In June 2021, the British Council staged a production of "The Tempest: Swimming for Beginners", the culmination of a collaboration with the Owlspot Theatre and the UK’s Graeae Theatre Company. In November, five months after the performance, the British Council held an online forum inviting Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae , and the Japanese directors, cast members, and staff as speakers. Reflecting on the production process of the play, they discussed the challenges and future possibilities for disabled artists.
First, Jenny introduced the mission of the Graeae Theatre Company and their creative process. Graeae speaks out for disabled artists so they have an equal place on stage and in society. Since its founding 40 years ago, Graeae has been working to ensure that disabled people are not relegated to the sidelines. The company is named after the three Graeae sisters in Greek mythology who spoke up against Perseus who took away their eyes and teeth.
“The mission of Graeae has remained unchanged since its inception: Placing disabled artists centre stage. Through theatre and drama, Graeae has changed society and the way people think about disabled people.”
Graeae works with a diverse range of people each with different communication methods. Thus, together they share different approaches to improve access, including how to approach a script. This process has led to an experiment in which the actors put stage directions into speech.
“We verbally explain what is happening and being done on the stage. Then the play is more open, giving everything equal value and beauty. As a director, I bring these separate pieces of 'beauty' together to create one singular piece."
The pandemic in the UK and its impact on disabled artists
As co-director of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Jenny undertook a major mission to bring together disabled people to deliver a message on human rights. Since then, she has been at the forefront of this issue.
“Even in the midst of the pandemic, artists are able to find a ray of light”, said Jenny, who argued that connection is the key to preventing isolation for disabled artists. Graeae shifted to an online environment that allowed them to continue their work during the pandemic. Together with other arts organisations in the UK, the company also created the hashtag #WeShallNotBeRemoved to amplify the voices of disabled artists.
“We are making changes to ensure the survival of the theatre. We are especially working to improve the arts industry in the UK.”
Jenny noted that even with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was great to form cross-border connections with disabled actors in Japan and to challenge and learn from one another despite differences in disability and access.
Background and objectives of “The Tempest”
Next, the British Council’s Chika Sudo explained the background and objectives of “The Tempest”. In the UK, the rights of disabled artists have been advocated for over decades. After the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there was a growing movement especially through the Unlimited, a programme that supports disabled artists.
The British Council also created opportunites to share the experiences of disabled artists and arts professionals in the UK. In 2018, Jenny proposed a theatrical collaboration involving disabled artists from three countries: Japan, the UK and Bangladesh. The British Council, together with Owlspot Theatre, launched “The Tempest” project with support from Arts Council Tokyo.
The aim of the project was to work with directors and cast members with different disabilities, to create an inclusive performance that incorporates their differences and individuality. The production process aimed to support Japan’s arts & culture sector to create a sustainable environment to allow disabled artists to continue to work.
The launch and production of “The Tempest”
In February 2019, Jenny held her first workshop in Japan. In September of the same year, directors Yasushi Oka and Hiroe Ohashi joined her workshop in London from Japan. They came up with ideas for the piece and met with the cast from the UK and Bangladesh. In December of that year, Jenny visited Japan again and facilitated a creative workshop.
Due to COVID-19, the team decided to postpone the performance originally planned for May 2020. Despite the hurdles, the cast and crew continued to communicate. Although the international cast was only able to perform via video, in May 2021 the eight Japanese directors and cast members gathered in the rehearsal room, where Jenny directed the show remotely over one month.
Online rehearsals were certainly challenging, with communication further complicated by the fact that Jenny and Japanese cast members had their own sign language interpreter in addition to a Japanese/English language interpreter. Thanks to everyone’s hard work, they were able to successfully perform the play in June 2021.
The cast & crews’ impressions of “The Tempest”
The Tempest ultimately overcame the barriers of language, disability and the distance caused by the pandemic. Satsuki Yoshino, a professor at Aichi University and a close friend of Jenny’s, moderated the session in which five people shared their thoughts.
