Athena Stevens on disabled rights in new show Scrounger and putting language to trauma

Olivier award-nominated writer and performer Athena Stevens has written Scrounger, a no-holds-barred look at Britain’s treatment of people with disabilities. Scrounger is the first show in the Finborough Theatre’s 40th anniversary year, 2020.

In October 2015 I was due to take a British Airways flight out of London City Airport, when I was removed from the flight as a direct result of my disability. I thought that was the worst of it. But when my wheelchair was returned to me, it was severely damaged, leaving me without any form of mobility and an eighteen-month legal battle.

To me, the events of that month mark the most traumatic events of my life. It took me years (and a few very expensive therapy sessions) to figure out how to present the events of what happened during that cool October morning in a form that made sense, first to my friends, then to lawyers to present my case, and finally to tell a dramatic story for an audience. Scrounger, which runs at the Finborough Theatre from 7 January to 1 February 2020 is a result of the latter.

Most writers know about the struggle of writing about real-life events. Events in reality never tie up into a nice conclusion or even a single climax where everything fits together and culminates to make sense.   

But there is something else that is difficult about writing about experiences that directly affected you. Storytelling, it is said, it an attempt to make sense of the events of our world; to find meaning in what on the surface seems to be a random and reckless event that is framed by those in power as “unfortunate” when it is actually a form of systematic discrimination. A recent article in The Independent reports that US airline carriers alone are thought to damage just under 30 wheelchairs per day. 

How do you write a dramatic story about what is essentially mishandled luggage? How can a writer reframe what is dismissed as “bad luck” as injustice?

” Those of us who tell stories about the trauma we’ve encountered directly take the power away from those who insist that they are not discriminatory”

We depend on our artists to give meaning to what would otherwise be overlooked. That is a heavy burden as it means storytellers have to look at the unexamined ugliness of the world, and give language to that trauma. The second our brain knows of to classify something awful, the moment we know what language to use to define trauma, a shift happens and we are no longer stuck in trying to explain what we lack the vocabulary to express. 

Leigh Quinn and Athena Stevens in 'Scrounger' (Credit: Lily McLeish)

Scrounger is my attempt to take a specific event about a badly-handled wheelchair and stretch the meaning of what happened so wide that the audience sees a picture of what systematic discrimination looks like in hyper-colour. Those of us who tell stories about the trauma we’ve encountered directly take the power away from those who insist that they are not discriminatory, that what happened was a random event rather than the status quo which encourages injustice, that we, the victims, already have equality, so we should stop whining anyway. Once that story is written (and in the case of theatre, performed) that injustice has a narrative, and power no longer rests with those who cared so little that they allowed the situation to happen in the first place. 

In short, part of the motor of injustice is that trauma is not only difficult to face, but even more difficult to explain, let alone form into a coherent story. It was my hope in writing Scrounger, to create a play which shows not only what happened to me, but also how we are all complicit in promoting systematic discrimination.

Scrounger runs at the Finborough Theatre from 7 January to 1 February 2020.

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