Crips Without Constraints Part 2 has landed! Five more talented disabled writers have their works brought to life with the support of Graeae Theatre. The bold plays are also all directed by up-and-coming disabled directors. The rrramble team watched week one’s release, How Do You Make a Cup of Tea? starring Dame Harriet Walter and Mandy Colleran.
I’ve not been a big fan of watching everything online. Maybe it’s because I spend all day at my computer already, or maybe my chair is too uncomfortable, but I always find myself tabbing out to social media, or checking the red bar to see how long I’ve got left.
I did not have this problem with How Do You Make A Cup Of Tea? I absorbed it all as captivated as if I was sitting in a real theatre. It reminded me of the times I’ve gone to see small or amateur productions I knew nothing about beforehand, and been absolutely blown away. Part of me doesn’t even want to write a review in case it tarnishes the experience. Go ahead and watch it with no preconceptions or expectations, it’s only 20 minutes and it costs nothing. I’ll even leave a paragraph break so you don’t get spoilers.
(Oh look at that – a handy link: https://youtu.be/7b_0N_Wg6uU)
Excellent, now that you’ve already watched it through I can talk about how much I enjoyed this production. Maybe you were unimpressed, but it’s the kind of theatre that’s right up my street; it’s funny, precise, issue driven, and it’s clever. Instead of awkwardly stepping around social distancing, it is incorporated into the play organically and ends up becoming one of the plays biggest strengths. The visuals of Zoom open up new ways for (mis)communication between the characters, and the already distorted home/theatre space is played with by the audio description V/O who steps in and out of the play in a way that’s both uncanny and incredibly funny. Now I want to see more theatre experiments with the covid-limited viewing experience in this way, and the fact that this appears to be Kellan Frankland’s first production leaves me even more impressed. It feels like the work of a far more experienced writer.
I doubt the story is going to blow any minds; anyone who is a disabled creative, or has worked closely with disabled creatives, can probably tell where the piece is going within the first few minutes – Sally’s uncomfortableness and defensive platitudes are all too familiar. It is so obvious that everyone working on this really cared and put in the effort to make sure every second of screen time had value. There’s a quick, but nuanced progression as Sally goes from awkward and misunderstanding, to condescending, to rude and defensive in a way that’s funny and effective in highlighting the frustrations of disabled creatives. I particularly liked how the post-it notes Sally obsessively sticks to herself became double-edged, with words like “rude”, “fragile”, and “delusional” saying more about Sally than the woman she was imitating. It was a clever bit of writing that gave me a big laugh, the perfect image to encapsulate the play as a whole.
While perhaps not geared towards the general public, for anyone interested in performing arts How To Make A Cup of Tea? is a must watch. Not only because it challenges the practice of “cripping up” and encourages people in the industry to be more receptive to disabled colleagues, but also because it’s a fantastic example of form that crams a lot of wit into a short timespan and uses limitations as a strength. By all accounts it is a great example for creatives to build upon.
A black screen and a voice over which acts as a video description. When we see Frankie (Mandy Colleran), she’s calming herself before a zoom call. Sally (Dame Harriet Walter), appears on the call. There’s a scramble as Frankie tries to unmute herself.
The two characters appear to get on, joking about technology. Sally apologises and mentions being unable to meet at the theatre, suggesting it’s inaccessible for Frankie in her wheelchair. Frankie shrugs it off, hoping they have it fixed before rehearsals start. Sally looks at her, confused, giving you a nagging sense that these two characters have different perspectives on what’s happening here. That feeling only grows as Sally greets everything Frankie says with confusion or surprise, surprised when Frankie has read the play they are there to discuss. She is condescending. “It’s good you are taking this so seriously.” I can feel my gut start to churn. They talk about the play and the character of Emily.
“I can get you comps,” Sally says.
Frankie is confused and declares that she will be on stage. Further confusion reveals that there’s been an awful misunderstanding. They both think they’re cast as Emily, a disabled character. Frankie, it turns out, is there to consult Sally, a non-disabled woman, so that Sally can play a disabled character. My heart sinks as Frankie goes to make a cup of tea. She makes a phone call to her agent to find out what’s going on.
Meanwhile, Sally is sticking post-it notes onto her face. One says ‘Frankie’. The others say ‘plucky’ and ‘wheelchair’. Frankie returns to the call and asks her about it. It’s part of Sally’s “process”. By this point, I am audibly groaning.
Sally continues asking questions, ignoring Frankie’s answers, holding firm with her preconceptions. For example, Sally asks, “how did you make the cup of tea?” Frankie describes her cup of tea. Sally puts a post-it on her face saying, ‘Can’t make a cup of tea’ The audio description starts to become a character itself commenting, “I don’t know how Sally got that.”
It descends further. Anytime Frankie challenges Sally, she responds by pulling out all the lines we are used to hearing from non-disabled actors as to why they are taking up the space of disabled actors. It’s maddening. When people usually say these things, it is in a glitzy interview. In this context, where the actor is saying them to the person she has directly pushed out, it reframes it in an important way. I want anyone who’s still unsure where they fall on this ‘debate’ to watch this.
Bryan Cranston, Dwayne Johnson, Sally Hawkins, Jake Gyllenhaal and Scarlett Johansson are all name-checked in the piece. If you google these actors, you can see that the script uses direct quotes from them. Some examples are:
Bryan Cranston said that playing a character with quadriplegia was “a business decision”. Sally Hawkins wanted her role to go to a performer who was disabled. It wasn’t “her decision,” but as she says, “but I know pain and I know what it is to be human.” See if you can spot them all. The inclusion of direct and very real quotes was a masterstroke by writer Kellan Frankland.
