From Stoke Mandeville to Bangladesh

| by Jenny Sealey

Tags: Arts and disability Company blog

Graeae's Jenny Sealey spent some time working with theatre groups and a spinal injuries centre in Bangladesh. Here, she shares some of her experiences.

Our first engagement was at the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, which is a place for people with spinal injuries. The last time I visited such a place was in Stoke Mandeville, when doing research and development for the Paralympic Opening Ceremony. The physical contrast between the two places could not be more extreme. High-tech beds, neck braces, breathing machines etc., versus a simple metal bed with a metal frame holding a mirror over the patient so that they can remain still and communicate with people. But whatever the contrasts, the ethos of both places is the same: support people to learn to engage with their new bodies, to adapt and to do things differently. They work to take away the shame of becoming disabled, and to encourage full and equal participation in life.

In my role at Graeae I very rarely engage with the medical issues and I may not know how someone became disabled or if they were born disabled, as my connection with them is as a director to an artist. Medical aspects are not ignored, but our main aim is to remove physical and attitudinal barriers that prevent people from engaging with the arts. We provide access so people can get on with being an actor or a writer etc. We provide a platform to profile their excellence, which is so often ignored by the mainstream world.

This leads to why I was invited to Bangladesh in the first place.

Bachchu Yousuff, a director of national and international repute, wants to do a Shakespeare play on Dhaka National Theatre's stage in 2016 and he wants an inclusive cast. Actor training for disabled people is non-existent here and there is very little inclusive practise. The British Council set up a two-day workshop for members of CRP and Dhaka Theatre group to start the process of working together.

Day 1 Bangladesh Shilipakala Academy

I have 20 new people forming a circle around me with faces expectant but nervous. I start as I always start: with name signs where you create a sign that fits with your name. Everyone created a name sign that became our 'signed language', which we used in a series of improvisations.

The core aim of the two days was to get to know each other, explore and share personal stories, and create a common understanding from which we can then build to the next stage. As the day drew on the energy in the room grew warmer and more vibrant as stories were being shared and new ones developed. Our tiredness at the end of the day was well deserved.

Day 2

The emotional intensity and drama in the room was extraordinary as we worked through a new series of exercises, but how they chose to contextualise the relationship showed, as I expected, a naivety and shyness. I should have continued to push the boundaries here and challenge them more, but I realised that it was too soon and we still had a way to go before we were all on the same page. Therefore, the last part of the second day was back to sharing a dialogue about moments in life where you have felt “dismissed, disempowered and dispossessed”, and those moments when you have felt “empowered, top of the world and bold”. We agreed that the name for our newly-formed group was to be Bonded 2013.

It was, all in all, an extraordinary few days with so much to learn and take in. There is a tremendous will and determination to ensure the end result is an inclusive production of a Shakespeare on the main stage at National Theatre Dhaka!

Jenny Sealey is the Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company, and was Co-Artistic Director of the Opening Ceremony for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. 

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