John Kelly is the lead vocalist for the band in Graeae’s latest production, Reasons to be Cheerful, and has been in the show’s cast since its conception seven years ago. Taking the form of a musical constructed around the songbook of Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Reasons to be Cheerful first toured the UK in 2010, and two years later Kelly and other members of Graeae performed the controversial Ian Dury song, “Spasticus Autisticus” at London’s Paralympic opening ceremony, receiving rave reviews (you can watch the performance here). The show is now set to take to the stage in a different, seemingly less optimistic time, and Kelly believes the messages it holds are more important now than ever.
Founded in 1980 and now artistically led by Jenny Sealey, Graeae are a company that place D/deaf and disabled actors at centre stage and aim to be “a force for change in world-class theatre” through challenging people’s misconceptions about disability. More than this, Graeae aim to create theatre which “engages brilliantly with both disabled and non-disabled audiences” and thus make the theatre an inclusive space for everyone simultaneously (to get an idea of the effect this produces, check out our recent spotlight on their production of The House of Bernarda Alba at Manchester’s Royal Exchange). We at culturised caught up with Kelly to find out about – among other things – his work with Graeae, what it was like performing at the Paralympics and whether he’s seen a positive legacy emerge from the games, and what it is about Reasons to be Cheerful that has led Graeae to revive the show for a tour this year.
What does it mean to you to be a part of Graeae? It seems much more than your standard theatre company.
I suppose to me Graeae is a company that puts on really great theatre, but also acts as an eye-opener for the role that theatre plays in telling important stories that aren’t heard very often. To be working with such brilliant people around me really pushes me forward and pushes my art. I’m never complacent, never happy, and for me that’s what working at Graeae is about: it’s about raising the game and making sure that whatever messages we are making are made as strong as they can be.
And with those messages, do you see the primary one being promoting the visibility of disabled actors on stage?
I think it’s about more than that. One aspect of it is yes, of course, disabled people are underrepresented in all forms of media: you can see that just by turning on your TV. We’re still at that point even though we’re in 2017. But Graeae isn’t just about disability politics: it’s about creating a society and an environment where disabled and non-disabled people value equality, human rights, and justice. It’s about creating a world that’s fully accessible, and that goes beyond disability politics. An accessible world is beautiful for everyone, so I think we’re all passionate about what we do, but the key to it is ensuring that the art we produce is the best it can be: that it’s creative, it’s groundbreaking, it’s provocative, but also that it’s enjoyable and fun. We want our work to help people see the issues without feeling completely threatened – unless maybe you’re Tory.
So, in that vain, what was it like performing Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ “Spasticus Autisticus” at the Paralympic Opening Ceremony in 2012? Did those games feel like a moment of cultural change, and if so has that change lasted?
It was a bit of a double-edged sword. For me, personally, it was just amazing to be a part of. Bothe for me and for Graeae it was an amazing journey which we all loved. There was something special about it which everyone felt, everyone saw, and everyone could be a part of. And doing “Spasticus Autisticus” was really important because the song was originally banned because it was misunderstood; it was interpreted at the time as a derogatory song, but actually it had lots of other meaning to it. Yes it was a bit naughty because of the language that it used, but actually – if you read the sleeve notes to it – it was a war cry: it was saying to people, “come on, let’s get out on the streets and let’s not take all this rubbish anymore, let’s not take all this discrimination that’s been happening”. We wanted to reclaim that bit of it. We wanted to have that pride, so it was really important to us that we got it right.
The fact that we were performing it at the Paralympics was a real secret; nobody knew we were doing it right until the very end. We did it, and just for that night it felt that the world really realised that disability art was equal to the rest of art: that it was just as good, just as passionate, and just as powerful. For that night, we had an equal share, and when we got back to the hotel we were all really proud of what we had done. But a few weeks later when it was all over, it felt like the rug was pulled. The Independent Living Fund has been closed down, the welfare reforms started to come in a chip away at things, and the ramps that were put in place for the Paralympics were taken away. So in a way those games gave a glimpse of what could be, which since has been cruelly – and crudely actually – systematically taken away.
So it was a double-edged sword: on one hand we had the media’s ear, and the world’s ear. Most of that opening ceremony wasn’t actually rooted in disability politics: it was actually immersed in disabled and non-diabled people working together and putting on a brilliant show. Everyone felt on an equal footing, if you get what I mean. I think there’s an assumption – and a wrong assumption – that disability art is something less than the rest of art. We need to break down that wall and the only way we’re going to do that is by having those major platforms. There’s a lot of change that still needs to happen.
In light of that, why the title Reasons to be Cheerful for the upcoming show?
Because you’ve got to keep going. Yes the reality is horrendous: people are dying. But disabled people are resilient. We’re a resilient group of creative people who respond to the barriers and prejudice put in our way by fighting back through art and performance to turn the world upside down and say this isn’t going to beat us, we’re going to laugh and feel joy and happiness in ourselves. I’m not a person who’s downbeat and trodden on. Reasons to be Cheerful gives me pride in myself and my art, and it allows me to work with great people. And it also provides an audience who come in and enjoy the show with us. Together we create a world that can be happy, that can value difference; that is something to be cheerful about.
