Julie McNamara: the firebrand who rose from the ashes…

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Julie McNamara is an artist, performer, writer, activist and Artistic Director of London-based theatre company Vital Xposure. Joe Turnbull talks to her about her extensive career and the experiences that have shaped it.

Julie McNamara handling meat

Julie McNamara in Pig Tales

Julie McNamara is as much an activist and agitator as she is an artist. Growing up in an Irish family in Liverpool she learned to use humour, as much to diffuse situations as to entertain.

“When I could see they were getting violent, I would make jokes and play the clown – constantly trying to keep them amused to distract them from the tension. I learned politics around the dinner table. I didn’t learn to be aware or astute, but to be politically assertive. And I learned conflict intervention at a very early age.”

Her pre-Vital Xposure shows Pig Tales and Pig’s Sister had autobiographical elements which explored some of these fraught family dynamics. But these experiences clearly set her in good stead to tackle bigger conflicts. McNamara’s work has included advocacy in contested spaces, such as a fundraising tour of Rebel Without a Clue for the Women’s Support Network in Ulster and on reconciliation projects in Bosnia.

But she credits her performing bow to something a bit more benign. It was the mid-70s and McNamara was parked outside the Punch and Judy Café in Liverpool – where the Beatles wrote ‘Hey Jude’ – selling ice cream in the street, “It’s street theatre isn’t it? Plus, I’m selling ice cream,” she says in her unmistakable cheeky but chirpy scouse lilt. “The first bit of funding I ever got was from Cheshire Maid ice cream, it funded a road safety show, because kids kept getting run over by ice cream vans!”

More than 40 years later, and she’s Artistic Director of a disabled-led Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. But both the crown and the funding lie heavy:

Julie McNamara and Judy Coutinho

Julie McNamara with Judy Coutinho in ‘Rebel Without a Clue’

“I never wanted to run a company, but the Arts Council were no longer funding individual theatre-makers. I had to become part of a company and I thought ‘who would take me on?’ I looked at Graeae as ‘the national theatre for Deaf and disabled people’, but their remit was to work with sensory and physical impairments. It was not by or for learning-disabled people or survivors of the mental health system. So, I set up Vital Xposure with those two groups in mind. I feel strongly that they are the two sections of society that are regularly left off the agenda.”

McNamara has cast learning-disabled actors in productions including Steak and Chelsea Out to Lunch, Hold the Hearse and Pullen’s Party, with the latter’s subject matter, James Henry Pullen a man diagnosed as an ‘idiot’ who became known as ‘The Genius of Earlswood Asylum’.

Rachel High and Julie McNamara

Rachel High alongside Julie McNamara in Steak and Chelsea Out to Lunch

McNamara is instinctively distrusting of institutions. It’s perhaps no surprise, given that she herself spent time in care and in mental health institutions – both what she describes as ‘locked in spaces’. The impact of those experiences on both her life and the work she makes can’t be overstated. McNamara is outspoken, even brash at times. But she is fierce and vehement in using that voice for those unable or excluded from using their own.

“I began working with people in prisons, people on the periphery, disavowed voices. I celebrate the stories of those people. Basically, I’m a storyteller.”

The Knitting Circle, which McNamara describes as probably her ‘life’s work’ and one of her proudest achievements, is a perfect example. Originally a theatre show, and now the subject of a film ‘Voices from the Knitting Circle,’ it tells the forgotten and untold stories of women who were scandalously locked up without trial in the so-called ‘long care’ system of asylums, as recently as the 1980s.

Production shot of the Knitting Circle

The Knitting Circle

“I lived and worked in Harperbury hospital, where I based the Knitting Circle. Once you’ve been inside there it gives you a very different view of the world. The reason I am most proud of the Knitting Circle, is the voices of people who engaged. I had 72 people give me their life stories and I had to make a composite piece from that.”

“I’ve got three whistle-blowers in the film who were members of staff. I’ve got former patients – one of whom is now an activist – she can’t be named as she is under protected identity. But she is the reason there are no women patients in Broadmoor anymore.”

“They’ve been incredibly brave and outspoken about their lives and stories. I’m really proud of their courage, of what they’ve gifted us. I’m proud to be able to say we’ve given them a space to tell their stories and we’ll push it out as far as we can, while some of them are still alive.”

