The actor’s search for a great role is rarely tougher than when you’re forced into the box marked ‘disability’ – but there are ways out, writes Joyce McMillan
Where are we now, when it comes to disability and the arts? Ever since the UK passed its first Disability Discrimination Act, almost 25 years ago, there’s been an assumption that opportunities and inclusion have been improving; physical access to buildings, buses and trains has been transformed, negative attitudes have been challenged. In Scotland there has been a mighty boom in theatre and dance created by and with artists with disabilities, as the likes of Robert Softley Gale and Claire Cunningham have won international acclaim.
Yet there has also been a fierce and unpleasant media backlash, followed, in recent years, by an increase in attacks on disabled people, and cruel cuts in benefits; all of which makes this an interesting moment to do what wheelchair-using actor Lisa Hammond calls “taking the temperature” of these supposedly changing attitudes to disability.
Hammond and her stage partner Rachael Spence, who bring their show Still No Idea to Edinburgh’s Traverse next week, first met more than a decade ago, on tour with Improbable Theatre. When they realised how much they had in common – a wicked sense of humour, a tendency to be night owls rather than early birds, and a fierce delight in using people’s assumptions about them to get away with all sorts of mischief – they decided, with Improbable’s support, that it would be fun to make a show together.
“The thing is, Rachael is posher than me, and very ‘normal’ looking – looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth,” says Hammond, who is best known for her role as Donna Yates in EastEnders. “Whereas I’m a four-foot woman in a wheelchair. So people make a lot of assumptions about both of us and we can have a lot of fun with that.”
“When we set out to make our first show together, No Idea, back in 2010, we literally had no idea what to do,” explains Spence. “I had been working on a lot of verbatim theatre at that time, so I suggested that we just to go out into the street and ask members of the public what they thought our story should be; and we made a show based on that experience.”
“Then, to revive the show last year, we did the same thing again,” continues Hammond. “First time around, we asked people what our story should be, and they would often put me front and centre, without mentioning my disability. They’d say, ‘Oh you’re the funny one, with such a cheeky face’ – that phrase came up so much we wrote a song about it for the show.
“But then we asked them to construct stories for us, like a game of consequences, each one adding a bit, and something weird happened, which was that as the stories went on, I gradually disappeared from them – as if they could recognise me, but they couldn’t actually write a narrative for me.
“And I’ve noticed the same thing in my wider working life. I’ll join the cast of some fictional show, and they’ll say – oh don’t worry, it’s not all about your disability, you’ll be a great character with great storylines. And then gradually, you just find you’re fading into the background. So our show is essentially the story of our quest for a story, and the reason it’s called Still No Idea is just that – that things are supposed to have changed, but at a lot of levels, they really haven’t.
“Don’t worry, though,” add Hammond and Spence, almost in unison, “it is a comedy!”
If Hammond and Spence are still very much aware of how disability can limit a conventional acting career, though, the brilliant Scottish choreographer, writer and performer Claire Cunningham tends to work entirely on her own projects, and finds herself endlessly fascinated by the possibilities of the bodies we call “disabled”. Her latest show Thank You Very Much – commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland and Manchester International Festival, where it premiered in July before a Glasgow run this weekend – is a four-handed piece, her first non-solo show. It’s inspired by her own and her mother’s love of Elvis Presley, not only as a singer, but as a performer who broke all kinds of taboos about movement on stage – hence his nickname, “The Pelvis.”
“At first, in my work, I was trying to understand my own body and how it worked in the world,” explains Cunningham, who can walk only with the help of sticks, “and now I’m also exploring with other artists with a lived experience of disability. And I don’t feel trapped by that at all; instead I feel more and more fascinated by those different movement vocabularies, and by performers who choose to be witnessed, despite the fact that they don’t conform to the norm.
“Elvis really was the pretty white person who could make a stellar career out of music drawn from poor black American communities that were generally hidden from mainstream representation at the time. But in performing that music, he used all kinds of movements and gestures that belonged to excluded worlds, whether racial or sexual. He was always referencing movements that were supposed to be taboo, and aspects of the body that were supposed to be unseen, and that will resonate with anyone who has a lived experience of disability.
“So I suppose for me, disability has become not a limitation, but a lens through which I can see the world, in very revealing ways. In that sense, it’s a kind of gift; and I hope it works in this show, and gives people a chance to see the hugely familiar figure of Elvis in a completely new light.”
Still No Idea is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 5-8 November; Thank You Very Much is at the Couper Institute, Glasgow, until tomorrow