Early History of Graeae

By    Nabil Shaban

 

There's a very simple answer as to "Why" Graeae was created - I wanted to be an actor and there were absolutely no opportunities for disabled people such as myself, who were wheelchair-users, with mobility issues, speech or sight impairments to either receive training as actors or obtain professional work, in the 1960s and 70s (There were opportunities for deaf people, in the form of The Theatre of the Deaf, but they maintained a "Deaf Only" policy). By god, I tried to get into this bloody "Body Fascist"  (a term I invented in 1983) industry. In 1969, when I was 16 and about to leave the Special School in England, to serve a three year sentence in a Sheltered Workshop for Cripples (that's what it felt like to me), I wrote to every drama school in Britain, asking how a person in a wheelchair could become an actor? Of course, I was hoping that at least, one, would reply suggesting that I apply to join their drama course and be invited for an interview and audition. Needless to say, without exception, I was told to get lost, forget it, you haven't hope in hell. Which isn't surprising, given I had never seen a genuine disabled person in a wheelchair acting in film and television. There were plenty of films about disabled characters but they were always played by fakes, non-disabled actors hoping to use the "disability ticket" to win a cheap Oscar.  Even today, Irish film makers are still pretty backward when it comes to non-disabled actors "blacking-up" by stealing disabled roles...you only have to think about "My Left Foot" or "Inside I'm Dancing".

 

A couple of drama schools tried to be positive in their negative responses by suggesting that I join the local amateur dramatics or establish a play-reading group or write to the  only person in show business at that time in a wheelchair, Michael Flanders (he was part of the Flanders and Swann comedy-singing Vaudeville duo in the 50s and 60s), for advice.

 

Well, I followed up all the pathetic "cop-out" suggestions, I was so hungry, so desperate to be an actor. I approached my local "AM-Dram" who were just as frightened of disabled people on stage as the professionals. I was only allowed to join if I confined my involvement to help paint the scenery or work as a prompt. At least, I fared slightly better than a friend who used crutches, he was condescendingly allowed by his local Am-Dram to play the role of a corpse. Also, I did set up a play reading group of fellow disabled "wannabees". I wrote and directed (and acted) a number of shows at the Sheltered Workshop. I even took up training as a Methodist local preacher, so that I could find an outlet for my desire to be a performer.  I was a hypocrite, didn't believe in the Bible, had stopped being a Christian by the time I was 14, but I saw writing dramatic sermons and performing "fire and brimstone" from a pulpit with a captive church audience as the only opportunity I'd ever get of entering the entertainment industry. Luckily, I saw the Light in time and abandoned the path that could have led me to the hellish world of TV Evangelism. 

Following some of the advice, I wrote to Michael Flanders, who said the only way I would succeed in becoming an actor, was to write my own material, create plays describing unique experiences, which only I could play and not allow anyone to produce them unless they gave me the roles I had written for  myself.  It was this idea that sowed the seeds of Graeae's genesis.

 

Why did Richard Tomlinson and I set up Graeae Theatre Company of Disabled People? To create opportunities for people like me to actively participate in the performing arts, but not on the basis of drama therapy. Graeae was not for occupational therapists or able-bodied careerist  "do-gooders" who were looking for an alternative to basket making. No, we created Graeae  to be a professional theatre of the highest artistic excellence. Secondly, we saw the need to change and subvert public attitudes, misconceptions, disrupt myths about disability and disabled people. And since it was our intention that Graeae be controlled by disabled people, we would be in the most authoritative position to be most effective.  We were in the business of not just educating the public but also the media, broadcasters, film makers, theatres...all those responsible for perpetuating the "Body Fascist" ideals and stereotypes that endlessly and insiduously insinuate only the "Perfect " and "Beautiful" have the right to live and to be loved.

 

However, it was always Graeae's aim  that whatever our message, it must be conveyed in a way that is entertaining. That doesn't mean it has to be either superficial or pander to the lowest common denominator but we found that humour was an essential ingredient for any of our homespun disability issue-based theatricals. 

