I interviewed TV, film and radio scriptwriter Annalisa Dinnella, who performs stand-up comedy and has about 5% vision. Annalisa, who is currently working on a show as part of Channel 4’s 4screenwriters 2020, has written for BBC TV 1 & 3 and for Radio 3 & 4. Annalisa’s work has been nominated for the Imison Award and her Radio 4 piece, Annalisa is Awkward, was described as “delightful” by Grayson Perry.
Leslie: Could you offer a few anecdotes that describe your experience of the world as a visually-impaired (VI) person, please?
Annalisa: So, yesterday, my six-year-old was giving the finger to passers-by as we walked home from school. I only realised that he was doing it, when he informed me he’d just learned how to swear with his hands.
In general, I try and befriend visually distinct people only. It’s not 100% effective as a survival strategy. When my friend, Sabrina, stopped wearing her hair in a bun and cut it all short, I had no idea who she was for weeks. She was dead to me.
I step in a lot of dog poo. I sometimes visit the men’s toilets. When my children were babies, I often put them in the bath with their socks on (for reasons I don’t understand, they still think it’s hilarious to wear items of underwear in the bath).
I actually have quite a decent patch of vision. The problem is that it’s tiny. I have extreme tunnel vision, pin prick vision. It’s like looking at the world through a straw. I can read screens and see photos, television etc as long as things are set up in a very particular way. What I can’t do – without help – is move around the world easily. I use a white cane (unless I’m in very familiar territory) and I have wonderful access workers (thanks to the government’s Access To Work fund) who help me get to venues, conferences, and some work meetings. I’m also extremely sensitive to light. I also can’t see at all in low light or bright light. I love a grey London day.
Leslie: You’ve been involved in a lot of shows. Can you describe the most important scripts you’ve written and what you’ve learned from working on them?
Annalisa: Different scripts have been important to me in different ways. My first commission for Radio 4, a play called THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH was nominated for the Imison Award that year and that gave me a much-needed stamp of validation. It made me feel (fleetingly) like I was a proper writer. It was also the first time I had the privilege of sitting around a table with famous actors, witnessing everything come to life. Karen Rose is an incredible producer and I was so lucky to work with her. I feel like she gave me permission to have a voice.
I also loved making ANNALISA IS AWKWARD for Radio 4 with Loftus Media. That was a documentary, which I wrote and presented. They gave me a voice by literally handing me a microphone. We laughed so much during that show. The producers, both brilliant, funny women, were completely with me the whole way. We achieved exactly the right tone and it was wonderful to put something out into the world that we were all so passionate about.
My most recent script is a thriller series for television which I’m about to start working on with an incredible production company. I’m really excited about that too.
I don’t always write directly about disability. It’s really important to me that I can tackle disability in some of my work but I also feel strongly that I write about other subjects too (!) I made a promise to myself last year that, regardless of the subject matter, any script I write will ALWAYS contain juicy roles for disabled actors.
Leslie: What’s your persona in stand up and how do you capture and hold your audience’s attention?
Annalisa: The thing you learn pretty quickly is that, on stage, you can only work with what you’ve got. You can’t control how you present. Your voice, your height, your appearance are what they are. I present as a smiley blonde with low-status body language. That’s just how it is. But that’s lots of fun to play with – particularly if the words and message don’t quite match expectations.
Leslie: What have been the barriers and the positive steps forward you’ve experienced in the scriptwriting and comedy industries?
Annalisa: The barrier is access. The arts industries MUST become 100% accessible to all disabled creatives. Until this happens, there will be a huge swathe of talent that literally can’t get in the room. Never mind unconscious bias. There are brilliant creatives out there who actually can’t get in the actual door. Sometimes we can get in the door but there’s no way of getting to the toilet, or we spend the whole time stressing about how we’re going to get home. Or we can’t hear. Or see what we’re supposed to. All these problems are so easily solved but, there isn’t always the necessary willingness to do so. Some organisations prefer to just ignore the problem. One day, we will all look back and feel deeply ashamed. Disabled people make up 22% of the population but we are barely seen in front of or behind the camera. That is shameful. That’s an absolute scandal.
