An Interview with Jenny Sealey OBE on ‘Self-Raising’

An Interview with Jenny Sealey OBE on 'Self-Raising' (1)

A leading force in disabled-led theatre In the UK, the creator of the aesthetics of access, artistic director of the disability led theatre company Graeae and co-director of the London Paralympics opening ceremony, Jenny Sealey OBE is also an engaging performer who has quite a story to tell.

Her show Self-Raising charts her personal journey from becoming deaf at the age of seven with some shocking discoveries along the way. Here, she talks about the show, which comes to Scarborough next week and Leeds Playhouse in March…

Can you start by telling us about Self-Raising. What prompted you to tell the story of your childhood now?
It was never my intention to tell my story. I was doing an adaptation of Flour Babies by Anne Fine. It was the default of a lovely evening meal with some much younger artists (we were all part of The Egg Incubator programme) and my interpreter. The chat and wine flowed and I told them a little bit about my life and family stuff and they asked ‘Are you going to be in your show Jen. You are a Flour Baby’. I said NO and Kate Cross (AD of The Egg) said YES. It all snowballed from there. It has been quite extraordinary.

Was it hard to face your past. What did you find most challenging?
I still feel so angry that the doctors would NOT let me be deaf. I started to grieve for the millions of conversations I have missed being deaf, for the horrendous gaps in my education and that being deaf led to some other events which shouldn’t have happened.

Inevitably other members of your family feature in the piece. Did you have to ask their permission first? Did they come to see it in Edinburgh last year? If so, how did they react?
My immediate family have read the script and have given me permission to do it and to use photos. They have not seen it yet. I will be so nervous when they do. My 92 year old great aunt saw it with her daughters. She knew the secret. Of course she did. Her daughters were cross that she had never told them. They told me some more family stuff about my great-great grandad and some of their own family secrets. It was an illuminating conversation!

You’re best known as a director. What was it like to switch over to performing. Was it daunting? Will it affect your approach to directing in future?
I loved being directed by Lee Lyford and assistant director Daryl Jackson. I loved being able to play and then they reigned me and guided me. It was a much easier switch than I imagined having not really acted since I was at Half Moon Young People’s Theatre and Red Ladder in 1990. I did have to take over David Toole in Graeae’s production of The Fall of The House of Usher for a week and I was in script in hand show And Others at NT and Where’s My Vagina at WOW. This is billed as a one woman show but I am not on stage on my own as I have a sign language interpreter with me. Four of my treasured interpreters share the tour and we do interact with each other and share the space, but it is me who has to remember all the words! I have loved taking on the aesthetics of access as an actor and I now understand the responsibility my casts feel owning the audio description and accuracy of lines because everything is captioned.

An Interview with Jenny Sealey OBE on 'Self-Raising' (2)

image: Tiu Makkonen

What do you hope for the audience to walk away with?
I want audiences to be curious about their families and to think about their own narrative. All of us have a play within us.

You premiered the show at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. How was that experience and how do you expect the London run and tour to be different.
Edinburgh was amazing to do and I had some great conversations with audiences after. I think the challenge for the tour will be adjusting to different spaces and remembering non two audiences are the same.

And now can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you come to be working in the arts? Was it what you always wanted to do?
I wanted to be a dancer and majored in dance and choreography BA Performing Arts at Middlesex Polytechnic. A friend who was majoring in acting on the same course directed me in Dario Fo’s Woman Alone and I fell in love with acting. I then went on to work for Graeae in A Private View which is where I found my tribe, a place where I could be me, a place to belong. Then I worked in TIE (Theatre In Education) with Theatre Centre, Red Ladder, Half Moon Young People’s Company. Taking plays into schools / youth clubs was truly wonderful and to this day I am upset that the TIE movement has ebbed away. For many children, it was the first time they had ever seen any theatre. Drama in schools – having plays brought in and doing drama is a human right. I hate that our Government are taking this right from children and young people.

What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
Being artistic director of Graeae is a mega highlight and I have worked with brilliant people and have a glorious team around me. I have loved all our plays but doing Reasons to Be Cheerful – our first ever musical was special and of course, co- directing London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony was truly amazing.

What’s coming up next for you after this? What projects do you have in the pipeline?
I am directing Romeo and Juliet which is a co- production between Graeae, Shakespeare North Playhouse and Theatre by The Lake. This will open at Shakespeare North and then transfer to Theatre by the Lake. One theatre is in-the-round and the other end-on so an interesting challenge. I have directed Shakespeare in Japan and Bangladesh but never in England! We are also developing a new musical Wedding Fayre which is a contemporary adaptation of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. There are also some new plays being developed with writers who have come through our Write To Play programme so this is exciting but we nned to fine homes for the work which is becoming harder in this current climate. But I don’t usually take no for an answer!

‘Self-Raising’ is at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough 20-21 February & Leeds Playhouse 22-23 March

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