 

How was Graeae, Britain's first professional theatre company of disabled people, formed? You could say that the company had its genesis in 1972 when Richard Tomlinson who was then an English lecturer at Hereward College of disabled people in Coventry instigated a series of drama workshops as an extra curricular activity in the evenings after lectures had finished. I wasn’t a student at the time as I didn’t go to Hereward until 1973. I first met Richard early that year when I went for an interview as I was applying to do a course for the Ordinary National Diploma  (OND) in business studies and Richard was on the interview panel. There were 6 people altogether, stretched out in front of me, sitting at a long table, ready to quiz me. The only question Richard asked me was, was I interested in drama, theatre. I immediately said "Yes, certainly. It's my biggest desire to be an actor".

 “More than a businessman?” asked the Economics tutor on the business studies course.

I replied “Absolutely. Although I think the only way I am going to become an actor is to become a businessman first and buy my own theatre and that way directors will have no choice but to hire me as one of their actors in the cast”. This made Richard Tomlinson laugh and said he looked forward to meeting me when I finally arrive at the college.

 

Several months later,  I arrived at Hereward and immediately sought  out Richard to ascertain when his next drama workshop was going to be. He told me  I was too late to be in the current production as it was already fully cast. However, I was welcome to come along to rehearsals, anyway, to watch. I was a bit late for my first drama workshop attendance, 5 or 10 minutes, whatever, and so rushed into the sports hall where the workshop was being held. The doors were fairly stiff and heavy so I charged my wheelchair into the buggers, sending them flying more than I had intended, creating a huge noise which rudely interrupted the talk that Richard was giving to the other drama students. He looked at me as I entered, somewhat embarrassed but still with a dirty great grin on my face, and said “Well, if someone is going to make an entry like that, they obviously have great aspiration to dominate the stage.” As there were no vacancies left in the cast, richard asked if I  could help with  stage management. Naturally, I said yes. I was determined to get my wheel in the door.

 

The show  Richard and cast were devising, was called “Never Mind You’ll Soon Get Better”. This was a very cliche patronising expression that was often said to someone who had become disabled as a result of an accident. In fact it was said to one of the actors in the show who had broken his neck whilst diving off a pier and hitting some concrete just below the surface. Because a doctor had said to him "Well, never mind you’ll soon get better", Richard thought it would be a great title for the show.

 

Not only did the show recreate the story of the diving accident but also those of other students, such as a woman rendered paraplegic from a car accident. One of my tasks as stage manager was to create special sound effects of these various accidents.

 

The performances of "Never Mind You'll Soon Get Better" (Christmas 1973) were very well received amongst the students, who were gratified to find stories like theirs being authentically portrayed on stage. However, the script  needed tightening up and a lot more comedy injected. Richard decided to do another version, a sequel I suppose to Never Mind You’ll Soon Get Better. and thus, our second show “Ready Salted Crips” was conceived. "Crips" being an abbreviation for "cripples". It was at Hereward College where “crips” was first used as an affectionate term by disabled people for each other.

 

 “Ready Salted Crips", also devised by us. and, again,  was about disability, disabled people’s experience of disability, their perceptions of the non-disabled world’s attitudes towards themselves. The show consisted of  a number of sketches focusing on disabled people's perspectives and experiences of education (which was usually second-class), the medical profession and model, family, parents, employment, lack of employment. However, our aim was to make the show as jokey and entertaining as possible, but retaining elements of melodrama, pathos and tragedy. Our comedy influences at the time were Monty Python, the Goons and the Goodies. For example, with our Funny Walks competition sketch and Miss Crippled Universe, we ripped off  Pythons "Ministry of Silly Walks" and took the piss out of mainstream culture's body fascist attitudes towards disability.

 

The cast of “Ready Salted Crips

Dave Maxwell, Phil Ridler, Maggie, Gill Sloe, Hazel Peazeley, Kate Mathers

And Nabil Shaban in front

 

 

 

The show's content was also influenced by Richard’s interest in vaudeville, jazz and blues. One of the most popular songs we created was Blind, Crippled and Black, a parody of Young, Gifted and Black, continued to be a show stopper 7 years later when "Ready Salted Crips" metamorphosed into "Sideshow", Graeae's first show.   

