Helena Jackson is the Artistic Director at Sleepless Theatre Company, an inclusive company that has committed to always having at least 50% of its performers and creatives identify as D/deaf, disabled or neurodiverse and that is currently developing its interaction with access technologies for audiences. At the moment Sleepless Theatre have programmed with Alex Wood’s debut play, Nine Foot Nine at the Bunker Theatre as part of their Breaking Out season in June before heading up to Assembly for the entirety of the Edinburgh Fringe. Helena shares with us the inspiration behind Nine Foot Nine, a sci-fi feminist piece shortlisted for the 2018 LET Award as well as having a showcase at the Royal Court earlier this year, the current climate of inclusive and accessible theatre, and reminds people that disability is an important part of intersectional feminism.
What is the inspiration behind the show, Nine Foot Nine?
We were at the Edinburgh Fringe two years ago and (for some reason) had meandered on to a conversation about physical power – the fact that, as a woman, you are always aware when you’re alone with a man that you know could potentially overpower you. This seemed to be a surprise to many of the men in the group, and as such we asked them to imagine what it would be like if they were faced with giant women. Two years, multiple script drafts and lots of John Wyndham/Lucy Kirkwood later, here we are. It’s been a wild ride.
Do you believe there is enough representation of people in the industry who are deaf or disabled compared to say 10 years ago?
More, absolutely. Enough, definitely not. There’s still so much work to do around neurodiversities, deafness and disabilities, and to be able to welcome everyone who wants to be a part of the industry no matter whether they fit into our very narrow Western definition of ‘the norm’. It has got better – the Agents for Change initiative around the country is wonderful, as is Ramps on the Moon – but these still function as outliers.
Any suggestions on what needs to be done for there to be more representation of minorities (deaf, disabled, female writers, writers of colours)?
I think everyone has to take responsibility. There are far too many companies and theatres out there that say they champion diversity, but are using it as a marketing tool rather than an actual belief. It’s also something which needs to transfer into grassroots change – larger theatres like the National, the Young and Old Vics are doing their bit, but accessibility is still so frightening for smaller companies, as we’re so worried about getting it wrong. I think once people realise that they’re allowed to fuck up and make mistakes, that it’s a learning process rather than something that is suddenly DONE and wonderful, it’ll hopefully start becoming seen more throughout theatre.
When we talk about inclusivity and accessible theatre, what do you think is lacking in the industries?
Just an understanding of what it entails. The ones that many peple know about are audio description and captioning, but there are so many other smaller things that can really affect someone’s enjoyment of the theatre. Accessibility packs for venues are really important, ramps and lifts for those in mobility vehicles – just having clear signs is such a small measure but can make the world of difference to so many people. And this isn’t just for audience members, it’s important to make sure that processes are made welcome and inclusive for performers as well. We all know it’s a bit of a cut-throat industry out there – just being kind and understanding can make things so much easier for so many people. A great example of this is Paines Plough’s recent announcement about how they are changing their audition process to be generally just kinder to actors; they’re living proof that inclusivity can take so many forms – you can’t just install a captioning machine and go ‘my work here is done’.
Do you think there are enough companies that focus on making theatre accessible?
Absolutey not. The ones that there are are doing fabulous work, but our aim is to try and get more emerging companies thinking about accessibility. We’ve been told so many times that the priority is making the show good, and accessibility comes after that – we think this is utter bollocks. People that identify as D/deaf, disabled or neurodiverse should be able to see whatever theatre they want – whether that be R&D theatre, really bad theatre, experimental theatre, West End theatre… and this change will only come about if it starts taking hold in the little companies and Fringe venues.
What shows/plays/films have inspired you and Sleepless theatre to promote your ideas?
Ramps on the Moon are generally gods. Chickenshed are fantastic in showing what inclusive theatre is really about, we can only dream of being able to do something similar in the future. The Globe is doing such a HUGE amount in showing that actors that identify as hearing impaired can function pretty damn well in a hearing environment (shoutout to Nadia Nadarajah), as is Jess Thom. We’ve also got some kickass Associate Artists that question and challenge us the entire way through our shows, Cindy-Jane Armbruster in particular is always pushing us and making sure we think about the production from all angles. We wouldn’t be able to function without so many artists and creatives giving up their time and energy to talk to us, educate us and tell us off when we’re being shit – we’re hugely indebted to them.
Nine Foot Nine is playing at the Bunker theatre every Monday and Thursday at 8:30pm from 11 June- 5 July. Tickets and more information about Sleepless theatre can be found here.