At the start of this year’s UK Disability History Month, I spoke to writer, actor and funny guy Laurence Clark about his latest show Independence, disability rights and ‘speaking proper’.
Laurence came up with the title Independence back in January, although it bore no relation to the UK’s EU referendum result, little did he know just how topical it would be by now. His show is less about Brexit, and more about the true meaning of ‘independence’ for disabled people.
From idiosyncratic needs assessments to the funny side of other people assisting you with personal care; “Life sometimes throws up the unexpected when you depend on someone else to fasten your jeans for you”- his show challenges notions of independence in a sharp witted, good-natured manner. And after my grueling assessment for Personal Independence Payment, this is one hot topic that certainly appeals to me.
Journey to comedy
From an early age Laurence wanted to pursue a career in drama and comedy, but was warned by the careers advisor at his school that he would never get any work. So at University he opted to study Computing (BSc) and Molecular Biology (Ph.D) — subjects he may have excelled at, but didn’t hold his passion.
Like a lot of disabled students, his success was very much dependent on the help of a variety of disability related allowances — including Independent Living Fund and Disability Living Allowance.
Laurence feels that the abolition of these funds will be absolutely disastrous for future disabled students.
Whilst at University Laurence became involved in an exciting new disability based arts and academic scene in Liverpool, run for and by disabled activists.
His Ph.D may not have covered these interests, but it did enable him to carry on living independently in an adapted University flat. Ultimately these additional ‘interests’ led to the launch of his impressive comedy career. Now spanning 16 years, the career has included 8 critically-acclaimed solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.
For Laurence, anecdotal humour is where the best material comes from; otherwise, he says, “you are just someone telling jokes”. His comedy is about his experiences, and that happens to include being disabled. “It would be hard and disingenuous to do a show and ignore that, after all nobody tells Graham Norton to stop telling jokes about being gay”.
He considers that his most controversial show was ‘Spastic fantastic’. The premise for this show was about reclaiming the word spastic — which involved a speech impaired boy band singing a ‘name that tune’ game show with the audience.
“I got a lot of disabled people come up to me after a show saying that they came prepared to hate it’ Laurence recalls, “which I never understood. If you are going to be offended why bother giving it the time of day? But people said it was not what they expected, and I really liked that.”
And his most enjoyable show was ‘Moments of Instant Regrets’, which focused on Laurence’s misdemeanors. He wanted the audience to laugh at some of the bad things he has done, often unwittingly. “I don’t think it worked as well for a mainstream audience” he states, “it’s hard to get them to laugh at a disabled person, which is what I was trying to do.”
Laurence feels having speech impairment disables and limits him the most, and it’s an impairment that always seems to get forgotten about. He explains “There is always a big debate about whether to subtitle me or not. Part of me thinks why should it be a big debate? It’s not like people can’t understand what I am saying.”
At his Special School it was really unusual for someone with a speech impairment to get a named role in the yearly school play, Laurence recalls. So when his friend with a speech impairment got a part in the play, Laurence was jubilant. However that jubilance soon wore off when he read the script and discovered his friend’s part was a character that had his tongue cut out!
Laurence said that he usually got minor roles, but did some directing, that was their solution. This is probably more impressive than my childhood amateur dramatics; I was once ‘a doorbell’.
“People are not used to hearing people with cerebral palsy and sometimes panic when they hear voices they are not used to. It’s similar to when people hear a strong accent — they panic and switch off.” notes Laurence.
I would agree with Laurence, speech as a bodily activity has been subject to the enforcing of normalcy throughout history, and this intriguing subject is the focus for my latest sound investigation — Beyond Vocal Norms.
Currently Laurence is working on a pilot comedy project, a TV sitcom co-written and directed by Matt Holt. The premise for the sitcom was an equality awareness course for particularly unaware employees. Funny, irreverent and sharp, the pilot aims to make equality politics, and its academic theories and concepts, more accessible to mainstream audiences.
“I think there is a certain type of person that gets a lot out of equality training, but they tend to be quite open minded to start with, and probably aren’t the worst offenders…. if you can get people to laugh with you, that is far more powerful than any training.”
You can read more about Laurence’s work at www.laurenceclark.co.ukand catch Independence on Fri 25 — Sat 26 Nov at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool (as part of DaDaFest 2016).
“If you can get people to laugh with you, that is far more powerful than any training.”
“I think there is a certain type of person that gets a lot out of equality training, but they tend to be quite open minded to start with”