16 For 2016: Jenny Sealey

Our series 16 for 2016, talking to Artistic Directors about the highlights and challenges of the last year, and the year ahead continues with Jenny Sealey of Graeae Theatre Company.

Sealey joined Graeae as Artistic Director in 1997, she co-directed the London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony alongside Bradley Hemmingsand is recognised as one of the leading voices on accessibility in the arts.

Graeae tours world-class, diverse, theatre with accessibility at the centre of all it does. They combine signing with audio description, sound light and film to create drama that dispells myths about disabled and able-bodied performers.

What have been your theatrical highlights – and challenges – of 2015?

I loved working on David Ireland’s adaptation of Blood Wedding and exploring new territory with sign language and audio description. I’ve also relished putting together our verbatim short called Sorry, a response to the cuts to Access to Work and the Independent Living Fund complete with a smattering of crass things casting directors/drama schools/producers have said to disabled actors! This is still doing the rounds if anyone wants it, and believe you me we are constantly adding to it!

The challenges have been the whole political shit deaf and disabled people are facing in terms of cuts. Getting the Ramps On The Moon grant from Arts Council England was a real highlight but one where Graeae has to realise this is time to pass the baton and wait in the wings to offer guidance and support and give space to other Artistic Directors to explore the Aesthetics of Access and working terms with deaf and disabled actors.

What do you see as the highlights – and challenges – for your organisation in 2016?

Highlights include Graeae having our production (with Theatre Royal Plymouth as co-producers) of Jack Thorne’s play The Solid Life Of Sugar Water directed by Amit Sharma go on tour, ending at the National Theatre for the first time in our 35-year history (we have had a presence as part of various ‘Watch this Space’ seasons outside the NT but never a stage!). And at the same time, we will have a production of Romeo And Juliet with an all disabled cast at the National Theatre of Dhaka, Bangladesh. We need a third National, but I am having conversations with the National Theatre of Scotland for a future production, so maybe that’s our hat trick!

We also have a small schools’ tour of Mike Kenny’s Stepping Stones performed by Graeae’s new work-based learning Ensemble as their showcase. Ramps On The Moon kick-starts with Roxanna Gilbert’s production of The Government Inspector at Birmingham Rep, so it is so exciting that so many deaf and disabled actors are on national and international stages! And a rather extraordinary and unexpected collaboration is a partnership with the Central Illustration Agency, where we’ve paired 40 Graeae artists with 40 world-class illustrators to celebrate what has been achieved over the last three decades. It’s very exciting and we are all abuzz waiting to see how these individual stories from our collective of artists become represented as glorious new works of art.

The lowlights are the cuts to Access to Work and the Independent Living Fund, which we’re helping to campaign against. This is a real nightmare for deaf and disabled people and a real threat to Arts Council England’s diversity mission. These cuts seriously jeopardise us as deaf and disabled people being able to work, so once again we could be sidelined. But you know me, I love a challenge and we have Arts Council England, the Independent Theatre Council and What’s Next? all fighting our corner, which is hugely reassuring.

What is your theatrical New Year’s resolution?

My resolution is to revive the Graeae/Theatre Royal Stratford East/New Wolsey co-production of our Ian Dury-inspired musical Reasons To Be Cheerful, as God knows in this current economic and political climate we need a reason to be cheerful! Graeae has achieved so much and the Ramps On The Moon project is a real testimony to this – we have paved the way and now it is time for the company to have space and time to reflect on the massive journey we have been on, and to think about what our next adventure might be.

Excluding funding, if you were Minister for Culture what is the one aspect of the arts sector you’d like to change?

I would like the bigger institutions to nurture smaller and less well-funded companies. I would love (and Rufus Norris knows this) for the Dorfman stage at the National to be given to various companies to curate a season – a bit like how various artists curate Meltdown at Southbank Centre. So we could have Graeae/Tamasha/Theatre Centre joining forces to curate a season of our own work, or 20 Stories High/Gecko/Told by an Idiot curating etc.

Graeae and Theatre Royal Plymouth’s co-production of The Solid Life of Sugar Water goes on national tour from 20 January, ending with a run at the National Theatre London from 26 February to 19 March.

For more information visit www.graeae.org or follow on Twitter at @graeae

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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