Jamie Beddard: from sociologist to top-class theatre director and disability arts activist – how did he get there?

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Theatre-maker Tam Gilbert looks back on Jamie Beddard’s glittering career so far, from humble beginnings as a youth worker, to playing a starring role in the National Theatre’s production of the Threepenny Opera in 2016. He’ll return to the stage as The Messiah for a special performance of Handel’s classic on 7 April at Bristol’s Old Vic.

Jamie Beddard hams it up as Mack the Knife's henchman Mathias in the National Theatre's production of The Threepenny Opera

Jamie Beddard played a leading role in National Theatre’s 2016 production of The Threepenny Opera

I first met Jamie Beddard back in 2007 when I was working with an integrated youth theatre – The Remix – in Dorset. He’d been invited down to lead a Residency, whilst he was still Associate Director at Graeae. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been directed by him twice, work as his Assistant on Breathe – a huge outdoor piece which he directed as part of the Olympic & Paralympic Sailing Events Opening Ceremony on Weymouth beach in 2012, as well as participate in various workshops he’s facilitated along the way.

Beddard has always struck me as a laid-back, yet highly motivated professional. Extremely funny and quick-witted, I’ve seen him both play the fool with his peers, and instantly set roomfuls of Delegates at ease by cracking a joke or two at Diversity Symposiums.  He is an accomplished actor, writer and Director, not to forget his most recent accolade – the prestigious honour of Chlore Fellow. But how did it all begin – did he always aspire to a career in the arts?

It seems that Beddard just fell into acting. After graduating from the University of Kent with a Degree in Sociology, he found employment as a youth worker in Kilburn. And, while I am sure the experience has influenced his current practice, it was a short-lived one.

One day, he received a call from the BBC, who were casting for Skalligrigg (1994), who, according to Beddard, “were unable to find any trained actors with cerebral palsy” so, offered him the lead role of Arthur.  Without hesitation or previous acting experience, he accepted and “through a bizarre set of circumstances [he] was jettisoned onto a film set, and a journey through the hinterlands of performance began.”

Jamie Beddard headshot

Jamie Beddard headshot

Following Skalligrigg Beddard contacted Graeae Theatre Company, where he attended various workshops and met theatre professionals who further helped influence his career change. He soon transferred to the touring company and performed in many productions including Ubu, Flesh Fly and Fittings: the Last Freakshow (which he later directed twice; for Fittings Multi-Media Arts and DATco, The Disabled Actors’ Theatre Company).

Beddard admits that he faced challenges during his early days of acting, but has said:

“One of the main advantages of working for a company such as Graeae is that disability is not really an issue; most of the barriers of understanding and access have already been dismantled. Also, disabled people share many cultural connections, and Graeae is at the forefront with these.”

During the 1990s and 2000s Beddard’s acting career continued to flourish. He was in productions across the country and continued his film work – playing Mike Bradley in I.D and Gavin in Common as Muck (both for the BBC), also starring as Terry in Poland Productions’ Trouble with Terry. His latest film, Lost Dog, released earlier this year, which saw him starring alongside Jason Williamson from The Sleaford Mods was described by The Irish News as “a tiny yet thought-provoking slice of life in ‘austerity Britain’.”

Campaigning against Austerity and championing Disability Rights has always been at the heart of Beddard’s work and it is no surprise to find that this was the case even as a student. As a fellow Kent graduate, I enjoyed this nugget from his former Social Statistics lecturer Michael Fuller:

“As a student, Jamie tackled everything with enthusiasm and resilience. I knew he had become an actor, but hadn’t realised he was also a playwright and director. While at Kent he encouraged others to be positive about disability. It’s clear he is still very much doing that!”

With stints as Editor at Disability Arts in London (DAIL) Magazine and Diversity Officer at Arts Council under his belt, Beddard has always been an outspoken advocate of rights for disabled people, and for more disabled people to have roles within the creative industries. He has commented “I aint broke, you don’t need to fix me.” This came as part of his focus group response for the ‘Re-framing Disability’ Exhibition in 2011 which looked at judgements and portrayal of historical representations of disabled people with comparisons to today.

In an interview in 2016 with Disability Arts Online Beddard remarked:

“I’d like to see theatre become more inclusive. I love football and having relaxed performances makes theatre more like football. You should be able to go to theatre and engage with it…..It is a scary time to be a disabled person, and so many of my contemporaries are desperately struggling, both, to work and survive. I feel a responsibility to the majority of disabled people who are finding life increasingly difficult, as Access to Work, the Independent Living Fund and care packages are savaged, and any gains we have made over the last thirty years are consigned to history.”

Like many of us, Beddard has been critical of non-disabled actors playing disabled roles, writing in a 2009 article for The Guardian:

‘Unfortunately, some industry people still struggle with the idea that disabled actors may be best-placed to play disabled characters, and continue to represent disability through clouded prisms of metaphor and caricature. Non-disabled actors boost their red carpet prospects by offensively replicating impairments, as if physical appearance alone is shorthand for capturing the essence and character of a disabled protagonist.’

 Toby Jones, Jessica Murrain, Jamie Beddard and Nir Paldi

Beddard (centre) will star in the Messiah at Bristol Old Vic

Beddard has indeed played Mr Johnny (Carrie’s War) twice at the West End’s Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue (as well as for BBC Films) and his most recent appearance in The Threepenny Opera at The National Theatre in 2016 was heralded as “a brilliant move” by The Telegraph. The Stage additionally remarked that: “It is also notable, because it’s so rare, to see a wheelchair-using actor, Jamie Beddard, among the ensemble.”

His casting came at a time when the National Theatre was starting to change its auditioning policy by responding to The Creative Case and opening its doors to disabled actors. As DAO’s Editor, Colin Hambrook observed in a review of the show: “aside from Nabil Shaban, Beddard is the only other wheelchair-using actor to tread the boards of the National Theatre in a pivotal role.”

Beddard has been a significant presence for many Artists. For myself, I know he has influenced my writing and creative practice and according to The Guardian’s Jonathan Meth, seeing Beddard on a poster for Graeae’s  production of Ubu inspired Daryl Beeton, former Artistic Director of Kazzum Theatre to enter the profession.

So, what’s next for Jamie Beddard? He is currently Director at The Big Lounge Collective, Co-Artistic Director at Diverse City and is part of the Creative team behind Extraordinary Bodies. He continues to go from strength to strength, yet still remains inherently ‘human.’

His latest preforming role will be in Bristol Old Vic and The English Concert co-production Messiah, where he will play the Leader on 7 April. And how does he feel about playing God’s Son? Beddard answers my question with his usual charm:

“Playing the Messiah – not before time! No seriously, an incredibly exciting one-off opportunity.  To be on stage surrounded by world-class musicians in such an iconic piece in an iconic place will be amazing.  And I get crucified!”

Click here for listings information for Messiah at Bristol Old Vic.