Since the 1980s, Graeae have trail blazed the performance arts landscape by shattering perceptions of disability and making the arts accessible to all. 36 years down the line, and they show no signs of slowing down, bringing their brand of fun, collaboration and daring to their latest and popular production, Reasons to be Cheerful, a feel good musical tying the songs of the legendary artist Ian Dury and the Blockheads to create an unforgettable experience. Ahead of Graeae’s summer tour, starting off at Latitude, Theatrefullstop were lucky enough to speak to lead vocalist, John Kelly about what being apart of Graeae means to him, what drew him to take part in the production 6 years ago, and what it felt like taking part in the 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony.
Hi John! You’ll be starring in Graeae’s bold production of Reasons to be Cheerful this summer, starting at the Latitude Festival. How are you feeling ahead of the event?
I’m really really excited to be doing it! It’s such a great energetic show and everyone needs a bit of it. The show has been around since 2010 [and] back when we first started it we had no idea what the reaction would be or how it would go down; it’s just snowballed in terms of the level of support and the energy that the show has generated. It’s been brilliant the way it’s just gone on and on and it’s still got the same energy as the first night that we ever did it!
Reasons to be cheerful is a bold, unapologetic and joyous musical tying the works of the legendary Ian Dury and The Blockheads. What drew you to take part in the project?
I’m a bit of a punk myself! Before going into ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ I was mainly a singer. I’d been involved in theatre a little bit but not in this major way so my involvement was as a vocalist. I grew up with Ian Dury, he was big in my childhood and iconic in terms of the music I listen to in terms of Punk and Ska. Ian Drury’s a lot more fun with Punk, he’s a real crossover. I was really really into doing it so this is a dream job for me really! The first day I did Research and Development, I got asked to come along to do research, it was a dream job, I couldn’t believe I was doing it. I’d always expected them to get a proper actor to do it, and I’d just be coming in until they got someone proper to do it. At the end of the Research and Development, Jenny (Sealey MBE) said “would you like to be our vocalist?” and I got swamped up in shock, I couldn’t believe it! It’s such a brilliant thing to be doing.
You are the lead vocalist in the production, is there a typical day in rehearsals?
There’s always a lot of naughtiness and shenanigans! Plenty of cheekiness from me anyway! There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, anyone that’s been involved in the rehearsal process knows that probably that’s the hardest part of it because you’re literally doing 3 or 4 times the length of the show during the day. The energy of the show is right up there, the audience go away exhausted and they say, “God knows how you do that every night!” The music does something to you, it gives you that energy. The rehearsal process is intense and it is hard work no doubt about it because everyone wants to give it the justice it deserves.
Reasons to be Cheerful made its debut 6 years ago at one of the world’s biggest stages, The Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. How did it feel to be apart of such a celebratory event?
It was nerve wracking to say the least, it was a scary time. You’re doing something presumably controversial and [you were not sure] how it was going to go down. ‘Spatisticus Autisticus’ started off banned, and that was because it was deemed as being a bit naughty, a bit on the edge. If you actually understood it and listened to it, it was never naughty, it was never really on the edge, Ian (Dury) wrote that song as a war cry for people to say “we’ve got to stand up and we can’t let this happen any more, we can’t let disabled people be marginalised and discriminated against, we’ve got to fight against it” and that’s what ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ was about and it’s very much how our Olympics was, it was a celebration of disability art and disability sport and it was about trying to change the awareness and consciousness of people to buy into that version rather than the stereotyped version of disability that’s usually regurgitated.
It was an amazing experience and we’re very lucky and privileged to be part of it. We were also very aware that it was a moment to make a mark and to say something about here and now. It was very powerful, all the dancers having those placards and talking about rights and equality which is something that [we’ve] been on about for a long time. In many ways, this musical is so relevant to what’s going on here and now in the context to what’s happened to disabled people with the cuts. The musical is important because it’s reminding us we still have to keep an awareness, we have to keep switched on to what’s happening and still challenge what’s going on.
It’s fair to say that Graeae are trailblazers in term having the ethos of ‘accessibility’ at its core. What does being apart of Graeae mean to you?
For me it means as an artist, I don’t have to think about my access requirements because it’s built in, it’s not a bolt on. For an artist, it’s a nice place to be involved because I’m not having to explain why I do things in a certain way because everybody already appreciates that in order for me to do a good job I need things to be accessible.
I think how that relates to the audience is that it adds another dimension to the performance, which people aren’t expecting to experience. We get a lot of Blockheads fans come to the show and quite often I’ve never seen the lyrics, I never knew they were the words to the songs because they’re fast or whatever and then you’ve got the images on the top of the lyrics. We have these visuals that go on behind the actors, and so the whole visual is like an added dimension that brings something unique to the performance. I think that’s a really nice thing, we’ve always known and believed that if access is really thought about then it’s good for everyone, it’s not just about it being for disabled people, it’s good for everyone.
All the sign language is integral and intrinsic to it. The BSL isn’t just a bolt on one night of a run of shows it’s every night. It’s not a bolt on to the side of the stage, we talk about it being apart of the aesthetic of the performance, you don’t notice it because it’s there and you suddenly realise it’s all about the show. The show stands very clearly with its own narrative and access just becomes another beautiful dynamic of it.
Who or what are your inspirations for becoming a vocalist?
I know it’s going to sound cheesy to say it but it’s true, Ian Dury was big in my childhood. I didn’t have many disabled artists to identify from so when I found out that he was disabled I was quite curious about that. It wasn’t that, that got me into him, it was his music. I’ve always been into Punk, Rock ‘n’ Roll; my family are Irish so I’ve got a bit of an Irish connection as well, so I’ve always been into that rougher, live, something that is energetic but says something as well. Most of the material that I work with as an artist usually has some sort of message and stuff that says “come on, let’s have a good time together, let’s enjoy it!”
What advice would you give to aspiring performers looking to pave a career in the performing arts?
Don’t let barriers get in the way, any sort of challenges you see in front of you literally as a challenge to get around or over, it’s about working hard. It’s about practice. Take anything that comes your way, even if you go and see something and you think this isn’t my cup of tea, I always find that there is something in it you learn from and you can later go “oh I went to that a long time ago and I never really thought anything of it but now I realise why it was so important”. Always take those opportunities and go to them with an open mind.
Interview by Lucy Basaba.
Reasons to be cheerful will be on tour, firstly at this year’s Latitude Festival from Thursday 14th until Sunday 17th July. For more information on the production, visit here…
And will also be showing at the IF: Milton Keynes International Festival from Thursday 21st until Friday 22nd July, for more information, visit here…