Deborah Williams is a disabled performer, writer, producer and director, extraordinaire. She has many years experience in both disability and mainstream theatre. Colin Hambrook talked to her about her approach to making theatre and her dreams for her company, Reality Productions.
What is your starting point for developing a piece of theatre like oUo maan? Does the character come first - or do you begin writing with a particular theme or topic in mind?
oUo maan evolved out of a character from another play. The director encouraged me to develop the character as a way of promoting myself. My process begins with devising ideas and then putting them down on the page. I start with characters - it's usually a voice in my head speaking out loud. It starts with a long ream of words and then it attaches itself to an idea or a theme or something that interests me. When the two come together I start the process of building a structure and trying to tell stories. I start with character, because I come from a performance perspective. I approach the process with the idea of finding who is telling the story, no matter what the story is.
What was the inspiration for your character, Sister Dee?
She's been around for a long time. She used to be one of my pseudonyms when I first started writing reviews several years ago. She disappeared for a while. Then I did a cabaret workshop at the Actors Centre in 2004 and developed a stand-up routine and she developed out of that. She's quite forthright in what she has to say about men and about sexuality and about fear. I had this character who was quite bold in the way she presented herself. She's the part of me that says all the things I don't say.
I'm hoping to develop that show again, put some show tunes in it and turn it into a political cabaret. The writing is inspired, partly, by Bette Midler and Bill Hicks and people like that who were outrageous, but not necessarily hurtful, in what they were saying. People who weren't afraid to say what they thought.
How has the writing developed since A Woman Called Jackie?
Immensely. That piece was me sitting in a room going, I want to write a play. I bought a book called teach yourself how to write a play and followed it through. Essentially, that's how it happened. I was given £1,200 to produce a show at Jackson's Lane. There wasn't an awful lot I could do with that amount. So I relied on the fact that I was an actor and could act myself through anything. After that I did writing workshops with Paines Plough and BBC Radio Drama. I sat in rooms with people like Mark Ravenhill, Roy Williams, and Kaite O'Reilly. They all had a wealth of knowledge I was able to draw on to find out where my strengths and weaknesses lie.
I realised I was strong in my dialogue and character development, but had to work on structure and plot. So those are the things I think about as I move things on. I'll take a break after I've done a first draft and give myself time to think more about what I've created and look at how I can make it better.
I've started writing 4-5 handers for other actors and have developed more control over breaking down character and whether an audience can empathise with the characters or not, as the case may be.
Writing and Performing
What are you writing at the moment?
I'm writing a one-woman show and am currently working with two main ideas. Firstly, the Hottentot Venus. These were African women who were brought to the UK and paraded as freaks in Victorian times. They were dressed up and used as exhibits because they had large backsides and were very different from the white women the Victorians were used to. So I wrote from the perspective of not having a backside like that and wanting one. And I wondered what if the Venus' sister was disabled and was left behind when her sister was taken away. So I began writing about sibling rivalry and what that would mean to the disabled and non-disabled children in the family.
The other event I started considering was a shooting in Birmingham on a New Year's Eve, a few years ago. Two girls were shot and one was killed outside a party in a hairdressers. And one of those convicted turned out to be the girls' own brother.
The writing progressed from there to be about exploring issues around black women, mental health and gun culture. A story evolved about an older woman who became disabled and had mental health issues who discovers that she has a brother who also has a mental condition that she never knew about. The play is set within the genre of performance poetry and I'm composing music to offset the prose.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing, directing and performing your own shows?
The advantage is that I can change things if they are not working. I can make informed decisions about the writing and performing, without having to get judgement from a director or a writer. Equally, if a director asks you to do something as an actor, you may not always be clear why he's asking you to make certain changes.
The disadvantage is that it is just me working with a video camera. It can become very insular. I use the camera to try to keep balance, but it's better having another artistic eye to get feedback. I have a production manager on board now, who helps give an objective view on what is and isn't working.
As a producer I can make informed decisions, because I know my own access requirements and can think about the needs of a disabled audience coming in. Other producers won't necessarily have that knowledge - but will book a theatre regardless.
The minus is that the buck stops with me. The first show I produced ended up with a box office return of £2,000, but the second lost a considerable amount and I ended up with a credit card debt. So it's swings and roundabouts. I've learnt the places to go for support and information. It has been very good for me as an individual learning to grow and develop.
