By Sarah Atwood
A disparate compilation of scenes and verses borne of brainstorming sessions on the streets of London, “No Idea” — starring the Improbable Theater Company’s Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence — presents a thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining show about public perceptions of and reactions to difference and disability.
Hosted by the British Council at Sawy Culture Wheel on Dec. 7, the event commemorated the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
“No Idea” reflects on the perceptions, preoccupations and politically correct discomfort with which the general public confronts the specter of a divergent human physical form. In so doing, it exposes the boundaries of what people are capable of imagining in connection with the disabled.
The play is unique in that its storyline dramatizes the process of its creation — as director Lee Simpson quips, “No Idea” is a show made out of having no idea for a show. In lieu of an idea, the story falls together around public reactions to the suggestion that a disabled actor will be one of its two stars, with her physical disability functioning as the elephant in the room. These reactions — and the perceptions that inform them — structure the storyline like insurmountable obstacles determine the course of a new road: unplanned, and perhaps undesirable, but at the same time unavoidable and influential.
The performance opens with Hammond and Spence “channeling” recorded interviews they conducted with Londoners who were instructed to “take a good look at them and imagine what their show and story could be about.”
To help them decide which avenue to pursue, they enact several of the public’s ideas in short skits. The first is a “gritty drama” in which Spence is being abused by her boyfriend and Hammond tries to protect her; next comes “observations on life” in which the duo reflects on comments made in the interviews they recorded; and finally a “Cockney sing-along” in which Hammond puts to music her observation that people avoid talking about her disability by focusing on her “cheeky face.”
Hammond and Spence then turn the recorder on themselves, relating a frank discussion of how popular perceptions of Hammond’s disability impact how she is treated. Discussing the various forms of “special” treatment Hammond is saddled with, they observe that Hammond can get away with “outrageous” behavior much more easily than Spence.
“It’s like: ‘freaky girl does freaky things’ is more palatable than ‘normal girl does freaky things,’” Hammond surmises.
After three trials, they still can’t decide what direction the story takes: drama, expressions on life, or song and dance? They devise a modified vision of their original idea, agreeing to have those interviewed create a story bit by bit, with each person creating only a small part of the story after they have been filled in on previous scenes. To eliminate any chance that they will sway the play’s content, Hammond and Spence agree not to delete any public suggestion.
Executed at the behest of play-by-play instructions taken from interviews, the resulting skit watches like a parodied soap opera, a spate of clichéd drama interpreted with comedic exaggeration.
Spence lands in the hospital with an injury and is handled brusquely by a nurse but then receives much better treatment by a doctor, who subsequently asks her to go on a date with him. Once Hammond has made a call to establish the respectability of the doctor (whose presence throughout the skit is only implied), Spence goes out with him and falls in love. Upon bringing the doctor home to meet her family, her sister — who has a history with the doctor — has a breakdown and disappears.
It is suggested that Hammond make another call to the police, but the drama comes to an abrupt halt when Hammond refuses to continue, protesting that she has been almost completely written out of the story.
As the show moves into another session of “expressions on life,” Hammond explains with exasperation that, while Spence’s character sustained an injury, met a man, fell in love, and experienced a family crisis, Hammond’s didn’t even leave her apartment.
It is here that the show gets into the meat of its subject matter: how limiting popular attitudes and perceptions can be, often in spite of good intentions and progressive legislation.
As Spence observes, “in the first interviews, they said all of the things that you should do. When it was an actual story though, they just couldn’t put you in it.” In this way, the show illustrates the oppressiveness of social attitudes that can’t envision a role for the disabled aside from the pigeonhole of “the disabled person.”
By showing what kind of story people are capable of imagining, the play demonstrates how subjective barriers excluding the disabled from mainstream society are erected. Effectively, Hammond’s character is limited by public perceptions, robbed of her agency and the opportunity to participate in a drama of the able-bodied because the people they interviewed simply can’t imagine her there.
Out of character, Hammond observes how such constraints perpetuate themselves in real life, asking whether “if I — at least in part — shape my behavior in response to how I imagine I am perceived; am I an outer expression of my inner self or just a collection of responses to other people’s responses to me?”
The show’s message, while recognizable, was initially unintentional and reflects social preconceptions rather than the objectives of the show’s creators. “There was no intention to create a piece about disability,” said Simpson. “In fact we were determined to do the opposite and not talk about it. But when we made the decision to hand the content of the show over to the public we had to go with where they lead us.”
“The show is not so much about disability as about difference in all its forms and how legislation and good intentions can take you only so far in bringing people together,” he said.