Tuesday, 23 July 2019

I'm A Published Author

Childhood dreams, sometimes they can feel impossible to achieve. We dream big as children and when you reach adulthood sometimes the reality of life makes it difficult to hold on to those dreams but for me 2019 was the year I made my childhood dream come true. The year I became a published author. If you follow me on social media then you're probably already aware of this because it's all I've talked about for the past few months, but I wanted to speak more about how it came to be that I found myself writing for a book.

January 2017. I received a message on Twitter from someone who worked for Unbound (a crowdfunding book publisher), they were looking for young people to contribute to a book and they wanted me to pitch for it. I was 19 years old at the time, mostly stuck at home (I didn't have my current powerchair back then) with blogging and volunteering filling my time. I was just beginning to find my feet after finally having more than a year's break from surgeries, so an offer to write something for a book was definitely not something I expected. I pitched to them and I was over the moon to be asked to come on board.

The book goes by the same name as Rife Magazine, a Bristol based magazine that was created to amplify the voices of young creatives. A lot of the other essayists were already writing for Rife at the time and we've all written about an issue that means something to us and affects young people. The book covers a wide range of issues including gender, mental health, university, politics and Islamophobia, just to name a few. It was obvious what I would write about, disability, but it was more difficult condensing that down since it's such a broad topic.

I'd talked about so much of my experience as a disabled person on my blog but I wanted to cover something I hadn't before and for me that was education. The first half of my essay covers my diagnosis, my surgeries and my experience in education. Before the book I'd never explicitly discussed what education looked like for me, as a teenager that went from high attendance and great grades to suddenly being unable to climb a flight of stairs and I hadn't realised until I started writing how much I needed to verbalise it.

The second half covers broader topics such as accessibility and the benefits system. To me it was really important to include the benefits system because even when we talk about benefits and those who 'deserve them' we say things like 'I've paid in my taxes' but as a young disabled person I haven't paid in my taxes. I haven't contributed in the traditional way that would make the support I'm receiving justified in the eyes of a lot of people. It's difficult to find conversations happening about young disabled people on benefits, so I wanted to start one. There is so much more I would have loved to have covered too but one chapter was simply not enough, I'll save the rest for my own book one day I hope.

Whilst I announced my involvement with the book at the time I joined several years have passed since then so it was lovely to be able to announce it all over again and I couldn't believe the reaction I received. The idea of people pre-ordering a book simply because I'm in it was so alien to me, but I'm slowly getting used to it. Everything has been so surreal, from signing over 150 copies of the book to go out to supporters to taking part in a panel event at RSA (Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). The launch itself was a few weeks ago now, I attended the London one and it was amazing to meet so many of the people that made the book possible, everyone from the other essayists to those who work at Unbound and Rife Magazine.

I keep pinching myself because it really doesn't feel real. Every time I see the book in a bookshop I get emotional and I'm not sure that will ever change. 7 years of writing my blog, years of writing for other publications and finally I made my dream a reality. Just a few years ago I was almost completely without hope, hope that I would achieve the things I wanted to, hope that life would get better. But it finally has. I thought 2018 was my year but we're only halfway through 2019 and I can safely say it's been the best year of my life so far.

You can buy Rife: Twenty-One Stories From Britain's Youth in all the usual places including Waterstones, Amazon and Foyles.

Friday, 19 July 2019

Present Laughter at The Old Vic | Review

Disclaimer: Previously I have been gifted tickets for The Old Vic productions but I purchased my own tickets for Present Laughter.

Show rating: ★★★★★
Accessibility rating: ★★★★

'I knew how deep your longing must be to have someone really to love you, to be with you, when I saw that dreadful prostitute come out of the spare room.'

'That was not a prostitute. It was the husband of one of my dearest friends!'

As he prepares to embark on an overseas tour, star Garry Essendine's colourful life is in danger of spiralling out of control. Engulfed by an escalating identity crisis at his many and various relationships compete for his attention, Garry's few remaining days at home are a chaotic whirlwind of love, sex, panic and soul-searching. - The Old Vic

At the beginning of this year my theatre experience was turned upside down when I saw my first play, after insisting I was solely a musicals person. It was A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic and I walked out with a new found appreciation for plays and the emotions they could make a person feel. Since then The Old Vic have kindly sent me to see another 2 plays and whilst I've found them enjoyable, they haven't quite captured my imagination in the same way. However, that was all changed again when I saw Present Laughter recently.

