I first encountered the theatre company Graeae when they came to talk to the KCL Cultural Institute last Autumn, so I was extremely excited to receive this beautiful copy in the post, very kindly sent to me by Oberon Books. We’ve had gorgeously warm weather recently, and I have loved soaking up the Graeae rays in the sunshine.
Graeae is a force for change in world-class theatre, boldly placing D/deaf and disabled actors centre stage and challenging preconceptions.
Reasons to be Graeae is a collection of stories which track the history of the company (established in 1980) as well as offering insight into what makes them tick. It’s a tribute to the fact that their passion for diversity, access, and representation has been hugely influential to the theatre industry. The company’s unusual name has a memorable story behind it – pronounced ‘grey-eye’, it is from the Ancient Greek myth of the three sisters who shared one eye and one tooth between them. As a result, they are extra entrepreneurial and clever. They’re said to have inspired Shakespeare’s three witches of Macbeth, so it has theatrical roots, too!
I’ve always been interested in dramaturgy and I knew that I was going to really enjoy Reasons to be Graeae because I had already heard about how cool they are as a company, but I was not prepared for how moved I would be by this fascinating and dense collection of stories. Warning: this is not dry, boringly academic dramaturgy. This is stuff that will make you feel teary on the tube and laugh in the library. It was a real joy to read.
So many people in the book said that Graeae was like family to them, and it honestly felt like reading a family history. Such a large volume of different voices is featured, and all of them share the same passion for creating amazing, radical, punchy theatre. It was really inspiring to read as a young person starting out generally in life as well, because the story of how the company started is so inspiringly entrepreneurial. Determination, ambition, and hard work are themes visible on every page.
Many contributors noted that when Graeae was founded, they had hoped that it wouldn’t be needed in the future, and how disappointing it is that it’s still so necessary. There is still so much to be done to make theatre, film, and TV industries really representative and accessible to all. It was heartbreaking to read about how one drama school thought that the institution ‘wasn’t ready’ for disabled actors because non-disabled students would complain about the queues for the lifts (?!?!). I know from supporting my friends who are aspiring actors that wanting to be an actor can feel like such a tough dream to chase, but I felt myself tear up reading about Graeae actors moving continents to ‘make it’ in the UK’s theatre world, and then having to fight other people’s prejudices at every step of the way – from pre-production, having to fight to prove that they can do things like circus training, to post-production, encountering really horrific discrimination in reviews. People’s ignorance can be so bizarre. But the message which really shone through to me in Reasons to be Graeae was that although the company does aim to give disabled actors opportunities – that’s not what defines it. At all. At the end of the day, Graeae is a home to people creating incredible, wonderful, radical art. They explore the human experience.
One quotation in particular really struck me – Graeae is described as the ‘blueprint for what I wish Mainstream British Theatre was like’ by Andrew Haydon. Whilst finding out more about them during the course of reading Reasons to be Graeae, it was clear that Graeae care so much about diversity in very intersectional ways, which is awesome. I really liked reading about their various initiatives to push for BAME representation, as well as challenging people’s perceptions when touring internationally. From reading about different shows and productions, it sounds like the company has been way ahead of its time in terms of pushing for progression in theatre. Tales of the paralympics ceremony were also really moving and fascinating to hear about – what an exciting process it must’ve been.
Since we’re talking about Mainstream British Theatre, I thought that I would add a little bit about an experience which I had a couple of weeks ago – I recently saw As You Like It at the Globe (dir. Federay Holmes) which starred Nadia Nadarajah (who has worked with Graeae in the past) playing Celia, who was portrayed as a D/deaf character. Nadia, a D/deaf actor, was using BSL throughout the performance, often translated to the non-signing audience members by Rosalind. She portrayed Celia absolutely beautifully. The longevity of Shakespeare’s works is due to his playfulness when it comes to language – so, of course, it made perfect sense to include BSL in the play to add another dimension of language-play to the production. Celia was so expressive and often took on the role of a comic and sympathetic mirror to the audience, rolling her eyes at us when Rosalind (Jack Laskey) went overboard with the dramatically lovey-dovey speeches. I wish that I had knowledge of BSL so that I could have really understood the translation – but what I did absorb was the fervent expressiveness of Celia’s character. Nadia’s talent was mesmerising.
I do love As You Like It, but I am not usually particularly moved by the character of Celia. However, in this production, the friendship of Rosalind and Celia was genuinely tender and beautiful to watch. Rosalind often translated Celia’s signing to other non-signing characters, frequently jumping with excitement as she read Celia’s signs, confirming that they had shared the same thought. This added another layer to their friendship, underlining the bond which they shared as best friends. The steady rhythm of the signing was especially effective in the periods of silence when Rosalind and Nadia communicated purely in BSL, without Rosalind translating. I was standing in the stalls and the Friday night audience was fairly restless at times (compared to a regular indoor theatre), but during those moments you could’ve heard a pin drop because everyone was concentrating so much on the BSL and facial expressions of the actors. It was really enjoyable to see Shakespeare’s text being reinvented in this way and Nadia Nadarajah had some of the best comic timing in the ensemble. This is why it is so important that seeing diversity onstage becomes normalised – diversity in all forms really enriches the theatrical experience. BSL is art.
Finally, the one part of Reasons to be Graeae which I haven’t yet mentioned is the script of Reasons to be Cheerful. I loved it – and to be honest, the annotations made me laugh more than anything. Maybe I’m just a geek for witty stage directions, though?! (Probably.) Anyway, it is sunny, and I’m going to end my post here to go and daydream about my own reasons to be cheerful.
Have a great day!