Created by a visually impaired writer, and starring two visually impaired actors, Libby’s Eyes is a play about disability, the benefits system and sight loss. It’s also one of the shows selected for next month’s Breaking Out season at The Bunker Theatre, alongside five other projects from emerging theatre companies. The play tells the story of Libby, a young visually impaired woman who’s given a government-issued assistance robot to describe her surroundings to her. The only problem is, the robot has opinions of its own – opinions that are very telling of the government’s attitude towards disabled people.
“As a visually impaired writer, I wanted to write the kind of visually impaired character I want to see – if you’ll excuse the pun,” explains writer Amy Bethan Evans. “Blindness is often used as a metaphor with a character who doesn’t see but knows ‘inner truth’, or visual impairment can be used as a slapstick comedy device. Failing that, along with other impairments, it’s seen as something to be ‘overcome’. I wanted to create a character who was visually impaired for no reason. Her impairment is a big part of her life, but her obstacles come from society.
“Also, while her impairment isn’t the butt of any jokes, there is comedy in the play as it is possible to be funny without that. The story has been through several development stages and the one I seemed keenest to tell was my PIP experience. I find it fascinating how governments and other organisations can tell disabled people what they do and don’t need, and that that can change and we’re all just expected to go along with it. I want to fly the flag for stories about being disabled in 2018, as told by disabled people. This is still quite rare and I hope others will be encouraged to do it by this piece.”
The show is narrated by an acting audio describer: “This is a sent-up version of the actor playing the part,” says Amy. “The character is very pretentious and wants to prove their acting ability but at the same time, needs to provide a reliable AD. There have been other shows working with creative audio description in the past, but I wanted to do it in a way that is reflective of the non-disabled gaze while making people laugh.
“I want sighted and visually impaired people to be inspired by the possibilities of audio description, of access for everyone and of the power of disabled protagonists played by disabled actors. I’d like people to feel for the injustices being heaped on the disabled community and even if they’re not spurred into action, appreciate the human stories behind all the numbers. I also want them to feel they’ve enjoyed a good piece of theatre!”
Amy was one of the top 100 entries for the Verity Bargate Award, and was shortlisted for Bristol Old Vic Open Sessions, Pint-Sized and 503 Five at Theatre503. She was also part of the Soho Theatre Writer Group, which is where Libby’s Eyes first came to life. “I’ve had an idea to explore the theme of defectiveness through disabled people and robots for some time, but Soho Writers’ Lab gave me the excuse to write it,” she says. “It was written for the programme, which involved writing three drafts with a dramaturg. The one in production will be the fourth. I had so many ideas in my first draft and didn’t want to leave any out because I could always cut them later, but as time went on I was still none the wiser about what to focus on, because I had so much to say and I’ve not really read anything like this before for a framework. I knew that it was lacking plot even by the third draft and that’s what a lot of the feedback said, so I’ve tried to make this the focus of my fourth draft. It’s difficult because there is no solution to the reality of what I present, so I want to respect the people currently going through it.”
As a writer at the start of her career, Amy’s thrilled to be part of the Bunker’s Breaking Out season. “It’s amazing. I had my first professionally commissioned short at Theatre 503 earlier this year and this is my first professional longer play. The other companies in Breaking Out are really exciting. I only moved to London last year and it’s great to see such talented people all around me and think I could be part of them. I’m also excited by the possibilities of the Bunker as a wheelchair-accessible fringe venue as it can be really difficult for disabled artists to access the fringe scene.”
The play’s being produced by Poke in the Eye Productions, a company founded by visually impaired actor Georgie Morrell, who also appears in the show. “The company aims to platform disabled-led work by up-and-coming artists,” says Amy. “Georgie and I met on a Soho Young Company Social; she was on Comedy Lab and I was on Writers’ Lab. I bumped into her, apologised, explained I was visually impaired and she said, ‘Me too!’ From that, a beautiful friendship was born. I sent her the play and she really liked it and wanted to bring Libby to the stage. I got in touch with my friend Adam, a brilliant visually impaired actor, and we took the first ten minutes to Yolanda Mercy’s Anything Goes scratch at Vaults, with two other actors. The event was a lovely atmosphere of exciting and diverse new work and was lovely to be part of.
“I’m now looking forward to seeing what the creative team do with the play and getting visually impaired people who don’t normally go to the theatre to come. The play is really important to me in subject matter and in what it could contribute to theatre and I think it will be important to other disabled people, artists or not. It has a witty and dynamic creative team behind it and I hope it will entertain and raise awareness. I’m equally excited and scared about watching it myself. I’ll be nervously hanging around the bar listening to what people say about it and gauging in what tone I should say ‘I’m the writer!’”