“Not F**ckin’ sorry” is the powerful performance that embraces disabilities

“We are sick of being your circus dogs. Everything you think we can’t do, we can. And we are not fucking sorry.” Not F**kin’ Sorry is not ashamed to portray the sexuality, the desire and the fantasies of people with disabilities.

Not F**kin’ Sorry is A crip queer punk cabaret re-appropriating the Victorian ‘Freak Show’, Not F*ckin’ Sorry is a sexy confrontation of the discrimination experienced by people with learning disabilities brought to you by Not Your Circus Dog Collective. Reclaiming the word crip, the show parodies and satirises the constructed and discriminatory beliefs held around disability.  Reclaiming their identities and their agency as sexualised, gendered, deviant, angry and powerful individuals through their onstage ensemble.

Exposing the integral role of spectators in their discriminatory and stereotypical labels as ‘other’ the show smashes the forth wall to encourage the queer and neurodivergent audience to feel seen, while introducing neurotypical & straight audiences to new perspectives.

Conceived as a 35-minute scratch in Access All Areas’ Exit Festival, Simon Casson of legendary cabaret company, Duckie, saw the scratch and brought a 10 min iteration to Duckie’s 21st Birthday and for Bar Wotever in December 2016. The company was also made an Access All Areas Associate Artist as a result of the scratch.

In February 2018, the company did a week of research and development supported by Soho Theatre. Scratches were also were also performed at Women of the World festival at Southbank Centre and Royal Court take up space Cabaret in 2018, before being extended and developed with the support of Soho Theatre during October-November 2019.

So, just what is it you fuckers want? You keep calling us broken. You don’t know the cracks that every single one of you has given us. The mental scars, the physical scars.

We are sick and tired of being your Circus dogs. This is our time now. We are not going away. And no. We’re not fucking sorry.

YASS Magazine met Emma Selwyn, Adam Smith, two of the performer/co-devisers and also director, Liselle Terret.

Where did the idea come from ?

Emma:  At the beginning of the devising process which was about 3 years ago now – during the Exit Festival devising stage as part of the Diploma in Theatre Making for Learning Disabled & Autistic Adults that Liselle & Access All Areas co-formed at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, the cast and Liselle kept  apologising before doing or saying anything. like we were seeking approval and Liselle turned it into a game, so that  instead of apologising,  we had to say we weren’t sorry – so then it became Sorry We Are Here , and then into Not Fuckin’ Sorry.

Liselle:  We had to devise a performance as part of a diploma that the actors were on, and I asked the actors what they wanted to make a piece about. They were keen to make a show that was steeped in cabaret and adult entertainment due to the very limited opportunities they had of being part of such leisure activities – due to constant discrimination. Also, the politics and prejudice experienced by learning disabled and neuro-diverse people every day was also extremely important to the actors and so we wanted to find a way to raise these issues as well. In terms of the cabaret form – I was making solo cabaret / feminist, comedic neo-burlesque at the time and I felt that this form of performance could offer us a good way of teasing, seducing, manipulating and entertaining the audience.   

What is the message you want to convey with this performance?

Adam: For me it’s our show is about whether you have a Learning Disability, or you are neuro-diverse,  we want people to understand that we are still entitled to have sexual thoughts and to have  freedom like everyone else. Also, with regards to Disability Hate Crime – which still goes on today, our piece is also about this and we are saying that it can’t be ignored, and we need to keep sending on the message,

Emma: There are several messages, which include that we want to convey to the public that disabled, and neuro-diverse people can be just as sexy as anyone else and can be such a much as arse holes as anyone else and as fierce as everyone else.

Liselle: I just want to add that for me the show is also about trying to implicate the audience in the institutionalised attitudes around disability – and to say that Disability Hate Crime and the marginalisation experienced by learning Disabled and Neuro-diverse people is everyone’s responsibility. The cabaret uses examples of popular culture (for example through TV Game and Charity Shows and lip-syncing Disablist Stand-up Comedians – as an example) and we basically parody this so that we heighten  disablist attitudes  that is embedded and too often condoned in our culture.

