Note: This post is marked as an advertisement because I have been generously sent complimentary tickets to attend and review the show. I accepted them because I am very happy to support a production that features visually impaired performers and looks very interesting.
I’ve missed the theatre, it’s been 20 months since I last set foot in an auditorium. So what better time to make my return, than to see a brand new play that is produced and performed by visually impaired people, and is fully accessible for a visually impaired audience. That level of inclusion is courtesy of Extant, the UK’s leading performing arts company of visually impaired artists and creatives, whose work I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in the past when I saw Flight Paths.
The production, called States of Mind, is a contemporary dramatization of the poem Venus and Adonis, the first published work by Shakespeare. When the Bard wrote it, London’s theatres were closed because of the plague, so it’s rather fitting that this modern retelling was put together during the Covid pandemic.
In advance of its premiere on Saturday night as part of the Bloomsbury Festival, I was granted the opportunity to pose some questions to writer & director Christopher Hunter and actress Gillian Dean, who are both visually impaired (as is Gillian’s co-star Robin Paley Yorke).
So here Christopher gives us an informative introduction to the play, before Gillian gives an extensive and fascinating interview about her career and the play, and the accessibility of the performing arts for disabled actors like herself, and she gives a lot of advice for aspiring performers who want to get into the industry.
So, many thanks to Christopher & Gillian for giving up so much of their valuable time, amidst their busy preparations for the play, in order to share their insightful responses with me. Let’s get to it.
Christopher Hunter – Writer & Director
What inspired you to get involved with this production, and how did you approach the adaptation of the poem?
“What first struck me, when I first read the Venus and Adonis, was that it was a poem written by a dramatist. It begged to be turned into theatre, so I set about trying to do that.
What distinguishes Shakespeare from anyone else is his use of language. I cannot see the point in taking his stories, plots or characters and adapting them – then calling it a work by Shakespeare. Almost all his stories and plots are taken from other sources.
Venus and Adonis is inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which recently had a new English translation and was very popular at the time. I wanted to dramatize the language so – as you may imagine – turning the words of a poem into a play creates all sort of challenges. Especially if you are changing the setting from a woodland to an institutional room!”
Christopher is referring to the fact that the play is set in a medical observation room, which gives them a good opportunity to incorporate audio description, as suggested by his next answer.
How have you incorporated audio description into the production?
“The audio describer will be an actor who will also be playing a character in the piece. It is all part of the original plan for those involved to be subjectively involved. The intention is that some of the events that occur onstage are as surprising to the describer as the audience.
What do you hope that audiences will enjoy about the play and take away from it?
“I hope they will be reacquainted with the power and beauty of language.
What is your visual impairment and how does it affect your day to day life?
“My condition is Retinitis pigmentosa (RP), and my sight is gradually deteriorating. Peripheral and night vision are my current weak-spots. I do not personally require AD, but I went to shows to experience it and was a little underwhelmed at what was on offer.
What is it like to work with visually impaired actors? Have you had to adapt in any particular ways to meet their needs?
“The two actors have been brilliant. Initial rehearsals where we were still on book had to be short because eyestrain caused fatigue.
How important is it that disabled characters are played by disabled people?
“Very important and, yes, disabled actors should apply for disabled roles. I think there is a growing awareness of the imbalance that has existed, and that is now beginning to be rectified.”
What advice would you give to visually impaired people who have aspirations to become a performer or a creative member of the theatre industry?
“Do not limit your dreams or ambitions.”
Gillian Dean – Actor
This interview is also available as a video on my Youtube channel, as Gillian very kindly supplied it as an audio recording.
What is your visual impairment and how does it affect your day to day life?
“I have Stargardt macular dystrophy as my visual impairment, which is essentially damage to my macular, so the centre of my vision is where the damage is mainly located. My peripheral vision is pretty good though. So I don’t use a guide cane or a guide dog, I’m able to still move around pretty independently. But obviously I am registered as severely sight impaired, and that comes with quite a lot of challenges in life and in work.”
