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#sugarwater - behind the scenes of Deaf and disabled theatre

This Sunday, the Glasgow Film Festival will screen #sugarwater - an eye-opening documentary following pioneering Deaf and disabled theatre company, Graeae, as they rehearse for Jack Thorne’s “The Solid Life of Sugar Water”, a searing two-person drama about a miscarriage and its ramifications in a couple’s relationship. We spoke to director and producer Jo Lewis to find out why she felt this was an important tale to tell.

sugarwater actors on stage

How did #sugarwater come about? What was the inspiration to tell this story?

I wanted to make a film that would inspire and persuade Deaf and disabled people who were thinking about getting involved in the Arts in some way, that they really should give it a go! Following the work of Graeae allowed me to explore not only what life was like being a Deaf or disabled performer but also to engage with challenges faced by Deaf of disabled people seeking to watch or access theatre.

I also wanted to help people who were not directly involved with disability or did not have it as part of their life, to understand some of the issues that Deaf and Disabled performers and audiences face.

Making theatre as accessible as possible is incredibly important. Coming together to share and tell stories is very much what theatre is all about.- Jo Lewis, Director of #sugarwater

I am the mother of a son with learning disabilities and before he was born I was a filmmaker working in drama and also documentaries with Glasgow-based IWC.  After my son was born I got to know first hand how isolating and lonely the experience of living with disability could be, and also how limiting life and activity choices can be.

What really impressed me about Graeae is their worldview. They do not speak of disability, but talk of access. Give a Deaf person a signing interpreter and suddenly the disability barrier goes away - if you concentrate on the access needs then suddenly all the barriers go away, and anything and everything is possible. It’s a social model of disability and provides the foundations that Graeae are built on. It was the first time I'd heard anyone in connection with disabilities speaking about it in this way. It changed the way I think about life and changed everything about how I approached my life with my son.

One of my early experiences of working in film was meeting my Deaf friend who was a clapper loader when I was a 3rd Assistant Director. She was on the FT2 trainee scheme, which sadly does not exist any more. When she graduated from the scheme, she really struggled to get work while the other graduates were constantly working. Employers were really intimidated by her disability. In the end she gave up working in the film industry altogether. I guess this experience stayed with me and made me really interested in championing and promoting Disability rights and breaking down the barriers and promoting understanding within our two communities [something that Creative Scotland's recent Screen Equalities work is also focused on].

Recently my disabled son was sad because he really wanted to play football, but none of the other boys in his class would let him because he could not ‘play properly’. Because of Graeae I knew there must be opportunities out there for him - I got in touch with a local club and he now plays football foundation for Under 10s. If it wasn’t for Graeae I would have accepted his limitations. They taught me to challenge convention and change perceptions.

I wanted to get word out there and spread the news - it’s time now for disabled people to be put front and center and not ‘marginalised and made invisible’ as Rufus Norris (Director of the National Theatre) says in the film.

sugarwater actors embracing

How did you first hear about Graeae?

Graeae first came to my attention through the London 2012 Paralympic opening ceremony, which blew my mind! The ceremony was directed by Artistic Director of Graeae Jenny Sealey and featured many of their performers.

Living and working in London at that time, there was an explosion in awareness of the challenges faced by Deaf and disabled people and suddenly seeing for the first time this ‘invisible’ community that lived amongst us being made visible and their voices, needs and problems being heard.

I made contact with Graeae about a year or so later and was shocked and dismayed by how despondent they were feeling, post 2012. I remember Jenny saying that after the Paralympics there was this huge feeling that this was their time and that finally things would change for them but instead all they were being faced with were cuts to their working independence funds, and cuts to their disability living payments.

On hearing this I knew I had to make a film about Graeae - I had to show the world what Deaf and disabled people could do. So we started to chat about working together and suddenly the opportunity came up for Graeae to take ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’ to the National for the first time and I knew that this was it – this was the moment to make the film and what followed was a wonderful and extraordinary journey.

sugarwater show with subtitles

As a "behind the scenes” look at the production, what stories were you able to unearth?

