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EP 1: Jenny Sealey

Jenny Sealey has been Artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company since 1998.

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Jenny Sealey has been Artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company since 1998. Graeae leads the way in pioneering, trail-blazing theatre both in the UK and internationally, placing D/deaf and disabled actors centre stage and challenging preconceptions. 

Directing credits for Graeae include: This Is Not For You, Reasons to be Cheerful, Two, The Fall of the House of Usher, Peeling, Bent, Blasted, Romeo and Juliet (Japan and Bangladesh) and The House of Bernarda Alba 

Jenny co-directed the London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony alongside Bradley Hemmings and  also won the Liberty Human Rights Arts Award.

Ephemera

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Bethan:
This is Bethan Soar on Thursday 5th March 2020 regarding for Lights Up with Derby Theatre. Can you please introduce yourself and tell me when and where you were born?
Jenny:
I was born on 17th September 1963 in Marston Green in a home for unmarried mothers. Which I only found out about three years ago.
Bethan:
Can you tell me what you do please?
Jenny:
I am the Chief Exec and the Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre Company.
Bethan:
Lovely. What is your connection to the East Midlands?
Jenny:
My mum was from Nottingham, then my grandparents sent her off to Birmingham, Marston Green, to have me, then came back. So I grew up in meeting. All of my education in Nottingham. And that’s where I fell in love with theatre, dancing and everything. So it’s home.
Bethan:
Lovely. Who did you live with growing up?
Jenny:
When I was growing up I lived with my mum and dad and I have three younger sisters, so I’m the eldest of four.
Bethan:
What did your parents do for work?
Jenny:
My mum and dad both worked for this photography studio, that’s where they met. My dad set up a bigger photography place with his best friend Rob out in Kimberley. So they did weddings, parties, just headshots and they did the Boots catalogue as well. I remember when my SECOND sister was born, when Jackie was born, mum stopped working, so she was a stay at home mum, which was lovely.
Bethan:
That’s very interesting. What is your first memory of theatre?
Jenny:
Oh, blimey, that’s a hard one! I think my first memory of – I started ballet when I was six, I went deaf when I was seven, but I carried on doing ballet. And our dancing teacher Nora Morrison, from Morrison School of Dancing, ensured that we did a show every year. And we used to do it at the Cooperative Arts Theatre, which is now a cinema, in Hockley. But that’s where we did a show. So my experience was actually doing shows rather than seeing shows.
Bethan:
What was the main trigger for you wanting to work in theatre?
Jenny:
I wanted to be a dancer, not an actor. When I did my A levels I did theatre studies and there was so much acting, and it was a real learning curve. And some dancing, but I carried on doing my dancing with Miss Morrison. Then when I went to Middlesex Polytechnic they wouldn’t let me on the drama course, drama component of a BA, because of my voice, they were worried about cues, how would I cope and all the rest of it. So I thought, hmm. So I went into the dance bit for an audition and I got into the course through dancing. Then it was being with all those other dancers and realising my body shape and the size of my breasts were not aligned with becoming a professional dancer.
So through the Middlesex Poly I started to get more and more involved in the acting side of it and that’s when I thought, no, I would like to be an actor, not a dancer.
Bethan:
Who was your biggest inspiration in these years?
Jenny:
I think Nora Morrison was an extraordinary, extraordinary woman, who just inspired all of her girls – there were a few boys but it was mainly girls. And her tenacity for discipline and for grace and to use your body to tell a story. So Nora Morrison and [MarIalaIne 0:04:02] Church who was my drama teacher at Clarendon College, which is no longer there, were awesome. Absolutely awesome. So those two women, and my mum.
Bethan:
It’s great to have them in your life. We understand you lost your hearing as a child. Would you be able to tell us more about that?
Jenny:
It was my best friend, [Raymond Mackintosh 0:04:32], spikey hair, little round glasses, we were messing around at school, Hayden Road Primary School, his mum was the cleaner. So we were going to jump out behind the book shelf and scare her. I mean, not a very nice thing to do, but anyway. So we were working out, plotting out how we were going to do this. And he was just messing around and he pushed me, it wasn’t malicious, it was just one of those, oh Jen sort of thing. Fell, whacked my head on the corner of the table. Bang!
And I got up and I went, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh,” and I still do that when I put my hearing aid in to make sure I can hear, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.” I went, “I can't hear.” And I just ran, ran home, got to the corner of our lane and the Roberts family were up there, these horrible boys, and they were beating up my friend. So I got stuck in and I fell again but this time on my arse. I got up, “I can't hear!” Ran down the lane, got home, I went, “Mummy, mummy, I can't hear.” And she said, “Don’t worry, darling, you know, sleep on it, in the morning you’ll be fine.”
