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And Suddenly I Disappear: An Interview with Director Phillip Zarrilli and Writer Kaite O’Reilly

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For years, Singaporeans have considered disability arts on a different scale from regular performing arts, often relegating it to the point of charity or pity, and considering its performers ‘second class citizens’. This May, though, UK-based veteran theatremakers Phillip Zarrilli and Kaite O’Reilly will be showing Singapore and the world what deaf and disabled arts is really all about with their new production And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues. 

Premiering at the National Museum from 25th – 27th May, this will mark the first time a multilingual, intercultural, deaf culture and disability arts theatre project will be created between the UK and Singapore, one that is completely controlled, performed and owned by disabled and deaf artists. We spoke to Phillip and Kaite, joined by cast member Sara Beer, to find out more about the production and the challenges deaf and disabled arts are still facing today.
The first and most pertinent question of all would be Phillip and Kaite’s relationship with Singapore, and why they decided to embark on the project in the first place. In asking this, both artists reveal a long history with our country, starting with Phillip’s first trip here in the 90s, meeting local theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun and working closely with the then Theatre Training & Research Programme (now the Intercultural Training Institute), and met, directed and trained actor Peter Sau there in 2004 when he was still a student. Kaite recalls meeting collaborator Peter Sau back then, as well as deaf artist Ramesh Meyyappan after a show at the Substation. Says Kaite: “What Ramesh remembers is being backstage and that an usher told him there was this ‘mad ang moh’ who wouldn’t leave until she talked to him!”

The story doesn’t end there – when Peter Sau did his MA in London, he came to extend his training with Phillip at a workshop in the UK, and Kaite was well underway with her involvement with the London Southbank Centre’s biennial Unlimited Festival for disabled artists. From these relations and many conversations later came a desire to elevate disability arts in Singapore, spurred on by a belief in equal opportunities for training, inclusivity and diversity, a desire to introduce disability arts and culture to Singapore and professionalise disabled and deaf artists, going far beyond the usual ‘charity’ model so prominent in Singapore. 

Says Kaite: “It’s all very well-meaning, but also incredibly patronising when they market these as ‘putting their dreams onstage’ and to come to ‘be inspired’. What we aim to create is a means to make deaf and disabled arts professionalised, and to showcase the lived experience of the disabled, with content created and controlled by disabled artists. So much of it is about creating a dialogue of and about difference. What needs to happen is to treat the deaf and disabled as equals, and give them equal opportunities to training, education and professions.”

Sara Beer chips in at this point, and adds: “I foolishly wrote in to a few drama schools when I was 16 to ask about their policy regarding admissions for the disabled. And their answer was ‘We wouldn’t even audition you in the first place; you wouldn’t get any work!”

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Sara Beer in Richard III Redux Or Sara Beer [is/not] Richard III, directed by Phillip Zarrilli

With And Suddenly I Disappear then, alongside the plethora of work Kaite and Phillip have already worked on, they seek to create an all new theatre language of accessibility such that anyone could come into the theatre and experience the show. In And Suddenly I Disappear, expect to see unique decisions based on the aesthetics of accessibility, such as simultaneously providing audio descriptions in poetic language, videos and captioning. Says Phillip: “As artists, it’s not about flattening or making everything the same. In a sense, it’s like creating a bouquet of different flowers, with all these possibilities for different theatrical communications to open up, each with their own unique aesthetic.”

Kaite adds: “Theatre is one of the most remarkable places, where total strangers experience something together as one community. We don’t like to segregate, for example, having just one performance sign interpreted or captioned, so deaf audiences can only go to that particular show. Although we will never be able to satisfy everyone re-access, we try to include the creative use of access tools like captioning and audio description, as an integral part of the aesthetic and theatre style, so each performance can be experience by as many as possible.”

The content of the show itself consists of a series of monologues, culled from stories and interviews conducted with the deaf and disabled over two years in Singapore, and over ten years in the UK, led by Kaite. Some will be character driven, while others are more abstract. Kaite explains the title: “People often stare at you as if you’re not there, or ignore you altogether because of your disability. And even in the media, there’s a lack of representation except as victim or villain. It’s so important to have visibility and have role models, example that reflect the reality of our lives and experiences that don’t just fall into tropes of fun or pity.

Phillip adds: “Some of these monologues are hilarious in a really absurd way, there’s a lot of ‘crip’ humour (a means to reclaim offensive terms about disabled people), and it will be a production that constantly challenges your misconceptions and preconceptions of the disabled. People who came down and saw the R&D showcase last year came away saying they’ve never seen anything like this before. I hope audiences can give themselves permission to reflect and engage with the material here, these stories that aren’t always talked about.”

We ask Kaite about whether these works aim to be ‘universal’, and Kaite counters: “I used to believe in the idea of finding a universal truth, but the more I worked in this field, the more I realised that when we say universal, ironically, it dissipates and makes it less so. I do not represent all humans, so I can’t say that my perspective and lived experience is a universal one. The more specific and unique or diverse your work is, that’s where we find the real common ground.”

Kaite continues: “A lot of people like to go ‘you’ve arrived!’ but the truth is, there’s still such a long way to go. People don’t just become professional overnight, but we need the time and space for artists to develop themselves and make their own work. Disability isn’t a trend, it’s not like you can say ‘we’ve already done a season of disability’, and we’re here to provide an inroad and a platform to begin this process of opportunities for development.”

On whether there’s anything in particular they’d like audiences to walk away with, Kaite concludes: “You know, I don’t like my works to really have a ‘message’, but I hope audiences come in with an open mind and are ready to shift the way they might perceive disabilities. When they’re watching this, I just want them to get completely engrossed in the performance, listening and engaging and experiencing these stories in a whole new way. In describing my work, I like to use this phrase – ‘to embrace all the possibilities of human variety.’ Theatre is ultimately a place that tells you what it is to be human, and when only a narrow percentage of what it means to be human is currently on our stages, well, we’re trying to change that with the dramaturgy, form and stories we tell.”

And Suddenly I Disappear will run from 25th – 27th May at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre. Tickets available here A UK tour will commence from 5th – 12th September 2018 with showings in London, Oxford, Leicester and Cardiff. Ticketing details and full schedule to be announced soon. 

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