Interview: 20 Stories High | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Photos by Jack Ehlen

The award-winning Liverpool-based company 20 Stories High collaborate with acclaimed national partners Graeae, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and Leeds 2023 to create High Times and Dirty Monsters, a unique Hip Hop show with Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists that stops at Northern Stage, Newcastle on 3rd and 4th November.

The production, directed by Keith Saha (20 Stories High Artistic Director),  shares what it is to be young and disabled in 2023 and features a collective of actors, beatboxers, rappers and dancers who present a raucous, radical, celebratory show complete with heavy beats, stunning visuals, movement, and artistically embedded access – including integrated British Sign Language (BSL), creative captioning and audio description.

How did 20 Stories High start and what is the ethos behind the organisation?

20 Stories High is an award-winning theatre company that believes “everybody’s got a story to tell… and their own way of telling it.”

Founded in 2006, we co-create with culturally diverse, working-class young people, emerging artists, and world-class professionals to tell stories that are challenging, authentic and uplifting. Experimenting with rap, dance, beatboxing, music, and puppetry, we mash up art forms to make new kinds of theatre that empowers and enables social change. Our shows happen in loads of different spaces from theatres, schools and youth clubs to digital spaces and living rooms. Our heart is in Liverpool, but our reach is universal. 20 Stories High an Arts Council England National Portfolio funded organisation.

Briefly describe the process of creating High Times & Dirty Monsters

About two years ago we were talking to Graeae who are the country’s leading theatre company in terms of disability led work. It was our ambition to create a new piece of hip-hop theatre with, by and for young Deaf/Disabled and neurodivergent young adults.

The process started with creative workshops, asking young people what’s good and what’s hard about being young. We worked with 20 Stories High’s Youth Theatre, Graeae’s Young Company and Deaf Active (a Liverpool based youth service for Deaf young people) and from those conversations we started to build up a picture and mapped out what the dominant themes were- Education, housing, cost of living and mental health.

From that point we cast some amazing Deaf/disabled and neurodivergent artists and developed a script that honoured the shared experiences our participants as well as some of the artists own lived experiences. We wanted to included creative access in the piece which includes, integrated British Sign Language, Integrated audio description and also creative captioning.

Ultimately we knew that this show had to have bounce and be hopeful. We are exploring some challenging themes, but always want our shows to be a good night out and also to offer some healing and some heavy beats. We were lucky enough to work with Grace Savage to provide the music, who is an amazing artist and musician with loads of theatre experience so that was such a good fit.

Also the team on this show is huge a small village of experts and creatives Chris Fonseca Chroegraphy, Daryl Jackson, BSL consultant, Ben Glover creative caption, Mandy Redvers-Rowe audio description consultant, Chandu Gopalakrishnan as our interpretive signer. 

Who writes the music in High Times & Dirty Monsters and what is the songwriting process like?

The music has been composed by Grace Savage, an actor, singer, songwriter and 4 x UK Beatbox Champion and a Radio 1 played musician. Her theatre credits include Living Newspaper (Royal Court), Trailer Story (ETT), Big Up! (20 Stories High/Theatre-Rites), Slug (Nabokov), Blind (The Paper Birds at Soho Theatre), Home (National Theatre), Vocal Orchestra (Udderbelly Southbank), Jamie Blake (Ravenrock Theatre Company) and The Lost Voice (Southbank).

Beatboxer Grace Savage, who “stands at the back and makes the show sound delicious” has found creating Hard Times and Dirty Monsters a learning experience. She says: “When I first read the script, as a neurotypical, non-disabled person I was a bit like ‘I want to learn more about your disabilities and your barriers’, but actually I’m just wanting to know that because I haven’t educated myself around it.

As a gay woman and a Queer artist, the way I can relate to that is when I watch Queer art and it all becomes about ‘the gay trauma’. Actually, I just want to see gay people in art that are just living their lives and it’s actually so rare to see that.”

Grace says: “Mandy Redvers-Rowe (Audio Description Consultant) who comes in and advises us on the audio description says when she goes to the theatre she’s told to put on a pair of headphones and she just gets described: the actors are dancing. So we’re trying to find ways with me as a beatboxer and a musician to create interesting sound effects of a bus coming past or there’s a monster arriving on stage.

I’ve also been working with the sound engineer to make sure the vibrations are felt by deaf audiences and so Jayden (Reid), who’s a Deaf actor and dance on stage, can respond and dance to my music.”

