Academic journal article TheatreForum

Frantic Assembly

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Frantic Assembly

Article excerpt

Frantic Assembly is an innovative British theatre group that has spent ten years at the cutting edge. Their latest show, On Blindness (2004), is about two couples which discover that there's more to perception than just the evidence of our eyes. Edward and Shona both work for a company that produces audio versions of films for the visually impaired. When the shy Edward is invited on a hot date by the sexy Maria, a blind woman, he struggles to reconcile his desire with his sense of her vulnerability. By contrast, the sassy Shona has to confront her own upfront attitudes when Gaetano, a painter, unveils her nude portrait in front of her new boyfriend, Dan. If love can help you see the truth, the play suggests, desire can blind you to the facts. And, the play also points out, the problem with disability is often less the impairment itself than the attitudes of the able-bodied to it.

In many ways On Blindness is a typical Frantic Assembly show. The set is simple, the text is sexually explicit and contemporary in sensibility, and the action is enhanced by gentle dance movements and evocative ambient music. The stories of the two couples take place simultaneously on stage. The cast included Karina Jones, who is blind, David Sands, who is deaf, and Matt Fraser, who has very short arms. Sands and other cast members are always on stage, taking turns signing the dialogue, sometimes creating a delightful complicity between the character and signer. The result is an extra layer of language. Although some reviewers had doubts about the text by Glyn Cannon, most were enthusiastic about the way the mixture of signing, projected captions, and voice-overs made audiences watch and listen differently. Simple words and actions took on added meaning as we were forced to imagine what it's like to be deprived of one or another of our senses. The tension between what we see and what we think was explored not only through the story but also through the physical and spatial relationships on stage.

The play was a collaboration between Frantic Assembly, Paines Plough (new writing specialists), and Graeae (disability specialists), and had four directors: Vicky Featherstone (Paines Plough), Jenny Sealey (Graeae), Scott Graham, and Steven Hoggett (Frantic Assembly). Graham and Hoggett also performed. Sealey argues that the tradition of having signed performances with the signer in the wings is frustrating: "You're looking at a corner. I want to see the action, the set, the costumes. If there isn't an interpreter on stage, I can't watch both." And Matt Fraser adds, "The reason everything [in rehearsal] is taking double time is that this is not a way of working that anyone is used to. We're inventing the way and inventions take time" (qtd. in Costa).

Such theatrical inventiveness is the key to the history of Frantic Assembly. The three founding members-directors/ performers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, and producer/administrator Vicki Coles/Middleton-met at Swansea University, Wales, in 1991. None studied drama, but, as a hobby, each joined the university drama society. In 1992, Volcano Theatre Company (formed by a psychology graduate and a politics graduate from Swansea) ran a residency, and Graham and Hoggett performed Christopher Hampton's Savages and William M. Hoffman's As Is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1992-93. At that time, say Graham and Hoggett,

We did not want to call ourselves Swansea University Drama Society because that seemed too dull. We wanted our name to reflect our chaotic preparations, so we chose Chaos. Then we found out that Kaos Theatre Company already existed, so we came up with "frantic." Without Volcano coming in, we probably would have just pottered about in the drama society for three years and then left. So we got lucky. They passed on their inspiration to us. Then we created a business plan, joined a government project, and raised £5,000 in set-up loans.

(This quotation and the following, unattributed, quotations are from a personal interview conducted on 19 February 2004. …

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