This is a full transcript of How do you learn trapeze if you're blind? as broadcast on 25 May 2018 presented by Beth Rose with Amelia Cavallo.
BETH - Roll up, roll up, you've got a ticket to the circus with me Beth Rose this week for the BBC Ouch podcast. But it's not just any circus; this one is extraordinary. What Am I Worth by Extraordinary Bodies is a brand new show featuring disabled performers, aerialists and musicians as well as some unique equipment. One of the performers has joined me today: Amelia Cavallo is a musician, a performer and also an academic. Hi Amelia.
AMELIA - Hello.
BETH - So, the circus, tell me what's it about?
AMELIA - It's about so many things. Extraordinary Bodies is an offshoot of a couple of different companies, Cirque Bijou and Diverse City, and this is a company that the whole ethos of it is to have an integrated cast that puts deaf and disabled people at the forefront of the work. And they did another show a couple of years ago that had I think two iterations over two years called Waiting. The one that we're doing now is called What Am I Worth which is their next project.
But it's got a lovely cast of deaf and disabled people, aerialists, myself and two of the other performers make up a band of live music and it integrates a lot of different types of performance styles really because it's very much circus, but it's also very much theatre, it's also got a lot of different layers to it that are really exciting.
BETH - Is everyone in the cast disabled?
AMELIA - No. We have two performers, one of whom is also on the directorial team and is one of the choreographers, she works with Cirque Bijou a lot and within Waiting as well. And then we have another performer as well who is an amazing rope artist has joined us. Then the rest of us are all deaf and disabled performers.
BETH - What's your disability?
AMELIA - I am registered blind.
BETH - Did you say you were in the band, you're one of the musicians?
AMELIA - And I do circus as well. I think that's very important to say: blind people do circus too.
BETH - What kind of circus do you do, which element?
AMELIA - Well, in my performer life the main piece of equipment that I do is silks, so if people know the big fabric that kind of comes down from the ceiling and you climb up it, roll yourself into it and then drop out of it and stuff like that. I also do rope, static trapeze, hoop, I've done a bit of harness, I did sway pole for the 2012 Olympics. Anything that will allow me to swing around at a height I've tried basically!
BETH - I feel like this is a fairly ignorant stupid question, but if you can't see how on earth do you learn to use silks and ropes and judge where the material is going?
AMELIA - In terms of actually performing on it it's really easy for me because I can't see the ground. I can live in ignorance about how high up in the air I am basically. I'm not particularly scared of heights anyway, but I think that's part of the reason why. I can just kind of be very, in a good way, self-centred when I perform and just be aware of my body, which is really nice.
In terms of learning I was very lucky to get a lot of one-on-one tuition or two-on-one when I started, and I worked with some amazing teachers who were just very good at describing. And once you get the lingo down and you understand what the main climbs are and the main body positions are a lot of things can become translatable very easily as soon as you know what you're doing. So, it's just like the first year I would say was quite detailed description alongside trying things low for a lot longer than maybe a sighted person would. And also a lot more physical manipulation to make sure that I understood where my body needed to go and what muscles needed to work and all that kind of stuff.
I for the most part can keep up with mainstream classes because I've got the language from these one-on-one sessions that I had ages ago.
BETH - Is there a way when you first start out - I know gymnasts and divers do this where they have like a safety harness that they wear - did you practise or anything like that?
AMELIA - No.
BETH - You just went straight for it!
AMELIA - We also have crash mats. For silks, for rope, for static trapeze there are usually crash mats. And then for some moves on static trapeze you can also they call it a belay where you've got a harness around you and then it's attached to a rope that the teacher's got control of so they can catch you if you fall or help you lower yourself easily and stuff like that. Because there are some more advanced tricks that the way you learn to do them is to fall, which sounds terrifying but if you've got the safeties involved it's fine, it's actually quite fun.
BETH - I don't feel like crash mats necessarily would put my mind at ease.
AMELIA - They're really good. I have tested them to the limit; I promise you they work!
BETH - What's the sensation like also if you can't see? Can you feel when there's up and down or if your head is facing the ceiling rather than the floor?
AMELIA - Yeah, because I'm in control of that movement. It's very rare - well, I say this, I have done improvisation time, but for the most of the time I'm doing a set bit of choreography, so for me I'm very aware of what my body's doing because I've planned it.
There are some times where when I spin it can get a little bit disorientating, but usually that's if I'm on a piece of equipment that spins independently of me controlling it. So, actually in the show that we're doing, without giving too much of the game away, we have this gigantic beautiful set that was designed for us that it's a big piece of scaffolding that looks a bit like a diamond, like a rock, a diamond ring sort of rock and it spins and moves, and so sometimes I can get disoriented on that because I'm not necessarily the thing that's moving it. But otherwise I'm usually very aware of where I am.
