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Nabil Shaban

Nabil Shaban in The Jasmine Road -a panel from the 2008 PEN exhibition, Stirling

Nabil Shaban was born in 1953 in Amman, Jordan and arrived in Britain when he was three for treatment for his osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle-bone disease). In 1980, he and Richard Tomlinson founded Graeae (pronounced grey-eye), Britain’s first professional theatre company of disabled performers. A writer and performer with many theatre, film and television credits (Godspell, Hamlet, Khomeini, Mack the Knife, City of Joy, Deptford Grafitti) he is probably best known to television viewers for his role as the ruthless intergalactic capitalist reptilian slug-like alien “Sil” in the Doctor Who stories ‘Vengeance on Varos and ‘Trial of a Timelord.

When as a teenager Nabil Shaban wanted to be an actor there were absolutely no opportunities for disabled people  who were wheelchair-users, with mobility issues, speech or sight impairments to either receive training as actors or obtain professional work, in the 1960s and 70s.  There were opportunities for deaf people, in the form of The Theatre of the Deaf, but they maintained a "Deaf Only" policy.  In 1969, when Nabil was 16 and about to leave the Special School in England for three years in a Sheltered Workshop he wrote to every drama school in Britain, asking how a person in a wheelchair could become an actor.  He was hoping that at least one would reply suggesting that he apply to join their course and be invited for an interview and audition.  Without exception the answer was no.  Not really surprising, since in those days you never saw a real disabled person in a wheelchair acting in film and television. There were plenty of films about disabled characters but they were always played by non-disabled actors "blacking-up" to steal disabled roles. 

 

A couple of drama schools tried to soften their negative responses by suggesting that Nabil join the local amateur dramatics or establish a play-reading group. Or write for advice to the only person in a wheelchair in show business at that time, Michael Flanders -he was part of the Flanders and Swann comedy-singing duo who performed their own material in the 50s and 60s.

Flanders & Swann at the BBC

Desperate to be an actor, Nabil approached his local amateur group who were just as frightened of disabled people on stage as the professionals. He also set up a play reading group of fellow disabled "wannabees", and wrote and directed (and acted) a number of shows at the Sheltered Workshop.  In a hypocritical move which he soon abandoned, he even took up training as a Methodist local preacher to find an outlet for his desire to be a performer -writing dramatic sermons and performing "fire and brimstone" from a pulpit with a captive church audience might be the only opportunity he'd ever get of entering the entertainment industry. 

 

And Nabil wrote to Michael Flanders.  “He said the only way I would succeed in becoming an actor was to write my own material, create plays describing unique experiences, which only I could play and not allow anyone to produce them unless they gave me the roles I had written for myself.  It was this idea that sowed the seeds of Graeae's genesis.”

 

 “Why did Richard Tomlinson and I set up Graeae Theatre Company of Disabled People? To create opportunities for people like me to actively participate in the performing arts, but not on the basis of drama therapy. Graeae was not for occupational therapists or able-bodied careerist "do-gooders" who were looking for an alternative to basket making. No, we created Graeae to be a professional theatre of the highest artistic excellence. Secondly, we saw the need to change and subvert public attitudes, misconceptions, disrupt myths about disability and disabled people. And since it was our intention that Graeae be controlled by disabled people, we would be in the most authoritative position to be most effective. We were in the business of not just educating the public but also the media, broadcasters, film makers, theatres...all those responsible for perpetuating the "Body Fascist" ideals and stereotypes that endlessly and insidiously insinuate only the "Perfect" and "Beautiful" have the right to live and to be loved. However, it was always Graeae's aim that whatever our message, it must be conveyed in a way that is entertaining. That doesn't mean it has to be either superficial or pander to the lowest common denominator but we found that humour was an essential ingredient for any of our homespun disability issue-based theatricals.”

 

“How was Graeae, Britain's first professional theatre company of disabled people, formed? You could say that the company had its genesis in 1972 when Richard Tomlinson who was then an English lecturer at Hereward College of disabled people in Coventry instigated a series of drama workshops as an extra curricular activity in the evenings after lectures had finished. I wasnt a student at the time as I didn’t go to Hereward until 1973. I first met Richard early that year when I went for an interview as I was applying to do a course for the Ordinary National Diploma (OND) in business studies and Richard was on the interview panel. There were 6 people altogether, stretched out in front of me, sitting at a long table, ready to quiz me. The only question Richard asked me was, was I interested in drama, theatre. I immediately said "Yes, certainly. It's my biggest desire to be an actor". “More than a businessman?” asked the Economics tutor on the business studies course.  I replied “Absolutely. Although I think the only way I am going to become an actor is to become a businessman first and buy my own theatre and that way directors will have no choice but to hire me as one of their actors in the cast”. This made Richard Tomlinson laugh and said he looked forward to meeting me when I finally arrive at the college”.

