Jenny Sealey on implementing REAL change now

Jenny Sealey MBE, is the CEO and Artistic Director of Graeae, a pioneering theatre company and force for change, placing some of the finest D/deaf and disabled actors where they deserve to be: centre stage, and encouraging others to do the same. Jenny’s activism for disability rights has led her to win the Liberty Human Rights Arts Award; she is also on the h.Club 100 list of the most influential people in the creative industries – these are but a couple on her long list of accolades.

Jenny joined This Way Up 2017 in Hull last November, giving an impassioned speech about disabled rights, the wrongs so often endured by the community, and taking part in a panel discussion with the BFI’s Gaylene Gould. We met up with Jenny in East London at the Graeae Theatre to find out what can be improved, the media’s responsibility towards disabled actors, and what changes film exhibition organizers can start implementing now.

Could you please recap the core ideas of your keynote?

I think I started with the fact the film [Hull’s 2017 City of Culture Film] wasn’t subtitled; I did get a bit arsey about that. I think the biggest link I had of translating my experience of theatre to my experience of film, is in and around the whole issue of “cripping up”: there’s a widening pool of disabled artists/actors, who are skilled, who are good, but we can’t get jobs playing disabled people or not disabled people – we just can’t get jobs.

There’s an ongoing joke, certainly in Ricky Gervais in Extras, where Kate Winslet is playing a “cripple” and she’s going on and on about how she’ll get an Oscar because she’s “cripping up”, and it happens time and time again. Eddie Redmayne got his Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking;  and the argument would be: well he was non-disabled and then he became disabled so you can’t reverse it.

Actually, if you can digitally shrink people so that they can be people of small stature in Lord of the Rings and all that stuff, then you can digitally make someone un-disabled, so I’d say let’s play around. I talked about the lack of imagination and awareness: for me, the whole Eddie Redmayne thing, if you have to have a star, then it’s about how do you frame it: so, you have Stephen Hawking – bless him, now gone – talking to a casting director and being asked, “Who do you want to play you?” What are the discussions? Because there’s a different way in to legitimize it.

Why do you think this is?

Lack of imagination, lack of exposure, and with film, in particular, you have to have ‘the star’, even in the West End, when we’re trying to branch into a more commercial side of things, the people we talk to ask, “Well, who’s going to be the star of this?’” and I say, “Well, my actors are!” they are the stars.

In the past I’ve had directors saying, “Jenny, of course we don’t want to put disabled people on stage because our audience will be offended.”

Maybe they’re not a ‘named’ person, but it’s ‘bums on seats’ and all that. It would be nice for our actors to be seen as stars and given that same opportunity. So we’ve still got a long way to go. Fear is a big one. Fear of difference. In the past, I’ve had directors saying, “Jenny, of course, we don’t want to put disabled people on stage because our audience will be offended.” Or, “Jenny, people don’t come to the theatre to be reminded of the tragedy of being handicapped,” “Oh Jenny, don’t you realise that if it’s a non-disabled person playing a disabled part it gives the audience a sigh of relief: Oh, they were just acting.” These are quite prevalent attitudes that still need to be smashed.

Is it also the media’s responsibility to better represent the disabled actors that there are, and therefore, that they could become names?

Without a doubt. Jack Thorne always says to me, that he’s hell-bent on everything that he writes for television that there are disabled actors cast. But he said his biggest battles are not with the director or the casting director but with the producers, they are the ones we really need to be challenged. Jack has always said that if there’s a disabled actor in his play or when he writes for television, they have got to be played by a disabled actor. That’s his deal breaker. We need more writers having the balls to do that. The writing team for Silent Witness are opening up. Liz Carr finally got cast, but she has been running a one-woman campaign to broaden her story, to give her character a bloody backstory and to bring disability into a wider agenda. She has finally switched on those writers. But it’s a lot of effort when it’s just one person fighting, fighting, fighting on your todd!

It’s brilliant that The Silent Child won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short, but a hearing director, what a shame – we’ve got so many good deaf directors and filmmakers, why aren’t they up there? Why aren’t they at the Oscars? Why are they still having to fight with a small organization BSLBT to get any scraps of money they’ll dole out to make something. Where’s the big money for them?