 

Ready Salted Crips (Spring 1974) became so popular, we took it on tour around our local county of Warwick, performing it in schools, colleges, amateur dramatic groups, Coventry cathedral and Warwick University. Our experience of audiences reaction and enthusiasm for what we were doing, convinced us that we, disabled people definitely had something to contribute to society in terms of telling our story in our own words and in terms of our own entertainment values and abilities.

 

After Ready Salted Crips we did one more show at Hereward, Harold Pinter’s  The Dumb Waiter. It was a deliberate choice to do something from the mainstream. At first, we thought of doing a futuristic, post-apocalyptic version of Macbeth, in a world dominated by disabled mutants after a nuclear holocaust, with me in the title role. Unfortunately, because of the pressure of coursework and exams, our drama group became so severely reduced, we could only do a two-hander play. Pinter's play about a pair of assassins seemed a perfect vehicle for a couple of disabled malcontents. Again, we successfully toured Warwickshire with The Dumb Waiter (Spring 1975) and armed with fantastic reviews from the local press, Richard and I knew we couldn’t stop there.

 

 

But it was the Summer of 1975 and time for both Richard and I to leave Hereward. I was going to Surrey University in Guildford to study social sciences, and Richard, to the United States, for a year in Illinois University, as a disability counselling officer. However, just before Richard and I parted company, he asked me if I fancied working with him to create a disabled theatre company. I said “Yeah, sure, if I’ve got nothing else to do when I finish university, in three years time. But I better warn you - I’m only interested in acting,. I don't want to end up just doing administrating. Or worse, the bloody prompt or painting the scenery. I don’t mind helping with the setting up and all that. But...Acting is what I’m about..not managing”

“Okay, I got the point” Richard said, “Don’t worry, I promise, you'll be one of the actors in the shows.”

 “Good, just so long as you know.” I grumbled into my tumble-mumble beard.

 

And that was the beginning of the Graeae Conspiracy to subvert and revolutionize the world of performing arts. 

 

Richard and I kept in touch with each other (he had successfully  directed some of the American disabled students in a Yank production  of "Sideshow", our 1975 half-developed revised incarnation of  "Ready Salted Crips")and when he got back from the States in 1976, he visited me at Surrey and we started to hatch our plot and make plans as to how we were going to create the disabled theatre company. We wondered whether or not we should buy a building, not that we had any money but we thought perhaps we could try to raise the loot to buy a building, turn it into a purpose built theatre for disabled people and create the company within that building. Or should we go and just create a company - not have a base to start with but have a show. What was going to be the quickest, the cheapest, the most realistic? We decided, probably, the most realistic and practical way was to create a company first, collect a cast of disabled actors, write a show and then try to get people to invite us to perform it. That was the plan we went for.

 

Then around 1977 / 78, Richard rang me, saying that the United Nations had decided that 1981 would be designated the International Year of Disabled People, IYDP, which would provide a great opportunity for a theatre company of disabled performers to be launched. We would be able to take advantage of world-wide interest in disabled people, disability issues, and perhaps we would get invited to perform at far more venues and celebrations than otherwise. He reckoned it might be easier to get funds for the company during that fortuitous year.

 

 I said, “Yes, sounds like a great idea, but we need to get the theatre company established just prior to the International Year of Disabled People. We need to be imprinted on the media and public’s consciousness to be sure of getting invites.” Thus it was decided to try to make sure that our company was up and running within the year of 1980.

 

Richard, a great believer that we should have a goal to aim for, suggested that perhaps we should try to get a tour of a show in the United States, for example, especially, now that he had established contacts there, at Illinois University. “We could get our company invited over there to give a performance or two.”

 

I said, great but what show are we going to take? Something from the mainstream? Or do we create something new and original? Something that is specifically  about us, i.e. disabled people? Richard thought that since we already had a show, Side Show, that had begun life at Hereward,  been given a test run in the United States, we might as well continue to work with that. Yes, I said but we will have to update, improve the script and adapt it according to who happened to be in the new cast.