And the next morning I woke up, and I had this horrible flat, heavy cotton, bottle green curtain, it was disgusting when I think about it,) and I thought, right, because there’s a tree opposite and we had a red squirrel in the tree, which were very rare even back then. But I thought, if the squirrel is there I will be able to hear, if it’s not… Oh, no squirrel. So I hate squirrels. So we had hospital appointments, blah, blah, blah, nobody could work out why I was deaf. But they agreed I am deaf. So I got my first little hearing aid, little box hearing aid. And, you know, you had to have a pouch thing. And I’m very particular about colours, I can only wear two colours, you see.
So my mum, bless her heart, had to make all these pouches to match all my dresses. And nobody tells you how to be deaf. So I just went straight back to school and I thought, oh – I mean, I had to teach myself to lip read, teach myself how I was going to cope in the class with teachers walking up and down. I always had to sit next to someone who had good handwriting, even if I didn’t like them, I had to sit next to them. Because I would just be… (imitates writing while looking to the right) So in my school books all my writing is like that, because I’m not looking at what I’m doing, they’re hilarious.
Bethan:
How do you think it’s impacted the career that you chose?
Jenny:
Oh well, it’s a twofold thing really. I would not be at Graeae if I wasn’t deaf, because Graeae is around opportunities for deaf and disabled people. So I do have this ongoing nightmare that I’m in the office at Graeae and I’m on the phone and I’m chatting away, having a great conversation, all of the staff come in and go, “Jenny, you can hear!” (Laughter) And I have to pack my stuff and leave. And it’s an awful nightmare. But if I wasn’t deaf I wouldn’t be at Graeae.
Graeae is all about giving deaf and disabled people opportunities in theatre and opportunities to lead. It’s the most extraordinary job. In the eighties it was a really good time to be different, because those small companies really understood that they needed to embrace and wanted to embrace real diversity. So being deaf wasn’t a barrier, it was like, yeah, we actively want to give those opportunities to others. So I worked for half moon young People’s Theatre, Theatre Centre, Red Ladder. I auditioned about a million times for Nottingham Roundabout, but they never gave me a job. But much later I did a lot of projects in special schools around Nottinghamshire, so I did work for Roundabout.
So actually for me it wasn’t a barrier. But I didn’t have – my very first acting job though was with Graeae. And I will never forget that audition. Walking into this room full of women, it was a women’s play, people who were deaf, blind, no legs, guide dogs, white sticks, wheels, this plethora of difference. It was extraordinary. And I suddenly though, ah, I’m home, this is where I finally belong. It was just amazing. I got the job. Terrible play, but what an education.
And the tour was all over the country, sometimes in inaccessible spaces. So we refused, this radical group of women, we refused to do a play in an inaccessible space, and instead we did a [floor 0:09:22] piece for the audience arriving, saying, “We can't get in there.” I mean, why the hell the administrators of Graeae ever booked us into an inaccessible space I do not know. Then years later I go back as the Artistic Director.
Bethan:
That’s lovely, yeah. Where’s your own personal journey into the industry?
Jenny:
I think I still have the same ambition, I need to make sure I have enough money coming in to pay for a roof over my head, pay for my nice coffee, I’m a real coffee snob. And beer, but that’s less important now. So in terms of being massively ambitious, I don’t think I was massively ambitious but I wanted to work. And being at those small companies, because of the hard real political undercurrent of how they were formed or what they were about, it was like, oh my God, this is heaven on earth, and this is what I want to do.
You know, at Half Moon, because I was there for five years, it meant we could go to see little ones. Then we’d see them a few years later when they were a bit older, we started a journey with those young people. Theatre in education, bring it back. It was the most important work ever, being in schools, taking theatre to kids who can't afford or may never get that experience. And to really spend time with them. I think that’s when I realised, the TV and all that stuff, I’m not actually interested in this, I want to be a person that makes theatre or does theatre for people that matter [with politics and care 0:11:05].
Bethan:
That is absolutely amazing. Can you tell me about any training that you’ve had?
Jenny:
Apart from Middlesex Poly, no, I’ve had no training of how to be a director. I am one of these people that makes up life as it goes along. I think so many women have imposter syndrome and I really do have that. I think one day someone’s going to find me out. I only know four Shakespeare’s. I’m so embarrassed. So there’s loads of plays that I don’t know. And how to manage and run a company, I am just making it up. (Laughter)
Bethan:
When did you first realise that you were good at directing?