We have actually got to rewrite the reality: get rid of the rhetoric, get rid of the stuff that is actually attacking our human rights. We won’t be downtrodden, we will stand up for our human rights. And we’re going to do it through song, so that people don’t go away from the show feeling like they’ve been beaten over the brow with a political placard, they go away having seen something that’s given their heart a real smile. Joy is a really powerful thing, because feeling good about yourself is infectious, and the energy of the show serves to inspire people to change the world. We know it can change. People have a choice to make: we can either live in an elitist world where people are discriminated against and not welcomed, or we can welcome people and make them feel included. That’s the world I want to live in, and I think it’s the world the majority want to live in.
Is there a reason you’ve chosen to use The Blockheads’ music for Reasons to be Cheerful? Is there something about their music you feel particularly resonant to the current climate?
I suppose the first thing to say is that, back in the day, Ian Dury was one of the only disabled artists to break through. There were a few others around, but nobody was doing things as in-your-face as “Spasticus Autisticus”, and he was actually a patron of Graeae so we have a real connection with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. But I think his music is as relevant today as when they were written. His lyrics say a lot of different things about our world, but he said it in his own way, and in a way that was a little bit spicy, a little bit naughty. That’s what we like about it: that attitude that says not to let the disability politics get in the way, but come along, join in, and have fun. We can be who we are, and you can be who you are, and we can all have a good time together.
After Ian Dury died the Blockheads never performed “Spasticus Autisticus” again because they didn’t feel it was right. But when we did Reasons to be Cheerful originally, we did the song with them – the first time was when we sang with them in Ronnie Scott’s. The Blockheads have been really supportive: they’ve been involved in the show and they’ve said some beautiful things about the show. They’ve said that Reasons to be Cheerful gets to the essence of what they’re about, so for me as a massive fan of theirs, it was amazing. “If It Can’t Be Right, It Must Be Wrong” – just like “Spasticus Autisticus” and with Reasons to be Cheerful as a whole – is definitely about today: we need a reason to keep cheerful, and strong, and happy, because you can paint the world very grey currently. I’m not going to let the world stay grey. That’s why I’m doing Reasons to be Cheerful.
You mention the song you wrote with The Blockheads for this show, “If It Can’t Be Right, It Must Be Wrong”. What was it like adding a belated track to the discography of a band you’ve followed throughout your life?
I was very nervous because they’re my heroes. I’m of the age that their songs were the anthems to my childhood and my youth. I grew up with Chaz Jankel and Ian Dury being heroes of mine. I got to know them through doing Reasons to be Cheerful – I mean, I’d seen The Blockheads and met them briefly at a few gigs, but not properly until that point. So to write a song with them was a big moment for me. I’ve written a lot of lyrics as an artist, but that was huge for me. And I learnt a lot, especially about the importance of detail to make the lyrics sound right in your voice.
I watched Newsnight last night and it seemed like all the lyrics of “If It Can’t Be Right, It Must Be Wrong” were being read out when the newsreader was talking about the UN, and the government’s rhetoric, and even making reference to the fact that we have gone backwards in social policy in recent years: our rights have been eroded by this government. It feels as if things like accessibility and our rights at work are all under grave threat. So the song is a bit of a crystal ball: it felt like they could have sung it on that edition of Newsnight, that’s how relevant the show is for me.
So that seems like it ties in a bit with what you’re doing with the Protest Music Hub, through which you’re encouraging members of the public to submit new protest songs. Through that are you trying to engage a sense of – I suppose not anger, but solidarity among people today?
I think yes, we’re more about building solidarity than anger: we’re more focussed on using anger in a positive way. I think what protest music is really about is giving people a platform. What happens too often is that, apart from a few voices right at the top, and a few voices that happen to be really shouty and loud, everything falls a bit quiet. So protest songs are about giving voice to ordinary people. And that links with Reasons to be Cheerful more broadly: the show is lots of things, but essentially it’s about making sure people come, enjoy themselves, and also learn something about the world that we’re in and leave wanting to do something about it.
In terms of trying to create that solidarity to fight for a better world, the project seems to tie in quite nicely with Graeae’s ethos of “working together and sharing resources”
Yes I suppose, you’ve just got to be part of the good, sometimes in very small ways. I surround myself with people who aren’t horrible, who aren’t racist or homophobic or anything like that. I strive to live in a world that is welcoming and inclusive, and accessible. My values are about those things so I try and make sure my performance reflects that. We can either sit back and let it all happen to us, or we can create the alternative. That’s why I thing grass roots movements are so important. A protest song doesn’t change the world, but it does do something. A song that has a resonance with even just one person has done something: it’s made a connection. Songs do make a difference in people’s lives, and music is really important, so a protest song is about saying that we can have a world that is better if we just want to make it that way. Like I said earlier, we have choices to make. My choice is to be cheerful and to use Reasons to be Cheerful to create a really joyful show and deliver these really important messages.
Reasons to be Cheerful is touring round the UK from 8th September – 4th October. For more information and tickets see here.
 Sameer Rahim, “Paralympics 2012: Ian Dury’s Spasticus Autisticus was electrifying”, The Telegraph 30th August 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/9508444/Paralympics-2012-Ian-Durys-Spasticus-Autisticus-was-electrifying.html