At the moment I'm working with two musicians who are asking questions about the structure and story lines and I'm having to be much clearer from the start. What's important is not if things change, but that there is something to hang things on, so the process can begin.
How did you get to take on producing Body of a Woman?
Body of a Woman was the first real thing Reality Productions did. The play fitted into the vision and ethos of the company, because essentially it has a strong theme around the idea of difference. My business partner, at that the time, translated and directed the piece and it went into the Young Vic.
The play is about a friendship between two women affected by the war in Bosnia - one a victim of gang rape and another an American involved in excavating mass graves. They meet after becoming institutionalised because of the impact of what they've seen and been through.
I want to produce plays because of how they sit within the idea of difference, rather than because they are championing disability, necessarily. None of the other professionals working on Body of a Woman were disabled, but the play drew lots of women's groups. They came and talked about what happens to women and the physical states that people are left in, after the experience of war. The post show discussions helped to raise money for Rise Phoenix - a charity who work predominantly with women victims of war, using conflict resolution to help people through trauma.
What responses have you had to your one-woman shows? Do the responses differ, according to your audience? I can imagine white audiences, especially, finding Good Little N***a provocative.
At a performance of oUo maan in Leicester we got a predominantly female audience across age and race. It was interesting that during the after show discussion about the character, her journey and what she's come through, there was a sense of relating to something about being a woman.
In Chester I don't think anyone laughed at all. There are gags in the show. But that's part of the gamble you play in presenting theatre, with humour, that also makes you think. If the audience laughed all the way through and then walked away I wouldn't feel I was doing my job well. Equally if they were all offended by it, I wouldn't be doing my job. I look to create a balance of comedy and pathos. So you can empathise but also have a laugh. As an audience you understand that the laughter is coming from someone else's pain, but at the same time the character is letting you in, and allowing you to open up.
My entire career has been like that. Some people come out and have a go because they feel I've affronted something they believe in. At the same time, others will be in tears and want to congratulate me about the performance or the content of the show. I think if people didn't think about it, I'd be in trouble.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming young disabled/black actors? What have been the key things that have helped you to develop your career?
I always loathe to give advice because what motivates you always comes from your own situation as an individual. It's about belief, believing in yourself, but also knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are. You need to be self-critical - not to the point of beating yourself up - but you need to have a benchmark around the quality of your work.
Getting experience is the key. I ran venues at the festival in Edinburgh for over ten years, on and off. Again, I fell into that. I always wanted to be an actor, but didn't get into drama school because I was supposedly an insurance risk. Back in the 1980s there was no law to stop theatre schools from discriminating against disabled people. Eventually I got onto a multi-media skills diploma in Yorkshire and discovered I had a natural gift for stage management. Out of that I got taken on at the Pleasance Theatre. Then I got bored of stage management and a little too old for it and moved sideways into administration.
It's important to be able to recognise what's good and to know where to find it. I don't have to be a good set designer. But I know what to look for in a good set design and where to find the person with the right skills.
Where is Reality Productions going next?
I got help from a bursary scheme with Arts & Business for small arts organisations in the diversity sector. Arts & Business offered skills in everything from writing a business plan, to how to apply for sponsorship. They match you with someone from their skills bank and I got help from an adviser / mentor called Kevin Power. Over the last year he has assisted me through the process of thinking through Reality Productions' vision and ethos. The process has helped me find others here and abroad who share the same ideas, and has helped me in reaching out to others, be they audience or funders.
At the same time I've been doing research and development, talking to people about my aims and looking at where a market lies for the kind of work I want to do. Now I'm in a position to start producing work and finding other artists who want work produced. I'd like to put on festivals and events and to start producing other artists.
What sorts of training courses are you looking to develop?
There is a real need for training courses for disabled and black people in theatre. There is such a dearth of people who have had access to good training, within the sector. I have never understood why there are such a limited number of lighting, sound and set designers who are disabled or black. I'm particularly looking at producing stage management and arts management courses. Disabled and black people often have the added value of understanding what it's like working on a project where you have people with mixed abilities or who are bilingual. There is a real need to skill up the next group of people who are going to take things forward and develop the sector. There's an issue within disability arts especially, around production values and quality. How you approach people to convey that understanding is something that can and should be taught.
I have started sourcing partners, some in mainstream theatre and training organisations and some in disability. I'm taking things step by step. The point is to produce something that offers real skills rather than just looks good on paper.