Jenny:
I was seven months’ pregnant with Jonah, and there was a little tiny, tiny weeny advert in the Stage paper, Interplay Theatre Company, based in Armley Leeds, were looking for a trainee director. And it was just a six week contract. I thought, oh, I like that. So I applied, got it and sat on a beanbag, because I was massive, sat on a beanbag and watched John Palmer direct this play called Dream Kitchen.
And it was watching him do things, I was thinking, oh, I don’t think that’s the right story, I would do it like this… And it was that thought process, I thought, oh, maybe I could do this. And what an amazing man. As soon as baby out, I did some work with Gazebo Theatre Company devising something and then Interplay asked me back. And John gave me two of my own shows to do. And all of their work is hugely multisensory for young people with profound and multiple impairments so you have to think on every single level of how you're going to communicate.
So we did the Tempest, which remains my favourite play ever, and a beautiful play by Mike Kenny called Stepping Stones about mothers and daughters and independence. So how lucky was I to have that as a training ground. And it’s from there that I got the confidence to apply for the Graeae job. But all my trainee assistant directors I say to them, “You won't learn from me what I do well, you will learn from watching me thinking, oh God, why’s Jenny doing that? That’s not going to work. That’s when you know that you could do it better.”
Bethan:
What qualities do you think makes a good director?
Jenny:
I think there has to be a level of transparency that I don’t know everything. You know, I’m one of these directors that hate sitting round the table. I don’t know how to do it. I’ve got the books, I’ve read the books, I don’t get it. I think it’s boring. But it’s a really good way of working for many, many actors. But for me it’s like, get on the floor, play around. And I’ll see something and go, “Right, I like that bit, that bit, that works. How did that feel character wise?” And we play and we find out about the characters through that.
So I think I like to collaborate but I also know that I have to be the person that stops, because potentially it could go on for like five hundred hours. You have to keep control of the big picture. So I think the best thing is to be collaborative, and to give space for actors to find the journey themselves and to do their homework.
Bethan:
What drives you to do your job?
Jenny:
Oh, the absolute inequality that’s out there for deaf and disabled people. That’s what gets me to work every day, to try and make the world a better place. For our little young company they’re saying, “Jenny, I want to go to RADA, I want to go wherever,” yes, they have absolutely every right, but drama schools are not ready yet. I’ve been working with drama schools for twenty years to try and get them to think about the wider picture. So we’ve got our own little training thing, I’ve got seven new students, artists. And I want the world for them, I really, really do. Because Graeae was founded because there was no opportunities for Nabil Shaban when he decided he wanted to be an actor. Theatre directors to his face said, “Oh, someone who looks like you, no, we can't you have on our stage. You’d put the audience off.” I mean…
So, you know, what you could do back then was go to the Arts Council and say, “Right, I’ve got an idea for a theatre company for deaf and disabled people, can I have some money?” Boom, and off he went. And the mission statement in 1981 when the company was founded is exactly the same as it is in 2020. We’ve made a lot of change. Derby Theatre got a complete integrated cast for Treasure Island. The Ramps on the Moon work in an inclusive way, the RSC, the National, the Globe, they’re all starting to think about it. Which is brilliant, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
Bethan:
Yeah. If you had to choose, what three words would you use to describe your job?
Jenny:
That’s a really hard question, for someone who talks a lot. Challenging. Political. Awesome.
Bethan:
Yeah, I agree with that. What is the difference between being a director and being an artistic director?
Jenny:
I don’t really know. An artistic director oversees the artistic whole of the company. So it’s about what happens with the young company, what happens with the ensemble, what happens with the new writers, playwriting. I have to oversee and get my hands stuck into all aspects of the company and deliver an artistic overview. I suppose strategy, I hate that word, but it’s what we want to do and then how are we going to do it. And who are we missing? Because we haven't done enough with deafblind people, we haven't done enough with Changing Faces, we’ve got a lot of people that we still haven't embraced. So it’s about how they are all part of our artistic future. Being a Chief Executive means I have to know where the finances are. I’m not very good at that, but I’ve got a very, very good financial director.
Bethan:
What do you struggle most with in directing?
Jenny:
Finding a way of how – because I have interpreters with me, in rehearsal, I have to. So it’s about finding what the communication is for the performance and for me. So if I’ve got deaf actors, the interpreter’s working for the deaf actors and they’re working for me, so we have to organise the room. I think because at Graeae, our aesthetic is how do we have signing, captioning, audio description woven into the heart of every production. And every play is different. It has to be the play that informs you how to create the access, not put access on it. So it’s inside, it’s probably inside out rather than outside on, if you know what I mean. And that is hard. It’s really, really hard to get it right. We haven't made the most accessible play yet, we are on a mission to do it. Because every deaf and blind person has a different viewpoint of how access should be.