She’s also deeply outspoken on racism, our conversation kicked off with a heart-wrenching story about a family member caught up in the whirlwind of the Windrush Scandal and threatened with deportation. Her 2009 play, Crossings explored contemporary issues around forced migration and the slave trade. It seems for every topic McNamara is outspoken on, she makes work on. The Butch Monologues was Vital Xposure’s 2017 production, and guess what, she’s a fierce advocate for LGBTQI+ rights.

Three actors in Vital Xposure's crossings

Vital Xposure’s ‘Crossings’

As sceptical as she is about institutions, McNamara is not averse to working within the belly of the beast, committing acts of subversion and subterfuge. This ranges in scale. From impersonating a solicitor on a lock-in ward to release a patient, to smuggling political messages on props into Vital Xposure’s gig at Liberty Festival:

“They won’t allow anything political at the Olympic Stadium. I sneaked the politics in on the props, attacking the current government’s austerity measures and its unfair weight upon the shoulders of disabled people.”

At the other end of the scale are much bigger and more unsavoury fish, like the Imperial Chemical Industry. She was artist-in-residence there in 2001 after having led a workshop with the wife of its Vice President.

“It was a deeply eccentric and very funny three months. I put on a suit to blend in. I would write poems and commentaries about their behaviour or decisions they made. They offered us £30,000 for the London Disability Film Festival but wanted their logo on the programme and the website. I said ‘we can’t do that. People will think we support the idea of you disabling people across the world.’ They agreed to our artists exhibiting in their HQ and we took the money anyway.”

McNamara co-founded the London Disability Film Festival with Caglar Kimonycu in 1998 and it ran for 10 years.

“I’m really proud of the Disability Film Festivals I set up with Caglar Kimyoncu because of how long it lasted. It took us around the world. We set up festivals in Vancouver and Toronto. At one point while we were running, we were connected to 55 disability film festivals across the planet. A lot of them have burned out like bright stars very swiftly.”

The cast of Pig's Sister

Pig’s Sister

From the outside looking in, McNamara seems like a stalwart of the UK’s Disability Arts movement. But she feels uncomfortable with this label.

“I’m not a stalwart, I’m a big mouth. There’s a massive difference. I think I’m a vociferous and outspoken advocate of Disabled and Deaf people. But I’m an outsider amongst outsiders. It’s become a closed group, in some ways. There’s a bunch of us who’ve been around for years and years and unless we open out to new blood and younger voices coming through, it will just peter out in its own little corner.”

“I will say it time and again, Deaf and Disabled people are the most creative innovators because every day we have to negotiate so much nonsense and barriers that you come up with solutions”.

McNamara and the rest of Vital Xposure have had to overcome a particularly big obstacle recently. Last year, a huge fire tore through their storage space in north London, leaving hundreds of artists bereft of their life’s work and Vital Xposure’s years of props, sets and archives in tattered ashes. One of the biggest losses was the mechanical puppet developed for their new production, Pullen’s Party.

“We lost everything. But most of all I lost heart. We had a series of things connected to the puppet that we had to cancel, including a tour. We lost partnerships and faith from some of those venues. Chas De Swiet our brilliant Executive Director handed in his notice that day. We had to rebuild the company.”

Pullen's Party

Adam Smith standing next to the Pullen’s puppet which was lost in the fire.

I ask McNamara if, like Disabled people navigating barriers, some great art can come out of this adversity. She becomes immediately enthused:

“I do. I was just heartbroken about the puppet because of what it means to me. I’d fallen in love with the original puppet in Langdon Down Museum, and the guy behind it, James Henry Pullen. They put him away for 66 years. He died in the asylum. I went and road-tested the new puppet recently. He’s leaner, meaner and faster. It’s a bit Brechtian because you can see the puppet’s being driven. It’s based on Pullen’s original designs and drawings – it’s quite true to that, except he’s got a fucking motor!”

There are performances on the horizon for Pullen’s puppet 3.0, with the learning disabled cast reprising their roles from the production that played at Liberty Festival last year. What’s more, Vital Xposure have funding secured for the immediate future. So, there’s reason for optimism.

“I sit in an interesting place. It’s a precarious position. We’ve just got four years funding as an NPO again. But I’m quite clear, I won’t change the way I work. It’s still about social justice. I’m still having a pop at this government. I’m not going to tone that down. But if they take the money away, so be it. If it all comes crashing down around my ears, I can always go back to flogging ice cream!”

Find out more about Vital Xposure and their upcoming productions by visiting their website.