How long have you been an actor, and how did you get started?
“I’ve been acting professionally since 2009, but I have been acting since young childhood. So I remember being in my school Christmas play when I was about 4, I think that’s the first documented footage of me being in a play.
And I’ve carried on acting throughout. I did Drama at GCSE, I joined community theatre groups and amateur dramatics groups. I also did A-Level Performing Arts, and I did a degree in Contemporary Theatre at De Montfort University.
After I graduated I actually did about 8 years of working in arts management, front of house in theatres. So I worked in and around the arts and theatre industry, but not as a performer professionally, though I was still acting in community theatre at the time.”
How were you inspired to get into the profession?
“I really don’t remember what inspired me to get started. I just really, really loved acting. I started doing it in that school play and I just really enjoyed it.
As time has worn on, I have not lost that love of doing it, it’s still one of my favourite things to be doing. Hopefully I’m better at it now than I was then!
One of the things I remember thinking was that, when I was younger, in my preteens, I would be watching TV shows or plays, and I would look at people, and there would be some people I’d look at and go “Ooh, I can’t see you acting. You’re so good, I can’t see you acting, you’re so natural.” And I just really, really wanted to be able to do that. I wanted to really be able to pretend to be someone else.
And this is something I’ve done my whole life as well, in that I do often wander around muttering to myself. And I’m basically having little daydreams and creating dialogue to go with them. So I think, when you have got the acting bug, it is something that you pretty much just do on a daily basis. But I’m not a person who leaps around performing for my family and making them clap or anything!
But I do think that an interest in language and in people does mean that, while you’re going about your day, you do look at other people and you listen to other people’s conversations, and you get interested in them, in a way that possibly other people don’t? Obviously I don’t know, because I’ve been doing this my whole life.
But you certainly pay attention to other people and think “Oh, I wonder what’s happened to make you say that”, or “I wonder why that person has just done that and then looked frustrated.” And being an actor I do think you start filling in the gaps in your head, you start creating stories and creating characters, based on just your everyday life. So I think that is one way that being an actor definitely impacts on my daily life.”
How do you prepare for roles? Are there any particular difficulties you face?
“I’m actually very, very fortunate that as my eyesight has deteriorated and got worse over the years – because mine is a degenerative condition – my brain has done this wonderful thing without me actually getting involved, in that it’s started to compensate for my deterioration of vision by making my memory for lines really good. I can learn scripts very, very quickly these days, which is incredibly beneficial.
However, I can do that, but it does still take time, it still takes effort. And because I am still reading, I use an iPad, and I have the text zoomed in – I mean, enormously, so there’s only about 4 lines of text on the entire screen, and I have to scroll from side to side. So that takes a very long time, it can be quite tiring to do. And it does still take me time to memorise text.
So I try to turn up with my lines memorised before the first day of rehearsal, if I have the opportunity to do so, simply because it takes a lot of stress off me, because I simply cannot be reading a script and rehearsing with other actors, because I’m using an iPad and I have to zoom and scroll. Both my hands are busy, and I have to hold the thing so close to my face that my face is completely unavailable to the other actors. So basically I’m not engaging with them, I’m not interacting with them, I’m literally staring at an iPad. So that’s not a very workable way to rehearse. So I try to be off book as soon as possible when I’m going into a new project.
Do you use any other assistive technology?
With regard to other access technology, or technology in general, I think the world has definitely become more accessible to me with the improvement of smart technology like tablets and smartphones. I do know that there are lots of apps that you can use that are specifically designed for actors to help them learn lines. I don’t use any of them myself, but that’s only because I haven’t actually tried them yet, they might be really, really useful.
This is one of the other things I love about when I work with other visually impaired actors. Visually impaired people obviously have very different situations and access the world differently, and have very different access needs. But it’s really, really lovely not to be the blindest person in the room.
