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Column: Tackling the taboo – relationships, sexuality and disability

The discussion of intellectual disabilities and sexuality is not easy. Although families may be aware and supportive, many don’t know how to navigate this territory. It’s a subject that demands awareness, writes Petal Pilley.

Image: Peter Bernik via Shutterstock

Talking about the romantic and sexual feelings of people with intellectual disabilities is taboo – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, says the Blue Teapot Theatre Company creative director Petal Pilley. The company’s new play, Sanctuary, attempts to take an honest and sensitive look at the issues so often swept under the carpet…

SUMMER IN GALWAY: the city is infused with the carnival of arts and sporting festivals. Yet, behind closed doors on Munster Avenue, the work continues for the ensemble at Blue Teapot Theatre Company who graft hard in preparation for the Dublin premiere of the theatre show Sanctuary this September running as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival.

Aiming to be a production which challenges conventional theatre practice, it tackles the subjects of relationships, sexuality and disability. It is undoubtedly Blue Teapot Theatre Company’s artistic highpoint of 2013, which comes off the back of a sold out run in Galway Arts Festival.

Effecting positive change in public interpretation of ‘disability’

Long an integral part of Galway’s arts community, Blue Teapot has a clear mission: to effect positive change in public consciousness concerning people with intellectual disabilities (ID) thought the medium of theatre, allowing the members inherent talent and creativity to speak for itself.

In the seven years I have spent with this wonderful group of people, I have often been struck by the fact that most adults with ID have extremely limited access to time alone or privacy in an intimate relationship. The nature of being dependent means that many live at home with family or in a group home where they receive care and support.

However, these living arrangements mean that it is almost impossible to have romantic or sexual fulfilment. Couple that with a law which makes it illegal to have sex unless you are married if you are intellectually disabled. The odds are stacked against you.

How to navigate this territory?

This subject is not easy. Many parties are aware and supportive but don’t know how to navigate this territory. This is living tragedy that demands discussion, awareness and a more enlightened response from our society to adults with ID.

Christian O’Reilly, the playwright, didn’t simply go away and write a play. It was important that he became familiar with the actors as people and getting involved in the workshop process.

He said of his experience:

Writing ‘Sanctuary’ felt like a collaborative process. I was invited me to meet the company of actors, all of whom have an intellectual disability, and we had a series of conversations over a number of weeks, in which they talked openly, touchingly and often hilariously about sex, relationships and the challenge of meeting someone you might fall in love with in a world that makes this extremely difficult.
I would go off, generate fresh ideas, questions and characters and come back in and run all my ideas by the group and Petal, the Creative Director. Their feedback has helped me discover and shape the play into something that felt authentic to their experiences. The play comes from them, is a reflection of them and is performed by them. The play only exists because of them and, if it’s any good, this is also due to this remarkable group of people.

Sanctuary features Blue Teapot’s permanent acting ensemble, but the lead roles in this production go to Kieran Coppinger and Charlene Kelly, who play Larry and Sophie. The play examines the relationship between both characters, who have ID, and what happens on a visit to the cinema when, desperate to be alone, they steal away from the group and into the privacy of a hotel room.

For anyone visiting Blue Teapot Theatre, it is unquestionable that everybody involved are all fiercely proud of the company’s many achievements. For all that the company does for the community at large, it does tenfold for its participants. All are empowered by their professional relationship with Blue Teapot and gain confidence to participate more fully in the life of their community.

Being invited to perform ‘Sanctuary’ in Dublin for the Dublin Fringe Festival is a very exciting first for Blue Teapot. We are thrilled to be a part of such a dynamic and innovative festival.

Sanctuary (not suitable for children) is part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. Three Performances at Axis: Ballymun from Saturday 14th & Sunday 15th September. For bookings see www.fringefest.com

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Petal Pilley

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