Present Laughter is my first Noël Coward play and I really had no idea what to expect. From responses on social media I knew it would be funny but I had no idea how much it would grip me and make me cry with laughter. Andrew Scott was the reason I was drawn to this play, I'm a Sherlock fan and for years have been left speechless by his on screen performances, so I jumped at the chance to see him perform live. I might have gone for Andrew Scott but when I left, I left impressed by every single element in the show and every single person on stage. Matthew Warchus did such a remarkable job of directing this play and making it the all round emotional experience it is, it ticks all the boxes and I was so shocked to hear this was the first time he had directed a Noël Coward.

The play follows actor Garry Essendine, played by Andrew Scott, as he enters an identity crisis. Throughout the show you see all of his relationships with various people and how they all intertwine. In the programme Matthew speaks about how in the original script Garry's sexual relationships with both men and women were more subtle but the decision was made to make it more obvious this time and it really worked, as well as it being important bisexual representation. Andrew felt so natural in the role, when  he came on stage you felt his presence immediately and you could hear a pin drop as the audience were just so captured by him, myself included. His performance truly left me speechless, he portrayed complex emotions beautifully and was fabulously camp and over the top in just the right moments. Nothing was ever too much or too little. I don't use this word often but his performance really was perfection.

This extends to the rest of the cast too, Monica Reed made me laugh so much and the way Indira Varma held herself on stage was enchanting. In a play centred around a man you might expect the women to be somewhat in the background but for me there were several portrayals of strong women in this production. I also remembered Abdul Salis from seeing him in The American Clock and it was wonderful to see him in a role that portrayed so much raw emotion, he really showed his flexibility as an actor and I hope I get to see him in another OV production in the future. But truly, every single person on stage gave as good a performance as the next, it really was the definition of a team effort.

Photos by Manual Harlan

As for my highlights, there were a few moments I loved. I won't spoil anything but there was a moment with a wheelchair that made me laugh so much as a wheelchair user myself, I think the rest of the audience were horrified (and amused) but I found it rather relatable and therefore even funnier! A big part of the show is also the theme of the actor/fan relationship, something I would love to see portrayed on stage more as it's such a big part of theatre. Obviously this play is set in a time very different to now but I think it touched on some important messages and showed how difficult the actor/fan relationship can be, from both perspectives.

And oh how I laughed! It's the first comedy play I've seen and by the time it got to the interval I was ready and eager to book to see it again as soon as possible. Someone was clearly on my side as despite it being near enough sold out, I managed to grab the wheelchair space for a performance next week. This show really is the joy that everyone needs in their life, but also balanced by complex emotions and stories. For me, this is what a play should be. It made me feel everything possible. The combination of the cast, the writing, the direction and the breathtaking set (seriously OV, 10/10 for all your sets) made this one of the best shows I have ever seen, and most certainly the best play.

If you've not already booked you've got until August 10th to catch this masterpiece, this is one show you should be sure not to miss out on. Head to The Old Vic website to buy your tickets.

The access at The Old Vic is much the same as usual, with the work to improve their accessibility still ongoing, but this is the first time I'm giving my reviews an accessibility rating as well as a rating for the show itself so I thought it would be good to have a detailed look at The Old Vic's current access, as well as it's plans for the future.

The Old Vic currently has 2 spaces available for wheelchair users in the stalls, I've sat in N6 for every production I've seen there and it has always been an incredible view. It's close to the stage and there is no restriction in my opinion. Entry to the theatre for wheelchair users is currently via a side entrance, which gives you access to the auditorium and the accessible toilet. Access to the foyer areas is not possible for wheelchair users at the moment. The accessible toilet has a concertina door, as the space itself is not particularly big. I am a powerchair user and I can just about turn around to come back out, although others may find it easier to reverse in or reverse out depending on how you transfer. Patrons with mobility difficulties can also use this entrance. There are audio described and captioned performances for every production The Old Vic puts on, as well as relaxed performances for shows like A Christmas Carol. I also didn't know this before but you can actually contact The Old Vic to ask about whether any of their shows contain triggering themes, this isn't something I've seen before and I think it's great!

