‘We moved together, we breathed together’: disabled women on stage in 1980s Britain


Beckie Rutherford, University of Warwick

We are delighted to share this blog, which is winner of the 2022 SHS Postgraduate Prize. You can read the announcement here.

In 1980, Nabil Shaban (a disabled student and aspiring actor) and Richard Tomlinson (an English lecturer at Hereward College in Coventry) co-founded Graeae Theatre Company. It was the first D/deaf and disabled-led professional theatre company in the UK. Over forty years later, Graeae remains based in London and its groundbreaking work has received national and international acclaim. In 2006 Shaban explained his motivation for establishing Graeae:

I wanted to be an actor and there were absolutely no opportunities for disabled people such as myself … to either receive training as actors or obtain professional work.”

This lack of access and opportunity was a direct result of pervasive stereotypes and discrimination against disabled people in twentieth-century Britain. These structural barriers are still widespread and Graeae continues to challenge them by championing disabled people’s potential within drama and performing arts.

The name of the company was inspired by Greek mythology, and paid homage to the three old sisters of the Gorgons who shared one eye and one tooth between them. Continuing this sororal theme, Graeae launched its first all-women production in 1987. A Private View toured nationally around the UK and internationally in Malaysia. Although the play was written by a non-disabled woman it was performed by four disabled women with no formal acting training: Jenny Sealey (who was Deaf), Merry Cross (who walked using crutches), Kaite O’Reilly (who was visually impaired) and Letty Kaye (who was a wheelchair user). The story was set in an art studio with Sealey, O’Reilly and Kaye each playing an aspiring student and Cross taking on the role of a formidable art teacher. The climax of the plot was an art heist where the class used their impairments as a decoy to try and steal a valuable piece of art from a gallery. The performance was raucous and silly, witty and irreverent – everything that disabled women were widely assumed not to be.

A photograph from the play 'A Private View'
Cast members of A Private View (top to bottom: Merry Cross, Jenny Sealey, Letty Kaye, and Kaite O’Reilly). Image courtesy of the Feminist Archive South, University of Bristol Special Collections.

A Private View struck a chord with audiences of both disabled and non-disabled people. Disability was deliberately not the focus of the plot, instead the aim was to showcase these women’s talent for entertaining and storytelling. One newspaper review commented that: ‘There has been nothing condescending about audience reactions to A Private View … both [sic] handicapped and able-bodied theatre-goers have learned a lot from it. The applause has been sincere.’ In Graeae’s recently published commemorative book reflections from both cast and crew members of A Private View indicate how fondly it is remembered within the Graeae community. It does however, deserve much wider historical recognition for being an ambitious and innovative piece of feminist theatre.

The opportunity to perform in A Private View was clearly formative and enriching for the four actresses. The women each had varying levels of exposure to and understandings of disability politics when they were cast but the experience itself proved to be deeply politicising. Sealey recently described it as ‘my spring awakening, my rite of passage, my giant stride into a community which would become my whole life.’ Performing on stage alongside other disabled women created a rare chance for these women to use their bodies in autonomous and empowering ways – the director, Anna Furse joyfully recalled it as ‘four feisty disabled actresses strutting their stuff.’ At a time when disabled women were readily excluded from feminist celebrations of sexuality and body image, it was truly radical for these women to confidently exhibit and embrace their bodies on stage.

A year after the Malaysia tour ended O’Reilly reflected on the unique bond forged between the four actresses. In a disability-themed edition of the magazine Feminist Art News she wrote:

Collectively we created a powerful dynamic I have never felt in any other company and an on-stage awareness of each other that became startlingly acute. We moved together, we breathed together. No mishap could affect us, as our concentration, empathy and compatibility weaved an indestructible safety net. It was through discovering each other’s needs that we were able to develop our own skills and strengths.”

This sisterhood demonstrates not only sincere friendship but also a way of working together that was consciously collaborative and supportive. The four women were quick to pool resources and share skills with one another, a prime example being the use of British Sign Language led by Sealey and O’Reilly. This enabled the actresses to communicate both verbally and non-verbally to each other and their audiences. Furthermore, it created a performance experience in which non-hearing members of the audience were privy to inside jokes. According to O’Reilly, Sealey had a knack for ‘signing profanities as well as important plot information’ and the simultaneous laughter and confusion this provoked gave them a sense of ‘redressing the balance’ of ableist privilege. For the non-disabled women involved in A Private View, it was clearly a valuable learning curve. They recognised the importance of centring the agency of the four disabled actresses and according to the non-disabled director, Anna Furse, working alongside Sealey, Cross, O’Reilly and Kaye ‘expanded my consciousness forever’.

Whilst Merry Cross and Letty Kaye went onto pursue other avenues, both Jenny Sealey and Kaite O’Reilly developed professional careers in creative arts and drama. Since 1997, Sealey has been the CEO and Artistic Director of Graeae and in 2012 she was co-Director of the Opening Ceremony of the London Paralympic Games. O’Reilly is now an award-winning playwright whose latest radio play explores ‘disability rights, anger, friendship and hope across two generations’. I have not been able to trace Letty Kaye beyond her involvement in A Private View, however I have conducted two interviews with Merry Cross, during which we discussed her wide-ranging career in teaching, educational psychology and disability training, as well as her recently published poetry anthology. The achievements of these women are testament to the importance of access and opportunity not just within performing arts, but across all areas of personal and professional life. A Private View was ahead of its time and the disabled women at the heart of it should be heralded for their pioneering work.


About the author:

Beckie Rutherford (she/her) is in her final year of PhD research at the University of Warwick. Her project explores the life stories of disabled women and their relationships to liberation movements in late twentieth century Britain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *