Disabled Talent On And Off-Stage – Human by Extraordinary Bodies

on stage production image of three actors, two standing and one a wheelchair user, looking down and eating pick and mix sweets from a paper bag
Image Credits: Ali Wright

[AD – Press] Thank you so much to the Extraordinary Bodies team for having me!

Over the last few years, we’ve finally begun to see disability become more prominent in discussions about diversity in the theatre industry. However, it’s clear that we still have a long way to go. For many of us disabled theatregoers, seeing people like us on and off stage still feels like a rarity… which is one of many reasons why Human by Extraordinary Bodies is such an important creation.

Part circus, part serenade, and part cinema, Human revolves around the small moments that shape us. Co-directed by Claire Hodgson and Billy Alwen, the work was created collaboratively and remotely during the UK lockdowns and explores themes of identity and uncertainty through the real-life stories told by the four performers on stage.

Through a small cast and a minimal set, containing only a trapeze, a circus rope, and a set of drums, Human invites the audience to focus entirely on the individuals and their narratives, which are expressed in various formats as the show progresses. The performers utilise song, poetry and spoken word, instrumental pieces and movement to convey their messages, all of which are enhanced by the use of videos projected on a large, vibrant screen. This screen not serves as a backdrop, but also allows the production to incorporate virtual commentary from a fifth performer, and short video pieces to provide a visual representation of some of the ideas being expressed. One of the moments that unexpectedly got me in The Feels was during the curtain call at the end of the show, where equal applause was given in thanks to John Kelly who narrated virtually via the screen, and David Ellington who provided the BSL translation and performance.

Extraordinary Bodies, the company behind Human, is a boundary-breaking collaboration between renowned show-makers Cirque Bijou and leading arts and diversity practitioners Diverse City. The company is former of disabled and non-disabled cast and crew working equally together, and the result was quite breath-taking – a work of art where disabled people were not only included, but took centre stage.

For me, I will say there were certain elements of the 70-minute performance that felt like they lacked cohesion – small interludes and stories that served as beautiful metaphors for the wider concepts explored by the show, yet sometimes felt like they interrupted the flow and didn’t always seem like they fit. However, it’s a testament to the performers and the creative direction that this didn’t take away from my overall positive impression of the production, and wouldn’t stop me from wholeheartedly recommending it to others. Quite frankly, I think every person on Earth could take something away from the performance I saw.

In my opinion, it was the circus elements of the performance that really stole the show. Each performer was incredibly talented, and their work using the minimal equipment on stage was a mesmerising display of strength and artistry. A real stand-out moment for me was the duet trapeze performance by Jonny Leitch and Tilly Lee-Kronick, expressing Johnny’s relationship with his non-disabled twin sister. The choreography of this routine insightfully explored the complex emotions of carving out space and finding where you fit as a disabled person, and made for a visually stunning feat. Due to cast illness, the performance we saw on this night was a high-quality pre-recorded video of this scene. Although it would have been even more amazing to witness it live, the fact that a high-quality video was so readily available and contingency plans for cast illness had clearly been anticipated in advance just further demonstrated that inclusive practice is at the heart of this company.

trapeze act featuring one performer hanging upside down from the trapeze, one hand reaching down to life the second performer, a wheelchair user, upwards out of his wheelchair. BSL interpreter on screen in the background
Image Credits: Ali Wright

It wasn’t only the performance happening on stage and the creative process behind it that had disability inclusion at its heart; everything about this production was designed to improve accessibility for audience members. All performances are relaxed, and the use of the digital screen means that all performance content is captioned and BSL interpretated too. A particularly unique access feature of Human was the use of headphones for all audience members. All production audio was transmitted through these headphones, which meant that not only did the performance feel more intimate, but audio description could be provided on-demand for anybody who needed it. Although I don’t utilise AD myself, I found myself toggling it on at various points during the performance out of interest, and found it incredibly insightful to hear how the more physical elements of the piece, such as the circus skills, were described for those with visual impairments.

Although chronic illness is still sadly something of an after-thought when it comes to access and inclusion in theatre, there were many elements of this production that I felt also lent themselves very well to energy-limiting conditions like my own. The headphones meant that the sound levels never felt too overwhelming or intrusive, the absence of severe lighting effects such as strobe meant that I didn’t have to worry about special effects triggering a pain flare, and the short run-time of the performance meant that it was much easier to pace myself and avoid some of the dreaded post-exertional malaise the next day. You can read more about the dozens and dozens of access arrangements utilised by the production in their online Inclusion and Access pack – it’s truly the best and most comprehensive example of good practice in the arts that I’ve ever seen.

For me personally, though, the very best thing about the access arrangements for Human was the fact that social distancing has been mandated in every venue on the tour of the production. As somebody who is clinically vulnerable and still making decisions about what feels safe for me on a case-by-case basis, it was this that made me feel comfortable enough to return to the theatre, my second home, for the first time in over two years. Audience members were strongly encouraged to wear masks if they were able, and every person I saw gladly complied. Being able to sit in a relaxed and distanced environment, among others who gave me the impression that they too understood the importance of making this a safe space for all, meant that I felt at complete ease. I felt even more comfortable than I anticipated, which meant that I could fully focus on enjoying the performance and soaking up being in my happy place, the theatre, once more. I can only hope the theatre industry will seriously consider Liz Carr’s call for separate socially distanced performances to be implemented as an access adjustment, and look to Human as an example of good practice. I understand it would be no small feat to normalise this, but it really could enable thousands of people like me to feel part of the theatre community once more.

That said, there will always be disabled and chronically ill people who cannot physically come to the theatre to see a show, no matter how much they want to. Some may still be strictly shielding, others will be managing fluctuating and severe conditions, some may not be able to physically enter their local theatre at all due to a lack of access. Again, Extraordinary Bodies rose to the challenge – for several of the locations on the tour, a digital version of the performance is available watch from home. If you’ve read this far and you’d like to experience the production for yourself, you can watch a filmed version of Human for free via the York Theatre Royal website – you have until the 16th June 2022 or York, and you’ll be able to find the same thing via Exeter Northcott from 19th – 23rd June 2022.

Overall, I truly believe that Human, and the Extraordinary Bodies team behind it, is home to a remarkable feat that deserves to be widely seen and acclaimed. It makes me indescribably happy to know that Arts Council England has lent their support to a touring project of this nature; where access and inclusion are at the very centre of the work, rather than an after-thought. Now that I’ve been introduced to Extraordinary Bodies I’ll be keenly following their journey, and I truly cannot wait to see what the future holds for them. I really hope their work goes on to be the culture-shifting force of nature that it absolutely has the potential to be.

On behalf of a disabled theatre enthusiast who doesn’t always quite feel like they fit, I want to conclude by saying thank you to everybody who made this production possible. Human reminded me that there is a place for all of us in this world, and that we deserve a seat at the table – on-stage and off-stage. A truly diverse world is one where disabled and non-disabled people work together as equals, and this movement is a true celebration of that. And for me personally, it reminded me just how much of an impact powerful theatre can have – not just on individual lives, but on wider society too. Here’s to taking steps towards a more inclusive theatre industry, and a more inclusive world.

And in the meantime, you’ll find me desperately Googling local circus skills workshops for disabled bodies. I didn’t realise how badly my soul needs to experience trapeze/hoop work at some point in my life, but it’s taken firm precedence on the bucket list now… 

Thank you so much again to Extraordinary Bodies for having me – visit their website to find out more about their work, as well as upcoming productions and tour dates!

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