Taking Flight’s production of Kaite O’Reilly’s celebrated play ‘peeling’ brings together disability and feminism


Taking Flight’s production of Kaite O’Reilly’s ‘peeling’ opened on international women’s day, 8 March 2019, and is currently on a tour of Wales until 2 May. DAO talked to members of the company about the importance of the production both regionally and for the company itself.

First produced in 2002 with Graeae Theatre Company O’Reilly’s play won plaudits from the national press and was described as feminist masterpiece. It had two national production runs, and the play text was published by Faber and Faber.

For over 10 years Taking Flight have been largely making touring theatre productions, usually Shakespeare, which whilst being cast with D/deaf and disabled professional performers, hasn’t previously been work that specifically looks at disability as a societal construct. Whilst working tirelessly to challenge under-representation Kaite O’Reilly’s work has been in the companies’ sights for some time – and now felt the right moment to take a stand.

an actor in a large pink dress stands centre-stage

peeling by Taking Flight. Peeling_ Photo © Janire Najera.

Producer Beth House said:

“With the peeling project we wanted to extend our work with disabled and Deaf creative professionals to people working off-stage as well as the performers. As part of this we wanted to find a play by a playwright who identified as disabled as the starting point. As well as providing fantastic roles for women, peeling also explores themes around what it is to be a disabled woman.

“We cast the actors who were best for the role, end of story. Disability was “not a plot device”, as Michele Taylor, Director for Change at Ramps on the Moon would put it. We felt peeling was a bit of a BOOM moment – look at us, we’re not hiding, you cannot ignore the fact that the three central women are disabled or Deaf. Working towards a truly inclusive world, we need to stop ‘othering’, fearing and misunderstanding perceived difference. The play forces us to consider historical and present representations of disability head on.”

Artistic Director, Elise Davison went on to talk about the relevance of the production, regionally:

“In Wales the ground seemed fertile – ready for change and we felt peeling was just the right seed to plant, nurture and watch the landscape begin to change. We’ve been banging on about access – in venues, for audience and creatives for so long now that we thought – right let’s show them how it’s done! peeling so cleverly discusses the subject of representation and access that this felt like the perfect vehicle, especially now that we are more confident than ever about our creative access materials.”

“We have been frustrated by the lack of positive disability role models on our stages, especially in Wales and have worked hard to change this. peeling is unapologetic and uncompromising. Two disabled and one D/deaf performer make the audience sit up and take notice, question themselves and the world around them.”

“Taking Flight are fighting for a time when we no longer have to use the word inclusive or integrated because ALL theatre will be. A time when access isn’t an add-on but a creative choice and will apply to all performances. A time when equality really exists. We keep fighting – four women, one show at time.”

Designer Becky Davies responded further, talking about the company’s experience of incorporating access as an intrinsic part of the design process:

“In the past Taking Flight’s family and outdoor productions have acted as a series of laboratories for experimenting with how to design access creatively. Associate Artists like Alastair Sill (Audio Describer and consultant) along with all the D/deaf, disabled and sensory impaired cast members over the years have worked alongside us to continually develop the intricacy of our knowledge.”

“For us, access has become a stimulus for fresh ideas, and all without compromising on Taking Flight’s trademark colour, vibrancy and energy. From BSL interpreters as costumed characters, to sensory costumes and props, from a Foley-inspired, audio description cart, to braille school uniform patches, we have grown together in knowledge and sophistication for how to incorporate access creatively.”

“With peeling Taking Flight wanted to branch out into making work for a specifically adult audience. The play gives the company the space to explore Integrated Creative Access in a mature context, through a darkly comic play filled with grit, honesty and vulnerability. Equally, it is important to share this excellent example of contemporary, Inclusive Practice from Wales with the rest of the UK and hopefully internationally.”

Elise Davison added:

“We have worked with blind consultants – most recently Tafsila Khan and Megan Price who have helped us to develop the audio description, touch tours and tactile access materials. In addition we have invited Deaf people into rehearsals to feed back on captions and BSL interpretation.”

“Since 2014 we have produced audio flyers, BSL flyers and introduction. Over the years we have run several research and development projects to explore access materials. For example Robin Bray Hurran has advised us on tactile access.”