Bethan:
Yeah. What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a director?
Jenny:
I’d be a cleaner. I’m brilliant at it. I cleaned all the way through college, and I love laundry. So I might work in a launderette.
Bethan:
Is there anyone who gave you your big break or who championed you?
Jenny:
I think John Palmer, Interplay. He was the one that gave me some plays to play around with, that gave me the confidence to direct. And David Johnston, the lovely late Dave Johnston, who was the – he used to be at Theatre Centre and then he was at Roundabout. And he was my mentor, because I’d go to him with anything, my insecurities, my wibbles, all the rest of it. And David would just roll his eyes and say, “Right, come on, Sealey, get a grip.” And it was he who said – I went to him with the Graeae job and I said, “Oh, I can't do that, I can't do that, I can't do that,” he said, “Jenny, you go for it.” And he really, really pushed me. As did my partner at the time. But if it hadn’t been for Dave, DJ, I might not have gone for that job and then my whole life would be different.
Bethan:
That’s really inspiring. When did theatre become your career?
Jenny:
I’ve been at Graeae for twenty-two years. I left Middlesex in 1986, cleaned two pubs, worked behind a bar for two or three years in between some little acting jobs with Graeae, [0:21:15] and all the rest of it. Then Half Moon for five years. So I suppose theatre directing big time was when Jonah was born, so that was 1994. So I started directing in 1994.
Bethan:
Yeah. What gave you the confidence to pursue this as a career?
Jenny:
I’m still trying to find that. I am not a confident person. But I think because – I had a board meeting the other day and when I’m in a board meeting I go to pieces. I struggle to talk about the work, I babble. So my board have suggested I have some coaching. I mean, I’ve been at Graeae for twenty-two years, you’d think… But you are only as good as your last job, if you know what I mean. So I think that terror that it’s all going to go tits up is – I’m not saying that I’m not confident, obviously I have a level of confidence, but I’m also constantly terrified that it’s all going to go tits up. But I think all of us are like that because you never know what’s round the corner. But that’s good, it gives you a sort of adrenaline, you have to keep going. Do you know what I mean?
Bethan:
Yeah, I completely understand that. What’s been the biggest setback in your career?
Jenny:
Setback? Oh. I mean, there was a time when we had a report done, I can't remember why we had a report done, but basically this HR person came to talk to all the staff about the structure of the company, what wasn’t going right and all the rest of it. And it ended up being a character assassination of me. It was like some members of staff gave me a vote of no confidence. It was horrible. And my partner at the time was so very sick, very, very sick. I just remember going to him and saying, “Please, Dan, please could you just read this, tell me what I have to do.” And I gave it to him to read and he went – it was sour grapes, it wasn’t – it was coming from a bad place and they were wrong.
And he said, “What do you think you need to do?” I said, “I need to resign, don’t I?” He went, “I think you do.” So I handed in my resignation but the board wouldn’t accept it. That’s happened twice. So that’s very reassuring. But that was a real setback. And actually recently, we’ve had some hard times with our board, and that’s really knocked me for six. So I’m so lucky that my staff allow me to ball it, be vulnerable, say I want to give up and they just bam, they group and they hold me. They are amazing. And let me be crap. Over a period of time they’ll be saying, “Come on, Jen, get over yourself,” and support me, because they say, “We need you to lead. So please can you come back and be our leader?”
So that’s been – things that have – I don't know what I’m saying here really. But that ability to be vulnerable in an organisation is very powerful. So many people can't, so I do feel very lucky.
Bethan:
How do you cope with these setbacks?
Jenny:
Not very well. I’ve said it in my answer in a way, I just go underground, but I’m allowed to. And then I go into this huge panic about, oh my God, you know, I am seriously worried about what is Graeae’s unique selling point, because everyone is taking our aesthetics and playing around it and doing some amazing work. So if that’s out there, then is there a need for Graeae? That keeps me awake at night. I like to think, yes, there is, but we might have to reposition ourselves as a company.
How do I cope? I probably drink too much, probably cry a lot. But I’m a stubborn old bugger as well and I like a fight, I like a challenge. I’m not scared of conflict really. So I just have pick myself up and go, right, come on, Sealey, go for it.
Bethan:
It’s just so interesting to hear. What do you enjoy most about your job?
