When she explains why the new Hackney headquarters of disability-led theatre company Graeae has no performance space, Jenny Sealey has a clear vision in mind.
“If it had a theatre, people would say ‘that’s where the disabled people perform’. I want us to be in the mainstream,” she said.
The recent recipient of a New Year Honour, Jenny, who lives in Hackney with partner Danny and son Jonah, 14, has been artistic director of Graeae since 1998. She became deaf at the age of seven when a friend pushed her and she banged her head on a table.
She had just started ballet lessons and, luckily, her teacher didn’t give up on her pupil. “She taught me ways of feeling the music,” Jenny explained. “She was my first mentor.”
Jenny went to mainstream schools with no additional support. She is, she admits, still cross about the gaps in her learning – but is filling them now, aged 45. At school, career expectations were low for deaf people.
Then Jenny encountered her second mentor at sixth form, ‘an amazing drama teacher’.
When it came to going to university, Middlesex Polytechnic wouldn’t allow her onto its drama course, but she was able to apply for dance. She said: “I had to have three or four interviews about me ‘coping’. I had no support and there was no point going to lectures. But I played the flute, did dance and drama, and was among creative people.”
It was when Jenny left college and joined a youth opportunity scheme that she began to meet other deaf people and learned sign language.“It was like going home,” she said.
Another seminal moment was when she took part in Graeae’s Shakespeare training course. She said:
“There was an interpreter there and I realised I had been doing stuff wrong. I understood what I’d missed.”
She spent the next few years as a jobbing actor and learned to direct work for people with multiple sensory and physical disabilities.
Jenny describes her 11 years at Graeae with pleasure: “It’s the most perfect job. The last few years have been about finding a home where we can have offices and rehearsal space next to each other – linking the whole team.”
Graeae looked all over London for a building, and although Jenny has lived in Hackney for 23 years, the discovery of a former tram shed next door to the Geffrye Museum in Kingsland Road was a coincidence. “Something about it felt right. The owner has an understanding of the access needs, and felt that we were the right people for the building,” she said.
The project has been awarded £1.78million by Arts Council England.
Fundraising for an additional £400,000 is ongoing, and work is due to be completed by June.
For Jenny, that’s when the future can really begin. She said: “We’ll be in a position to give skilled actors a springboard into the mainstream. It’s 2009 and the visibility of disabled people is still minimal.
“There’s still a lot of fear about disability, and through theatre we can demystify that fear.”
A fan of Dalston’s Arcola Theatre, London Fields Lido, and Regent’s Canal, she is excited by the part Graeae and Hackney will play in the creative side of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games – and by the artistic talent in the borough. “It has a huge wealth of artists, and we are well placed to forge stronger links, which means we can all come together.”
- 1963 Born in Nottingham
- 1983-86 Middlesex Polytechnic. BA (Hons) Performing Arts
- 1986 Moved to Hackney
- 1987-94 Actor with Half Moon YPT, Red Ladder, Theatre Centre and Graeae
- 1994-97 Associate Director for Interplay. Also worked with Gazebo and the deaf community in the West Midlands, guest director with Nottingham Roundabout
- 1997 Artistic Director Graeae.
- 2009 Awarded MBE for Services to Disability Arts
Graeae’s Whiter Than Snow is at the Unicorn Theatre, SE1 in March. Call: 020 7700 2455; or visit: www.graeae.org.
Page updated: 15 Jun 2010