According to actor/director Hiroe Ohashi (who played Caliban), the rehearsal room was "chaotic, for better or worse, just like a tempest". The cast all had different expertise and disabilities, and as a director, she sometimes wondered what her goal should be. How to make the most of this experience is a challenge for the future, she added.
Director Yasushi Oka, representative of a Shizuoka-based theatre company, says it took him a while to digest the differences between his and Jenny’s directing styles. He also found it difficult to share this with the cast members. Nevertheless, he expressed a sense of fulfilment stating, “‘The Tempest’ allowed me to overcome the challenge of directing disabled artists”.
Actor Sachika Segawa, who played Ariel has a lower limb disability. She shared she was initially puzzled by the role of playing a “fairy that moves like air". However, she now feels taking on this role has been a turning point for her.
"When I met the actors and others involved, I realised that we are all human beings, and it brought me back to the simplest of communications. I think that's an important skill for an actor to have.”
Rio Sekiba, who played Miranda is blind. At first, she was surprised to find herself in a dance scene, but this became her motivation to take on new challenges.
“I discovered that I could use my body to express myself in a way that people would understand.” She added, “I hope to one day be in a Shakespearean play while also expressing the realities of disabed people.”
Next was Chihiro Sasaki from Toshima Mirai Cultural Foundation’s production team, which runs Owlspot Theatre. The theatre has always been committed to supporting disabled audiences, but this was the first time for them to work with disabled artists in the production and performance. She believes that “The Tempest" will broaden the scope of the theatre's productions and hopes that “it will become a standard genre".
In response to Chihiro’s comments, Satsuki suggested that Japan's public theatres should address the fact that diverse plays such as ‘The Tempest’ are not widespread, even though our society is made up of diverse people”.
Hopes for the future of disabled people
The second half of the forum involved a discussion between Jenny and five other artists involved in the project. After Jenny spoke about possibilities for the future, the others reflected on the project from their points of view as cast and crew members. Jenny argued that "disabled people will not just perform in plays, they will direct and lead them too. That's the next stage". For Jenny, one of the aims of this project was "to see how directors can learn from fellow directors". She has high hopes for directors Yasushi and Hiroe, who have now gained valuable experience.
“In the UK, non-disabled artists are trying to learn how to work with disabled artists. There is a movement in the UK’s large theatres where disabled people are taking on leadership roles. That's the kind of theatre I'd like to create next.”
Yasushi expressed, “I have always been reserved because of my disability”, adding, "I think my role in the future will be to share with others what I have been able to do creatively". Hiroe stated that she and Jenny were able to learn a lot from each other because they are both deaf. As far as continuing to direct plays, she said "The most important thing is the script. Most scripts are written for people who can hear, so we have to change them to suit us.”
Rio (who played Miranda) added that “The Tempest” allowed her to really see the process of how people with different physical abilities are able to create performances together. “I want to keep thinking about access because I don't think we are 100% there yet.”
Sachika (who played Ariel), noted that through the rehearsal process her perception around hearing and seeing changed from someone able to hear and see, to someone who happens to be able to hear and see . She also found that the examination of why someone may have made a certain decision reveals the ambiguity of human perception. She concluded by saying that she hopes that in the future there will be more performances that people can enjoy together intuitively, rather than having to rely on subtitles or audio guides, and that there will be more communication options.
Chihiro of Owlspot Theatre felt that it is important to "just jump in" when working with disabled artists. “It is much better to meet one another, communicate and ask what the other needs, rather than trying to make preparations without understanding the other person’s needs. ‘The Tempest’ has shown me that people-to-people relationships are most important.”
Finally, Jenny gave a closing message to the forum speakers and participants.
“Dive in and swim. Ask each other any questions you have and just try things. The more diverse the communication, the better. People are curious creatures. The theatre is an opportunity for us to get to know ourselves and others.”