I've rated the access for how it is currently but I have taken into consideration that work is currently ongoing to make the foyer areas like the box office and the cafe accessible for wheelchair users and other disabled people. There will also be an increased number of wheelchair spaces, taking them from 2 to 10! Work is also being done to double the number of women's toilets as well, including adding another accessible toilet. I truly cannot wait for the work to be completed later this year and to explore the theatre further. There are also even more plans for the future, I think The Old Vic could end up being one of the most accessible theatres in London in the end.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Powerchair Update | What Happened To My Old Powerchair?

Disclaimer: The upgrade to my own powerchair and my old powerchair being donated was provided by Quantum for free, but I am not paid by them. 

In a powerchair update last year I shared with you the exciting news that Quantum (the company who make my incredible powerchar) had kindly offered to upgrade my Edge 2.0 powerchair to the newer model, the Edge 3.0. I actually ended up being the first person in the UK to have the powerchair and the upgrade has been incredible for me. I was hesitant to accept it though since I had fundraised for my powerchair and I only had it because of the kindness of others, so I wanted to make sure that I was honouring that if I went ahead with the upgrade. Well, between Quantum and I we came up with an idea, they offered to take the base of my old powerchair and add seating and anything else needed so we could donate it to someone. It's so important to me to pass on the kindness shown to me and so this was the perfect way to make sure that the gift given to me would not go to waste, to me I was seeing it as being able to change not only my life but now someone else's too. It's taken a while to organise but I am so over the moon to say that we found someone and have delivered the chair!

I've known Faith online for a little while, we'd talked occasionally and I was aware of her situation with her own NHS powerchair from our conversations when I got my new chair. She was an example of how even when you receive NHS help, many people end up with the wrong chair. She hadn't been measured properly so it didn't even fit her, causing a great deal of discomfort. It defeated it's own purpose, a wheelchair is something that is meant to give you more freedom but like with my own first powerchair, Faith's was limiting her. She needed something that was measured to her, designed to fit her life and her need's and something that would enable her to enjoy the things she loves doing most, like going to concerts and festivals. It's not much to ask for, but the NHS just couldn't deliver. So, she was a natural choice when I was trying to find someone. My situation prior to receiving my current powerchair was very similar to hers and so I knew how much of a difference a new powerchair would make to her life. I was so excited to be on the other end of things!

Once we'd offered Faith the powerchair Quantum were able to get someone out to her to measure her properly, making sure the powerchair was right for her life and then we got the ball rolling! Finally a month ago myself and a few of the Quantum team travelled up to Leeds to deliver the chair to Faith, a day I'd been looking forward to ever since we made the decision. I will remember that day and Faith's reaction to seeing the chair, and sitting in it, for the first time for a long while. The joy and relief was clear to see and I immediately knew that it was going to the right home. Almost instantly she said she was sitting differently because it was made to fit her. Like me, Faith really puts her wheelchair through its paces in what she does and I know for sure that this will enable her to do things that have been difficult or impossible before now.

Faith's powerchair also has the iLevel function, something I now use on a daily basis to help me do everything from give standing ovations in theatres to hugging my girlfriend. It has made an undeniable difference to my life and I'm over the moon to see it change someone else's life too. I already know that it will transform her experiences at concerts and festivals, as well as in her everyday life.

I truly knew we'd made the right decision when Faith sent me a text a couple of weeks back after she'd gone on a 5 mile trip down to her local canal and shop, the joy was clear to see. Sometimes it's the simple things, going to the local shop was one of the first things I did in my powerchair. Whilst it doesn't compare to the things I do on a weekly basis now it proves how much of daily life disabled people miss out on when we don't have the right equipment.

I will keep you all updated on how Faith is getting on with the chair across social media (@shonalouiseblog on Twitter and Instagram). I'm so excited to see all the adventures she goes on! Look out for another powerchair update from me in a couple of months too, it's almost 18 months since I received my chair! I can't wait to share what I've been up to in the last 6 months.
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