Graeae Theatre Company

Company name: Graeae Theatre Company

Founders: Nabil Shaban and Richard Tomlinson. Artistic Directors: Richard Tomlinson (1980); Nic Fine (1980); Caroline Noh (1983 – ?); Ewan Marshall (1991 – 97); Jenny Sealey (1997 – now)

Established: 1980

Reason: ‘… was formed in February 1980 to encourage the active participation of disabled people in the performing arts. To this end the company is made up exclusively of disabled people.’ (Publicity 1982)

Current Status: Still operating – see Graeae Theatre

Area of work: Disability

Policy: ‘The policy of the company is as follows: To encourage the active participation and eventual integration of people with disabilities into the main stream of performing arts. To make a unique contribution to British Theatre by giving insight into people with disabilities and by adding its own dimension to any piece of work it undertakes. To perform an educative role by raising issues related to disability, by bringing the subject of disability to the awareness of the public and by performing to traditionally non-theatre audiences. To encourage by its existence the opening up of arts education establishments to people with disabilities.’ (Publicity, 1982)

Structure: Mainly Artistic Director-led with emphasis on working collectively in the early years

Based: West End Theatre, Aldershot (1981 -82); various London bases from 1982; since 2010 in East London at the Bradbury Studios

Funding: Amongst others: Arts Council of Great Britain, Gulbenkian Foundation, Camden Council, Greater London Council (GLC), Commonwealth Foundation, Hampshire Council

Performance venues: West End Theatre, Aldershot, Riverside Studios, Oval House, National and International touring

Audiences: Disabled and non-disabled people with an interest in emerging work

For more Graeae images see Nabil Shaban’s web page

Company work and process:
Graeae Theatre Company was founded in 1980 by Nabil Shaban, writer, actor, film-maker and activist, and Richard Tomlinson, who worked extensively, educationally and creatively with disabled people. They met at Hereward College for the Disabled in Coventry in the 1970s, where Nabil was a student and Richard a lecturer. For some time they had discussed forming a theatre company of physically disabled actors and with the 1978 United Nations announcement that 1981 would be ‘The International Year of Disabled Persons’ (IYDP), they found the spur to pursue this aim. They set their sights on having a company up and running by 1980, chose a name (see Nabil Shaban’s interviewee video extract) and set about finding 6 actors (3 men and 3 women) with different disabilities for their first production. Recruiting was difficult as any experienced disabled actors weren’t prepared to give up their secure positions for a potential, one –off experiment, and there was no tradition of disabled people thinking they could become professional actors. There was also no money at this stage, although Richard Tomlinson had friends who put money into the production’s development and their solicitor worked for free. (Nabil Shaban on The Beginning of Graeae)

The show they were developing, Sideshow, was the culmination of several years’ work (see Nabil Shaban’s interviewee audio extract). They were invited to perform at the International Conference on Rehabilitation and Disability in Winnipeg, Canada in 1980, and a short tour to take place just beforehand was organised for them in the US by the University of Illinois, where Richard Tomlinson had previously studied. At this stage there was no interest in what they were doing at home but they managed to organise small premieres at London and Surrey Universities before leaving for North America. Sideshow was a huge success in the US where they played to full houses, were guests on chat shows and had excellent media coverage. In Canada they performed to over 700 people who had come from all around the world to attend the conference. On their return, they suddenly found everyone was interested in them – including the BBC (Arena 1981 documentary). Nabil Shaban, who had no previous booking experience, began setting up a tour (First London bookings), and in January 1981 they staged their performance for the UN’s IYDP at the Riverside Studios. Very soon, the company was receiving Arts Council funding and they were able to pay themselves professionally.

The West End Centre in Aldershot, a multi-disciplined arts centre, offered Graeae a residency, which included free office and rehearsal space, plus the theatre to premiere their shows. They accepted and were based there for 18 months before transferring to London.

Nabil Shaban stayed on as actor for the next production 3D, after which he left for other work, remaining on the Board for a few years longer.

In the early years, it was difficult to find a disabled Artistic Director as there was really no-one at that time who had the skill, experience or vision. After Richard Tomlinson left early on to pursue his educational work, he handed over the Artistic Directorship to his friend Nic Fine who stayed for about 18 months. There followed a string of other, in the main, non-disabled writers and directors – a lot of whom came from women’s, gay and lesbian theatre backgrounds who were interested and sympathetic to the work being pioneered by Graeae – until the appointment of Ewan Marshall in 1991.

Personal appraisal and thoughts: (to come)

‘A fruitful exploitation of self-mockery, entertaining and disturbing. See it.’ (Time Out)
‘There isn’t a moment’s monotony or sentimentality. There is instead much humour, some wit and a most persuasive sincerity….and it makes most gripping entertainment.’ (The Daily Telegraph)
‘I must say that the prospect of five severely handicapped actors on a bare stage trying to entertain me for 90 minutes did not sound like an incentive to pleasure. One of the joys of this job is discovering how wrong you can be. 3D is a wonderful piece of work…Their spirit and charm is indomitable.’ (The Financial Times 1982)
‘…each actor spices up the picture with anything from a crazy martial arts demonstration with crutches to a story of a post-coital clothes hunt for two blind lovers…And as for euthanasia, the debate ceased to matter when, as one of them says: “If I’d been allowed to die at birth, think what you would have missed tonight. Too true.”‘(The Guardian)
M3 Junction 4
‘M3 Junction 4 is a welcome development of their work; equally remarkable and honest….the pride of the disabled is in their own abilities, and the revelation of their rich stage personalities, does more to prove their innate worth than any amount of argument.’ (Ned Chaillet, The Times)
‘Their powers of expression are beguiling and their forceful personalities impress themselves as deeply as ever.’ (Daily Telegraph)
Some general reviews:
‘Stunning! For at least five years they have been one of Britain’s most inventive companies, always seeking new forms to display nascent talent.’ (Morning Star 1983)
‘A remarkable testimony to the talents of these performers and the most effective piece of agitprop I’ve seen for some time.’ (Time Out 1984)