BETH - I was going to ask about this massive piece of equipment. I think it's quite unique. And I was speaking to one of your colleagues, they called it the rose, I guess because it's got lots of different layers to it.
AMELIA - Yeah.
BETH - So, is there something that all the performers use in some way? Does it help with accessibility or something?
AMELIA - Yeah. Everybody uses it in a slightly different way, which is kind of the point of it actually. It's really quite cool. Some people use it more than others, but that's more about devising and the way that the story has developed than anything. Everybody has absolutely had a go on it.
And what we have found about this set is it kind of allows everybody to move in whatever way works for their body, which is really exciting. So, we have our deaf performer is a lovely guy named David Ellington who is six foot something, quite muscular, and can just control it with like he breathes on it and it moves. So, the stuff that he does on it is quite dynamic. Whereas there's another performer who's a wheelchair user and is quite light and actually he and David do a lot of stuff together, but the way this performer, Johnny, moves around on the set he can just climb and pull himself into the tiniest little places. We all say that he has an easier time of it than everybody else because he can just tuck himself into the little nooks and crannies of it.
My favourite part of the whole process has been just exploring the set and watching how people use it, because everybody does it a little bit differently which is really fun.
BETH - The show is called What Am I Worth, which sounds quite poignant perhaps in many cases. What's the story or what are you trying to ask of the audience or put in their mind?
AMELIA - If you hear the title and think, ooh this sounds like it's talking about current things. For disabled people or particularly anybody who's had to go through any unemployment and had to try and get any benefits through the government that way, anybody who's been through those kinds of systems, anybody who's dealt with issues around access to work is going to look at some of the way the story is told and go, oh my god I have absolutely been there.
It's a little bit surreal in places but it breaks down the problematic ways that people are judged and what the systems of power do to people who are not as privileged as others. And then what happens when people rise up against that and take ownership and agency over themselves.
BETH - So, is there a story running through it?
AMELIA - Yes there is.
BETH - Is there an example you can maybe give us a sneak peek?
AMELIA - Well, okay. I'll set the scene for you: we have a really lovely community cast that it's going to be different in every venue that you go to. So, you start off and you see the community cast performing, and the musicians are playing, the professional cast is on stage as well, and then somebody comes on and starts to call people forward. It's a professional cast; we don't know why we've been called forward. And then we find out very quickly that the calling forward is a little bit sinister because we have to go through tests basically to find out how much we're worth. And the judgement is made by some outside body that has nothing to do with us. We go through it not really knowing why we're there, what it means if we're chosen or if we're not and all that kind of stuff - which sounds really sinister but I do promise there are really lovely moments of lightness and humour in it as well.
BETH - That's really interesting. Did a lot of the performers collaborate in terms of the story as well and personal experience?
AMELIA - Yeah. They've put something in the programme that says story devised by the cast, which is very much true. The script has gone through many iterations. We actually originally started with it being a lot more personal story driven; and a lot of those elements are there now, they're just a lot more subtle, because basically we all have such rich and wonderful lives that we just couldn't fit everything that we wanted to in a 45-minute show.
But we have a wonderful writer who has been diligently just pulling this story together out of what we've told her and also what she's been watching us do in the R&D rehearsals that we've been doing for it. So, we're not playing ourselves but we're definitely playing aspects of ourselves that have been amplified into a character for the sake of the story.
BETH - And you've gone for the circus as well, which traditionally wasn't necessarily favourable to all people.
AMELIA - Yes.
BETH - Was that, I don't know, is that a device or are you taking ownership back? What was the circus idea about?
AMELIA - I think the particularly modern, contemporary circus stuff has really looked to break down a lot of the traditional stuff. A lot of the olde worlde traditional circus style stuff is kind of dying and in some ways there are good reasons for that; in some ways it's a bit sad because there are important traditions in that that inform what we're doing.
I would say first and foremost this show - although this isn't necessarily a bad thing - this show isn't going down like the freak show route or anything like that, or the sideshow route. It's very much contemporary theatrical circus. So, the thing that drives it is the story, the characters; it's not really trick based. The acts that I do the director called it anti-circus, which kind of means it's more about the showing the experience of doing a circus act and what it feels like instead of trying to be like ta-da! Shot myself out of a cannon, woo!
Yeah, I think it's probably a device that's a very consciously used one and I think the politics around it are really sound, because it's there to amplify meaning as opposed to exploiting a bunch of people really problematically.
BETH - You mentioned that circus tradition is petering out a bit, and there was a huge American family circus that shut, I don't know, in the last six months. And obviously we haven't mentioned but you are from America. What's it like being blind in America and working in this industry? Is it better? Is it worse? Is it the same?