Did you expect the huge success of the performance and the big acceptance of the people? How do you feel about it?

Adam: It was absolutely fantastic – I didn’t realise there would be so much support.

Emma: I kind of expected it to be good – but I didn’t expect it to be that well received  with that much acceptance .

Liselle: I think the cabaret kicked people up the butt – in a fun, seductive but also in a very poignant and revealing way. We include a list of learning-disabled people who have been killed as a result of disability hate crime which then moves onto the actors telling the audience their deepest secret sexual fantasies. It’s a roller coaster of a ride and I was utterly delighted at how well it was received. We worked damn hard and the actors are just utterly professional and so talented.  The narrative is based on true stories and the way we make and perform the work is about celebrating the actor’s talents and skills – so in some ways it had to be a success – as we knew what form we were working in – which of course takes a long time to develop. 

What is the most common reaction of people?

 Adam: everybody was so amazing shocked at when we were stripping off and all the sexual fantasies in a fantastic way.

Liselle: Here are some quote from the audience’s response to seeing the show:

·      The show  poked a finger straight into my limited views and on the topic of sexuality and learning-disabled people, it made me re-think society!

·      Not f**kin’ sorry evoked in me that same sense of witnessing something truly transgressive and courageous.

·      I think that all the people who are care workers, or  commissioners, and government’s decision makers  should see the show and understand that learning disabled people are NOT ‘cute’ or ‘sad’ or ‘sexless’

·      I think the show contributes massively to the image of learning-disabled individuals as people with agency and complex, varied, autonomous lifestyles.

·         Not F**ckin’ Sorry was a great example of using theatre to create awareness in a very provocative way as well as entertainment at the same time.

Emma: I haven’t counted which reaction is more common but the reactions I remember most vividly are in one of two camps: Excitement or disturbance.

In the latter camp, it’s mostly it’s people saying the title should be changed to say Not Effing Sorry instead. Usually, those who are disturbed can be won round when they see how fun, glitzy and charismatic the show is but a lot of those are put off by the title alone which can be rather frustrating . The former are very excited. I find talking about the show to those who are less familiar with AAA, cabaret and disability art or those from more vanilla backgrounds a delicate balancing act that I might never get 100% right so they accept the message behind the piece but aren’t that alienated by the swearing and the middle fingers etc etc.

Do you enjoy performing? 

Adam – it was fantastic it was such a privilege to perform in such a well-known venue, and it was super we got the arts council funding to perform it professionally.

Liselle: I think it was a really important project for the actors to take this cabaret piece to one of the UK’s most well-known theatres. I think the whole process celebrated the talent and professionalism of the actors. 

Emma:  Some versions of this piece, like the version we’ve just done at Soho, I have thoroughly enjoyed. Others, namely the WOW Festival at Southbank, have been extremely traumatic for me, or at the very least have just been about going through the motions; however, I think all performers do that at some point, even when fulfilling a long-held dream and/or performing their favourite work.  Even when I’ve felt less enthusiastic, the rest of the cast, director and crew help majorly. My enthusiasm always comes back around closer to showtime 

What do you like most? 

Emma: being able to explore topics ideas and ways of being that one would probably not be able to explore in other settings or in mainstream society.

Adam: I liked having the opportunity the sing and have the opportunity to use my composed music and the opportunity MC a certain a certain section of the show.

Liselle: I loved that we devised this piece from scratch and that the actors were also involved in the research aspects of it.  I also love the fact that through the rehearsal process we have developed a really strong way of  working that is about rigour, trust, generosity, transparency and having a very sharp but evolving,  risk-taking aesthetic .

How long have you been acting?

Adam: For about 19 years since secondary school – I started off in GYPT.

Emma: 3 years – professionally – but more before. I’ve been involved in drama activities since 13 or so. I met Liselle when she ran Croydon Contacts All Stars in the early to mid 2000s, when I was in my mid-late teens.

What is the most difficult part of being a performer?

 Adam: The challenge of not taking constructive criticism to heart and be adaptable to changes and alterations and sometimes things might be a bot maniac in terms of organising the venues and there’s a lot of people around – the theatre space can be maniac – taking some deep breaths and taking each step as it comes along.