And apart from getting to work with new people, or work with people that have a slightly more developed understanding of what it might be like to be doing the job in the way we’re doing it, it’s also really lovely that we often share tips and advice, and “Oh you should look at this app”, or “you should try this screen reading software.” That’s really, really nice as well. So that’s a lovely thing I enjoy about working with other actors who are also visually impaired.”
How accessible is the theatre industry for you as a performer?
“Some of the challenges I face in the industry are that, very often, even when people know that they are casting me because they are wanting to cast a visually impaired actor, they very often still don’t really give you enough preparation time.
So I still get things come through from my agent saying “Would you like to go up for this role?”, I say yes, and then she’s like “Great, they’ve sent a script. But the audition is in two days time, and they want you to have read the whole play and picked two scenes to audition with.”
I am represented by an agent who only represents disabled artists, called Louise Dyson at VisABLE People. She really is fantastic at trying to fight access corners. So she will always come back to people saying “That is not enough time, this is what Gillian needs from you.” And she will do everything she can to get me as much time and as many accessible resources as possible. But I think the industry as a whole is still not geared towards giving disabled people time enough to build in their needs.”
What attracted you to perform in States of Mind?
“To be completely honest, I got a phonecall from Maria saying “There’s this thing happening, it’s a reworking of Venus and Adonis, set as a play rather than a poem”, and I just thought “Well, that sounds interesting, I wonder how you do that.”
And it was quite a short lead time, because I believe I was approached because another actor who was going to be involved was unavailable at quite short notice. So I was approached, and I’m very glad to have been so.
So I was sent the script, and I had a read through it, and I thought “Oh, this is a really interesting way of reframing this poem”, and I was interested in how we would explore that.”
Can you tell us a bit about the play?
“The poem is about love and lust, and almost sort of sexual obsession, which does sort of transmute into genuine emotional love, but only shortly before the very tragic end of the poem.
This piece has been reframed so that it takes place in a clinical medical setting, in which we certainly have a young male character who we can assume is the survivor of a sexual assault, and we have a woman who is certainly presenting herself as some sort of clinician, or certainly an authoritative medical presence. And she is interviewing him, or she’s treating him.
As the play unfolds, it becomes less clear what their respective roles are, and what their respective relationship is to each other. And they’re also both taken through a journey in which they are forced to confront their own respective past traumas, and try to find a path through them.
Occasionally they are supporting one another, but there is certainly an aspect of both characters trying to use the other one’s history against them. So there’s a certain amount of power play throughout the whole course of the story.
And it’s an investigation into what love is from different people’s perspectives, and what lust is from different people’s perspectives, and where they might overlap or flip over. And it’s very much about the psychology of how you perceive sexual desire and love, and the ways in which those impulses can be used as something aggressive.”
Can you tell us anything about your character, and what it’s like to play her?
“The character I play is called The Woman, the other character is called The Boy, they don’t have names beyond that. It’s very enjoyable to play her, because I don’t like her. I think that whilst a lot of her behaviour is coming from a traumatic past event, and so she is a very psychologically fragile person, the way in which this manifests is very much that of power play and abuse. So whilst I can understand her situation, I can’t feel huge amounts of sympathy for her.
And it’s always interesting to play somebody that is nothing like you, that follows very different impulses from me as an actor. It’s really interesting to explore someone who does things completely differently, and sees the world completely differently to me. That’s always an interesting challenge, and really rewarding when you suddenly get those moments where you’re like “Oh god, I understand why she’s doing this!” That’s always a really lovely moment, when you suddenly make a connection with your character, even if the connection is “I wholeheartedly disagree, but I suddenly understand why you’re doing this.”
Can you give us examples of other roles you’ve played in the past? Are there any particular favourites?
“I suppose the most high profile role I played was a character called Isobel Riley in ITV’s drama Home Fires, which was on ITV primetime for two series, which was a really lovely job. I was part of the main cast, it wasn’t a particularly sizeable role, but I did get to work with some really, really amazing British actors. And they were lovely, and we’re actually still in touch now. We actually still have a WhatsApp group, and we still occasionally meet up for dinner and wine. So that was one of the most fun experiences I think.
