PUSH Festival 2020.
Katie isn’t contagious, she isn’t permanently attached to her wheelchair, and she doesn’t sleep in it. That she has to clarify this might seem incredible but responding to ridiculous and insensitive questions has become a regular occurrence for Katie Staples ever since she took possession of a set of wheels. Freedom to Move is, in part, a response to that.
While frequently encountering this sort of thing must be a dispiriting and exhausting experience, the show asserts it is definitely not going to be a “tale of hardship, struggle and strife“. Staples’ script and performance are upbeat and open, using humour and self-confidence to cut through any ignorance and prejudice. She also comes equipped with a set of swords and a talent for staging fight scenes, but that’s another story.
Staples highlights the many forms the prejudice she must face comes in. As well as the questions, there’s the patronising pats on the head or comments addressed to her friends rather than directly to her. Long-held prejudices persist, with some people still believing that disability is a punishment from God, and happy to advise Katie that prayer will succeed where medical science has failed.
While most of the focus is centre stage, captioning is displayed on a screen behind, and Brandon Ranby sits to the right providing an audio-description. He is the ‘ish’ in Katie’s “solo-ish” performance. The production plays around with Ranby’s role, and as he starts to chip in cheekily from the sidelines he deflates as well as describing – gently letting the air out of some of Katie’s potentially more overblown claims. “I was cool once” she declares, “Katie was never cool” he counters.
Their good-humoured back and forth works well, like some sort of fully accessible banter, if there can ever be such a thing. In a surprising twist, their verbal sparring culminates in a mini-duel, as Katie finally gets to demonstrate her sword skills.
Such moments help to energise the show. Despite the script’s disclaimer that this “is not a motivational talk“, there’s a bit too much emphasis on ‘tell‘ rather than ‘show‘. We even get a Powerpoint presentation at one stage. Although Katie jokingly dons spectacles and adopts a professorial persona to deliver it, they can’t disguise the tendency for proceedings to too often drift wordily into TED territory.
As a production, it feels at its most successful when it shifts the focus towards Katie’s relationship with her wheelchair Wallace. Staples insightfully considers how she struggled to come to terms with needing an ‘aid’ to get moving again, explains her decision to name her new wheelchair, and ponders how some people fail to now recognise her when she is without it.
Exploring their relationship seems to inspire a more inventive approach to the piece’s story-telling. A montage of affectionate handwritten ‘thank you’ notes from Katie to Wallace is a touching visual flourish. Cataloguing the hatred directed at people with disabilities, Katie tries to imagine it as being aimed at Wallace rather than her, as she crawls off stage leaving the wheelchair alone in the harsh spotlight.
Katie’s references to “me and Wallace” hint at a more layered connection than most people might expect. She climbs out of the chair to hug ‘him’ and recognises the role he plays in giving her the freedom to be active. In a thoughtfully choreographed sequence, Katie reminds us that there is more to movement than just getting from place to place, and living your daily life. It is also a means of expression. She walks across the stage on her hands with her lower torso supported by Wallace, lies on the floor and lets the chair roll back and forward over her body, tips ‘him’ on his side and lets his big wheels spin, and then balances Wallace on her legs to lift ‘him’ up into the air. Gracefully, and yet with strength, she creates the illusion that she and Wallace are performing together, like dancing partners. The noise of the chair’s footpads being clipped and unclipped is reimagined as Wallace speaking.
What begins as a show responding to other people’s perceptions and views, becomes instead one that confidently and imaginatively sets its own parameters – and in doing so, creates something that offers a fresh perspective, and is unexpectedly moving.
This performance of Freedom to Move was shared as a work in progress at PUSH Festival 2020. I was invited by White Noise Theatre to write a response to the show. The above are some first impressions and an appreciation of the work at this stage in its development, and not a review.
Performance seen on 31 January 2020.