[Take Over!] Queen Esme of Collingwood

One character: the titular Esme (played by Kate Hood), a wheelchair user who lives alone on the 17th floor of a housing commission estate where the lift doesn’t always work. Two goals: an exploration of what living with disability can look like, and how accessibility can be embedded into theatrical performance. Three monologues: the first, a surface glimpse into Esme’s everyday life at home. The second, a more careful look into her inner state and existential angst, through the lens of Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be soliloquy. The third, a view of her everyday life against the backdrop of the everyday life of her refugee neighbour, Mustafa, drawing similarities and contrasts that underscore her character’s essential humanity.

There’s a lot to reflect on with Kate Hood’s new work (in progress), Queen Esme of Collingwood. A preview of the development of this work, followed by an audience Q&A, was live streamed via Zoom during Take Over!, a collaboration between Melbourne Fringe and Arts Centre Melbourne in September 2020. I also had the opportunity to speak with Kate Hood in the week following the show, and learn more about her goals with this show and motivations in creating it.

Disability is the central focus of this work, which seeks to open up important conversations on the subject by creating spaces for people with disabilities to speak for themselves and share from their lived experience. Hood, who is a wheelchair user, strongly believes that “attitudinal barriers put us in a much worse situation than our bodies will,” and notes that “in Australia, we are not across the social model of disability at all.” Through this work, and through Esme’s character, Hood wants people to see what life is actually like for disabled people. “The occasional ramp is no indication that we are actually taken care of,” she says. “An awful thing for me as a wheelchair user is that I can’t visit my friends, because their houses aren’t accessible.” She also talks about invisible disabilities, noting that one in five people in Australia are disabled. “Invisible disabilities are very tough – the moment you identify as disabled, but look abled, it’s really hard.”

The three monologues in Queen Esme of Collingwood provide interesting internal and external perspectives with regard to the protagonist (not autobiographical) and how she views herself. The second and third monologues are especially intriguing as they lean on the voices and experiences of others to provide a sort of analogy for disabled experience, a strategy which has the potential to resonate with disabled and non-disabled audiences alike, as their shared humanity is highlighted.

About the second monologue (Hamlet’s To Be or Not To Be soliloquy performed from her bed), Hood says “I hadn’t yet discovered Esme’s voice properly, so this is me playing, trying to find her voice. This monologue is about existential angst, I’ve never spoken to a disabled person who doesn’t suffer from that… being excluded from the world, being told (by example) that we don’t belong. It’s difficult to have agency when you don’t belong, when you’re told constantly that you don’t belong, when you don’t fit.” She speaks passionately about agency. “The issue of agency is very important  to me,” she says, “we have non-disabled people running things like the NDIS and providing disability services”, and “we have to deal with people who don’t get what it’s like to be disabled all the time in our lives.” Hamlet’s monologue is weighty enough when considered as an expression of an individual’s experience in dramatic circumstances of supernatural origins, but it is sobering to hear it presented as an expression of a collective experience, representation of a much larger group, a group that is among us and is us (20% of the population!).

I have mixed feelings about the third monologue, where Esme speaks about her refugee neighbour Mustafa. On the one hand, there is a valid similarity drawn between the experiences of two types of “othered” people – Esme with her physical disability, and Mustafa with his foreignness, with a cultural and linguistic minority experience. On the other hand, it is arguably problematic that Mustafa’s story is presented wholly from Esme’s perspective, and Mustafa (who doesn’t speak a word of English) is essentially robbed of agency as his story is told for him in his presence (Hood’s vision includes the hope that there will be an actor to play Mustafa present on stage with Esme, but he will never speak a single word). This does, however, strengthen Hood’s point about agency for disabled people – and perhaps illustrates the necessity for it far more strongly than simply talking about it might.

One of my favourite features of this work was how it factors in, and indeed prioritizes, multiple forms of embedded accessibility. I was particularly fascinated by Will McRostie’s work in facilitating access for blind/low vision people – he voiced an audio descriptions script, but also spoke of using “closer environmental and ambient sounds that made audio descriptions unnecessary”. This was a perspective and a strategy that I have not previously considered in my own work, but was glad to learn from. There is a lot more to be learned about accessibility and how creators can better open up their works to audiences. Hood points out that “people with disabilities have to make creative adjustments all the time”, and noted that “coronavirus has made accessibility better overall – a lot of people are now living the life that disabled people live all the time.” She hopes that once the pandemic is over, people will remember to continue to make things accessible and continue to provide online experiences for disabled audiences, and not just return to things as they were.

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