Emma:  I find that if I say I am an actor,  people assume I’m more mainstream than I actually am or that I’m doing TV or movie acting because that’s all most people know ; if I say I’m an artist they assume I do visual art rather than performance art; and if I say I’m a performer people assume I sing or play an instrument, which is not how that works for me.  That, learning lines and knowing exactly how to convey the right sorts of emotions – or lack of! – at the right times and in the right ways for the audience are what I find most challenging

How was the atmosphere in the rehearsals?

 Adam:  it was always like a rollercoaster – some days it was fantastic, and everyone was enjoying and a high. There was some moments – when we talked about the hate crime – it reflected it our experiences– we were so moved when we were reading them out in the process. It’s also such a serious play – we had to take it in – but – as we were doing a lot of research – iot was important but not be get over emotional about the stories – try to take a bit of a step back.

Emma: it was one of the calmest rehearsal processes I’ve ever experienced,  however aspects of the script changed A LOT within 6 weeks,  so we would have one script one day and then after devising the script might really change. I remember finding the lipsyncing section emotionally difficult at first, too

Liselle: I think that as we have worked together for over 3 years now – we are like a family. We have a very clear structure in terms of how we work and how we support one another. As a director I am very open with the actors and we have developed a very generous but disciplined way of working.

What is the mission of the Not your Circus Dog collective?

 Adam: for me it’s about telling people we are just as talented as any other performer and that we have the right to perform in professional venues . Each of us is different and it’s about celebrating this and not comparing ourselves to one another. Also, that we can be just as sexual and as camp as others – and loves who we are – and praise who we are.

 Emma: the idea of not being a Circus Dog came about from having to perform constantly as a neurotypical person while being autistic and how unnatural that was. If you’ve ever seen the music video for Blue Monday by New Order, think of the bit where the dog is standing on the tennis balls, or think of a circus dog balancing on its hind legs on a giant ball

Liselle: I would say to make new work that is uncompromising, daring and risk taking, celebratory, sexy and cutting edge in its form of theatre.

Do you feel society is becoming more inclusive?

 Adam: it’s getting there – obv. people with disabilities are getting more opportunities  to perform professionally  but obviously there is a long way to go but we are getting there.

Emma: yes and no – but mostly no. hate crime is increasing year on year and crime against all minorities   – including gender, beliefs , race – all of those as well as disability are increasing year on year. Austerity cuts are getting worse and worse, and year on year so many people hundreds of thousands of people with learning disabilities and autism are still being institutionalised nationally and internationally.

In fact I rem one day on the way home from Soho theatre when we were performing our show, mum  and I were at Victoria station and we saw a news headline on the video screen by platforms 9-14. That news headline was about an autistic girl who was locked away 24 hours a day and the line quoted was that she was ‘not an animal’  – the irony of this poster on the same day that our Not F**ckin Sorry show was on and so no overall I don’t think society is becoming more inclusive in the slightest. There might be pockets in society where there is more acceptance of disabled people – but I think there is a very very long way to go.

What are your future plans?

Liselle: We are hoping to embark on a national tour next autumn 2020 with the possibility of taking the show also up to the Edinburgh Festival.

 Adam: I am looking forward to more performances of Not F**ckin’ Sorry, and to eventually I’d like to do a solo piece like an MC or an autobiographical piece about anxiety and confidence and just to continue contributing to giving people with dis the chance to perform on stage and to raise issues on stage and to continue with AA. I am going to be Assistant Directing on three new drama groups in the next year.

 Emma: I hope to tour with Not F**ckin; Sorry, and to also continue working with Access All Areas  and being part of their training consultancy programme facilitating workshops. Access All Area has a new Immersive Theatre show in March 2020  in Battersea called UNREAL CITY, that is a mix of virtual reality and live performance.

“These four performers are some of the bravest, boldest, most candid and risk-taking on the contemporary London theatre scene.”https://disabilityarts.online/magazine/opinion/not-fkin-sorry-furiously-sexual-and-frightening-real/ 

2020 http://www.accessallareastheatre.org/ 

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