Graeae Ensemble’s ‘Hurricane Protest Songs’ hits the head and the heart with one swift punch

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Graeae’s Ensemble of young theatre makers recently showcased a breakthrough production as part of the learning process, interweaving spoken word poetry, movement, music and storytelling. Review by Natasha Sutton-Williams

Black and white photo of a group of young people on stage

Graeae’s Ensemble. Image by Oliver Cross

Graeae’s Ensemble training programme has produced a group of dynamic, engaging and theatrical performers who have worked with leading disabled artists from across the globe to create Hurricane Protest Songs, a fusion of spoken word poetry, movement, music and storytelling. Like all Graeae productions, they have creatively integrated British Sign Language, captioning and audio description into the essence of the performance.

In this devised show the realm of the city is used as a jumping off point to investigate themes of isolation, friendship, loss, magic, the universe and importantly, our place in it. There is choreography and mime throughout as characters depict motorcycles rides, hurricanes and radio making workshops. Surreal images leap out through lyrical language to describe trees growing out of kitchen floors, and wasp’s nests above toilet cisterns.

There are moments of real beauty as one character describes his love of magic, explaining the intricacies of a three-stage trick and what is possible through the use of illusion. Fragments of a restless metropolis are captured as one character travels alone through the city, jealously taking account of the giggling mouths of girls passing by.

Poetic spoken word vignettes give shape to this interlocking narrative as characters from different frameworks collide with each other. Through the telling of this story what we find as an audience is that the characters are all asking the same thing: what is the meaning of our existence here on earth? Through the hour long show they come to the conclusion that what connects us is our hope for a better future, and that very future may just be within reach if we grasp for the stars in the darkness of the Milky Way.

A young man crouches low on the stage floor, whilst looking up

Ashton James Hicks performs as part of the Ensemble. Image by Oliver Cross

The effectiveness of the Ensemble training programme can be seen through the development of its students. Eight artists between 18-30 years old from diverse backgrounds with an interest in theatre have joined together to train in becoming professional theatre makers, utilising their pre-existing talents while developing new skills. The training programme’s aim is to tackle the lack of diversity in the industry and the barriers faced by the next generation of disabled theatre-makers head on. Graeae does this by giving students world class training with leading artists in the disciplines of Performance Technique, Theatre for Social Change, Approaches to Directing, Classical and Contemporary Text, Voice and Movement.

The Ensemble programme was launched in 2015. Since then Graeae has partnered with leading drama schools including RADA, LAMDA, Central and Rose Bruford to give the students support, backing and teaching from these prestigious dramatic institutes. Together they have created a strategic mission to create a diverse and inclusive environment where D/deaf and disabled artists can be recognised as part of the industry’s future of talented theatre makers.

A young woman smiles into a microphone

Awa performs as part of the Ensemble. Image by Oliver Cross

Jodi-Alissa Bickerton, the Creative Learning Director at Graeae and facilitator of the Ensemble programme is tired with the sluggish movement in the industry to welcome D/deaf and disabled artists into the spotlight, especially when their flair and faculties deserve to be recognised. That is why the Ensemble is so integral as a training programme and showcase. ‘Our Ensemble artists are pushing boundaries and stepping outside their comfort zone on a daily basis, in a bid to be seen, to be heard, to be taken seriously alongside their non-disabled peers.’

Since the last batch of Ensemble students graduated, they have gone on to train further in Acting for Screen and TV, secure funding for Research and Development projects, and assist with the essential change of embedding access into plays. Many of them are pursuing professional careers in theatre making and acting. This all proves the radical impact the Ensemble programme has had on these student’s careers and professional development.

There is no doubt that the talent and passion emanating from the current Ensemble students is going to sucker-punch the industry going forward. Their sterling devised work in shows like Hurricane Protest Songs is a hit to the head, the heart and the gut. Watch out for them.

Hurricane Protest Songs was performed at RADA Studios on 20 July and at Rich Mix on 25 July 2018. Click on this link to the website for more information about Graeae’s Ensemble artist development programme and how you can get involved.