fully launched, up and running in 1980.  

Richard thought they should have a goal to tour internationally within their first year. Given his new contacts at the University of Illinois, they set up a tour of the state which would run from June-August 1980. There was also an additional opportunity at the International Conference on Disability and Rehabilitation in Winnipeg, Canada which would give the company an opportunity to present to medical professionals around the world. Anyone who knows Graeae knows that this was an opportunity to subvert expectations and publicise their new company. The duo agreed to continue to devise and adjust Sideshow as Graeae’s first official production for this tour.

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Naming Graeae

Before they could begin advertising and recruiting, they needed a name. Richard and Nabil agreed that the name should reference disability and come from the classics. As Nabil has stated, “the idea of using something from something from mythology to dispel and shatter the misconceptions and myths about disability, was very important and we wanted to contain that notion within the name of this embryonic theatre company. We were in the business of myth breaking.”  

Naming Graeae: 

The Myth: According to Greek legend, the three Graeae sisters shared an eye and a single tooth. When Perseus stole them, the sisters revealed how to kill the Medusa, but he broke his oath and threw away their life source. The Graeae ethos is grounded in working together and sharing resources. 

We are often asked how Graeae is pronounced so we wanted to share the correct pronunciation: “grey-eye”. 

The below animation, with illustration by Graeae patron Sir Peter Blake, narration by Graeae co-founder Nabil Shaban, words by Write to Play writer Sean Burn and animation by Dog & Rabbit, was originally created for the Graeae and Central Illustration Agency exhibition Reframing the Myth exhibition in February 2016.

Original artwork by patron Sir Peter Blake.

Trailers

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Four performers on stage, stood in a line. One of them is holding a comically large tube of toothpaste.

1979

Recruitment begans in the Summer of 1979, Nabil and Richard hold a number of workshops to assess potential interest. These workshops led to hiring a cast of six actors, 3 men, and 3 women, all with different impairments. Rehearsals began at the Diorama in February 1980 and continued until the premiere performance in May 1980 at Surrey University in Guildford. The company then quickly left for Illinois where they would perform 27 shows in 23 days, each of these performances were in different venues all over the states. The tour was sponsored by the University of Illinois and allowed them to present to a variety of audiences including children, the elderly, and those in hospitals. Following the tour, they went up to Canada for the International Conference on Disability and Rehabilitation. Graeae did not adapt their production to suit the needs and wants of medical professionals at the event. Graeae was not created on the basis of drama therapy, Graeae was created to be a professional theatre which also subverted attitudes, misconceptions, and disrupt myths about disability. Incredibly, it did not matter that the script was honest, cutting, and critical of pity, the company was met with excellent reviews everywhere they went. 

Following their overwhelming success on their first international tour, the company returned to Britain for a tour around England and Wales beginning August 1980. This tour continued through the end of 1980 and garnered national attention leading to the BBC to film a special Arena documentary. The documentary followed their work and was aired to coincide with the opening of the IYDP. 

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A poster for the Graeae production of Sideshow. It is a high contrast, close up image of Nabil Shaban.

1980

Sideshow premieres at Surrey University before embarking on a tour of North America. In the Autumn BBC2 begins filming a documentary on the company which will be aired to coincide with the opening of the IYDP.

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A white flyer with blue text, promoting Graeae's '3D'.

1981

Graeae presents Sideshow at Riverside Studios, being paid full equity wages. The company becomes fully funded to set up a residency at the Arts Centre in Aldershot for 18 months. 3D becomes Graeae’s first premiere at Fringe Festival before beginning a UK tour.
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A poster for the Graeae production of 'M3 Junction 4'. The poster features an illustration of a clown waving his crutches in the air and smiliing.

1982

Following the great success of the BBC2 documentary, Channel 4 begins filming, ‘People’s Minds’ about the making of M3 Junction 4 (M3 J4) which also premiered and toured in 1982. M3 Junction 4 was another devised piece which examines the stigma of disability around accessible accommodation. Additionally, co-founder Richard Tomlinson’s book Disability, Theatre, and Education is published in December of this year.
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The poster for the Graeae show 'Not Much To Ask' which depicts a renaissance style painting of a young woman.

1983

Graeae’s first Theatre in Education (T.I.E) show, Endless Variety Show, written by Chris Speyer, tours the UK. Graeae participates in the first Day of Disabled Artists in Covent Garden. Graeae launches Patsy Rodenburg’s Not Much to Ask, an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette”. The show went on to tour the UK with Arts Council of Great Britain funding. Finally, a team of ten company members took a new production of Casting Out written and directed by Nigel Jamieson on a tour of India.

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A poster for Graeae's production of 'Frankenstien' by Mary Shelley. The poster features a black and white illustration of Dr Frankenstein and his monster.

1984

Following the success of the Casting Out tour in India, the production has a stint in London before going on a further UK tour. Later in the year, Cocktail Cabaret devised by Yvonne Allen, Bryony Lavery, Annie Lewis, Geoff Parker, Tracy Thomas, Isobel Ward, and Elly Wilkie is taken to Fringe Festival. At the end of the year, Graeae’s interpretation of Frankenstein began an ACGB funded tour that would stretch into the following year.

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A baby doll is suspended above a stage, it had angel wings glued to it. A performer stands and points at it.

1986

In Spring, a T.I.E. production, Equality Street, devised by Ashley Grey and Geoff Armstrong goes on a school tour. This tour initially targeted schools throughout London, however due to the success of these initial presentations, the tour continued throughout the rest of the year and led to a training course that was hosted in 1988.

A tour of England and Wales of Noel Grieg’s Working Hearts presented audiences with a reflection of the relationship of disability artistic expression throughout the rest of the year.

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A poster for Graeae's production of 'A Private View'. The poster is an abstarct drawing of two nude people, one of whom is sitting in a wheelchair.

1987

Equality Street continues to tour throughout the first part of the year. Private View, by Tasha Fairbanks, is Graeae’s first women’s project. The production toured throughout the UK and internationally in Malaysia.

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A poster for Graeae's production of 'The Cornflake Box'. The poster is white, red, and black, and shows an illustration of three characters - one of which is using a wheelchair. The text on the poster is a mixture of red, black, and white, and reads

1988

The Cornflake Box, Graeae’s first community play premieres. The production focused on the independent living movement and governmental regulations around accessible housing. 

The Independent Living Fund is introduced.

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A poster promoting Graeae's production of 'Why'. The poster has a blue background and a black and white drawing of a tree. The patterns in the bark of the tree form a distorted face. In the foreground there is a red broken heart with an arrow through it. There is bold red text at the top that reads