ARCHIVE: Changing Ideology – An Interview with Mat Fraser

Andrew interview Mat Fraser in 2005 via email. Andrew says of the interview, ‘Mat is one of the nicest and most professional actors/writers I have ever interviewed, nothing was too much for him. We have since become e-buddies and I have been happy to look at his work in progress and give feedback. I appreciate an individual who is honest and wants to hear honest feedback. I think this was the spirit of this interview when we sat down at our mutual computers in Autumn of 2005’.

Changing Ideology: An Interview with Mat Fraser by Andrew Oldham

Musician, actor and presenter Mat Fraser was born in England in 1962 with a physical impairment caused by in utero exposure to the Thalidomide drug. His acting career has also encompassed a certain amount of political activism around disability issues. His theatre career included roles in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw for Graeae Theatre Company, the Group K production of Marisol and the title role in Johnny Sol at the Croydon Warehouse. His first major television role was in the three-part World War II drama series Unknown Soldier (ITV, 1998). He featured in Metrosexuality(Channel 4, 2001), in which his disability is not the main focus of the character but merely an incidental aspect – the kind of role, Fraser admits, that disabled actors long for but are rarely offered. His one-man stage show Sealboy: Freak, based on the true story of ‘Sealo’ (real name Stanley Berent), who travelled with American freak shows from the 1930s to the 1970s, toured the country. Fraser also presented a Channel 4 documentary about Sealo, Born Freak (2002) and Happy Birthday: Thalidomide. His recent touring show was Sealboy: Freak and he appeared in the one off BBC drama Every Time You Look At Me. He plans to bring Thalidomide! A Musical to the UK in 2005.

In Happy Birthday: Thalidomide on C4 you dealt with how Thalidomide has been and was still being used in the world today. This journey was both a public and private revelation, how did you deal with some of the issues and

individuals in this documentary? Has there been an aftermath in the creation of your own work?

“Yes, many of them…for myself an encouragement to continue expressing what is after all (as I’m a disabled voice, free and autonomous from the constraints of mainstream physical perfection values) a new voice, and in an increasingly professional way, also I’ve developed a new audience of inclusive, subversive, not stupid, people, which is the biggest thrill for me, to get audiences hitherto unused to being together, to enjoy work

together, albeit from a vaguely different perspective. Initially though there was some reactionary criticism from many who were angered that I didn’t 100% subscribe to their politicised (though I think I am) disability rights based beliefs…. but I do! I just don’t think any kind of censorship is good for progessivitiy, and I wanted to talk about freak shows, etc, schadenfruede, objectification of the disabled performer etc etc….”

There is a great desire to pigeon hole people in the west, to create effectively what is a form of ‘ostracisation’. How much do you feel that your disability has affected your acting career?

“West of where exactly? What about the east, don’t you think there is just as much desire to pigeonhole too? I don’t know, but I don’t think it can just be a preserve of the West…anyway, of course my disability has completely prevented the mainstream possibilities of my acting career, but it has also given me opportunities I would not have got if I were not disabled…. however, the ratio is probably 70% negative in this respect. My disability both creates and prevents acting work and career possibilities”.

In the BBC drama Every Time You Look At Me there was an attempt to look beyond the disability and at the person, to blow apart the preconceptions and the pigeonhole, how do you feel the drama worked for you as (a) an actor and, (b) as a writer?

“A) Ok, but I got all the brooding reaction shots whilst Lisa my co actor got all the good lines, proactivity and movement of plot…but it was great as a disabled actor to have a lead role in a big budgeted BBC drama, so of course it helped blow away preconceptions that disabled actors can’t “carry” a plot etc…B) Ok again, but I felt there was maybe too much about disability still, especially with the degenerative disease we discover near the end. As a film drama, 90 minutes long though, I thought it was well constructed and gave a good story to a very mainstream audience”.

Mat Fraser seems more of a Renaissance man than an individual caught in twenty first century ideals, where do you feel this kind of organic approach to your work, which spans page, screen and stage, came about?