Jenny:
What part of my job do I enjoy the most? Oh, directing plays. I hate being in the office doing typey-typey – I’m not very good at that. I love being in a rehearsal room. And I love being in schools. I’ve got a new schools project, I’m doing monologues with a special school – I hate calling them special schools but, you know… And half the group are nonverbal communicators, so we are redefining what the monologue is. It doesn’t have to be words, or spoken words. And they are just glorious, smart people. I love being there. Being here today, talking to you, anything that’s not in the office I think (laughs).
Bethan:
What isn't quite so good about your job?
Jenny:
Oh, numbers, budgets, hate it. I can set a budget and I can spend the money but trying to do what my finance director does and reconciling. I think I’m dyslexic actually when it comes to numbers. I’m not just saying that. I just look at budgets or variations about whatever it is and I glaze over. So my interpreters when I’m in finance meeting, my interpreters can see my face just glaze over. So they start to sign about something completely different to wake me up. It’s very good. Focus! (Laughter).
Bethan:
Can you tell us a bit more about the work that Graeae makes?
Jenny:
Graeae was set up forty years ago to readdress the balance or imbalance that there were no opportunities on stage for deaf and disabled people. And when it first started out it went to very small scale theatres. And we still do that. But now more of the bigger reps, they have made their buildings backstage more accessible, so we have much more opportunities to grace the stage – graced diverse stages across the country.
We develop new writers, deaf and disabled new writers. We develop actors and directors. We work in London, nationally and internationally. I’ve got a massive project in Japan next month but because of the coronavirus I don’t know whether I’ll be able to go. But it’s taking three UK disabled artists, two Bangladesh artists and five Japanese artists, and we’re doing the Tempest, because it’s the only Shakespeare I actually really like.
And having that opportunity to work across three different languages – or it’ll be six different languages, Japanese sign language is completely different from English, BSL, completely different from Bangla. So it’s like, oh! And I really want to go, I really want to do it. Because we’ve been developing it for two years and I’m also training up a Bangladeshi director and two Japanese directors, disabled people. Because we think that we haven't got enough opportunities here, in Japan and in Bangladesh, still very, very little opportunity. So I’m on a mission.
Bethan:
It’s wonderful you're doing that. You were joint artistic director in the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in 2012, how did that job come about?
Jenny:
That was one of the most incredible fourteen months of my life. It was the hardest thing, apart from childbirth, it was one of the hardest things I think I’ve ever done. But I found out that another company, a nondisabled theatre company, had got the job. So I went to see the head of the ceremonies. But he didn’t know that I knew that this other company had got the job. And I just kept saying, “Oh, I hope the work will go to a deaf and disabled artist, there’s lots of us around who could lead this. And I think because we’ve got the Paralympic sport we need to match that with the excellence of disabled people.” And he said, “Oh no, no, we’ve got a nondisabled company doing it, do you think – will you work with them?” I said, “We will, of course we will, I want opportunities for my artists. I’ve set up circus training, we’re prepared.” But I think what a shame, what a missed opportunity.
Although I was in Japan on the underground and my phone went, that company had pulled out and Martin was asking Bradley and I whether we wanted to go for an interview to become joint artistic directors. We had six brutal interviews, oh God, they put us through the mill, they really did. And finally when they said that we could get the job Martin took Brad and I out for a drink. But we were just like… Cheers, well done.
And we had five weeks to come up with our narrative because the government were about to go on holiday. So we had to have Jeremy Hunt and Boris and all of them, we had to tell our story. And we’d gone for something, we used enlightenment as our theme, and equality. And used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as our foundation. I just remember Boris going, “Oh, it’s a bit clever, isn't it?” Well, what do you want? You know, we’re not going to do the Teletubbies. I mean, some of the other Paralympic ceremonies have been so juvenile. And it’s like, no, no way, we are going to tell a story, it’s going to be political, it’s about rights, and we are going to populate our field of play with as many deaf and disabled people, and really embrace diversity in its wider sense.
And we did. And we trained up forty-four deaf and disabled artists in circus skills and they were part of our professional team. My Miranda was Nickie Wildin, wheelchair user. And Ian McKellen loved her. And we had Stephen Hawking. Lizzie Emeh, learning disabled songstress, so she was part of the warmup act and then she sang I Am What I Am with Beverley Knight right at the end. We got the people we wanted. It was amazing. And at the end there’s a photograph of me, I was just like that, and it’s my facial expression is exactly the same as when I’d just given birth to Jonah. It’s really weird. Oh God, it really did feel like giving birth, it was hard. Because we were the only disabled people in the whole of the operations team. So we had to be a stuck record about what we wanted. I cried a lot with frustration really, but I had the most fantastic team of interpreters with me, so felt supported. So access wasn’t an issue, it was just getting everyone on message.
