Can comedy create a fairer world? Comedian Laurence Clark thinks so.

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.

Laurence (Ed Fringe 2016)

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.”

Biggest barrier

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.

Talking about challenging perceptions of vocal norms — Laurence tells me about a recent chat he had with his five-year-old son around why it isn’t nice to impersonate deaf classmates.

 This little chat was going well, until his son’s sudden disclosure to Laurence’s wife that ‘Daddy shouted at a deaf man in London!’ Laurence had apparently got annoyed when a security guard turned his back to him in what appeared to be mid conversation. Laurence verbally slated the guard for this action — until the guard turned around and pointed at his two hearing aids. Whoops!

Where next?

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”

Street Game project: Box Society

Boxes

Over the past few months I been a member of the design team for Box Society – a Full Circle Arts and Playfuel collaborative street game project.  Playfuel aim to “bring together theatre performance and urban geography”, and together we have been making a light hearted but thought provoking game which addresses disabling barriers and #everydayableism.

Boxes

The ‘play test’ for Box Society took place in March 2016 with Proud and Loud theatre group, and the public game will be premiered in Manchester City Centre this summer.

Watch this space for further information about this fantastic new street game!

 


 

To read more about the background to this project please see Jade Coles blog post here.

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Who needs welfare cheques when you have Tory kisses? mwah mwah

Disabled People with protest bannerLast month I took part in a series of protests against the harshness of current austerity measures, including the largest march I’ve ever known to take place in Manchester. Organised by the People’s Assembly, there were representatives from; TUC, PCS, CND, Junior doctors, Bread and Roses Choir, Green Party, National Assembly of Women, Stop the War Coalition, Unison, NUT, GMB, RMT and FBU.

I bumped into numerous people I knew during the protests – including previous social worker(s), my daughter’s schoolteacher, friends who are lecturers, nurses and so forth. All a far cry from Boris Johnson’s, ‘mob of assorted crusties with nose-rings’.

The volume and diversity of people attending was staggering – many times during the march I felt emotionally overwhelmed by the breadth of those affected by current austerity measures.

Predictably the press coverage of the protest focused on the behaviour of a minority of aforementioned ‘nose-ringed crusties’. And whilst this kind of sensationalist reporting is commonplace, it’s interesting that the hateful taunts of a few Conservative party members were not considered so newsworthy. Perhaps because they were delivered in a more controlled way than the cliché egg throwers, or perhaps for other reasons.

The majority of protesters were very well behaved. And whilst I’m not justifying physical threats or the use of foul language from the minority, I find it incredibly hypocritical that politicians complained about GMP’s handling of ‘hate crimes’ against the Tories.

Seriously? Hate crimes … what are hate crimes?

I overheard one politician aggressively bellow “good” in the face of a protester’s outcry that her disabled friend had died after his ESA had been cut. The protester was neither swearing nor physically threatening; she was however very upset by this shocking response. I also witnessed a young Conservative disdainfully blowing kisses at significantly disabled protesters whilst also making snide comments about ‘paying for their benefits’. (Hence the title and mockumentary below)

The politicians in question may not be taunting with physical actions, or using bad language, however there is something inexplicably disturbing about a person of privilege and wealth mocking protesters in this way. Disabled people, for example, were demonstrating about cuts that enable them to carry out the most rudimental tasks – reacting to their cry by blowing kisses is vile.

Even worse is to tell protesters that it is ‘good’ that a disabled person has died because his or her benefit has been cut. To my mind this is a despicable and unjustified verbal insult, encouraging the worse type of hatred against disabled people.

There is something inexplicably disturbing about a person of privilege and wealth mocking protesters in this way. Disabled people, for example, were demonstrating about cuts that enable them to carry out the most rudimental tasks – reacting to their cry by blowing kisses is vile.

 

Chris Hughes, DPAC member
Chris Hughes, DPAC member

Participants wanted for ‘Hanging in the Balance’ arts-activism

As disabled people, we have a deep sense of threat and despair about our future: a future that ‘hangs in the balance’.

Are you a disabled person who feels like your life is currently hanging in the balance?

 

Draft wet plate version 15.8.15
Draft wet plate ‘Hanging in the Balance’ image        M.Selway 15.8.15.  Follow the project at #hanginginthebalance

To symbolise the regressive affects of welfare reform and fragility of our existence, I am working with historical photographer Michele Selway to produce ‘Hanging in the Balance’.

‘Hanging in the Balance’ is an ethereal set of wet plate photographs of disability related paraphernalia hanging ominously in the trees.

Inspired by Liz Crow’s ‘Figures’ this project will carry on highlighting the deeply troubling effect of austerity through art activism.

Follow Gemma’s board #hanginginthebalance on Pinterest.

 

I would like to accompany these plates with statements from disabled people highlighting how their lives are hanging in the balance.

If you would like to contribute, please email info@gemmanashartist.com with your statement by 1st November 2015, and let me know whether you are happy for your name to be used with your quote.

 

Thank you,

Gemma Nash

#hanginginthebalance

“Austerity exists in other countries, but no other countries to my knowledge has targeted disabled people in the way that the UK government has.” 
– Simon J Duffy, director of The Centre of Welfare Reform.

 

“My life is hanging in the balance because the fragile security I felt I had built up over the years has gone completely …. all the practical arrangements I have been able to rely on are uncertain.” – Liz Crow, Artist