I also did a Halloween episode of BBC drama Doctors, which was my very first TV role. And I got it actually not long after I started acting professionally. So that was a real learning curve for me, because I went from having been exclusively a theatre performer and suddenly got my first TV job, and was like “I don’t know how to do this!” And it was only two days filming, but the cast and the crew were really lovely, and I felt like I came away from there with at least a vague understanding of how to act for TV, how it’s different, what different terminology means in TV land rather than theatre land.
One of my very favourite roles was when we did an open air promenade musical inclusive version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. And that was a tour of Wales. And, as I say, it was an open air thing, so we were performing in ruined abbeys, and national parks, and the botanical gardens, and in school grounds. And it was an inclusive piece, so there was me and two other disabled actors amongst the cast, each of us having different disabilities.
So it was really interesting to work out every day how to re-stage a piece, so that it made sense in that place. And because it was promenade it meant that throughout the play we were moving from site to site for different scenes, so it was a very physical experience.
I played Quince and Helena, and it was just tonnes of fun. We were really hitting the comedy, and that’s always fun. And we were allowed to interact with the audience, much as people would have in Shakespearean times. When performing Shakespeare comedies they would have seen what jokes were going down well, and then had a bit more of a laugh with the audience. So it was really fun to have that freedom to really play with people. And we would sit down next to them on their picnic blankets and eat their crisps, while the other actors were doing stuff. It was really fun. So I think that was a particular favourite of mine.”
What advice would you give to other visually impaired people who have aspirations to become an actor or a creative member of the theatre industry?
“It’s a little tricky, because everybody’s route into the industry is usually very different. I don’t think you’ll ever speak to two actors who have got the same journey into how they became a professional actor.
I would say pursue your interests, even if they’re not acting. Because the more things you know how to do, especially if those are performative, the better – such as playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, but also other things like being a circus performer or a gymnast, or any other skills you may have as well. Whatever they are, don’t give up on them in order to take up acting. Because one day there might be that thing where they’re like “Oh, do you know what we need? We need a unicyclist who speaks fluent Italian and is visually impaired.” And if you’re that one person, that job is yours.
So I would definitely say you don’t have to be everything to everybody, but I would say make sure that you have a well-rounded life, as well as just an acting aspiration.
Also, get involved in as much theatre as you can. I would say that from every job I’ve ever done I have learned something useful. Even if what I’ve learned is that I don’t ever want to be involved in something like that again, or if I’ve learned that actually I’ve taken on too much and I can’t do this – those are not necessarily positive lessons emotionally, but they are useful, so that as you go forth you know more about yourself as a performer.
And get as good as you can. Engage with classes and engage with workshops. Do as much and get as skilled as possible, so that when those opportunities come around, you’re in the best possible position to take them.
For example, I’ve always called myself a singer, and I like singing and I’m a relatively good singer. I’m certainly not a technically competent singer, in the sense that I can’t really read music. Even if I could see it, I can’t really read it. I can’t sing from a score without having heard it before. But I can sing quite well, I have quite good voice control.
But in the last two years I realised that I only ever went and had singing lessons when I had an audition coming up. I have a wonderful singing teacher who’s just incredibly knowledgeable and a really good teacher, and I’d turn up in a panic going “Oh my god, I need to find a song and learn how to do it really well – by next Tuesday!”
Whereas what I’ve been doing for the last two years is going to have a singing lesson every fortnight, regardless of whether I’ve got an audition coming up. So that meant the next time a singing audition came up, my voice was in really good repair, I had this whole repertoire of songs that we’d built up over the previous year to pick from, and I was just in a much better place to go for it. So be as skilled and as prepared as you can be.”
What is your advice on getting roles and being noticed by casting directors?