So there were two brilliant moments when the captioning guy said, “Can I play around artistically?” I said, “Yes, please, that’s what we want you to do.” So he created beautiful captions. Then I was walking across the field of play and this guy with a big roll of rope and Gaffa, whatever, and I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m just marking out the area for the navigation section,” because we had quite a lot of blind performers in there, so that they had the rope on the floor so they could navigate. They didn’t have to be held or dragged on, they could navigate their way and they knew what their dance pattern was because of the rope. I didn’t have to tell them to do that, they just knew that they had to do it. So little things like that, you think, yes! Small wins. But every day Bradley and I had to choose our battles. But my mum still wants to know when I’m going to get a proper job. So this feels a bit like therapy actually.
Bethan:
It’s absolutely amazing to hear the stories. What were the biggest challenges of the ceremony?
Jenny:
As a woman, it was dealing with so many blokes. God, it was so hard. The main producer was a fantastic woman called Catherine Ugwu, she was on the floor with us, she was amazing. And I went to her and I said, “Catherine, that bit of the choreography with [the sound thing 0:36:07], this is what needs to happen.” She said, “Yes, well, tell the team.” I said, “I have been telling the team until I am blue in the face, they are not listening to me.” So in one of the big production meetings at 3AM in the morning after a dress rehearsal, there was about forty people around the table, terrifying, Catherine said, “Oh, and that bit, blah, blah, blah, blah, that needs to happen.” And my team went, “Oh yeah, oh Catherine, absolutely.” And then she looked at me, “Jenny, was there anything else you wanted me to add to that?” To let them know that I’d gone to her with the idea but they weren’t bloody listening.
So she really put them in their place. But she kept saying to me, “For God’s sake, grow a pair, Jen, stop being so urgh, stand up for what you want.” She was – everybody talks about inspirational women, she was actually phenomenal. And Jude Kelly is another phenomenal woman. So just dealing with blokes. Men like it to be their idea. So I became very clever at getting my ideas in and making them think that it was their idea. It was exhausting. (Laughter)
Bethan:
What was your greatest moment with the ceremony?
Jenny:
Oh God, there’s so many. So many moments. We were told that we had absolutely zero money for a real firework display, but they didn’t tell us, on the actual night the fireworks were incredible, they’ve kept that a secret from us, which was really, really lovely. Being in a tiny little sound studio with Beverley Knight, she was saying, “Right, Jen, this is my wedding pictures, what do you think? Oh, for a song, I’m thinking about…” and she just blasted out the first bit of I Am What I Am, in this tiny room, she’s got a massive voice. And I’m like, wow!
But I think the ceremony was incredible. But some of the personal journeys, one of my circus artists, this young man called Stephen Bunce arrived first day of training – and actually signed in Buncey because he always wore a satchel thing. He wouldn’t – he’s a double amputee, he had meningitis when he was eleven, he’s got some fingers missing as well, body’s scarred. And terrible back story with his family. But he wouldn’t show anybody his prosthetics. My army boys who’ve lost their limbs through war were much more confident, taking legs off, get up on the trapeze and all the rest of it.
Then one say someone went, “Jen, look, look.” Buncey came in and he’d shorts. And a bit later on he was up on the trapeze, his legs off. And then he had his sway pole test and he climbed up the top of the pole, double amputee, climbed up, slotted himself into the very, very tight buckled round your legs, so basically he is floating in air. And he came down, and Grant, who was the sway pole director, “You know, you could be a sway pole performer.” Buncey balled it and said, “I’d never dare go swimming with my stump because of my body,” all this stuff, but his confidence, you know, that personal story of him just really owning who he is. And he’s still a good friend and I’m still always there to back him up. He’s amazing. So those stories are the ceremony.
And the fact that my friend who lives in Greece phoned me up, he said, “I’ve just watched the ceremony, Jen…” texted me, said, I’ve just watched the ceremony and the broadcaster was saying, “Oh my God, I have never seen so many disabled people in something.” We in Greece we’ve got all these statues of people with no arms, but we do not talk about disability. And here, disability is in our face, it’s glorious. So things like that, you go, oh my God! And I suppose a moment was the next day when we were on the front page of every single newspaper. Even the Daily Mail had got it, that’s a win.
Bethan:
I’d like to talk about the changes in the industry for women. Have you noticed anything?
Jenny:
There has been a lot of change. About time, you know. We have Indhu at the Kiln, Vicky Featherstone at Royal Court, and Vicky Featherstone was at the National Theatre of Scotland. Women are out there, taking the jobs and having that thing about putting more women on the – writers and plays about women. So there’s less fear. I mean, it’s a good time to be a woman in theatre.