“We have also run numerous symposia over the years ‘Breaking out of the Box’, where access has been the central focus. Access is a creative tool, it’s the first thing I consider as a director and it opens up so many doors. It provides so much exciting opportunity and opens up so many different ways to approach a play. I love it!”

Beth House went on to talk further about embedding access into peeling:

“The first bridge to cross with peeling was to get Kaite to allow us to embed a BSL interpreter into her 3 handed play. She was concerned about changing the dynamic between the characters, but on the other hand, we felt we couldn’t do it without fully embedded BSL, which is something our audiences have come to expect.”

“Kaite had written the audio description into her rich text, which makes it slightly easier for us. With our Shakespeare plays, it takes a large chunk of rehearsals both writing the AD and working on a device for how to embed it for all audiences. For example our production of Romeo and Juliet was set in a 1960s private school where we had a team of access prefects. Sighted audiences didn’t even realise they were hearing AD when our headmistress made school announcements over her 1960s mic, chime bars in hand.”

“In general, we approach access across all aspects of the organisation: firstly it is incorporated into budgets both for audiences and creatives, then the marketing is designed with access in mind and we create alternative format marketing.”

“Access is the starting point for creative play in the rehearsal room, and drives the aesthetic vision of how the play will be conceived. It makes an appearance in the colour schemes, the look and feel of the costumes, the quality of props and set and also, importantly in the foyer resources we have been building over the years.”

“Becky Davies and Angaharad Gamble (our costume maker) have surpassed themselves on peeling – the costumes are visually and texturally astonishing, but there is also a host of foyer materials, all set up like the corner of a run down, inadequate dressing room, such as the one the characters are shoved into in the play. There are scents, audio files to listen to and amazingly, an access doll, beautifully made, which enables audiences to explore how the costumes ‘peel’ from the women during the course of the play – and the costume that is then revealed beneath each layer.”

In addition the cast went on to talk about their roles within the production. Ruth Curtis, who plays Beaty described the importance of the play to her:

peeling is a darkly, visceral play sadly as timely now as it must have when first staged. Humanity is horribly inhumane and ‘man’ never seems to learn from his violence towards others. It is a fabulous play to perform in with rich text and this production has been excellent to work on. My character is not particularly like me, apart from a strikingly visible resemblance. I hope I am kinder and less bitter. I am more politically charged and often vocal on MS matters – I do share Beaty’s fierce independence.”

Erin Siobhan Hutching plays Zoe – a character who is new to the play. As well as performing as a BSL interpreter, Zoe was written as a stage manager (peeling present the back stage of a production within a production).

peeling is an essential piece of theatre because it is a fierce, funny and realistic representation of women and disability in a world that doesn’t have enough respect for either. It’s at once wonderful and challenging to perform in sign language because the writing is beautiful, but there’s also a lot of dark, traumatic imagery which I have to convey. I was so fortunate to work with the amazing BSL consultant Jean St Clair on the translation.”

“As my character doesn’t appear in the script so I’ve had the freedom to develop her background and personality and I’ve decided she has Deaf family like me, which is why she can sign.”

Bea Webster plays Alfa. She commented on the relevance of peeling to current times:

“In an era of Donald Trump and Tory rule, where Deaf/ disabled people are seen as a drain to society, and where mostly men still decide women’s reproductive rights, so the barriers are even greater for Deaf/ disabled women.”

three actor wearing large pink dresses stands in a row, centre-stage

peeling by Taking Flight. Peeling_ Photo © Janire Najera.

Taking Flight’s production of peeling continues to play at the following venues:

2nd April: Pontardawe Arts Centre – https://npttheatres.co.uk/pontardawe/
4th-6th April: 53Two, Manchester http://53two.com/peeling/4593435727
10th April: Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli – https://www.theatrausirgar.co.uk/en
12th April: Pegasus Theatre, Oxford https://pegasustheatre.org.uk/our-shows/
30th April – 2nd May: Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff – https://www.chapter.org/

For more information about Taking Flight Theatre Company go to: www.takingflighttheatre.co.uk