The irony is that Sally’s behaviour, preconceptions, gatekeeping, and complete misunderstanding of Frankie’s experience proves why the representation of people with disabilities is vital. Frankie says it isn’t Sally’s fault, but she is responsible, as is everyone in that space. A non-disabled actor playing a character with disabilities isn’t increasing diversity and inclusion. It is an example of direct exclusion.
There’s no escape. I spend all day at work on Zoom, and now Zoom has managed to worm its way into theatre too. No one is safe from its tyranny! Despite my reservations about encouraging the robot takeover of The Human Race, How Do You Make a Cup of Tea? shows a clear evolution in how the arts are adapting to deliver content digitally.
I’ve watched great live streams and filmed stage shows during lockdown, but there’s always a degree of separation from the audience. This production didn’t try to squeeze a traditional theatre performance into a digital format, and instead gave us a simple video call resting on good dialogue and acting. Honestly, Mandy Colleran and Dame Harriet Walter’s delivery was so natural they may as well have been my colleagues having a tiff during the morning meeting while I sip coffee on mute, wondering if everyone thinks their face looks lopsided.
Zoom is the perfect format for an imposter audience. The slow reveal of the context that led to their conversation and the occasional interruptions added to the overall reality of the piece. We eventually clock that they both believe they’re playing the role of Emily in an upcoming play, and this call is actually a misguided attempt by Sally to study Frankie so she can better her performance of a character with disabilities. It’s one of those “oh shit” moments that makes your insides cringe.
I found it very interesting that we do actually learn a great deal about Frankie, despite Sally seeming to pick up on none of it. She tells us personal details, from the choice to give up her newborn baby for adoption, to how she likes her tea.
We learn basically nothing about Sally, but I think we all know a Sally. I’d like to say I’ve never been Sally but that requires a level of naivety I’d rather avoid. Misconceptions and prejudices creep into all of us, but when they remain unchecked, we become Sally, thinking that asking if someone has special shoes is a useful addition to an already disastrous conversation. Sally is a very successful character, brilliantly acted by Dame Harriet Walter, because she is completely real. I’ve said Sally too much now. Make it stop.
Let’s break it down a bit. Initially, we get a polite starter of the usual noncommittal phrases like “disability is a part of diversity.” But pretty soon we arrive at the main course – a large bowl of justification. Brace yourself, it’s salty. Frankie’s obvious disinterest in Sally’s unravelling is the perfect counterbalance and acts as a gentle reminder to the audience that she’s been served this meal a million times. Sally’s belief that the role of Emily is her route out of the typecasting of periphery characters speaks to the film industry’s unfortunate habit of casting it’s (non-disabled) A-listers in disabled roles. It’s essentially a fast track to an Oscar nomination. The same tactic has been applied to transgender roles by cis actors – just ask Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto.
The interjection of the voiceover man at the end with “good luck” made me chuckle. I’m so glad they included that small moment to conclude the play rather than just ending the Zoom call. As a viewer, we’re pulled back into the theatre space, one actively championing diversity to the detriment of no one. Literally no one loses out from increasing the accessibility of their works. Kellan Frankland’s excellent script is beautifully brought to life by Mandy Colleran and Dame Harriet Walter. How Do You Make a Cup of Tea? stands as an example of how to create art that shuns tokenisation and celebrates the diversity at its core.
I’m going to go ahead and say that this play was often hard to watch, and I’m not someone with personal experience of a visible physical disability. Watching Sally talk down to Frankie as though she is a child is not easy viewing, and the play often has a claustrophobic undertone, not helped by the zoom setting (we’re all finding zoom calls strangely restrictive these days, right?). The zoom setting is perfect for How Do You Make A Cup of Tea because the premise hinges on it; the confusion over the role would not have happened in person. In a way, this speaks to the equalising potential of this kind of technology.
There are a couple of moments in this play that really punch you in the gut, and one of my favourites was the line; “You said I was an inspiration. So, what do I inspire you to do?” Sally can’t find an answer to the question, bringing to light the offensive truth behind this common microaggression. The reality is that, when a non-disabled person calls a disabled person inspiring, or brave, they’re seeing their strength in the face of difficulty as optional. It reminded me of when people say, “I couldn’t live like that!” about different conditions when, you know, you could if you had to. You would if you had to. It wouldn’t be easy, but it wouldn’t be particularly inspirational either, just someone getting on with the hand they’ve been dealt.
One of the biggest strengths of How Do You Make A Cup of Tea is that it presents each ableist argument before deconstructing it, like the reality that it’s hard for any actor to get a role. In particular, the idea that Sally struggles to find female roles that aren’t a young love interest and then later a mother or grandmother who is largely ignored by the plot is still allowed to resonate in a way that is compelling. This is particularly helped by the casting because Dame Harriet Walter is recognisable, and exactly the kind of actress who could be in this situation. This play clearly shows that as an actor you might not be able to fix the issue of ableist casting, but you can go to sleep at night knowing you weren’t part of the problem.
Unsurprisingly, the accessibility of this play is spot on, with audio description and subtitles that feel part of the play rather than simply tacked on as though the audience members who need them are an afterthought, as is so often the case. The character of the ‘Voiceover Guy’ was an ingenious idea by writer Kellan Frankland, as is him wishing Frankie good luck as the play ends.
As a play, How Do You Make A Cup of Tea is a little rough and ready. It occasionally over-explains, labouring points with lines like “You just don’t get it, do you?” feeling a bit obvious and therefore not having the impact they must have been aiming for. I definitely enjoyed it, and Crips Without Constraints is something that I think should be supported as much as possible (not least because of its fantastic name). To be honest, I simply think that this kind of casting conflict is a great, under-used focus, and could be the centre of a bigger, more complex piece of work. There’s a gem in here, and as much as it does shine at key points in the play, I’m not sure it’s been honed to its full potential yet.