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Graeae, Jenny Sealey MBE Interview: “It is a very, very brutal environment out there at the moment…We need the wider audience to be on our side & fight our battle with us, not for us but with us.”

Jenny Sealey
Jenny Sealey

Jenny Sealey

Graeae theatre company’s Artistic Director, Jenny Sealey MBE is distressed. “My Access to Work benefit is being capped,” she says. “So, my hours will be cut in half. They cut capping it at £40,000… I’m trying to work out how I am going to be Chief executive and Artistic Director on half the amount of access. This all remains to be seen because I am in complete denial about it because it is too upsetting.”

Tory cuts, reforms and changes to disability benefits and a growing crisis in social care and housing are the story of people living and working with disabilities in modern Britain. Her mood is serious, too, when she talks about the challenges being a cultural leader with a disability in 2017; she lost her hearing at the age of seven and relies on sign-language interpreters in much of her professional life. She speaks from complex experience and the threat long held over the company and so many others has now become a reality. “Many of us are going through the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment to find out if they can get their care packages recognised so that they can actually come to work,” she explains. “So, it is a very, very brutal environment out there at the moment but again, that’s why we are doing Reasons to be Cheerful because it is one way of just reminding the wider mainstream world that we exist and we are good at what we do and we need the wider audience to be on our side to campaign and fight our battle with us, not for us but with us.”

Jenny has been Artistic Director at Graeae, since 2007 in that time the industry has made huge strides to achieve greater diversity in terms of disability, race, gender and socio-economic background. But it still has some way to go. “A lot of the challenges are that there are still some awful attitudes out there,” says Sealey. “You can have the best ramp, an induction loop, sign language interpreters, note takers – everything but if the attitude of the theatre, casting director or the producer, the attitude of the BBC or Channel 4 or whoever, if the attitude is not in and around equality, acceptance and engagement then that is what stops us.”

Graeaes’ production of punk musical Reasons to be Cheerful is hitting the road again this Autumn. “We are bringing Reasons back because, my god, do we need a Reason to be Cheerful with how the world is at the moment,” Sealey laughs. “It is just one of the best shows to have in our rehearsal rooms because the music really lifts the spirits of everybody. It is such a gorgeous simple story of a young man who wants to take his dad to a gig, for the last time before his dad dies. It is a rite of passage story; it is about love, it is about being a blockhead, it is about political. Another reason we are bringing it back is because the gang love doing it – we all need to do it one more time before we are too old and don’t have the energy to do it because it is massively high impact! In my heart of hearts, I know this won’t be the last time but for now, we are calling it the last ever tour.”

Ian Dury contracted polio when he was seven years old and was left disabled. He wrote “Spasticus Autisticus” in 1981 as a protest against the International Year of the Disabled, something he saw as patronising. The lyrics were “So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin/ And thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in/ So long have I been languished on the shelf/ I must give all proceedings to myself.” Dury was a patron of Graeae and Sealey has the full support of Jemima Dury, Baxter and all the Blockheads. She has nothing but praise for him. “Oh my God what a man! For so many disabled people he absolutely changed their perceptions of who they could be, as young teenagers,” says Sealey. “The first time we ever did Reasons to be Cheerful in Ipswich, we did Spasticus Autisticus and afterwards some kid came running out and just said to John Kelly, our front man, ‘I’m Autistic! I’m Autistic! I’m Spasticus Autisticus!’ and it was the first time he has owned his impairment and understood it. So, it’s a many, many splendid song,” she recalls. “Spasticus Autisticus”, was performed at the 2012 Paralympic Games opening ceremony despite being banned by the BBC in 1981 and features in the show. “I love that Spasticus Autisticus was banned by the BBC and I love that it was part of 2012 opening ceremony and I love that it has now become a real national anthem for disabled people,” says Sealey.

Reasons to be Cheerful was first performed in autumn 2010 with co-producers New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and Theatre Royal Stratford East. This kind of work is best when it is willing to take risks and embrace the challenges of presenting inclusive and dynamic theatre to audiences. Do co-productions dilute the values of work, I ask.  “I think sometimes, co-productions can get diluted if there is too much compromise but that hasn’t really happened with us so we have been lucky. It is always something to be wary of,” she says. “In a way, it is the only way that small companies, like Graeae, can operate is through co-productions. We are very rarely in a position to do our own piece of work which is why this time round, Reasons is not a co-production, it is just us and that feels quite nice. It has really re-lit the coals of the whole company because we own it. Sometimes, the co-production, especially if it is in a city outside of London, can sometimes feel a bit detached from it. But, this time we are all absolutely on it! It is so nice to be doing it ourselves.”

She talks too about audiences taking a leap of faith on work that is not necessarily mainstream. “Ian Dury isn’t everybody’s cup of tea but this is more than just the songs. Well, it is the song but the story is for everybody who has ever fallen in love, anybody who has ever lost anybody and anybody who has ever tried to go to a gig or the theatre and it has all failed,” she says, as she tries to explain the shows enormous appeal. “So, that actually covers quite a lot of people! I think it’s a good fun show about a family and for most of us, we belong to families. The complexities, the dysfunctional stuff about being part of a family and that’s what it is. I think it is a show for everybody.”

“I think it is just really pushing the point that we are massively excited about this and we really do want a whole young audience to also see it so that they can realise the skill and the wisdom and sheer brilliance of Ian Dury’s lyrics and download as many songs as possible. We want the old fans to come back and support us!”

Reasons to be Cheerful – the Musical 
YouTube: GraeaeTheatreCompany
Graeae’s media language guide can be viewed here

National Tour (click on venue names to book tickets):

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry  8 September –  9 September

Derby Theatre  12 September –  16 September

Nuffield Theatre, Southampton 26 September –  30 September

New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich 3 October –  7 October

West Yorkshire Playhouse  10 October – 14 October

Liverpool Everyman  17 October –  21 October

Theatre Royal Stratford East  24 October – 4 November
Relaxed performance 2:30pm (matinee) 2 November