“I really don’t know, but I get bored doing just one thing, and I love most things to do with entertainment:…my parents were actors, so story telling, theatre, film and acting lifestyles have always been familiar to me, but I love music equally, and so have been a professional musician for 15 years before acting…that never goes away, once a muso always a muso etc….then, I love good stories…many of them to do with disability are written by people utterly ignorant of the reality for many disabled people so one starts to want to see it done at least with realism, so you have a go yourself. Then there is all the cabaret and subterranean subversion I delight in…that I can’t explain except maybe to say that as a reject of all things mainstream, I enjoy courting those that would welcome me without judgement of inferiority, and so found myself in those environments……it’s hard to gauge myself, but I think all, of these are contributing factors”.

In your recent tours you’ve looked at Sealboy: Freak and are about to launch Thalidomide! A Musical, how did this work come about?

“See above: my dissatisfaction with other previous, largely non disabled attempts at looking at these subjects, coupled with a lack of acting offers, coupled with a desire to do my own show, and a fascination with old time freak shows. When I saw a picture of Stanley Berent, AKA Sealo the Sealboy, I knew I’d found a subject that I could write a one man play about, and play him with an authority no one could argue with, let alone recast….the Thalidomide musical came about as a need to have fun with a subject that I’ve been working with for the last two years, and of course I want to follow in the tradition of sicko musicals such as Springtime for Hitler, Elephant the musical etc…I don’t see why the non-disabled should have the non-pc prerogative, and if done from a place of love, offensive material can be great fun!”.

Do you feel audiences are changing their pre-conceptions on disability?

“In theatre they are, as more unconceived by non disabled people theatre that includes disabled people is out there and shown…new companies making inclusive work, disabled actors trying to get on…it’s all slowly changing yes, too fucking slowly, but it is changing. ON screen I think its changing MUCH more slowly…and at times it seems as if it hasn’t at all….but even if the casting of Inside I’m Dancing was non disabled shit, at least the subject matter is being approached now by various writers…most of its still crap, but its a start…and so very slowly those audiences are inevitably changing their hideously inaccurate preconceptions”.

With the recent global political changes, if you had the chance to change something on a global and personal stage what would those changes be?

“Killing the Bush empire dead…and the Empirical fascist ideology that is the USA these days. Also, I would limit all families in the world to just one child each, for a period of at least 25 years. There are too many of us on the rock”.

There is an argument in the arts concerning the DDA, about who defines disability vs impairment, do you feel the DDA is discriminatory to the very individuals it serves to work in favour for?

“I don’t know enough about it to comment. I will say that although I agree and adhere to the social model of disability myself, there is still a physical aspect that needs to be acknowledged”.

On a personal level what defines you as an actor and writer? And what defines you on a public stage?

“Well, my disability is what mostly defines me as a writer…I can’t talk for others, but I imagine it has some baring on my performances too….and that coupled with stage stuff, I have combined my own take on life and everything within it, to include a disability aware persona that is fully mainstream in its technical and public aspirations and capability (I hope!), and I’d like to think, found my own niche…so in public, I hope that it is the package that is the full me. Obviously talent has to pay a role in that, and I would hope that no disabled actors are getting parts if they just can’t act. I hope I can. You tell me”.

Do you feel that in the UK today disabled actors are defined by their disability rather than their talent, and why do you think this is?

“Yes of course they/we are: because the stupid reactionary scared to change stuck in their religiously handed down power broking mainstream reactions to us, do nothing to change, we have to bully them into it, as all historical minorities have had to do. As each milestone of change occurs, the attitudes change, and it is gratifying to be told by members of the public that you are a good actor, it vindicates your insistence to go against what you are told”.

Do you have any advice for people out there who want to become actors?

“To be taken seriously you must have talent, skills, knowledge and a realistic expectation…..then, with all these things, you MAY get some work…it is more uphill for us even than most other actors, and you have to understand that this wrong is the way it is. Without a willingness to do these things, please don’t bother cluttering up the pool with your misguided naivety and arrogance. To assume you don’t need to be trained and skilled but can just wheel into a part is the very worst thing the business needs right now. It needs professionally attituded disabled actors with skills who then have the right to demand equal treatment”.

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