Following on from my last blog post, I’ve continued to develop the staged reading of my short story, “Equivalence”. While receiving choreographic/movement mentorship from Claire Cunningham and Caroline Bowditch, I was also planning a film shoot at my new flat (uh-oh time to unpack!) with nine performers, a filmmaker and a BSL interpreter. 11 people for 2 days in 1 tiny room (and most on 1 tiny mattress!).
More on Claire and Caroline first: Anatomy Arts funded me, as part of my Associate Artist residency, to have some short mentorship sessions with two dancer-choreographers, to guide me in the movement sections of the staged reading (and film).
I’m downright bowled over by the invaluable advice I received from these two highly-skilled and knowledgeable women. On a basic level, it was overwhelming to realise that in all the dance classes, all the acting classes, all the voice classes, science classes, English and Spanish classes, ALL THE CLASSES I’ve ever taken, I had never been taught by another disabled person before. If I think too much about the gift that it’s been to work with Claire and Caroline, I get all weepy. There’s a specific and distinct value working with teachers from our communities. There is an implicit understanding, a privilege of getting to begin where you need to begin (instead of with educating, and gritting your teeth).
In my second session with Claire, we talked about the notion of being seen and the notion of performance. Visibly disabled people are often (always) watched by non-disabled people, and every mistake is blamed on disability (“Oh, they dropped their change! Poor thing!”). It can be a very uncomfortable part of being disabled to be watched in this way. Contrast this with the choice to be watched/seen that takes place in performance. It’s an invitation: choosing, allowing, giving permission to others to experience us. And there can be a choice to look back. “Observing the observer”, as Claire put it. She also asked the important question, “Why do you want this to be witnessed?”
Then we began to do work with my walking stick (my new one, Denzel), with me dropping it and balancing it and generally getting to know it quite well. This was also strangely emotional work for me. Realising just how intimately Claire knows her crutches made me realise what a stranger I am in many ways to my walking sticks and canes. Because I only need to use them sometimes (or can only use them sometimes because of arm and shoulder pain), I’ve had a mixed sort of relationship with them, and never gotten to know them as well as I should/could. They are invaluable as supports, but also not exactly part of me. Yet. This work made me think more closely about my potential resistance to embracing them more fully, and about allocating time and energy to get to know their every curve and fall.
Claire told me about an amazing piece of writing by someone I was lucky enough to meet and chat about disability and queerness with this summer, Julia Watts Belser. Julia’s piece “Vital Wheels: Queer Animacy” is a brilliant and complex exploration of the personal and political implications of our relationships with disability support aids like wheelchairs, screen readers, crutches, etc.:
The queer animacies that exist between wheelers and wheelchairs reveal the transgressive
potential of human relations with technology. They destabilize the expected notion of the
human as sovereign and solitary in relation to inert objects, violating the emotional flatness
that is presumed to govern the relations humans have with their owned things.
…highlights the interaction between wheeler and wheels, the way wheeled movement
draws flesh, muscle, and metal together in concert. The tire ridges as they pass beneath
fingers, the caress of a wheel as it rolls beneath hand express a queer animacy:
a practice of living and loving across the human/nonhuman divide.
Although I haven’t examined my walking stick in such a way, I have certainly developed close relationships with other aids in life and in art, namely my voice-activated speech dictation software; this led me to write a poetry collection in collaboration with the software, Naturally Speaking.
Working with Caroline was a perfect balance to working with Claire. Because the images in my piece are centred around flying, floating and falling, we talked a lot about these ideas. We decided to focus on the more-elusive (for me) concept of flying, which we dubbed the “trying of flying”. What’s fascinating to me is that humans have an obsession with flying, despite knowing it’s not actually possible (yet). Many of the images I’ve come up with have to do with the effort, the concentration and the moment before we leap. Knowing we will fail/fall, but trying anyway. The attempt. We also discussed the difference between an accidental and intentional fall, and Caroline asked, “What do you need to fly?”
Caroline was excellent at getting me to move, and particularly great at thinking up images for filming movement. She gave me the idea of placing the camera up high and having just the tops of peoples’ heads appear as they jump or strain upwards, attempting to fly. Ania and I tried this out at the film shoot, and it was glorious.
So, the film shoot! What a couple of days of hard work and joy! One of the main concepts behind the staged reading (and film therein) is this: my story is written in first person, and when I read it aloud to people, I become the first person (the ‘I’). Whether I want to or not. For me, this is problematic because I am not the character, and especially because the reader’s imagination becomes limited by my presence. A character described as disabled and androgynous/genderfluid, who could manifest in a huge variety of ways — becomes white, becomes disabled in my particular way, becomes how my gender presentation is perceived. So in order to work against and examine this idea of the “Limited I”, I decided to cast eight other people to play “I”. In two days, we shot a monologue for each person, as well as various interactions and solo moments of the “I”s.
My cast was a gift from casting heaven: Robert Softley Gale, Lake Montgomery, Nathan Gale, Izdihar Alodhami, Bea Webster, Cate Lauder, Matson Lawrence and Chris Red. Each of them brought something so intimate, so hilarious, so divine to the part that I had to keep from shouting, “YES!!” and ruining every shot.
Newly-graduated BSL interpreter, Lisa Li, is joining us on the project, and has spent painstaking attention to detail in trying to translate the weirdness, the science, and the poetry of the piece into something that makes sense in British Sign Language. Not an easy feat! It was great to watch her interact with the performers, asking them what falling meant to them, what their intentions or feelings were in the moment they were being filmed. I’m so excited to work with her.
My long-time collaborator, Ania Urbanowska, also made my dreams and strange ideas come to life. 11 people in a room and 8 monologues and a million versions of a dildo falling — and Ania didn’t even break a sweat! She captured each perfect and perfectly imperfect moment in just the right way.
Thanks for reading.
[Images: 6 still shots from film of two people jumping into shot, one Malaysian Chinese and one Saudi Arabian, one with short hair and glasses, one with long hair. The tops of their heads and sometimes their faces are visible in the bottom part of the frame. The joy in their jumping, in the ‘trying of flying’, is palpable.]