Graeae Theatre Company poster for the production Sideshow

This audio description has been compiled by Colin Hambrook in February 2018. It was commissioned by Disability Arts Online on behalf of NDACA (the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive). It is read by the author. It is approximately 9 minutes long. 

This is a poster for the Graeae Theatre Company production Sideshow. The stark black and white flyer has the company name in white block capitals at the top of the page with a high contrast image of the face of actor, playwright and film-maker Nabil Shaban below.

The actor is depicted with wide and gleeful eyes protruding either side of a long sharp nose. His broad smile revealing crooked teeth, his mouth framed by a thick curling beard. To the left of Shaban’s portrait is a quote from Time Out Magazine “…entertaining and disturbing. See it.” Below in large, underlined italicised capitals, white on black, is the title of the production ‘Sideshow’.  Further details in white on black in the footer at the bottom of the flyer include: the Battersea Arts Centre logo with text in a serif-font and the Graeae Theatre Company circular logo, consisting of three hands placed around an eye. The performance dates Thu 28, Fri 29, Sat 30 May at 8 p.m. Tickets £2.30 (members £1.90: concs. £1.00) and the address Old Town Hall, Lavender Hill, SW11. Advance bookings and enquiries 223 8413

Sideshow was Graeae Theatre Company’s first production, written by Richard Tomlinson and the company. Tomlinson first began working on the production with fellow Graeae co-founder Nabil Shaban and others at Hereward College for the Disabled in Coventry, where Tomlinson was a lecturer. An earlier version of Sideshow titled ‘Ready Salted Crips’ (‘Crips’ being an abbreviation for “cripples”) was devised at Hereward in Spring 1975.

The group were invited to perform at the International Conference on Rehabilitation and Disability in Winnipeg, Canada in 1980, and a short tour to take place just beforehand was organised for them in the US by the University of Illinois, where Richard Tomlinson had previously studied.

Shaban and Tomlinson began recruiting a cast for a touring production of Sideshow in 1979 in London when Tomlinson took on the role as senior adviser for disabled students at the Open University. He and Shaban started to forge plans for putting together Britain’s first disabled-led theatre company. They had a name: Graeae, the three old sisters of the Gorgons from Greek mythology, with one eye and one tooth between them. Shaban said in a Guardian article: “The idea of using something from mythology to dispel misconceptions about disability was very important, and we wanted to contain that notion within the name of this embryonic theatre company.” Their vision was to use theatre, workshops and training to dispel prejudices and to counter images of defencelessness and accepted myths about disabled people.

It took several months to find six disabled performers, three men and three women, to take Sideshow on the road. Each performer had a different impairment. Nabil Shaban with brittle bones, Marion Saunders had muscular dystrophy, Jag Plah had cerebral palsy, Elaine Roberts was a blind person, and Will Kennen became disabled as a child after a road accident. Alex Low had spina bifida and the stage manager was hard of hearing. Turning personal stories about disability into performable scripts and acting them in front of an audience produced electrifying results. For the first time, disabled people were able to control their non-disabled audience, to explain frankly, but without bitterness, exactly what it feels like to live with an impairment.

Rehearsals took place at the Diorama near Regent’s Park in London. At this stage there was no interest in what they were doing at home but they managed to organise small premieres at London and Surrey Universities before leaving for North America. Sideshow was a huge success in the US where they played to full houses, were guests on chat shows and had excellent media coverage. In Canada they performed to over 700 people who had come from all around the world to attend the conference. On their return, they suddenly found everyone was interested in them – including the BBC who aired an Arena documentary in 1981. Nabil Shaban, who had no previous booking experience, began setting up a UK tour and in January 1981 they staged their performance for the UN’s International Year of Disabled People at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith.

Shaban recalls:

“Richard wasn’t happy with the Sideshow script, felt it needed a better ending, and so he was still writing it as he drove half the cast to our first performance at Surrey University. I was already at the venue, getting nervous and impatient, waiting for Richard to arrive with the other half of the company, having to make apologies to the organisers for the delay.

Richard arrived, announcing that the script was completed and we had ten minutes to learn the new ending. Despite all this last- minute panic, I was stunned at the audience’s enthusiastic reaction, laughing in all the right places, and giving us a standing ovation.”

 

Graeae publicity for Sideshow dated 1981 says: ‘This comedy, part burlesque, part satire, features an array of characters trapped in a fairground freak show, under the control of their warden, Uncle Sidney. They determine not to be treated as freaks and break out into the real world. With songs like I Want To Be Evil and a show-stopping recreation of the grand Hollywood musical, this controversial play has toured to acclaim.’ “Despite all our attempts to shock and outrage, we were loved by everyone,” Shaban says. “Bloody annoying, that.”

Nabil Shaban was born in Amman, Jordan. As a child he was sent to England for medical care and grew up in a series of hospitals and residential homes, where he had minimal contact with his family and was expected to achieve little educationally. His struggle to gain an education took him first to Hereward College and then to the University of Surrey where he gained a BSc degree in Psychology and Philosophy. Shaban continued on the Board of Graeae through the 1980s and returned to appear as Volpone in Flesh Fly in 1994. His screen roles through that period included the role of Sil in Doctor Who and the films Born of Fire (1983) and City of Joy (1992). Since 2000, Shaban appeared in several productions at Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh, including co-devising D.A.R.E (Disabled Anarchists’ Revolutionary Enclave). Originally commissioned in 1996 by Graeae, his play The First to Go, about the Nazis treatment of disabled people, was produced and toured by Benchtour productions.

This audio description was compiled using the following sources:

Getting Away From Sidney – Arena BBC TV documentary about Graeae Theatre Company (1981),

Richard Tomlinson, Guardian obituary (Brian Astbury Sep 2006);

Unfinished Histories interview with Nabil Shaban;

Unfinished Histories page on Sideshow

Graeae Theatre Company website.

 

It was commissioned as part of a series of 1000-word essays to mark the launch of NDACA, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Arts Council England.