 

Another important reason for having the company established before the middle of 1980, was that during that year there was to be an international conference on disability and rehabilitation in Winnipeg, Canada. It would be a great idea if we could perform at that conference as it would immediately present our project to the world. We would have a captive international audience. Suddenly, we hoped, Wham, Bang. the name of our company and what we were doing would become known worldwide and instantly, we would be able to ride on the IYDP band wagon that was coming in the following year and drink from the gravy train.

 

As planned, Richard went and wrote to the organisers of the international conference in Winnipeg and told them that we had a company - which we didn’t have, that we had a show - which we didn’t have, and a cast – again, which we didn’t have, apart from me. Later in that year of 1978, much to our surprise, he got a reply, inviting us to do the show in 1980. Our first reaction to this positive response was “oh shit, we better create the company”.

 

The first thing we decided we had to do was to find a name for this company. We didn’t want to call it the Disabled Theatre Company but I felt it was essential that the name to have a reference to disability. Richard believed it should be a name from the Classics, something, perhaps from the Greeks (“So it will sound posh?” I teased). We both agreed the name should derive specifically from the world of myths and legends. The reason we finally settled on Greek mythology was that, first of all, the Greeks were pioneers in theatre and we believed that we would be pioneers in disability theatre. Secondly because we wanted something from mythology since myths and legends contained many disabled people, represented as half human half animal, monsters, strange creatures, freaks. Usually these disabled characters or weird creatures were figures of horror or comedy and never seen as normal people. There was always some kind of stereotyping, some kind of abuse of the nature of disabled people in mythology. They were often represented as being ill omens or creators of evil. Therefore the idea of using 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.

 

So what character, what name from the Greek mythology would we use? We thought about Cyclops, the one eyed giant, but we thought that was a bit too grotesque, crass, a bit crude. It could look like we were being self-parodying or mocking and so, not taking the concept seriously. There was also Centaur theatre company, half horse, half man but I was sure people would be confused and keep calling us the “Centre Theatre Coompany” Other possibilities were Minotaur, a man with a bull’s head, the Satyr, horned human with a goat’s bottom (I know some of our work was satirical but...) and so on. But none of these really quite worked. Then I said to Richard, what about these three sisters who had one eye and one tooth between them, who were related to Medusa and the Gorgons whom Perseus had been given the mission of killing? He needed information as to where they were and how he could kill her and the only people who knew were these three cousins of the Gorgons. I didn’t know what their name was but I had a feeling that whatever the name was, it would be an ideal name to give to our theatre company. So Richard went off and did some research and found that the name was Graeae. Excitedly, we both agreed that that just had to be the name to give a theatre of disabled people. Thus, the Graeae Theatre Company spoken into existence.

 

There were many reasons for choosing that name. First, there was controversy as to how it should be spelt and how it should be pronounced. There’s nothing like controversy for imprinting a concept onto people’s memory, making us stand out. It also meant that with intrigue around the name, there was always something to talk about when reporters, journalists interviewed us and said “But why Graeae?” And of course we would have a long story to tell about it. And how do you say it? We would say, you know, as in “grey eye”. Thus, it was easy for people to remember us. Choosing this name and its spelling and its particular way of pronouncing it, made us memorable.

 

Secondly, in the story of the Graeae, Perseus is unable to persuade the three sisters to give him the necessary information, so he steals the eye and tooth from them and blackmails them, refusing to return their vital bodily parts until they tell him how he can find the Gorgon, Medusa, and how she may be killed. But, of course, the dirty rat, he doesn’t give the eye and tooth back and leaves them to suffer.

 

For me there is obviously a number of morals to the tale, first of all if the Graeae had not been so dependent on their impairment in the sense that they allowed the negative aspects of their impairment to rule their life,.if they had learned  to cope as blind or partially sighted people, rather than depending on one eye which they had to share between them, they couldn’t have been taken advantage of by Perseus, (in my opinion, the able bodied villain of the piece). On the other hand, however, this Trinity of sisters with impairment did suggest how disabled people needed to work together, and that, by uniting as one, they could be solid and so, advance their cause. And thirdly, it says, you mustn’t be too trusting of non-disabled people and don’t rely too much on them if you want to achieve your ambitions.

