Naomi Westerman

Lockdown emphasises the sharp divide between disabled & able-bodied, but there are silver linings

In Features, Native, Online shows, Opinion by Naomi Westerman

Much has been written by people far more qualified than me about the devastating impact coronavirus is and will continue to have on the theatre industry, and on those who work within it. But in blogs written by disabled artists and campaigners, the word “bittersweet” keeps popping up. Being housebound and isolated is not unfamiliar to many members of the disabled and chronic illness communities, strangely leaving us potentially better equipped than the non-disabled to cope, and experiencing a sudden flood of accessibility providing at least some small silver lining to the blackest of clouds.

I’ve lived with chronic illness and disability since long before I discovered theatre and started pursuing playwriting, and while I don’t like to call it a barrier, I’m daily aware of the separations and casual ableism inherent in this industry. A lot of this is cultural: theatre is wedded to the idea of ‘the show must go on at all costs’, and this has translated into a culture where extreme workaholism is considered not just the norm, but actively desirable. Theatre is predicated on the idea of the ‘able’ body, and even the most disabled-friendly organisations think about access in terms of ramps and large print, not more fundamental changes in working practice. If you have a condition that means you’re simply not capable of working 9-5 (or 5am-9pm!), regardless of what access accommodations are offered, you’re often out in the cold.

Theatre is also fundamentally an art form of collaboration, and the desire to base working relationships from sparks of connection can exclude the less privileged. It’s exciting to be asked to have coffee with a literary agent, a director, a theatre; to keep on bumping into all those new friends at press nights and parties; to watch those relationships grow into career opportunities. But what about people who don’t live in London, who have access barriers, or children, or caring responsibilities, or who simply can’t afford to take time off work for all those endless coffees? What about people on the autistic spectrum, or just extreme introverts, who struggle to communicate face to face?

One of my closest friends used to have to walk to central London for theatre meetings when he was starting out more than ten years ago. One of my other close friends had to take a MegaBus to London for a meeting that lasted minutes only a few weeks ago. It could have been a phone call then, and it could have been a Skype now.

Theatres hosting Q&As, workshops, social hangouts, even pub quizzes. It’s beautiful. It’s accessible. I’m dying for physical touch, but I’ve never felt less lonely. But is it enough?

Except… now it is. Everything is on Zoom now, and an entire accessible world of theatre has opened up. One of the last stage productions I saw in the months before lockdown was Eve Leigh’s Midnight Movie, a beautiful paean to chronic illness and life lived “Extremely Online.” Now we’re all extremely online. There’s a different livestream every evening, Twitter hashtags providing ersatz communitas. Theatres hosting Q&As, workshops, social hangouts, even pub quizzes. It’s beautiful. It’s accessible. I’m dying for physical touch, but I’ve never felt less lonely. But is it enough?

The joy and appeal of theatre lies in its shared liveness. Something happens when people gather together in a room. We make theatre not for the reward, certainly not for the money, perhaps not even for the creative outlet, but because something inside us craves the connection with others that only shared storytelling can provide.

Disabled theatre-maker and playwright Hannah Torrance says, “I’m finding livestreamed theatre really weird. At least half the joy of theatre is the connection between the actors and audience, and there’s no way to recreate that. I tap buttons to try and show my applause, while [actors] stand in front of their cameras and hope you’re enjoying it. Theatre is made to be a community moment.”

Sometimes these very community moments can feel isolating if you feel that you don’t fit in with the majority. Over the past fortnight, I’ve participated in a number of Zoom meetups and similar intended for theatre-makers to share their anxieties and fears about lockdown, and to discuss how best organisations can support us, and how we can support each other. Of the multitude of concerns raised, one was startling in its absence: the actual virus itself. Amongst the gallons of ink (pixels?) spilled discussing the economic impact and career fears; the anxieties over the rush to digitise work defined by its in-person quality; the potential for setting back the recent work on combating theatre’s gender gap; and the profound sense of dislocation and loneliness resulting from the overnight hibernation of live theatre.

I’ve not seen one word about the fear of actually becoming ill or dying. Perhaps it’s because theatre tends to be so dominated by young and able-bodied people, that good health is taken for granted

Amongst all this, I’ve not seen one word about the fear of actually becoming ill or dying. Perhaps it’s because theatre tends to be so dominated by young and able-bodied people, that good health is taken for granted. Perhaps it’s that illness and death are so frightening, such a new fear for many, that it’s mentally easier to think about economic and career-impact (fears most emerging theatre-makers live with even at the best of times). Sometimes you have to channel your anxiety where it’ll do the least harm.

One of my friends is currently worrying far more about their unwatered plants than their writer’s block, and I get it. But it does emphasise a fundamental divide. Hang out in disabled theatre-spaces, and the tone is very different. Says Torrance: “I’m taking this seriously because I’m high-risk. I live alone, so if I get ill, there’s no one to help.” It’s something I hear time and time again in disabled communities – something I certainly strongly identify with – that’s absent from most mainstream discourse.

Which is not to say the situation is entirely glum. Disabled playwright and poet Michael Southern offers a more positive note: “I’ve found it an oddly productive time [because] there’s less pressure to work. I also think we’re going to see people’s passion projects because all their other work has been pulled/postponed so people have the chance to make what they want.”

Personally, I’m finding it suddenly easier to work, easier to enforce structure onto structure-less days. This is mainly because, as someone who’s been housebound off and on for decades, I’m just used to it (coping tips?: Lists, alcohol, and Whatsapp). But it just feels so much easier knowing that everyone is in the same boat, without that creeping sense of being trapped in a time-stilled room staring at the yellow wallpaper while outside life moves on without you. There are and always will be divisions, and who knows how the current crisis will affect them. Coronavirus is certainly not the great leveller, but now is not the time for division.

With that in mind, I am going to be using the coming weeks of lockdown to publish a series of interviews with (mainly) emerging playwrights from (mainly) marginalised backgrounds, looking at how they’re coping (or not), and how they’re using our brave new digital world to connect. It’s not much, but it’s something. Like my favourite novel Howard’s End says: Only connect.

Like my favourite novel Howard’s End says: Only connect.

Naomi Westerman on Twitter
Naomi Westerman
Naomi Westerman is a British writer of Middle Eastern heritage. A former anthropologist, she started writing in 2015. She is a graduate of the Criterion Playwriting Programme and Graeae's Write to Play training scheme for disabled writers. Naomi’s credits include Tortoise, Puppy and Sketching (one of the co-writers with James Graham). She was recently shortlisted for the Theatre Uncut Political Playwriting Award, and is currently an Associate Company Member at the Bush Theatre and under commission to write a new play for them. Naomi is also co-founder of the feminist theatre collective Little but Fierce, and an advocate for disability representation in theatre. She also founded and run the Grassroots project, an outreach initiative to provide free mentoring, workshops and resources for young people from marginalised backgrounds to make their first short films.

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Naomi Westerman on Twitter
Naomi Westerman
Naomi Westerman is a British writer of Middle Eastern heritage. A former anthropologist, she started writing in 2015. She is a graduate of the Criterion Playwriting Programme and Graeae's Write to Play training scheme for disabled writers. Naomi’s credits include Tortoise, Puppy and Sketching (one of the co-writers with James Graham). She was recently shortlisted for the Theatre Uncut Political Playwriting Award, and is currently an Associate Company Member at the Bush Theatre and under commission to write a new play for them. Naomi is also co-founder of the feminist theatre collective Little but Fierce, and an advocate for disability representation in theatre. She also founded and run the Grassroots project, an outreach initiative to provide free mentoring, workshops and resources for young people from marginalised backgrounds to make their first short films.