Jenny Sealey is one of those people. Profoundly deaf since the age of seven, Sealey has worked tirelessly to promote and defend the inclusivity of disabled and deaf people in the arts. Since 1997, she has been artistic director of Graeae, the UK’s foremost disabled-led performing arts company.
Currently touring with the company’s Ian Dury-inspired rock musical Reasons To Be Cheerful, Sealey has no illusions about how challenging it is for a deaf director to pull together a something of this genre. “As a deaf director,” she says, “I have had to immerse myself in the world of Ian Dury. Spending time with the musical director, learning about the rhythm and scope of the music was crucial. My film maker Mark Haig was also sensitive to me being deaf and creating the film narrative of the songs in time with the music.
"It’s a question of alternative approach", Sealey continues: “I always have sign language interpreters. Having a deaf actor (Stephen Collins) and choreographer (Mark Smith) means that the world of my rehearsal and production are rooted in deaf sensibility. All the hearing actors have some knowledge of sign and, collectively, we engaged on finding ways to “hear” the music. This is useful for hearing actors who can forget to really hear what it is they are listening to. I love this feeling that access benefits us all in one way or another”.
This is the second time that Sealey has directed Reasons To Be Cheerful for Graeae; the first was in 2010. She feels that a fresh impetus has been found second time around. “It has been a real treat to have been able to revisit Reasons To Be Cheerful again. The script is tighter and character journeys are clearer,” she comments. “We’ve had time to really unpick the songs and their weight within the narrative.
“One big change is the choreography. I was fearful last time of anything looking like a dance number, because punk is not choreographed. But this time around I realised that, within the context of our narrative we could have numbers. It has been a joy working with Mark Smith (who is the artistic director of Deaf Men Dance), as he understands fusing the language of sign and dance”.
Sealey and her cast were delighted last year when they were able to join the surviving Blockheads – Dury himself died in 2000 of colorectal cancer – for a performance at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho. One of the numbers they did that evening, the notorious “Spasticus Autisticus” also appears in Reasons To Be Cheerful. The song (a parody of the famous line from the film Spartacus) was banned by the BBC in 1981for its liberal use of the word “spastic”.
“Ronnie Scott's was an amazing experience and a reminder of the importance of “Spasticus Autisticus". The visibility of deaf and disabled artists in this world of mainstream music is so crucial. I hope that the Reasons To Be Cheerful band and cast can do other such gigs and, of course. I still dream of a West End transfer,” Sealey muses (though the chances of such a move are remote,).
In line with the punk culture of the time, the language that writer Paul Sirett uses throughout can best be described as “robust”. Sealey is unrepentant, believing that the uncompromising dialogue offers a path to a younger audience, many of whom weren’t even born when Dury was at the height of his success. “One of the utter joys of doing Reasons To Be Cheerful has been introducing young people to Ian Dury and the Blockheads,” she laughs.
“We have an extensive education workshop programme, which happens in schools, and then they see the show. It is not unusual to see them downloading the songs on their phones as they leave the theatre. An audience of young and old is awesome. Young people realising that use old timers still retain our inner punk and we too rejoice young people to love Dury as we do.
“The audiences so far have been amazing. It is so obvious in these times of austerity and gloom that we still need rock‘n’roll. The whole play becomes like a gig at the end and people leave buzzing. As a director, this is a totally wonderful feeling”.
In a departure from Jenny Sealey’s work at Graeae, she was recently appointed co-artistic director of the Paralympics Opening Ceremony at the end of August. If her work with Graeae is challenging, surely a project of this scope must rattle her somewhat?
“Being co-artistic director of the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony with Bradley Hemmings is an extraordinary role. Having the permission to create something from scratch in a scale way out of my comfort zone is exhilarating but, suffice to say, I am having sleepless nights! The biggest challenge is making it happen and ensure that we profile the excellence of deaf and disabled artists for the world to see”.
It is well known that Sealey feels that disabled artists are woefully under-represented in all spheres of performing arts but she has ambitions to see this change. “I am hoping that the Unlimited strand of Festival 2012 and the ceremony make a bold statement about us as artists and that the rest of the theatre and media world take notice and stop marginalising us. Our visibility across the sector is still poor and this has to change."
Does Sealey have her own reasons to be cheerful? She refuses to be drawn but, with the ongoing success and recognition of Graeae as a mainstream theatre company rather than just “the one with the disabled people”, and the prized opportunity to promote her passion at the Paralympics' opening ceremony will surely give her something to smile about at least.
(Reasons to be Cheerful continues its national tour until 7 April)