“Well, I have an agent who puts me up for stuff and that is where I get most of my work from. But having been in shows with people, while I’m no good at networking as an actual sort of focused activity, I am very good at chatting to people and staying in touch with people. Mainly people who I’ve liked actually. I’m not very good at networking in that cynical way of hooking on to people I think will be useful to me.
But when you work with people – and this is true anyway – it’s always so useful to be professional and approachable and friendly. Because not only does it make your life and everybody else’s life that you’re working with easier, but it does mean you’re more likely to make contacts that are going to last. So they might go off and become the next amazing director at the RSC or something, and they might think “Oh, wait a minute, I worked with Gillian a few years ago, I bet she’d be good for this role.” So making those contacts where you have the opportunity is really good.
It’s worth remembering that when you’re first starting out, getting footage for a showreel together is really useful. Because most casting directors want to be able to see a showreel – by which I mean a series of clips of footage of you performing, edited together into a one or two minute long video. Because casting directors want to be able to just look at something where they get a really quick, really clear idea of what you sound like, what you move like, what you look like, what kinds of roles you might have played. It should only be one to two minutes long, because no casting director is going to watch for more than about a minute. So keep it snappy, keep it effective.
It’s definitely worth trying to get good quality footage. So if there’s a film school or a university that does a film course, for example, it’s useful getting in touch with them and seeing if their students need actors for their films, because that way you can start gathering comparatively high quality footage. And if you do get any sort of TV or film work, absolutely make sure that you can get hold of the footage and add it to your showreel.
Having a Spotlight page I think is a fairly industry standard thing. It does cost money, it’s got an annual fee of about £170, but I get a discount because I’m a disabled actor, and I think that makes it about £150 a year. It’s basically an online CV platform where you can post all of your credits, and all of your skills, and all the accents you can do, and who your agent is. So it’s a place where you have all your details about who you are as a performer, and what you can do, and the range of photos, and it’s where you’d post your showreel and your voice reel, and any other bits of footage that you think show you in a good light. And that is a place that casting directors will go to find you.
It’s also a thing that most agents want you to have if they’re going to represent you, because they want to make it as easy as possible for casting directors to cast you.
So getting some professional headshots taken is a part of that. Make sure that you’ve got good quality photos. There’s lots of advice out there about what a professional headshot should be, so I’d definitely find out things like that. Those are the more practical things that you need to have in place, so that when people look at you, they see you presenting a professional profile, rather than an amateur one. And that will occasionally make the difference between people glancing at your profile and going “Oh no, not them” and actually taking a look at you.
So I’d say that’s always a good thing, to try and make sure that everything you’re putting out there looks as professional and industry standard as possible.”
How important is it that disabled characters are played by disabled people?
“I don’t ever think able-bodied actors should be playing disabled actors these days, I don’t think that’s appropriate.
A friend of mine once gave me a rule of thumb to guide the thought process around this, which is to turn it into a race issue. If an able-bodied actor was approached for a role, and they said they would love to do it, and they were then asked if they were happy to black up for it… if that actor were to say yes, then I’d question their moral choice. But I think most actors, if approached with that question in this day and age, would say “Absolutely not, I would not be comfortable doing that.”
In terms of ‘cripping up’, which is a term that we disabled actors in the industry tend to use, lots of able-bodied actors will still say “Yeah, I’m absolutely happy. In fact, I think it would be really rewarding and challenging to learn how to be blind for a month, or how to be a wheelchair user, etc.” Lots of able-bodied actors do still seem to be comfortable cripping up, and personally I don’t think that should be happening.
There is a slightly sticky ground, however, which personally I am morally conflicted on myself, which is that in most of my film and TV roles I have played a character who is much more blind than I am, because those are the roles.
And when I’ve turned up at the audition, I’ve been very clear about what my visual impairment is, and I’ve asked them if they want me to be more blind. And usually at audition stage people go “Oh no, no, no, we haven’t really confirmed what the character’s disability is, it might change. So just do it with your level of sight, that will be fine.” There’s only been one audition I’ve done where they’re like “No, they are completely sightless”.