Production NameVenuesDates
Sideshow devised by Richard Tomlinson and the company
Directed: Richard Tomlinson
Cast: Will Kennen, Alexandria Low, Jag Plah, Elane Roberts, Marion Saunders, Nabil Shaban
(Maggie Woolley replacing Elane Roberts for Riverside Studios performances)
Original part-time amateur company: Illinois, US, Winnipeg, Canada
London and tour culminating in Riverside Studios week for IYDP
1980 - 81
Sideshow devised by Richard Tomlinson and the company
Director: Nic Fine
Cast: Deniz Bull, Yvonne Allen, Jag Plah, Elane Roberts, Michael Flower, Nabil Shaban
First professional company beginning May 1981: London and national tour1981
3D devised by Richard Tomlinson and the company
Director: Nic Fine
Cast: Deniz Bull, Yvonne Allen, Jag Plah, Elane Roberts, Michael Flower, Nabil Shaban
M3 Junction 4
Co-directors: Richard Tomlinson and Nic Fine
The Endless Variety Show
Written by Chris Speyer
Director: Geoff Armstrong
Writer: Geoff Parker
Directors: Mitch Mitchelson and Caroline Noh
Cast: Tim Barlow, Alisa Fairley, Jim Gibbins, Annie Lewis, Hamish McDonald, Jag Plah.
Designer: Charles Haines
Music: Isobel Ward and Mark Glentworth
Not too Much to Ask
Writer: Patsy Rodenburg
Director: Caroline Noh
Cast: Alisa Fairley, Gary Andrews, Geoff Armstrong, Yvonne Poulson, Richard Gilling, Yvonne Allen
Designer: Peter Mumford
Musical Director: Isobel Ward
Casting Out
Writer: Nigel Jamieson
Director: Nigel Jamieson
Cast: Frankie Armstrong, Jag Plah, Nabil Shaban, Ellen Wilkie
(Jim Gibbons joined for India tour)
Stage Manager: Tom Watt
London and national tour
India tour
Cocktail Cabaret
Writers: Yvonne Allen, Byrony Lavery, Annie Lewis, Geoff Parker, Tracy Thomas, Isobel Ward, Elly Wilkie
Director: Caroline Noh
Cast: Yvonne Allen, Tim Barlow, Alisa Fairley, Jim Gibbons, Hamish McDonald, Elly Wilkie
Set Designer: Diane St Stephen
Costume Designer: Celeste Dandeker
Music: Mark Glentworth and Isobel Ward
Practically Perfect
Writer:Ashley Grey
Director: Geoff Armstrong
Working Hearts
Writer: Noel Greig
Director: Maggie Ford
Equality Street
Devised by Ashley Grey and Geoff Armstrong
Private View
Writer: Tasha Fairbanks
Director: Anna Furse
The Cornflake Box
Writer: Elspeth Morrison
Director: Brian Thomas
Writers: Geoff Armstrong and Yvonne Lynch
Director: Ewan Marshall
Chances Are
Writer: Jo Verrant
Director: Annie Smol
Writer: Maria Oshodi
Director: Ewan Marshall
A Kind of Immigrant
Writer: Firdus Kanga
Director: Ewan Marshall
Soft Vengeance
Writer: Albie Sachs adapted by April de Angelis
Director: Ewan Marshall
Cast: Sarah Scott, Ray Harrison Graham, Deborah Williams, Ewan Marshall.
Designer: Annabel Temple

Forum Theatre In Education Programme
Writer: Alfred Jarry adapted by Trevor Lloyd
Playback 2 U
Forum Theatre In Education Programme
Fresh Fly
Adapted from Ben Jonson's Volpone by Trevor Lloyd
Director: Ewan Marshall
Sympathy for the Devil
Writer: Roy Winston
Director: Ray Harrison Graham
Co-production with Basic Theatre Company
What the Butler Saw
Writer: Joe Orton
Director: Ewan Marshall

Interviewee reference: Nabil Shaban, Noel Greig

Links: Graeae Theatre Company, Shape, Extant, Deafinitely Theatre
Nabil Shaban videos (Vimeo) and music

Existing archive material: Graeae Theatre

Disability, Theatre and Education by Richard Tomlinson, 1982
Graeae Plays 1 selected and introduced by Jenny Sealey (Aurora Metro Press, 2002)

Acknowledgements: This page was written and constructed by Jessica Higgs, assisted by volunteer Kim Dexter, with grateful thanks to Nabil Shaban, Jenny Sealey and Graeae Theatre Company for allowing us to scan material from their archive for our collection and use on our website. November 2013

The creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.