Can you tell us about some of the stories in the show?

Told through storytelling, live music, hip hop dance and beatboxing, High Times and Dirty Monsters follows four young people navigating adulthood in 2023.

Connor’s story explores what it’s like for a young adult who is holding some financial responsibility to support his Mum and his little sister and his French bulldog Gary. A funny and moving story, It explores themes of hardship, shame and also offers hope. This was such a common theme with so many young people related to the cost of living.

Sasha’s story is about a young woman who is sofa surfing. Being passed from pillar to post she eventually ends up at her best mate Laurens. But after weeks of being there, it starts to put a strain on their relationship. Again, housing and accommodation has come up a lot.

Jamal’s story explores mental health challenges of a young Dad. He has a good job, training to be an architect and a loving relationship with his girlfriend Maya. But he finds it hard to open up to her about his daily struggles. From a lot of the conversations, we heard that male pride was a huge factor in terms of talking about wellbeing and mental health.

Katy’s story explores what it’s like for a young, working class, disabled woman at University. It digs deep into the daily challenges and obstacles she faces, and  when is invited to a posh award ceremony, things start to shift in her relationship with how others perceive her and to make things worse her Mum turns up!

Tell us more about the visual element to the show

The show features design by Miriam Nabarro, creative captioning and video design by Ben Glover, and lighting design by Rajiv Pattani. Light boxes at the back of the stage are grouped together, with a screen at the top which features the creative captions. 

Each element has been designed to complement and layer access with creativity throughout, with Graeae’s approach of aesthetic in access being key. 

The entire show is an array of colours and textures, providing different points of focus, including shifting lights at the back of the stage, bright coloured costuming, and textures on the stage like fluffy set pieces. 

Throughout the show, the visuals are audio described or supplemented by foley and music performed by Grace Savage, and there’s a tactile model box available before each show so that visually impaired audiences can get a sense of the performance space. 

What do you hope audiences take away from the production?

Sense of Hope. Celebration. Empowerment. For Deaf, disabled & neurodivergent YP – to see themselves represented on stage/in the stories. 

Billy Pearson (cast member): “It’s got the bounce of youth. It’s a show that is led by young people. It’s new young talent which is exciting in itself. It’s monologues that have this struggle that’s balanced with humour and song. There’s beatboxing and dance and there’s so much in the show that you don’t ever see in a show. It’s quite uncommon to come to a theatre and meet the actors that introduce themselves as the actors and then they blend into the character and then they come out of the character- ‘oh that was a bit of a heavy story, let’s have some balloon modelling or something.’ …It borrows from so many different things in such a unique way and just puts into this big bowl of just fun. It’s more than just telling these stories of grit and hope it has hope. There’s a lot of hope with this piece.”

Maisy Gordon (cast member): “It’s not ‘we come and tell a story and that‘s the end’. It’s like these characters have always existed and will forever exist because there will always be the things that we’re talking about and challenging and experiencing but you don’t want people to think oh that‘s the end of that, I’ll go on me way. You want them to go away and think these people live on because it does and they should be thinking about these people and these stories. It doesn’t end when the show ends, it’s a constant.”

Your productions are very accessible. In general, what are theatres and theatre companies doing well to make sure everyone can enjoy a show and what more can these organisations do to improve? 

Building access in from the very outset of a project is absolutely key. We have learnt so much from, and with, Graeae Theatre Company who is one of our co-producers on High Times and Dirty Monsters. 

For over 40 years, Graeae has cultivated and championed the best in Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent talent, locally, nationally and internationally. 

What theatre companies like Graeae have been doing well is layering access. From what a show looks and feels like, how a show is marketed, to the audience experience in the building, ensuring a show can be enjoyed by everyone is a multi-layered process.

  • Integrated access in the show 
  • Access around the show: access table, accessible resources, Mental health first aiders, quiet rooms etc
  • Familiarization tours and offer of bespoke support at venues
  • Participation and community engagement to ensure we are reaching our target audience 
  • Ensuring we are working with access experts: BSL associate, AD associate, access worker
  • Wellbeing around the show support the team in highlighting what they need 
  • The show will be available online, which feels so important for audiences who may not be able to access in theatres 
  • Working closely with us on the above offer to ensure it is the strongest it can be in each venue
  • Graeae and 20SH have been leading access training sessions with each theatre to ensure their are discussions around all access elements and everyone is feeling fully briefed/confident in implementing 
  • Using this opportunity to look at how they can build on access long-term 


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