I started this article by writing a review for Richard Stott’s Wretched, a really brilliant stand-up comedy show sprinkled with theatricality. It’s an honest and hilarious account of growing up, living and working with Poland syndrome, a rare condition that meant that Stott was born without a pectoral muscle on the left side of his body, resulting in his left arm being underdeveloped too. As with all stand-up, Wretched features a plethora of absurdly funny and unbelievable cringe-inducing anecdotes, most notably an acid trip at Stonehenge. Yup, you read that right.
As I got further into writing about Wretched however, I couldn’t help but draw many parallels with the equally brilliant Still No Idea that was performed at Hull Truck in the exact same studio just one week prior. It became apparent to me that, taken together, these shows paint one overwhelmingly bleak image.
Wretched really comes into its own in the later parts as it focuses more specifically on Stott’s experience as an actor and the various casting situations he has found himself in. Shockingly, casting directors often conclude that he is ‘not disabled enough’. After undergoing years of surgery to ‘normalise’ (for want of a better word) his condition, he is faced with the reality that had he avoided surgery, he might well get cast more often.
Still No Idea by Lisa Hammond, Rachael Spence and Improbable Theatre examines (through the lens of comedy) the personal experiences of Lisa Hammond, another performer with a disability, and how the industry settles with casting her as ‘inspiration porn’ and fails to provide her with roles or stories of any actual worth. This made me think that, theoretically, if Stott had not had surgery it’s quite possible that he could be experiencing the same problems as Hammond. Whilst he might be cast more frequently, he could be relegated to roles that exist purely to exploit his disability. A disturbing double-edged sword.
Together, Stott and Hammond’s stories create a powerful image of an industry that is responsible for allowing performers with disabilities to be seen but not heard, using them to lull audiences into thinking that, because performers with disability are being seen on screen, they are being fairly represented. And as Hammond best expresses as she collapses to the floor in exhaustion at the end of Still No Idea, it’s something that we should all definitely be fed up with.
It feels significant that these artists have chosen to create two pieces of theatre that speak directly to their audiences and use comedy as a vehicle to aid the delivery of their message. These productions tap into the unlimited power that laughter has to evoke reflection and use the undeniable potential of live theatre to spark conversation. During three years on screen in a soap opera, Hammond was not once given a story. But here in Hull Truck’s studio, both Hammond and Stott stand in front of us, look us in the eyes and tell us how it is. And they don’t just share their professional experiences but their day-to-day ones too.
I realise now that something that I touched upon in response to Still No Idea was underdeveloped. There is no doubt that the arts industry has a huge role to play in combatting these issues (and it is important to note that many institutions and people from the arts and other disciplines are doing great work to help). But these brilliant pieces of theatre remind us that these issues are still prevalent and, whilst the industry needs to be held to account, so do we as audiences. Because the only way that we can truly achieve diversity is by changing our long held societal perspectives.
Both of these productions flirt with the idea of our collective guilt. We as the wider audience will likely have never directly caused any of the issues discussed and the artists certainly don’t blame us. But as I watched, it was impossible to deny some degree of my own complicity in perpetuating these problems. These shows remind us that as audience members, we need to challenge what we are watching. As makers of art we need to challenge others and ourselves. And as people it is our collective responsibility to ensure that the promotion of diversity in our society is being done for honest and real reasons, not just to tick boxes.
I urge you to see either or both of these productions if you can. Have a good laugh, hear some unbelievable stories and have a think about your own role in these discussions.