Leslie: Language is full of ‘sighted’ metaphors such as ‘I see what you mean’, ‘that’s worth looking at’ etc. How do you deal with this on stage or when writing scripts?
Annalisa: I’m actually fine with sighted metaphors. I use them all the time. For me, they’re just that – metaphors. Having said this, quite a few of my blind and visually-impaired (VI) friends feel entirely differently. We’ve had some interesting conversations and I respect their point of view. I certainly can’t speak for all blind and VI people on this issue.
Leslie: Could you describe to sighted people, please, the dos and don’ts of relating to someone who is blind.
Annalisa: Just the fact you have to ask that question depresses the hell out of me. What I mean by that is, I wish you didn’t have to ask it. Could you imagine asking how to ‘relate’ to any other human? But I do absolutely understand the intention behind the question. Sadly, too many people feel unsure or frightened of blindness and, consequently, blind people. The fear comes from not understanding the rules, the etiquette. And the only way to clear that up is by talking about it and by creating opportunities for better representation.
Here’s a basic rule of thumb. Treat a blind person like you would treat any other human being. If you want to offer help, just ask. Please don’t grab us or touch us without asking first. You wouldn’t do that to any other stranger so don’t do it to us. There’s an interesting hashtag on Twitter #JustAskDon’tGrab set up by a great campaigner called Dr Amy Kavanagh. It’s pretty shocking that she had to create it in the first place but, unfortunately, she was sick and tired of people grabbing her on her commute into work every day.
Personally. I don’t mind at all, when I’m using my cane, if somebody asks me if I’d like their help. I usually decline the offer, but I think it’s a lovely gesture. If anyone touches me, they will be told fairly swiftly that that’s unacceptable. A nice phrase I often use when I’m with blind friends is ‘would you like an elbow?’ – that’s a pretty easy way of offering to guide if the situation calls for it. Holding someone’s elbow is always the best way for me to be guided. If you want more information on how to guide, there are factsheets available on the RNIB and Guide Dogs UK websites.
Leslie: Can you tell a story or two to illustrate what extra qualities blind people can bring to the table, please? What incidents/events involving the blind community have lifted and strengthened you?
Annalisa: I actually have quite dodgy hearing. My sense of smell is kind of average (although I can always tell when a cup of tea is PG Tips). I’m no wiser than the next person. And I’m pretty sure I’m not clairvoyant. Hollywood has so much bullshit to answer for.
The serious answer is that I think anyone with a sensory impairment is a natural born problem-solver. Writers are also natural born problem-solvers – so I feel like I am particularly well-equipped for the field I work in.
I got a bit weepy recently when talking to a friend, Amy Forrest, who is a VI actor. She was in a production at the National Theatre and she told me that they modified things backstage in order to accommodate her access needs. It’s so simple and easy for people and companies to make small changes to allow disabled creatives into the room. Let us in and we will blow your mind.
I was also thrilled to hear about the recent work of the BAFTA Steering Group on Disability. Sam Tatlow and her team are going to have a real and lasting impact on the industry. The content that will emerge from allowing disabled creatives to do their job, will change the landscape. No question.
I’m also completely in love with a group called DANC (Disabled Artists Networking Community). They are kickass pioneers, with a genuinely solution-focussed ethos. They’ve made a huge difference within the industry in the space of only a few years. I can’t wait to see what they’ll do in the next decade….
Leslie Tell us about your latest show and where/how we can experience it.
Annalisa: The next thing I have on is a monologue for The Break, Series 5 on BBC THREE. I’m not sure when it will be on TV, but I do know they’re about to start filming. I’m really excited about the series and can’t wait to see it come to life.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here