Kerry Michael, director of Tommy: working through problems makes great theatre

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The Ramps on the Moon initiative – a consortium of six regional theatres plus Graeae Theatre Company – aims to reach out to disabled people as artists and as audiences. Joe Turnbull spoke to Director, Kerry Michael about the decision to tour a new adaption of the controversial Pete Townshend classic, Tommy.

The cast of Tommy

The cast of Tommy. Photograph: Ted Evans

The Ramps on the Moon consortium formed to shake up the institutional culture with regards to disability, not just at the participating theatres but across the theatre sector more generally. A task as bold, if only slightly more achievable, than the name suggests. Each partner will produce one show over the course of six years, which then tours to the other theatres. Tommy is New Wolsey’s production, directed by Stratford East’s Director, Kerry Michael.

“Stratford East was planning on doing Tommy anyway, and then we plugged into Ramps on the Moon and all the possibilities that might open up. New Wolsey were thinking about what they would do for their Ramps production, and so I approached them to do it. It shows good collaboration really; we all like each other and we all get on.”

It’s a slightly unusual set up, but it’s certainly encouraging to see such a large-scale collaborative project work in such a fluid fashion, perhaps testament to Ramps on the Moon being more than just a tick-box exercise for those involved.

“Ramps on the Moon is all about institutional change, best practice and shared knowledge. The good thing about us working together like this is all the learning isn’t monopolised by one institution”.

It’s fair to say the selection of Tommy to front one of the biggest disability-centric theatre initiatives in the country raised more than a few eyebrows amongst many in the disability arts world. I put this to Kerry.

I was aware of it being problematic. Obviously the ‘deaf dumb and blind’ thing, we would never use that language now. And the tragedy and victim narrative, all that stuff is interesting because when you look at it and think about why it is problematic now, and whether it was problematic then, you get to explore the social and political agenda and how that has changed.

The original concept album is a classic, but from today’s perspective might seem somewhat problematic. That’s why it’s intriguing to adapt it. By examining those problems and working through them, you can make great work.

Quite quickly there were two revelations that I got on top of. One was the ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’; firstly, he never identifies as that, it’s what other people impose upon him. Secondly, it was the language of the period. As long as you’re very clear about both of those things. The ‘dumb’ bit is him choosing not to talk using his voice, as opposed to him being unintelligent.

The other thing is, it’s 22 actors, singers, dancers, musicians of different kinds of abilities and also different kinds of perceived ‘abilities’ which reclaims labels and our perceptions of what is seen as ‘traditional’ or ‘normal’. You just completely blow it all up again.

I don’t think anyone sets out to be offensive with art. Part of the issue around when something is offensive, regardless of where it’s coming from, is if you don’t understand it. Actually, if you take the time to find out it’s like ‘oh that’s what you were trying to say – well it doesn’t come across’. You can then address that.”

Tommy rehearsals

Tommy rehearsals. Image © Richard Davenport

So that’s exactly what they did. Kerry met with Pete Townshend, the original writer of The Who’s Tommy concept album to discuss the potential of a remake and help to understand the original idea.

“We were encouraged to think Pete Townshend wouldn’t be too precious about us adapting Tommy, as he has given permission for it to be reworked several times. In fact, Pete was really excited at the prospect of giving this to an integrated cast of disabled and non-disabled people and what their take on it would be.

For 18 months prior to rehearsals, me and Paul Sirett, the dramaturg, worked on how to make the story clearer. We went back to Pete who wrote an original 30-page poem about where the inspiration came from. We read that and read other bits around the show, to understand what he was trying to do and fill in the gaps.”

The post-war setting for Tommy clearly provided fertile ground for exploring changes in attitudes and language, and not just English.

“There were a lot of conversations about how the BSL of today isn’t what it was in the ‘50s, the different vocabulary, the move from one hand to two. Then how do you put that into the choreography of the show and the period?

Associate Director, Nicola Miles-Wildin did a lot of work on three scenes in the piece when Tommy goes to be medically tested. She researched how young people with impairments were tested in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Choreographer, Mark Smith talked eloquently about what it was like as a deaf boy being tested for his hearing, in what seem like strange and archaic ways now. We put all that stuff in. For some people, it’s really moving because it reminds them of what it was like to be a person with impairments back then.”

The cast of Tommy.

The cast of Tommy. Photograph Ted Evans

Working with a huge cast and creative team of disabled and non-disabled people, and all the access requirements that entails would be a steep learning curve for most directors. Tommy is very much an atypical show. I’m intrigued how the experience differed to Kerry’s other directing roles.

“The mechanisms are the same but the specifics were very different. I’ve worked with disabled actors a fair bit; I’ve been casting disabled actors in our Christmas show for the last 8-10 years; we co-commissioned Reasons to be Cheerful with Graeae back in the day. But I’m by no means an expert. All of my creative team were new apart from my sound designer. But that’s because I like working with new people, it makes me work harder and not take short cuts. They all brought fresh opinions to it.

I haven’t so explicitly had to deal with the disability politics of it all. That was new. Quite rightly, everyone is very diverse within their diversity. Two D/deaf people are not going to have the same opinions about the type of interpretation they need. That’s great, everyone is different and no one person should be able to speak on behalf of a whole group of people. I’m a dyslexic Greek-Cypriot but that doesn’t mean I can say ‘all dyslexic Greek-Cypriot’s think this’.

It’s reconfirmed for me that the more diverse the people you work with and the audience you attract, the better the work has to be. Because you’re not just playing to the gallery. Having all those different kinds of people telling this difficult story, it becomes universal.

It’s reminded me of how important it is not to surround yourself with people who are like you. Surround yourself with people who are different and if you can all find a way through then it’s more exciting for everyone. Make things more complicated. Shake things up.”

The Government Inspector, the 2016 Ramps on the Moon production was nominated for an Olivier Award, but just fell short. I cheekily ask Kerry if he can go one better with Tommy and what the long-term impact of Ramps could be.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we got a West End transfer. If it transfers truly into the mainstream where people are paying top price tickets then everyone’s perceptions will change. When they get there, they’ll see a great show with great entertainment and it just so happens that the people putting on that show aren’t your ‘normal’ – whatever that means – talent for the West End. It will be based on it being a great show, not on it being inspiration porn. It’s not a case of ‘oh aren’t they good doing that’. It’s just a fucking amazing show with the best people we could find do it.

If we keep making great work, in five years’ time we won’t need Ramps. By all means, if you want to specifically celebrate what brings you together, do it. But there should be disabled-led work that happens to be in the mainstream – and disabled-led work that is about disability issues.”

Tommy is on at Birmingham Rep until 27 May, Theatre Royal Stratford East 7 – 17 June and Sheffield Theatres 22 June – 1 July.

Below is a film about the Arts Council England-funded Ramps on the Moon initiative, commissioned by the British Council: