Ellen Renton, the writer and performer of Within Sight (Thu 5 - Fri 6 Mar) explains how the production allows sighted audience members to literally see through her eyes, where to get the best Korean food in town, and how the Traverse's own Class Act project kicked off her writing career.
1. What inspired you to create Within Sight?
Within Sight was born out of several frustrations; with the lack of disability access to theatre, with the constant ignorant and unfair media representations of disability, and with a society that has convinced itself we have overcome ableism when in truth, we have a long way to go. I wanted to create a show that stemmed from this anger, but also allowed for some humour and tender moments, because rounded portrayals of disabled characters are so few and far between. I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with the Paralympics, and for so many disabled people it’s the only time they will see themselves represented, so I thought it would be an interesting context for exploring disability in our society.
2. What’s it like to create a piece of drama so closely informed by real experiences – what are the challenges and benefits?
The most significant challenge is separating myself from the character, and thinking about how we might react differently to certain situations, but the benefits have definitely outweighed the challenges. It’s great to be able to say a lot of things that I’ve always wanted to say but perhaps haven’t had the platform, and to draw a lifetime of experience of albinism. The real life element helps with performance too, because although the story isn’t true much of the emotion is.
3. Can you tell us about projection and the experience it has been designed to communicate?
The projections shown behind me on stage were created by the brilliant filmmaker Kiana Kalanter Hormozi, and they are a recreation of the visual interactions that I have with my surroundings. At the beginning of the project, I had a chat with Kiana about my eyesight, and she translated that conversation into film. My aim behind including this in the show was to play around with the idea of access needs; in the same way that magnifying glasses and large print texts help me access the able-bodied world, I wanted the film to help able-bodied people understand my world.
4. What is the significance of running to the story and experiences it discusses?
I think the running has a few different layers of significance. On a physical and dramatic level I wanted the performance to look very exhausting from the audience perspective. I was hoping that if an people could relate to this kind of physical exhaustion it might help them understand the mental and emotional exhaustion of having a disability. Running is also significant because it is still accessible for visually impaired athletes to an extent, but obviously it has barriers. Most able-bodied people will have run at some point in their life, whether that be for a marathon or for a bus. I wanted to explore the difficulties faced by visually impaired people and running felt like a good way to do this because it’s something that most people will have a common experience of.
5. How do you hope audiences feel having watched the show?
I would like audiences to consider how we all perpetuate ableism and I hope the show makes them think about that. I hope that any disabled audience members feel represented and heard.
6. If you had to describe Within Sight in 3 words, what would they be?
Physical, human, and hopeful.
7. Are there any poets who have particularly inspired or influenced you and your work?
Loads, I try to read as much and as widely as possible because i feel like that’s the best way to improve. The poets who have influenced me the most recently, as writers and performers, are Raymond Antrobus, Jackie Kay, Kayo Chingonyi , and Ocean Vuing.
8. How does it feel to be performing at the Traverse?
It’s a real honour to start off the tour at The Traverse. When I was at school, I was part of the Class Act Project, so it’s really exciting to come back to a venue that gave me my earliest writing opportunity.
9. What are your favourite Edinburgh haunts?
Recently, it’s been a tiny wee Korean restaurant called Kim’s Bulgogi. It’s so unassuming from the outside but the food is absolutely delicious.
10. What’s the best piece of advice you think you’ve been given, either as a writer or performer?
A few years ago, a poet who was judging a competition I took part in told me that I had to own my work, and show that I was proud of it through my performance. He said that once I was onstage, I couldn’t back out or get self conscious, I had to perform the poem right through to the final line. It’s simple advice but I something that I definitely needed to be told, and I think about it all the time.
Within Sight is at the Traverse from Thu 5 - Fri 6 Mar