There’s a problem with how some Britons perceive the more vulnerable members of our society. It doesn’t take much to unearth their opinions, especially if you’ve access to the Internet. Exploring these is a new work by Tommy: The Queer Historian. Over several months, he interviewed 22, otherwise completely average, individuals with extreme views on disability benefit claimants. They spoke in anonymity, and therefore with complete freedom. “I just wanted to understand where their opinions had come from,” he tells me. “And understand why they try to force their opinions on us as disabled people.” From all the respondents, he’s selected three to have their personal narrative retold onstage.

The resulting show is How Disabled Are You?, which has its world premiere at Brighton Fringe this May. The opinions have been placed into script form, read aloud by three disabled individuals. It’s the first time any of them have performed or seen these words. The intent is not to vilify anybody. It’s not even about the words themselves, just the reactions provoked. “It’s about understanding what happens to these people who do claim benefits, who do live with a hidden disability, what they get out of hearing people’s opinions outside of their own echo chamber.” Amongst a naturalistic environment, we’re presented with a trio temporarily stripped of their own voice and confronted with an aggressive mindset.

As with How Disabled Are You?, an ambition to produce work evolving from personal narratives drove Tommy’s very first show, Homophobe. Researching as a historian
had taken him to the LGBT archives in London’s Bishopsgate and The Keep in Brighton. “I was digging through these old archives, and I’d find cuttings from the Daily Mail and The Telegraph, with people writing in with homophobic views – attaching their full name and
address.” Drawing a connection between these opinions and the homophobic assault he’d endured as a youth, he began wondering if his attackers had reformed over time. Tracking them down revealed one assailant had come to terms with his own sexuality, but refused to speak with Tommy, while another clearly hadn’t changed. “He said the best moment of his whole life was beating the shit out of me.” This prompted a search for people who were
able to soften their views on sexual identity.

He was able to communicate with several correspondents from the original newspaper clippings, openly stating he was a theatre-maker. He was in contact with one woman for three or four months, chatting on the phone but never able to arrange a physical meeting to discuss what she’d once written. “She would always move the conversation on. So, I phoned her up, and read her comment, then she hung up on me. She called back five minutes later apologising. She had changed”. Experiences like these formed the basis of Homophobe, a look at society and questioning its ability to become better.

A later show discussing his sex addiction, saw him building up a substantial loyal audience. It was at this point his disability benefits were interrupted during the national migration between Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independent Payment. This preceded nine
months of problems and exacerbation of his symptoms. “It puts you through so much pain. You have to go to meetings all the time, showing that you are disabled, and you do need these benefits to survive.” The protracted experience inspired him to examine the varying attitudes towards benefits claimants and hidden disabilities. “Where does these people’s mindset come from? How have they got to this point where they believe: ‘Oh, he’s walking, he’s not disabled’?” There is a glacial decline in negative opinions. Creating discussion around these issues can lead to some progress, and hopefully can offer solace. A fascination with people resonates in Tommy’s work. He seems hopeful it might affect people, whether altering their perception of others or reaching an acceptance with themselves.

He waited for several months after his own experiences before developing How Disabled Are You?, “If I’d gone straight into it, it wouldn’t make the best. It would sound vengeful against these people.” He knew what the basis of the show should be, and social media or online comment sections in the media’s more polemical end would be a source of hurtful beliefs. He contacted a balance of age ranges and shades of opinion, one participant even fulfilling a senior role at a benefits office. All were given free rein to say anything, no matter how ridiculous it sounded. The research and interviews revealed class attitudes played a significant part in certain sentiments. Often it was assumed people were on benefits due to their background. Similarly, his work revealed many just wanted their views to be heard and validated. “I don’t think they’ve ever been given that moment. A lot of them comment on online stuff. But as soon as you open yourself to online commentary, you get other people telling you you’re wrong.” The aim of the show is to explore the reinforcement of these feelings. Nobody is born believing the benefits systems corrupt, or that disabled people are only disabled if they’re wheelchair users.

Stepping back as a performer, Tommy instead brought in a range of disabled people, some who claim benefits and some who have hidden disabilities, with no performance experience. It’s ambiguous how they will react until the curtains open. This adds to the piece’s energy and freshness. If someone is asked to read something personally hurtful, they’re told to pause for five seconds, then try again. “I try to offer a sense of empowerment that I’ve learnt as a performer to people who have never performed before. They are just words. You’re going to deal with people’s words all the time. But they are just words, and that’s it.”

How Disabled Are You? comes to Junkyard Dogs: The Doghouse, at Brighthelm Centre on Fri 3 – Sat 4 & Fri 17 – Sat 18 May, as part of Brighton Fringe 2019.

Images by Matt Golowczynski