Award-winning playwright Kaite O’Reilly speaks to Joe Turnbull about deaf culture, dissident sensibilities, and her Unlimited-funded “big growling play” Cosy which launches at Wales Millennium Centre on 8 March.
Plays such as The 9 Fridas, subvert traditional theatrical form and aesthetic. And even when she deliberately sets out to make mainstream work she can’t reign in her recalcitrance. She describes the Almond and the Seahorse, her 2008 play which got a five-star review in the Guardian, as her ‘Trojan Horse’: “I created what seemed to be the most commercial theatre script I’d ever written. Only it’s got subversive politics in its belly.”
Her latest work Cosy, which is set to premiere at the Wales Millennium Centre on 8 March, very much falls into the latter category. It’s ostensibly a traditional family drama encompassing three generations of women, which tackles the thorny issue of end-of-life scenarios and ageing.
“I’m deliberately taking different perspectives of a family coming together. It’s familiar – the family all get together and all these discussions and events happen in the family home. But perhaps some of the content and arguments and perspectives being presented are not the ones we would usually hear”.
It turns out O’Reilly’s dissident sensibilities are in her blood. “My family were always rebels, they were always the dissenting voice that would shout up from the back”. As O’Reilly regales me with her backstory, I’m transported to the West Midlands in the 1970s.
O’Reilly’s father, an Irish migrant is holding court amidst a bustling farmer’s market. A proper working-class Irishman, his sales patter is a performance aimed at punters as he tries to flog his sheep. Back at the O’Reilly family home, get-togethers also provide a stage, and everyone is expected to deliver, whether it’s a poem, song or a story. This is the theatre of everyday life. It clearly had quite an impact on the young Kaite.
“The performative aspect that comes culturally from being working class Irish was huge. As I get older I understand how formative that was because it was always about entertaining, engaging, challenging, provoking.”
It isn’t something that they can teach at drama school, nor is it something you can read in a book. “I think that right from the get-go, if you’re going to be a playwright it’s got to be about the living words in the mouth. You know as soon as something sounds stagey. There’s something about engaging with language in the absolute moment that you have to be able to dazzle and create and engage with words.”
But her working-class Irish heritage isn’t the only aspect of her identity that has been seminal to O’Reilly’s work:
“Identifying politically and culturally as a disabled person was essential, because it changes you. It affects everything about how you perceive the world. I think that is huge as a playwright because we’re trying to – as that old hackneyed Shakespeare quote goes – ‘to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature’. Well if you are actually seeing nature and the notion of normalcy as being different from what the majority culture says, then there’s some really interesting things happening”.
O’Reilly doesn’t shirk from the label, she has always embraced it, even in her work, whether that’s using integrated casts, embedding creative access or by directly addressing disability themes. As is common for many successful disabled artists, O’Reilly finds herself at times awkwardly straddling the two worlds of mainstream and disability arts. Cosy is perhaps a sign of things to come for O’Reilly as something of a middle ground between the two. Although the play doesn’t address disability political issues directly, it was inspired by her thoughts around assisted dying which is a very important topic for the disability rights movement.
“I started to think about ageing, about end-of-life scenarios, our relationship to the medical profession and how industrialised care has become. What are the family dynamics in end-of-life scenarios? So basically, Cosy is quite a dark but sophisticated comedy looking at whether we truly own ourselves.”
O’Reilly is eager to acknowledge that her perception of language and working process as a theatre maker have been massively influenced by her work with Deaf collaborators, such as performer and director of visual language, Jean St Clair. “Seeing what language can be through the prism of Deaf culture and experience has been really important; the form, the means, the aesthetic and the possibilities were broadened as I began to learn sign language”.
“I’m notorious for my bad signing,” she tells me, wryly. “Jean teases me all the time about it. Whenever I threaten to go and learn BSL (British Sign Language) she says ‘no don’t because I actually like what you’re doing, because it makes me think differently’”.
Due to budgetary restrictions, not to mention the changes in Access to Work benefits, O’Reilly regrets that Cosy won’t be the “all-singing, all dancing, all-signing access-fest” as previous works such as In Water I’m Weightless. The play will be captioned, and they are also trialling an app which encompasses different languages and possibly audio description. In spite of the restraints and her past successes, O’Reilly is still not taking anything for granted, displaying the enthusiasm and passion of a young upstart. “Every day I wake up smiling and thankful that we’ve got this opportunity from Unlimited, it’s an incredible gift”.
Perhaps it’s fitting for these austere times that Cosy sees O’Reilly going back to basics in more ways than one. “Cosy isn’t breaking new ground in terms of form or aesthetic but I think it’s interesting that we have reached the point of maturity, where we can have a big growling play with these different perspectives all mashed up and arguing together.”
But it just wouldn’t be an O’Reilly play if it wasn’t pushing the boundaries in some way. Cosy has an integrated all-female cast of disabled and non-disabled actors with ages ranging from 16 to 76, “how gorgeous and delicious is that?” she enthuses. Even more significantly, the roles with the most power in Cosy are predominantly staffed by people who identify culturally and politically as disabled, including the director (Phillip Zarrilli) and assistant producer (Tom Wentworth) in addition to O’Reilly herself as the writer.
“I think it’s interesting that the powerbase is coming from a very open identification as disabled. Often they’re the ones who are non-disabled and the people that are being cast are disabled. I wonder if that’s a shift that has come from Unlimited and their legacy, that we’re now becoming more and more in the position of the powerbase.”
In concert with the launch of Cosy, O’Reilly also has a book entitled Atypical Plays for Atypical actors being published by Oberon Books. It will feature a selection of five plays and performance texts spanning nearly 15 years of work, each of which is informed by disability politics. Clearly, there’s no chance of this rebel being assimilated by her mainstream success.
And like all true revolutionaries, O’Reilly isn’t content being the sole dissenting voice in what can at times be a very homogenised profession. Instead she’s looking to use her profile as a vanguard for others. “There are things that I’m trying to do through my practice and engagement that I hope is going to help shift things and provide opportunities for other people as well. For me it’s very important that we have people in leadership and positions of power who are not only disabled and Deaf, but who identify culturally and politically as so.”