But in most auditions I’ve had, they’ve been like “Oh no, no, no, it’s fine.” But then I’ve been offered the role, and then when I’ve turned up to do the role there’s been a certain amount of “Ok, great, so we’re just gonna need you to feel this person’s face, we’re just gonna need you to be guided into this room, and you don’t know there’s someone standing next to you.” At which point you’re like “Ah, so this is a completely blind character then.” And I am playing the character’s disability rather than my own.
I’m genuinely morally conflicted by that, because I would rather a visually impaired actor was playing a visually impaired role than an able-bodied actor, but I know there are lots of visually impaired actors who don’t feel comfortable playing disabilities that are more pronounced than their own, because they consider that to be the same thing as cripping up.
So yeah, it’s a moral quandary. I’m not actually sure I’m comfortable with it, and I know I have taken jobs that I certainly have cripped up for. And I don’t know how I feel about that, I have to say. I think it’s a bit of a grey area, and it’s something that I need to think more about.
I haven’t had that problem so much in theatre, I have to say. A lot of theatre roles I’ve been approached with have not required me to be differently disabled than I am. But that’s not true across the board. I have definitely had auditions for, and been cast in, theatre roles where I am playing a more blind person than myself.”
Should disabled people also be allowed to apply for able-bodied roles?
“I certainly think disabled actors should be put up for any role, if there is no good reason why that role cannot be a character who happens to be disabled. If you have a character who absolutely has to be non-disabled, then that’s fine, I think, if you can justify that choice. But I think any other role disabled actors should be allowed to audition for, and should be seriously considered for, if they are the right actor for the job, regardless of whether they are disabled or not. Because if a role doesn’t specifically require someone to be able-bodied or disabled, then it should be open to absolutely everybody to audition for, including disabled actors.
I think we are approaching a place in history where that is happening more for others of members of under-represented groups. I think it is more common – but still not common enough – for you to see a character who is a person of colour playing a role of a butcher or a police officer or a judge or whoever, and for their race not to be an issue – it’s not mentioned, it’s not referred to, it’s not relevant that that character is being played by an actor of colour.
We are not at a period of history where that’s the same for disabled actors, I think. Usually when you see a disabled actor in something, there’s usually been a reason for them to be cast, there’s usually a focus on the disability rather than the actor. That is happening less and less, but it’s still very, very much the overriding norm. So yeah, I think that’s something that needs to change in the industry.”
What are your plans or goals for the future in your theatre career? Are there any dream roles you would like to have?
“Immediately after States of Mind I am going to be working as an understudy at the National Theatre, in the upcoming production of Manor, where I’m understudying an actor called Amy Forrest for the role of Ruth Getz. I’m very excited, as it’s my first time working with the National, so I’m really, really looking forward to it.
In terms of dream roles, I would love to get a decent meaty comedy role, either on stage or on TV, that would be really great. And I always like a slightly horror-based sort of series, so I’m a big fan of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. I would absolutely love to get a main cast part in something like that. Or Amazon Original’s The Boys is my favourite TV show at the moment, so getting a role in that would just be absolutely incredible.
And I desperately, desperately wanted to be in Agatha Christie’s Marple, the reboot of the Miss Marple series. I would have loved to be in one of those, but unfortunately they’re not making them any more.”
And that’s it. Many thanks again to Christopher and Gillian for their responses. Learning what to expect from the play has only served to make it all the more intriguing. And I loved getting an insight into Gillian’s various roles, her extensive discussion about the industry’s accessibility for disabled actors, and her excellent advice for others looking to get involved in the performing arts.
If you want to hear more from the team behind States of Mind, you can also check out:
- Shona Louise’s blog interview with Gillian Dean & co-star Robin Paley Yorke.
- BBC Radio London’s interview with Robin (jump to 1 hour 10 minutes in).
- RNIB Connect Radio’s interview with director Christopher Hunter.
And look out for my review next!