We’ve still got a lot to do. It was so ridiculous. The National announcing their programme and you look down, it’s all men. They were very shamefaced about that. So they’ve got to do quite a lot to really, really embed some proper politics within the organisation. But a lot’s changing. What we still need though is more lighting designers, more women in the technical side of theatre.
Bethan:
Yeah. What are the advantages of being a woman in your role?
Jenny:
Oh blimey, oh, I don’t know how to answer that. I think the advantages, I think women are much better communicators then men. We are more transparent and we work with our intuition and guts. And we’re not afraid to do that. So I think that’s what makes us better directors, dare I say that. But I think there is something that we have, that glorious intuition, that makes – yeah, I think that’s an advantage.
Bethan:
What are the disadvantages of being a woman in your role?
Jenny:
Because men think they’re better than us. So constantly having to just keep our heads above the parapet. Keep your head up. I think that, it’s hard. I feel like we’re constantly having to run a campaign for equality. And when it all came out about the gender pay gap, it was like shocking, shocking. So we’ve got stuff to do.
Bethan:
We’ve spoken a bit about the theatre as a place for women, but can you tell us a bit about the industry for deaf and disabled artists?
Jenny:
I mean, that is changing, because of twenty years of Graeae campaigning and Graeae doing big shows like the Threepenny Opera, where other reps were all sort of, wow, you know, we’re not – what’s the word, dumbing down the quality. This is good theatre. Reasons to Be Cheerful, by Ian Dury, punk musical, it’s good theatre. So people’s eyes have opened, oh, maybe we too can employ these people.
So they are out there. And deaf actors are hugely in demand, which is great, but I think everyone’s a bit like, oh my God, sign language, it’s so beautiful. That irritates me a little bit because there are a lot of other differently impaired actors that need a chance as well But there is work now. And that’s the message I keep saying to the drama schools, it is worth training us, because there are jobs. So many drama schools say there’s not enough plays written with disabled characters. It’s like, that’s not the point. Shakespeare didn’t say that Juliet was or was not a wheelchair user or deaf or blind. So come on.
So one of the things that we are really trying to challenge is companies cripping up. You never, ever black up, so why do you crip up? At the moment, our big battle is with The Old Vic, because Alan Cummings is playing a blind wheelchair user in End Game. It’s like, did you try and find a blind actor or a wheelchair user to play that part? But because we haven't got any stars, we haven't got any names, apart from Liz Carr on Silent Witness, those theatres said, “Oh no, we need a name to sell the seats.”
And I keep saying but acting is about being somebody else so you can play a disabled person, but not – at the moment, not until there’s absolutely parity on the stages and we are employed as much as nondisabled people, then we can think about how we cast and [divvy up 0:45:50] the roles.
Bethan:
Would you say it’s progressive?
Jenny:
It is progressing. It is progressing. But we need training. All the thing will be is if there’s a massive hole in training that the new generation don’t come through. So the older lot who’ve been around a long time, most of them have had – been part of Graeae, they’re good. They’re professional and they’re good. But we need the younger lot to be pushed through to get to that standard, so that we can keep the journey progressing.
Bethan:
What would you say is the biggest thing that needs to change?
Jenny:
Drama schools. Drama schools need to train us. At the moment, our ensemble is we’re supported by Rose Bruford who really understands it. And all the tutors for ensemble are from the drama schools. So it’s like a twofold thing that those tutors who are terrified about disability get a chance to work with our lot, realise how they can change and adapt some of their teaching practice, so it’s really inclusive. So it’s a two way thing. We get brilliant tuition, they are brilliant teachers. But the next stage has to be that they have more than one disabled person on a course. At the moment it’s one wheelchair user on the acting course at RADA, one on the stage management. What? Come on.
Bethan:
If you had a magic wand and you could change one thing in the industry, what would it be?
Jenny:
Well, at the moment the whole thing that’s really impacting terribly on deaf and disabled people is access to work, putting a cap on the provision. And PIP, personal independence payments. Two of my ensemble have had their care packages cut. It might mean for one of them that they have to go back and live in a hospital, because they need two support workers 24/7, and they’ve cut their – 60%. We’re involved in a campaign at the moment. They are the most brilliant young artist. And a lot of my other performers have had their mobility cars taken so they can't come to work. It’s horrendous what the government are doing. If I could magic that access and payments would not be an issue, everyone has what they need. It’s heart-breaking, it really is.
Bethan:
I completely agree with your political view on that. What would you say is your greatest achievement?
