Playwright Kaite O’Reilly published a collection of some of her plays with Oberon Books earlier this year, entitled ‘Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors’ (read a great review here). The five pieces featured in the book are all dealing with disability and/or illness, and two of them, In Water I’m Weightless and Cosy, were supported by Unlimited. To celebrate the release of this book, O’Reilly did a book launch event at the Southbank Centre London, part of this year’s Unlimited festival.
During the Q&A session that was part of the event, O’Reilly revisited the beginnings of her career, and it was fascinating to hear how from very early on, she had one foot firmly within disability arts (her first job after university was with Graeae), and the other in the mainstream, earning recognition through writing competitions. O’Reilly explained that as a student in the 1980’s, she caught the tail end of the punk movement. The DIY spirit present there was something that was also part of the disability rights movement and something that made her feel encouraged to explore and create. As her career moved on, O’Reilly sometimes had the opportunity to ‘crip’ mainstream productions and to work with companies and collaborators that supported her effort to put not only ‘crips into scripts’, but also to cast disabled actors in those roles.
The room was packed with many of the actors, directors and artists O’Reilly has collaborated with over the span of her decades-long career, and the playwright answered the audience’s questions with a lot of warmth and consideration. Many people wanted to know how it was possible to reconcile passionate activism and a successful career in an arts world that is often not very welcoming towards disabled artists and where equal opportunities are rare, and it was encouraging to hear O’Reilly talk about her experience around these themes.
For me, seeing O’Reilly’s play In Water I’m Weightless at the 2012 Unlimited festival was an eye-opening experience. For the first time in my life, I felt the sheer force and vitality of disability culture and I realised what disability can bring to any art form, as O’Reilly play had a distinct aesthetic informed by disability. Not only were the actors on stage, to use O’Reilly’s term, ‘atypical’, the play also opened up the question for me what a ‘typical spectator’ is, what kind of spectator is anticipated in the theatre and what our typical expectations of a performance are. A substantial part of my PhD research focuses on these questions and In Water I’m Weightless, and it’s a great joy to me that this collection was released this year, as it gives an opportunity to those of us who did not manage to see all of these works live to fully appreciate O’Reilly’s writing around disability and illness.
The plays are extremely varied in the bodies, characters or settings the feature and even in the form they have themselves, yet there are also some common themes that emerge and are explored from different angles, such as dependence and autonomy, femininity, sexuality and family. As a collection they give the reader a sense of O’Reilly’s distinct aesthetic, and provide an intriguing, thought-provoking and challenging reading pleasure. Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors is an important release for anyone interested in the possibilities that emerge when drama encounters disability (and vice versa), and as a huge fan of O’Reilly’s work I felt extremely proud to have my book signed by her.