Alex Bulmer on losing her sight and writing for theatre

Alex Bulmer on losing her sight and writing for theatre

By Becky Brewis 20/02/14

Alex Bulmer is a theatre-maker who, since losing her sight, has turned increasingly to writing. Her work is now being supported by the Theatre Centre, with BBC funding. Alex shares advice on working with language and giving feedback…

Tell us about how you made the move from performing to writing 

I was a sighted person and I’ve lost my sight in my adult life.

I think it was the experience of becoming blind that compelled me to find a voice and find words. I started to really develop an appreciation for language, and for how words can be a bridge between isolation and being part of the world around you.

I imagine it must be like that to be an immigrant in another country, surrounded by people who don’t speak your language. I was in my home country of Canada but I was immigrating into this non-sighted world and needed language for two reasons: I needed people to use language effectively so that I understood what was going on around me and I needed people to have the capacity to express with language what they were conveying physically.

How did this new relationship with language inform your work?

I wrote a play specifically about becoming blind, because of this new sudden relationship I had with language and my understanding of the capacity theatre has to create a sensory environment through sound and lighting. You can do a lot in a theatre about becoming blind, because obviously ideas around sound and lighting shift when you lose your sight.  

What practical advice would you give writers starting out?

The first open door I had as a writer in this country was through a scheme at Polka Theatre. At the beginning of your career you should go for schemes and competitions even if you think what you’ve done is crap. You’re not always the best judge of your work.

If you are worried about the quality of your work, then show it to someone you really trust – someone who will give you constructive criticism. If you’re finding it hard to write, find some friends who want to write too and set up a motivational group. The sooner you can get used to people reading your work and giving you feedback the better.

You worked with writers when you were Literary Manager at Graeae, the UK’s foremost disabled-led theatre company. What do you think makes the most useful feedback? 

I’m Canadian and I have been told I’m direct. But I think you can be direct without being cruel. If you’re giving feedback to somebody, respect the fact that they are giving their work to you. They want your feedback, so you don’t have to spend half an hour couching them in cotton wool in order to drop a bomb.

Outline the things you like about the work and the things that have stayed with you when you’ve read it. But stick to what’s on the page. Sometime writers and people giving feedback talk too much and they get into a discussion and it becomes hard to remember what was actually on the page.

Feedback should be honest and it should have positives and be critical. Whether it’s good or bad, it shouldn’t shut the writer down; the function of it is to make sure the writer can move forward. I get very unnerved when people start saying things like “OK, look, I’ll be honest…” I think, “I know you’re going to be honest, that’s why we’re sitting here.”

What advice would you give disabled theatre-makers looking to break into the industry? 

Personally, I think it’s important for disabled people to have a balance of pushiness – definitely voicing any kind of feelings of inequality or lack of inclusion – and gratitude, where change is being attempted. I’ve seen people get really angry and it can be a bit like yelling at the waiter for bad food. If a person feels they are not being included, it should always be communicated with the purpose of having a dialogue rather than making the other person defensive. 

Learn how to protect yourself from moments where you may be excluded because I’m afraid it is going to happen. The world is not yet a totally inclusive place and you need to be prepared for how you are going to deal with that without getting yourself into a state of being permanently angry – because that’s easy to do. At the same time, try to get as much training as possible.

 

The BBC Performing Arts Fund Theatre Fellowship scheme has awarded Theatre Centre £10,000 to support the professional development of Alex Bulmer. 

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