What is this resistance?

We’re living in a patriarchy aren’t we, and we’re living in a non-disabled patriarchy. We don’t get a look in. So it’s just the white middle-class man, they know best don’t they…so the rules are always their rules, so, we’re fucked.

Until we dismantle it?

But it’s HOW? I don’t know what it is, but I’m bored, I’m so bored. I’ve been on this same treadmill since I left college in 1986; I’ve been saying the same thing since 1986. Now I’m 54, I don’t want to spend the last third of my life saying the same bloody thing, I want REAL change before I die.

Maybe we could talk a little about THE Undateables, which you mentioned in your keynote?

Well, for a start it’s called the undateables which just makes it sound like disabled people are ‘undateable’ which is NOT GOOD.

It’s picking on vulnerable people and making a laughing stock of them, goading them, asking questions to just scratch away at them and not taking any real care about them as people. It is car crash television; it’s immoral actually. Which is weird because Channel 4 do some amazing stuff, so when they get it right they are superlative, but when they get it wrong, oh my god they get it wrong. I was so close to getting it closed down, and I did get in to see the commissioner and she said she’d look into it but then she went off to America, and now the franchise is in other countries.

Did TWU have any impact on your thinking?

It introduced me to Gaylene at the BFI, and we’re in conversation with them – hoping to – share the film of our REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL production. They’ve also taken on the thought that maybe there are a few other films we could show from the disability arts community and make a bit more of an evening of it – so that’s been a fantastic connection.

Have you seen improvements or great examples of inclusivity and diversity in theatre or the arts more generally (equally, seen anything you’ve been really disappointed by)?

I know that National Theatre is taking access seriously and pioneering new methods of captioning so any show can be accessed through captioning whenever a Deaf patron wants it.

Could we get three top tips from you as to how film exhibition organizers can start implementing changes to improve the experience for D/deaf audiences, immediately?

1. Make Sure Everything Is Captioned.

2. Have Deaf Actors and Filmmakers As Integral To A Piece Of Work. If a film is to be truly representative of our society, which it should be, then please can we be in them – whether a character is disabled or non-disabled. I had to wait until I was in my 30s when West Wing hit the screen to see Marlee Matlin on the screen – she was a hotshot lawyer, with brilliant storylines – in America, they get all that right a lot more than we do in this country…

3. Creative Captioning. I am desperate to make the film of our production of Signs of a Diva by Nona Shepphard with Deaf actor Caroline Parker. I have this image when she is putting on her makeup in front of a mirror, and talking to the audience that the subtitles come on to the mirror. I would love to just play around a bit with creative captioning so deaf audiences get a sense of intonation when she’s whispering or when she falls involve, hearts emoji’s could create a heart around the screen.

I think for me, as a Deaf theatre person, how do you put theatre into television, how do you put theatre into film? There are ways. People are doing it but we need more.

Anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re doing at the moment, what’s coming up here?

I am doing the most incredibly big, project called This Is Not For You by Mike Kenny. It is about wounded veterans, some of whom have been wounded in conflict, others wounded afterwards, but they’re all veterans and part of BLESMA [British Legion Ex-Servicemen Association] It’s a big piece commemorating end of WW1, about war then and now, and the fact that most of them say it’s better to come back dead than it is to come back disabled because your currency is so low, and you are a reminder of the atrocities of war.

The title came from one of them men wheeling up to the Cenotaph and a bystander shouted “Oi, this is for the dead, this is not for you,” so that became the title. We’ve got ten storytellers who are on the ground, and we’re training fifteen amputees in aerial skills to enable them to use this skills to manifest their physicality within our set design. It opens at Greenwich+Docklands Festival on 30th June and 1st July; Stockton Riverside Festival on the 2nd and 3rd August – and we’re opening the Stockton Festival which is a huge privilege.

And then the Graeae book is being published. I have been proofreading this for what seems forever! We’re doing the audiobook as we couldn’t get any money from Audible, so we’re trying to do it as in-house as possible because of course, we have a commitment to make sure it’s [the books] accessible. The book and the audio file are being launched on 26th April!