 

“Several months later, I arrived at Hereward and immediately sought out Richard to ascertain when his next drama workshop was going to be. He told me I was too late to be in the current production as it was already fully cast. However, I was welcome to come along to rehearsals, anyway, to watch. I was a bit late for my first drama workshop attendance, 5 or 10 minutes, whatever, and so rushed into the sports hall where the workshop was being held. The doors were fairly stiff and heavy so I charged my wheelchair into the buggers, sending them flying more than I had intended, creating a huge noise which rudely interrupted the talk that Richard was giving to the other drama students. He looked at me as I entered, somewhat embarrassed but still with a dirty great grin on my face, and said “Well, if someone is going to make an entry like that, they obviously have great aspiration to dominate the stage.” As there were no vacancies left in the cast, Richard asked if I could help with stage management. Naturally, I said yes. I was determined to get my wheel in the door.”

 

“The show Richard and cast were devising, was called “Never Mind You’ll Soon Get Better”. This was a very cliche patronising expression that was often said to someone who had become disabled as a result of an accident. In fact it was said to one of the actors in the show who had broken his neck whilst diving off a pier and hitting some concrete just below the surface. Because a doctor had said to him "Well, never mind you’ll soon get better", Richard thought it would be a great title for the show.  Not only did the show recreate the story of the diving accident but also those of other students, such as a woman rendered paraplegic from a car accident. One of my tasks as stage manager was to create special sound effects of these various accidents. The performances of "Never Mind You'll Soon Get Better" (Christmas 1973) were very well received amongst the students, who were gratified to find stories like theirs being authentically portrayed on stage. However, the script needed tightening up and a lot more comedy injected. Richard decided to do another version, a sequel I suppose to Never Mind You’ll Soon Get Better. and thus, our second show “Ready Salted Crips” was conceived. "Crips" being an abbreviation for "cripples". It was at Hereward College where “crips” was first used as an affectionate term by disabled people for each other.”

As a theatre actor he has played Hamlet (Hamlet 1988), Jesus (Godspell 1887), Haillie Sellassie (The Emperor 1987), Ayatollah Khomeini (Iranian Nights 1989), Angelo (Measure for Measure 1990),  Imagine Drowning by Terry Johnson (1991) and Volpone (Fleshfly 1996), and Argus, a disabled freedom-fighter (D.A.R.E. 1997).  In 1998 he had his debut at the Royal National Theatre, playing the master storyteller, Rashid, in Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories

BBC Radio drama includes The Ramayana (1994), and Benn Gunn in Treasure Island (1995). On television he has appeared in Doctor Who (as the Evil Sil 1984 + 1986), Raspberry Ripple (with Faye Dunaway ) (1988), Born of Fire (1989), Deptford Graffiti (1991), Inmates (1992). His TV documentaries include The Skin Horse (sex and disability 1983) and The Fifth Gospel (disability and Christianity 1990). Children of Gaia (Danish television 1998).

Feature films include City of Joy (1991) with Patrick Swayze, Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein (1992).He can also be seen in Age of Treason (1994), Slave of Dreams (1995).

As playwright Nabil Shaban wrote First to Go (1996) about the extermination of disabled people in the Nazi euthanasia programme. He has since written a screenplay The Inheritance based on this original play.  As film-maker, he produced and directed an Arts Council 30 minute short Another World (1995), which is concerned with disabled people’s experiences of haunted institutions. In his first professional film producing and directing commission from the BBC, his independent film company Sirius Pictures produced The Alien Who Lived in the Sheds, a 30 minute mix of documentary and drama, screened in 1997.

 Alan Turing statue, Surrey University, Guildford

In 1997 Nabil Shaban was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Surrey for his revolutionary work within the performing arts, in changing public perceptions of disabled people.

In 2004 he made a TV documentary in which explored the possibility that Viking chieftain Ivar the Boneless may have had osteogenesis imperfecta, the same condition as himself.

Nabil Shaban’s collection of poems and graphic art, Dreams My Father Sold Me, appeared in 2004. In the introduction, Lord Richard Attenborough described it as “this magical book” and commented on Nabil:He  is a remarkable man, talented, committed and tireless in pursuit of what he believes. He is also uncompromisingly courageous.”

In 2007 he appeared at the Arches, Glasgow, in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, with Gary Robson, Raymond Short and Dolina Maclennan, later touring.  His play The First To Go produced by Edinburgh's Benchtours Theatre Company in association with Sirius Pictures will open at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh on May 23rd and later at Glasgow, St Andrews and Huddersfield.

 

 

An interview with Nabil Shaban on the bbc.co.uk website

 

Resident in this town for some years, Nabil Shaban is represented by Wim Hans of London Management.

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