The National Theatre were unbelievably helpful in allowing us an ‘access all areas pass’ in the filming of this documentary – nothing was off limits and we were able to film the actors in their dressing rooms and backstage. They very rarely give filmmakers this level of access so we were incredibly lucky.

I have to say most of the stories that came out were about the tour - the show had been on a rigorous regional tour on a tight timescale before it came to the National, and there were stories of only just being able to get the set into buildings in time for curtain up and such like!  When we caught up with the team they were fairly focused – they had a week to get the show ready for one of the biggest stages of them all!

Actually there was a real sense of excitement with everyone we met at the National about having Graeae there. It was the first time they had played host to a disabled theatre company and there was a real buzz about the place. The National Theatre under the leadership of Rufus Norris is extremely forward thinking – there is a great determination to change things to ‘lead by example’ and to try to make theatre much more accessible and much more diverse.

From the trailer it’s clear that everyone is very passionate about what they’re doing?

Yes, and there was a palpable sense of something special going on. Jack Thorne, who wrote ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’ (and how also wrote Harry Potter and The Cursed Child currently in the West End) is incredibly passionate about Graeae, in fact so much so that he calls them the ‘National Theatre of disability’.

Rufus Norris – the Director of the National Theatre is really passionate about bringing about change to theatre and making it much more accessible both to audiences and performers.

We were very lucky too to get Sir Peter Blake - a patron of Graeae -  to design the titles for the front of the film. Everyone was keen to help in any way they could.

How did the cast and crew respond to being followed and filmed at what must have been an intense time?

It was incredibly tense actually and as a filmmaker you have to make totally sure that you are not getting in the way or treading on anyone’s toes – sometimes literally! Genevieve Barr and Arthur Hughes who star in the play were understandably very nervous - the opening night at the National Theatre is one of the biggest nights of any actor's career!

sugarwater actors in bed

Why do you feel that accessible, inclusive theatre is so important?

It’s really important that non-disabled people work as hard as possible to make sure life in all its areas is fully accessible for Deaf and disabled people. We live in a first world country in the year 2017 and it's the very least that we should all expect of ourselves.

I guess I work in film and have in the past worked in theatre and studied theatre (at RADA) so making theatre as accessible as possible, on the stage, backstage and for audiences is incredibly important to me. Disability can be a very isolating experience and coming together to share and tell stories is very much what theatre is all about.

What do you hope people take from the film?

I really hope that people take away that it does not matter if you are Deaf, disabled or non-disabled – there are opportunities out there and the most important thing is to explore your creativity and give it a go!

Director and producer Jo Lewis will attend the screening on Sunday 19 February along with Martin Prendergast (Director of Communication at the National Theatre) and Amit Sharma (Director of the Solid Life of Sugar Water and Associate Director of Graeae).

Glasgow Film Festival runs from 15 - 26 February 2017.


Inclusive theatre - what else is happening around Scotland?

The ongoing efforts of Graeae and other inclusive theatre companies are resulting in high-quality, high-impact productions, according to Maggie Maxwell, our Head of Equalities and Diversity.

“From the dark and twisted tale of Blood Wedding, co-produced by Dundee Rep, to the bitter comic tragedy of The House of Bernarda Alba, translated by Edinburgh-based Jo Clifford, the work and influence of London-based Graeae Theatre Company can often be seen north of the border.

Blood Wedding Dundee Rep Theatre. Photo: Viktoria Begg

“Elsewhere in Scotland, Solar Bear’s Deaf Youth Theatre is creating groundbreaking opportunities for young people who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing; Birds of Paradise touring company is helping the sector to adopt inclusive practices whilst engaging with and promoting the work of Deaf and disabled artists; and Lung Ha's work with people with learning disabilities has seen the creation of over 40 original productions to date.

"These are just a few of the many creative organisations with a particular focus on Equality and Diversity, one of Creative Scotland’s Connecting Themes. In fact, we support and challenge all our funded organisation to promote fairness and cultural entitlement, which we believe contributes to a richer and more diverse creative environment."

Photo credits: #sugarwater images by Breakneck Films and Patrick Baldwin. Blood Wedding image by Viktoria Begg

This article was published on 14 Feb 2017