 

 We began recruiting our cast in the summer of 1979. It wasn’t easy to find disabled people foolhardy enough to want to risk a life in the theatre, a precarious profession at the best of times. By winter, we managed to assemble a cast of 6 performers, 3 men, 3 women, each of us with a different impairment, ranging from muscular dystrophy to cerebral palsy, spina bifida to brittle bones, partially-sighted to epilepsy.

 

Our rehearsals began at the Diarama, London, in February of 1980. It was going to take two or three months to get the show together. Some of the cast members were working, with full time 9 to 5 jobs, 5 days a week Secondly, one was a full time mother and thirdly we were from various parts of Britain. Also Richard had a proper job, teaching at the Open University (even I was working, at the time, but in an improper job,  an advertising agency) So, it meant that we could only rehearse at weekends which meant the rehearsal process very long.

 

 

 

Richard Tomlinson directs SIDESHOW in 1980

 

After four months,  the show was ready for our premiere performance in May of 1980 at my old university at Guildford. After that we gave one more performance and then off to America we went, where we stayed three and half weeks, guests of  Illinois University, performing 27 shows in 23 days, each in a different venue, touring the state of Illinois. On one occasion we actually did a performances in three different venues in one day. It was very hard work, very tiring and certainly a baptism of fire, completely thrown in at the deep end. But a great experience that certainly strengthened me as an actor,  performing to a wide variety of audiences ranging from conventional theatre audience to a summer camp with 250 kids, to geriatrics in an old folks home, to psychiatric patients in a hospital, to a conference of methodist ministers. We didn’t once feel the need to adapt or "censor" the script, we always performed it as we wrote it. Making no concessions. Keeping the show hard-hitting. If our medical jibes upset the doctors and nurses, tough. If our lampooning of religion’s insensibilities and self-rightousness upset the Christian Fundamentalists. Tough.

 

 

Graeae’s first show, “SIDESHOW” with Jag Plah, Will Kennan and Marion Saunders - 1980

 

As it happens, despite all our attempts to shock and outrage, we were loved by everyone. Bloody annoying, that. To our astonishment, we got great reviews in the United States, we were on TV, we were on radio, and all the local papers covered us. Then we went to Canada and performed at the international conference and again that was a great success and spread the word.

 

When we got back to Britain I organised the tour of Britain. Again we could only perform at weekends, I decided to try to set up a different venue each day in a particular location. I tried to ensure that we cover as much of Britain as we possibly could. So I would chose an area e.g. Essex or town, say, Brighton and pick three venues in that particular town or area, for each day of the weekend. Given the distances we all had to travel in order to get to those venues, they had to be in the South of England and the Midlands and Wales. We had to miss out Scotland but we took a new play, “3D” to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the following year, in 1981.

 

This grand tour of the Midlands, South of England and Wales from August of 1980, took us right up to the beginning of December, included various fringe venues in London, including the Soho Poly Theatre, the Oval and Jackson’s Lane, which immediately attracted attention of the national media so we were finding ourselves having reviews in the Guardian, in the Times and in the Observer. As a consequence of this press attention,  television became interested and we found that there were rival TV companies competing for our attention, wanted exclusivity for their arts programmes. Finally, we ended up doing a special Arena documentary for the BBC, which was transmitted January, 1981 to coincide with the opening of the International Year of Disabled People.

 

 

 

The Riverside Gig with Maggie Woolley and Nabil Shaban

 

Also in January 1981 we had our first opportunity to perform professionally (i.e. we all got paid proper Equity wages) for a week at Riverside studios in Hammersmith, London. This momentous occasion heralded the beginning of Graeae becoming fully professional. At the same time, we had the great fortune to be offered an office, rehearsal space and facilities by an Arts Centre in Aldershot, which we accepted and were able to set up base from May of 1981, for about 18 months. By then, we had proven ourselves to the Arts Council of Great Britain and became eligible to receive full funding.

 

 

Nabil Shaban    6th July 2006

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