Illegally Blind - accessible theatre in action

Opening next week at Bats Theatre in Wellington is Illegally Blind, a show by disabled actor Susan Williams.

Promo image that says "Illegally Blind - not the inspo-porn you are looking for"

Illegally Blind describes itself like this:

Susan is a perfectly normal queer, fat, functionally blind, Autistic, chronically and mentally ill, nonbinary person, who just happens to be collecting diagnoses faster than they collect eel facts.

In this not-so-solo solo show, Susan just wants to get stuff done. Instead, they end up on an epic quest, battling sock-puppets, ableist audio-describers, a pile of laundry, and people who don’t provide digital copies of important documents.

We spoke to Susan about the show. Read the answers below, or listen to the audio on this video: 

 

Can you tell us a bit more about your theatre background?

I started doing community theatre and local drama classes when I was nine and I have never stopped. I love it so much. I originally did local theatre at Levin Little Theatre and then I studied at UCol in Palmerston North for a certificate in performing arts with an amazing teacher and adored that. I also went to what was then Whitirea and did a dipoloma in stage and screen arts.  I mucked around for a bit and then I went back to uni to study media design and computer science, and went functionally blind and got back into theatre – i hadn’t stopped for long but got back into it and did theatre and improv and then I started doing standup comedy. That was five years ago – then I started doing stand up comedy two and a half years ago at the NZ Comedy School – I got a diversity scholarship for that. This is my first solo-ish show but I’ve done more than 20 shows.

What’s the origin story of Illegally Blind?

There was the seed of an idea in my head and then Touch Compass (an inclusive performance company) put out a call for their Lumana’i season where they wanted to support disabled theatre projects, and I put in a pitch and it got picked! So we did a development week thing - but spread over several weeks to conserve spoons - and it grew from that. And I had the amazing support of a creative team for that, so Charlie Hann, Anastasia Matteini-Roberts and Henrietta Bollinger to help me grow the story. The story grew from my struggles with executive disfunction and laundry, but I also wanted to incorporate my identities and the intersection of my identities in the show.

How do you find a balance in addressing queerphobia, fatphobia & ableism while still centering the disabled/fat/queer voice?

The play is very much from my perspective as a queer fat disabled person, and my narrative, and the phobia voices are mostly sock puppets, with a bit of voiceover as well. We’ve definitely taken real life experiences and hyped them up a little bit, and made them funny so we’re laughing at the ridiculousness of ableism and inaccessibilty and all of that.  We have very much wanted to have disabled audiences to feel comfortable and seen and embraced, and abled people to feel a little uncomfortable and potentially examine any biases they may have!

A black and white image of Susan, a fat person wearing steam punk goggles, surronded by hands in socks that have sock puppet faces drawn on over the top of the image

Illegally Blind has made itself very accessible to audiences – what are some tips you could give to other theatre productions about how to be more inclusive?  

Start at the very start - make sure that right from the begining that your auditions are accessible, and correct for any unconcsious bias or specifically create roles for disabled actors and go from there. Set yourself a guide like “at least two of our cast will be disabled” or something like that, and let those people be experts in what they need. Don’t expect them to be your consultants, ideally – get someone with loads of experience to consult as well.

Definitely start early – so in our show, the audio description is part of the narrative because we knew we were going to have it and that everyone in the show would hear it – the same with the subtitles that came along only a little later than that. Remember that access is more than just a ramp, and more than even just disabilities, so absolutely make sure that you have wheelchair access and captions, and if you can, NZSL, and audio descriptions – but also make sure that you’re addressing financial and social inequities. We have a ticket fund and transport fund to address financial barriers to attending theatre, because theatre should be for everyone – creators, performers and audiences. Dropping those barriers is super important and wonderful!

What’s next for you, Susan?

My brain is very much focussed on illegally blind at the moment, and once this season is over, I don’t want that to be the end of it. I’m doing a short version with the team as part of /rītaha/ (a performing arts festival), through Touch Compass, and then I would love to take Illegally Blind to other theatres around New Zelaand, in a way that works for me. So I definitely can’t tour like other companies can – I can’t go on the road for weeks, so I’d set up a thing, travel to that, come home and recoupoerate and then go to the next one.

I’d love to take Illegally Blind to other centres, and I’d love to pair it with another show I’m doing as part of the New Zealand Improv Festival – I did a show called Blindsighted  that involved experienced improvisers and blind people who were new to improv putting on a show together. I’d love to take that to work with local blind people and local improvisers that would be a one night show that ran as a double bill with Illegally Blind, that would be an absolute dream. But there’s definitely a lot of resting that’s going to happen after this show, I am due for a good sleep and a good restock of spoons!

If there’s one message you’d like people to take away about disabled people in theatre, what would it be?

I guess it’s that we belong, and we belong at every stage. Some directors will have the idea of their perfect cast and will cast towards that, but if you examine who’s in the room and what you have to play with, and be prepared to switch your ideas, you can come across much better ways to tell a story and that’s what theatre is really, telling a story. And our stories are incredibly important, but we’re also great additions to existing stories. Adding access will always improve a show, because we belong as creators and actors and audiences, and our stories are so important. The way we tell stories is really important!  

Illegally Blind

  • Bats Theatre, Kent Terrace, Wellington
  • 7 - 11 December 6.30pm with a 1pm matinee 8 & 11 December
  • $15-40 

From the Bats Website:

 Illegally Blind is very accessible to disabled people, including:

  • Inbuilt audio description and captions
  • Relaxed performances
  • Informal seating with beanbags, blankets, armless chairs and wheelchair space
  • Comforting and stimmy snacks, tea and (Covid permitting) stim toys
  • A token effort has been made to include the abled as well.

Audiences are advised the show contains the following potentially triggering content: ableism, fatphobia and queerphobia.

The audience are welcome to move around, and come and go as needed. If you would like an aisle seat for this, or any other reason, please email illegallyblindatbats@gmail.com or inform an usher prior to doors opening for the show.

Relaxed performances will be on at 6:30pm Wednesday 8th December and 1pm Saturday 11th December.

Please email illegallyblindatbats@gmail.com or ring or text 0221655497 for any access inquiries.

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