Jenny:
My biggest achievement is being at Graeae for twenty-two years, it’s extraordinary, a) that they’ve allowed me to stay that long (laughs). When people say about the ceremony, “Oh, that must be the best thing you’ve ever done,” it’s like, well, it’s one of many things I’ve done, and I can't say that’s – every play is different, every play is a challenge, every play takes you on a new journey. So they’re all achievements. Some are better than others. I don't know what my biggest achievement is. I suppose having a child and being a working mum is always an achievement, juggling all those things. I think I am incredibly proud when I go and see someone who’s in a different play. Like last night seeing Oliver, seeing three people who’ve all come through Graeae, well done for that. Seeing how we’ve impacted on the industry, that is massive.
Bethan:
Yeah. Is there a production that you're most proud of?
Jenny:
I’m proud of – we did The Fall of the House of Usher. And I didn’t have any money to have it audio described or signed, so my board said, “You’ve got to do it though, Jen.” So I had to be really resourceful. And Steven Berkoff has written more stage directions than texts, you know, in the wonderfully pretentious way that Steven Berkoff does. So I wrote to him and said can I use the text for stage directions as audio description, spoken by the actors? He said that’s a really good idea. And I pre-recorded all the sign language with a deaf actor, so that was projected onto this mirror above the bed which was the main set, which I designed to save money.
That play, where all the signing was – so it was simultaneously signed and audio described by the actors, so we did it in all, nothing was added on. That play changed the face of Graeae forever. That’s when we realised, oh my God, this works, this is exciting, this is different. So Usher will always be, wow, I loved that play. And then Blasted was an amazing experience. Because everything that Sarah Kane wrote in round brackets I thought it was supposed to function as lines. But my blind co-director, Alex, who’d worked on it before said, “No, they’re audio description, Jen, we can say them live.” So we did. And again, that was another game changer for Graeae.
Bethan:
Obviously, you’ve done so much in your career, but what do you feel like you have left to do?
Jenny:
Oh God, stuff. I want to direct an opera. I want to be the first deaf opera director at the Royal Opera House. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but – the opera will happen but whether it’s at the Royal Opera House, probably not. So opera. We’ve never done anything at the Barbican. I have never done anything at the National. Amit Sharma, my associate, had his play on at the National, The Solid Life of Sugar Water, a Graeae production, brilliant.
Nickie Wildin, my associate director, is Rufus Norris’ protégé and he keeps saying to me, “I’m interested in Nickie, Jen.” I keep saying, “But Rufus, it’s on my bucket list.” Not interested. So I need to just get over myself on that one. I do want to really, really push the agenda with deafblind performers, of how we work that. I did a project in Moscow with deafblind actors and that happened here. And it’s a whole other landscape of exploration. So I’ve got stuff.
And I also want to do some work with the little ones. I’ve got my own solo show that I’m doing, but that’s sort of aside of Graeae. On a Saturday, my little, tiny company, a women’s collective, called Where’s My Vagina, is doing a universal declaration of the vagina. Got twenty-eight new declarations – well, twenty-nine actually, and some stories from some of the women interspersed, so we’re doing that at WOW. So stuff to do.
Bethan:
Yeah, a lot of stuff to look forward to. How do you suggest a young person like us can get into the industry?
Jenny:
How do young people get into… I think join a youth theatre. Really, really important. Some of the best actors out there went to youth theatre, and I wish to God that they would always put it in their bio, because it’s really important. And I think it’s so upsetting when so many theatres, when they’re having to restructure or make cuts, they cut the youth theatre. No, youth theatre’s better than drama schools really. You get so much more diversity in – and you're allowed to play and explore.
But so many youth theatres are not accessible for deaf and disabled people, and that really need to change. So go to youth theatre, see a lot of work, if you can. Go and see things at tiny, tiny theatres, go and see something in a massive theatre. Start to know what sort of theatre you like. And read plays. And try and write plays. Just immerse yourself in the whole world. And because it’s a brutal, brutal profession, the rejection, you need to learn how to build your resilience. You have to have so much uh to get through it.
Bethan:
What advice would you give your younger self?
Jenny:
I knew this sort of question would come up. I wish at the age of seven I was brave enough to say, “I’m deaf.” I didn’t say I was deaf until I was twenty-three. I got through life by nodding and trying to lip read. My education is pants. I’ve got so many gaps. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, I’ve got a forest around academia and education, because mine was rubbish. So that’s what I would say, “Jen, be brave, say you are deaf, it’s all right.” That would be my advice.
Bethan:
Yeah. Before we end the interview, is there anything that I haven't asked you that you’d like to talk about?
Jenny:
No, I don't think so. They’re good questions. Hard. So thank you. You're a very nice interviewer.
Bethan:
It’s been so fascinating talking to you.