Pauline Heath was with us this month in a residency to create a rehearsed reading of her first full length piece of theatre, Occupation, which explored the impact of austerity on disabled people’s lives.
Pauline received a grant from Arts Council England to develop her work, which included some stand up theatre for herself to perform and a piece of theatre that she would write and direct. A scratch of her one woman performance ‘Never-NeverLand’ had been incredibly well received at ARC in July so we were very excited about the full length show.
Four professional actors were cast: Mik Scarlet, Charlie Fennel, Colleen Metcalfe, and Jacqueline Phillips, before rehearsals began. Immediately from the first read through everyone was absolutely hooked. We all felt really passionate about the piece as it is so rare to have disabled peoples’ voices so prominently presented, and also it was so absolutely of its time, so contemporary that it was hard hitting and very honest. Much of the writing was taken directly from disabled peoples’ experiences – people Pauline and I had met, held workshops with or researched.
A genuine ensemble emerged on day one – we were a great team and felt very lucky to be able to work on such an important piece. Occupation centres itself at a disabled peoples’ rally, and focusses on four main characters Parent, Ex-soldier, Professional and Lost Youth and their stories and such a disabled-led experience is really to be treasured in a professional theatre context in the North East of England.
I wrote the following on Facebook the day after the show: “Last night is one of those moments in theatre practice you don’t forget. There was a warmth and buzz of support from the audience, a full house, and such a commitment from the actors and production team to make Occupation by Pauline Heath a really good experience. The work is hard hitting and contains a powerful mix of statistics and reflections from Miss Maple, a democracy super sleuth based on ‘the joker from Theatre of The Oppressed’, as well as the poignant and outrageously shocking personal experiences of disabled people and their families experiencing the full impact of the cuts. The production handled these personal stories with respect and humility, and was careful not to portray the characters in sensational, salacious or pitiable ways.
“There were send ups of the charity and medical models of disability through dance, movement and discordant singing, and challenging perceptions of stereotypical media depictions of food bank users, war veterans, lost youth and the red tape surrounding disability support through silent film episodes. We used live camera feed for the intimate stories of the disabled people, highlighting the difference in how the media portrays disabled people and how they appear in their own voices unedited. This is also a Brechtian-style distancing effect, to attempt to avoid total catharsis in the viewer’s experience – as Miss Maple said by trying to remove the tissues from the issues! And at a mid-way point there was even an audience participation gameshow, indicating we all have a role to play in analysing the messages we are fed, and offering a reflective tool to the audience to process what is being said in the play overall. The gameshow brought hilarity and fantastic responses from our brave audience volunteers and everyone watching.
“Although this was a rehearsed reading, I think we did a pretty good job of making it an engaging theatrical experience. We really wanted the audience to engage with the piece and its message from the outset so asked them to sign petitions, to have their say on feedback sheets, and asked them to invest their thinking in the information and experiences being presented. Huge thanks to ARC, Stockton Arts Centre for their support of the development of this piece, and to the team there, and to Arts Council England who funded it.
“We feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Pauline to bring her piece to the stage, and to work with such a great team of actors, Mik Scarlet, Jacqueline Phillips, Colleen Cailin Metcalfe and Charlie Fennell, who really committed themselves to the work and gave performances they should be very proud of – sensitive, considered, hilarious, energised and supportive. The written feedback we received from the audience has been very very useful and incredibly encouraging. We want to take this piece further – there is definitely an audience out there and we’ve got ideas now about how we’d develop it further. Thanks everyone, sincerely, thank you.”