AMELIA - Well, to be honest with you I've lived in London for 12 years, my whole adult professional life pretty much has been here, and I think there is a reason for that. I think being disabled in America is really hard, particularly right now. I think it was actually easier when I left. I come from a part of the States that you need to be able to drive to do anything really, and I was so dependent on friends and family to do anything and be independent that by the time I came here I was so hungry to be able to just have simple things like travelling by myself, being able to get to the grocery store and buy food without having it be an insanely stressful experience - which that happens here sometimes as well. The tube and the national rail was mind-blowing to me.
I'd been to big cities before, I'd been to New York, but the thing about them is often they're quite insular, so if you're in a big city in the States you can get around in the city, but as soon as you want to leave you have to drive or fly. It's a lot easier to do a lot of that stuff here. Simple things like that meant that I could work more easily, I could make connections more easily. So, I think in that sense stuff is really hard.
I always really admire the deaf and disabled people who are working in any performance field in the States because it's so spread out. I think it's really hard in some ways to feel connected and to kind of remember that you do have a community. And now I don't think I could function in the States anymore. I don't know if I would be able to do it. I only know how to [0:12:41?] in the UK.
BETH - You're also studying, aren't you?
AMELIA - Yeah, I'm doing a PhD.
BETH - And what is your PhD about?
AMELIA - My PhD in a nutshell is looking at intersections of disability, gender and sexuality as they intersect and how that manifests in performance. So, really what I'm doing is taking myself as a case study, as a queer blind woman who works in a space professionally that is often made for straight white men and straight non-disabled white men, all that kind of stuff. And kind of taking all these things, taking experiences from my professional life and that have created these hunches about what happens to disabled women, to queer disabled women etc. and what that means in terms of [0:13:27?], what that means in terms of representation, and exploring that through performance as a mode of research.
BETH - What are you finding? Obviously you've got your personal experience which is one case study; but what are you finding generally across the board or as you speak to other people?
AMELIA - One of the things that I've found really interesting is that I think, certainly in disability studies, like the academic side of it, when performance is discussed it's often done after the fact. So, somebody will go and watch a performance and then comment on it after the fact; which is very useful. Not a lot of people to my knowledge are talking about what it means to be in the process of it and looking at what the potential stresses or exclusionary or difficult things around like acting process or biases in the way that a script or a story is written, how that ends up informing bigger choices or bigger issues that then can create tensions for disabled people.
Acting practice for example expects a certain type of body, expects a certain type of sensory make-up; a lot of stories expect a certain type of gender presentation and a certain type of sexuality presentation - and that when you're not that the second you go into those spaces they start to kind of break down and you start to see them fail a little bit.
And that kind of stuff I think is really interesting and is not looked at as much as it should be, which is why I'm looking at it.
BETH - And do you think that these sorts of status quos are beginning to change?
AMELIA - I think it's never going to be something that pleases everyone. It's never going to be like you turned a light switch on and now everything is great. I think it's a constant battles that is going to be often based in individuals as well because everybody is a little bit different and the way that they interact with the world is a little bit different.
I think that the big stuff is becoming more apparent, like the fact that there's a deaf performer at The Globe now; there have been disabled people on the National Theatre stage. That stuff is starting to trickle through a little bit more. But I think in terms of what the actual nuances behind that are I'm not sure we're there yet. I'm hopeful that we'll get there but I'm not sure we're there yet.
BETH - Well, it sounds like a really interesting and exciting show. If you are interested in going to see Extraordinary Bodies and What Am I Worth then here are the tour dates: 9th June it's at the Carlow Arts Festival; 11th and 12th July it's the Sunderland Tour Ships Festival; 4th and 5th August they're in Glasgow; and on 10th and 11th August they're at the National Theatre River Stage in London.
But that's not the only show that you might want to get tickets for or even apply to because BBC Ouch is going back to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year with Storytelling Live. It's where if you have a disability or mental health problem you can get up on stage and tell us your story. The theme this year is Going Out. That's it, just come up with whatever you think that's related to and send us your ideas by 18th June at 9am. It's a Monday morning.
So, basically write us a few hundred words about your story and tell us just a little bit about yourself as well, and the Ouch team will go through the stories and we will select the few we like best, and you will be able to come to the Edinburgh Festival with us. You can look on the website for last year's show. It was really exciting, a really fun thing to get involved with.
If you want to get involved in that you can email us email@example.com, you can find us on Facebook, we're just BBC Ouch, and you can always tweet @bbcouch as well.
If getting up on the stage isn't your thing we still love to hear you tell us your ideas, tell us your thoughts, and we'll speak to you soon.