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Themes of class struggle and corruption make opera so relevant today

Deaf director Jenny Sealey tells Roz Laws about working with disabled performers and campaigning for their rights

The Threepenny Opera by Graeae Theatre Company.
The Threepenny Opera by Graeae Theatre Company.

Theatre director Jenny Sealey is musing about the impact of the 2012 Paralympic Games on the public’s perception of disabled people.

“Suddenly we were sexy and the ‘in thing’,” she smiles.

“But this has somewhat waned, which is why Graeae remains as important as ever to remind people we are part of the fabric of society and we aren’t going anywhere.”

Graeae is the UK’s leading theatre company for disabled people, both among its casts and audiences.

It provides a platform for deaf and disabled performers, with its productions which break down barriers and integrate able-bodied and disabled artists.

It takes its name from the three sisters of Greek myth who shared a single eye and tooth, but used them to their best advantage.

The latest production, directed by Jenny, is The Threepenny Opera, which comes to Birmingham Rep on March 27 as part of a UK tour.

Jenny, who has been artistic director of Graeae since 1997, has been deaf since a playground accident aged seven.

She co-directed the 2012 Paralympic Games opening ceremony, a triumph which featured Stephen Hawking, Ian McKellen and thousands of performers.

But Jenny warns that they have had to come down from the high of that time in the spotlight and face a reality which includes cutbacks to disabled benefits.

Members of the Graeae company are currently campaigning to stop the Government from closing the Independent Living Fund and overturning a High Court decision to keep it. The scheme offers financial support for people to live an independent life in the community rather than in residential care.

Jenny says: “Deaf and disabled people are being stripped of their rights to live their lives with equality, quality and dignity.

“It is becoming scary. I look at my cast and think maybe they will not be able to work for Graeae in the years to come because access and the wherewithal to work has been denied.”

Matt Cetti-Roberts/info@frontlinepictures.com Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company
Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company
 

The current economic climate makes The Threepenny Opera feel relevant today, says Jenny, even though it was written in the 1920s by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, adapted from John Gay’s 18th century The Beggar’s Opera.

Jenny explains: “The play is horribly timely for many people caught up in economic hardship.

“We have set it in 2014 and it is hugely relevant, as the gap between those who have and those who don’t gets wider, and as Government cuts mean people are living in desperate times and struggling in whatever way they can for survival.

“It is about class struggle and corruption from those in authority, and through the witty dialogue the play is very funny and has some cracking one-liners.

“The song lyrics, translated by Jeremy Sams, are as brutal as they are satirical.

“In this production the songs are flanked by animation and are signed, which adds to the many layers of meaning – the rudeness, sexiness, ribaldry and political messages.”

The Threepenny Opera is a story of the dispossessed and downtrodden. It centres around Macheath, London’s most notorious criminal, who has recently married Polly, the daughter of Jonathan Peachum, the leader of the beggars.

Peachum is so displeased that he concocts a plan to have his new son-in-law hanged.

Kurt Weill’s iconic music, including songs such as Mack the Knife, is played live on stage by the cast of 20.

Jenny says: “The casting process for this production was very exciting and a challenge, because of the musical and singing skills needed to ensure we honour Weill’s score.

“We have a wonderful, highly-skilled motley crew of deaf, physically impaired, blind and visually impaired people, people with hidden impairments and non-disabled people.

“The score is notoriously difficult, but we love a challenge.

“We are lucky to have Oliver Vibrans working with us. He is an 18-year-old disabled composer and wheelchair user who is a Kurt Weill specialist, so he was in charge of making sure every note was played correctly.

Milton Lopes (Macheath) and Amelia Cavallo (Jenny) in The Threepenny Opera by Graeae Theatre Company.
Milton Lopes (Macheath) and Amelia Cavallo (Jenny) in The Threepenny Opera by Graeae Theatre Company.
 

“I also treasure the moment when Oliver taught Max Runham, who has one arm, how to do a one-armed drum roll. I love that at Graeae, everything can be done!

“The staging challenges are always to do with props and so on. The wedding breakfast scene is awash with harpsichords, plants, cutlery, food and drink. It was chaos the first time we tried it with all the props.”

The show aims to be as accessible as possible for deaf and blind audiences, with audio description and a combination of British Sign Language interpretation and captioning in every performance.

Jenny continues: “The Paralympic opening ceremony was an extraordinary experience and it was a huge learning curve.

“I am not sure if it has given me more artistic confidence, as you are only ever as good as your last show.

“I do feel braver taking more risks in my work and to place politics at the heart of it.

“But what really has changed me was the whole experience of having 3,500 volunteers, equally passionate wanting to engage with human rights and challenge perceptions of possibilities.

“Having their backing has given me a renewed confidence to speak out against injustice, human rights and inequality and this has fuelled my ongoing determination to ensure deaf and disabled artists remain centre stage.”

Jenny, 50, lives in London. She lost her hearing aged seven after quarrelling with friends, being shoved over and experiencing a bang on the head. When she got up, she couldn’t hear her voice.

She remembers: “The only advice I received was to grow my hair long to hide the hearing aid, not to swim, to give up ballet and to seek a career as a librarian because libraries are quiet.

“No-one advised me on how to lip read or told me about sign language.

“So I just got on with life, kept my hair short, carried on dancing and taught myself to lip read.

“Now I work with a team of highly qualified sign language interpreters that I could not do my job without.

“I am a consummate lip reader but so much of lip reading is guesswork, so I need the skills and expertise of my signers to make sure I get everything that is being said.

“I work with my actors very visually and learn to read their body language, facial expression and tensions so, although I cannot hear much of what they say, I know how they are saying it and if they are being truthful just by watching.

“Being deaf informs everything and it always presents an interesting challenge with every new cast. It is great having deaf actors and musicians so I am not the only deaf person in the room.”

And although Jenny cannot hear music, it remains an important part of her life and work.

Cici Howells (Polly) and Milton Lopes (Macheath) in The Threepenny Opera by Graeae Theatre Company.
Cici Howells (Polly) and Milton Lopes (Macheath) in The Threepenny Opera by Graeae Theatre Company.
 

The Paralympics opening ceremony included Graeae performing Ian Duty’s Spasticus Autisticus, as well as music from Beverley Knight, Orbital, Handel and Holst.

“I have also directed opera, an Ian Dury inspired musical Reasons To Be Cheerful, and now The Threepenny Opera,” says Jenny, who was awarded the MBE in 2009.

“All the musical directors and composers I work with spend time with me going through the score and lyrics, detailing the feel of the music.

“I loved working with composers Martin Koch and Nick Philpin on the music for the Paralympics ceremony because their studio has surround sound and audio visual screens, so I could see the music. “But they loved the fact that my musical feedback to them would be ‘this made my legs feel like jelly’ or ‘I can feel that down my spine’.

“My response to music is always visceral rather than sound based.”

“My first directing commission came from Birmingham Deaf Club, so I have spent a lot of time in the city in and out of the deaf and disabled community.

“Birmingham Rep feels like Graeae’s second home. We premiered Peeling at The Door in 2002 and Whiter Than Snow was a co-production with Birmingham Rep.

“We have also done Blasted, Bent, Static and Diary of an Action Man, to name a few.

“Graeae also presented our outdoor show The Iron Man as part of the Summer in Southside Festival last year.

“The support we get from the Rep and the skills of production teams are just fabulous, and they are a lovely sociable bunch too. It will be good to be back.”

* The Threepenny Opera plays Birmingham Rep from March 27-April 12. For tickets, ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk .

 
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