In Conversation with Sofya Gollan (Part Two)


This is the second of two articles written by theatremaker and 2016 Griffin Studio alum Sofya Gollan. Throughout this piece, Sofya situates Australia within the wider international Disability Arts community, and Griffin within the accessibility conversation—highlighting the, regretfully, true point that the Stables wouldn’t able to accommodate many of her friends and colleagues.

We are excited to announce that Griffin will now be providing a live-captioned performance for the hearing impaired for all Main Season shows. This past Tuesday marked the inaugural live-captioned performance at the Stables—of Michele Lee’s Rice. You can book for Diving for Pearls live-captioned performance on Tuesday 17 October 7pm here.

So what has Disability Art got to do with Griffin? I came into the Studio group with a play that I was doubtful was going to fly. Based on a true-life situation of a friend, the main character is DeafBlind and core themes deal with entrapment for all of its characters. I wasn’t sure it was going to be relevant to anyone outside the disability sector.

But a surprising thing for me happened over the year spending time with the other five playwrights in the studio and Lee and Ben, one of our tasks was to read the plays that came in for the Griffin Award. Engaging in the round table assessments of over a 100 plays to winnow down to the final choice (The Zen of Table Tennis), I came to the realization that a healthy theatre culture is one made up of many voices.

This experience made it possible for me to compare and judge if my story was already being told and as far as I could see, it was not. I gained confidence it had a place that was worth pursuing. It was also reassuring that it was not necessary to be dazzling with situation or character, but to tell the story that no one knows, and relevance would take care of itself.

Part of the support at the Griffin enabled me to go to London to work with an actress in her sixties, Jean St Clair, who is deaf, and very much in demand. There is no one like her in Australia, with her knowledge of theatre and depth of professional experience and deep ties to the deaf community. She was a perfect collaborator for the lead character who is DeafBlind.

The workshop was fruitful, as it illuminated that I would be presenting three different languages on stage throughout the play: Auslan (Australian Sign Language), Tactile Sign Language for the DeafBlind, and English. This process made clear to me that I would need to find elegant and simple ways of ensuring that all of it could be understood by the audience. It emphasized something I already knew: professional, deaf actors fluent in the languages would need to be cast in the roles.

These workshops coincided with the biennial Unlimited Festival held in SouthBank, a festival of international Disability Art showcasing theatre, visual arts, film, dance and music. It was an opportunity to place my developing work in the international context, after months embedded at Griffin where the focus is new Australian work.

Unlimited Festival was set up as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and is now an ongoing programme designed to embed work by disabled artists within the broader UK cultural sector, to shift perceptions of disabled people. It is a big fixture in the Disability Arts scene, so I was excited to be seeing the best of what was on offer. Like all festivals, I found the quality uneven, as many of the supported artists are early in their careers, experimenting and developing still. There were standouts, Suicide the Musical, Biscuit, The Fish Police. All presenting their unique thing like no other.

I had expected coming home to the Arts Activated Conference almost directly after would be a jarring comparison, but the segue into exploring what’s happening in the disability arts sector in Australia showed we have a critical mass of artists now producing extraordinary work captivating public enthusiasm. Our work and our artists most definitely rate against their international counterparts.

I’ve taken a broader view than just theatre, because much of what is created in the disability arts scene is multi-disciplinary, and there doesn’t seem to be that many playwrights with disability. Writing a play is labour when it comes down to it, all that rewriting until the inner narrative is distilled down to a theatre-ready piece. It’s not quite the fun and games as say, dancing.

I have wondered if I might see one of my works at the Stables, and I know I would be thrilled to see it play in its intimate, compact space. I have attended many plays over the years but coming back for Griffin Studio I viewed it with a different lens, to find it one of the most inaccessible theatres I have ever been in. No one with a mobility disability could get up the stairs. Perhaps one wheelchair user could fit in, if there was a lift. The Auslan interpreter would probably have to sit in someone’s lap, and the audio-description for the blind would be overheard by everyone.

I am half-joking of course. The theatre is slightly bigger than that. It would be wonderful to put on a play for Griffin, but knowing my peers would be barred from getting in or understanding due to lack of access, would be high hypocrisy on my part. Its not a lack of will or understanding that holds the Griffin back from implementing changes, but rather the doubly high cost of aligning the theatre’s heritage restrictions with the additional complexity of access infrastructure.

I am grateful to Griffin for its dedication to new work, new people, new ideas. My year at Griffin showed me we each hold our universes, and our task as playwrights is to simply unfold them, using all the best words we have.

The requirement of having to meet once a week at Griffin has been a valuable discipline in a time of children, work and enforced writing late at night. Every week was an hour and half of shooting the breeze on all things theatre and writing, in a space that was questioning, warm and companionable. The company of other writers was a rare, life-affirming treat.

Read Sofya’s first article for the Griffin blog here