Tom Ryalls is the writer and producer of Can You See Into A Black Hole?, the second play of Iris Theatre’s 2021 Seed Commissions winners, originally commissioned by Upstart Theatre as part of DARE Festival 2018.
When Tom grows up he wants to be an astronaut… or the blue power ranger, they’re kind of the same thing anyway, right? But, when he has his first seizure aged 8 and a black hole opens up inside his head, his entire world is swallowed and he must find an even bigger adventure.
Read our Q&A with Tom Ryalls
Q: Can you tell us about the pros and cons of being the writer and producer of Can You See into A Black Hole?
Tom: I’ve been making “Can You See Into a Black Hole?” for 3 years – so there’s not a huge amount of writing left to do now and being a producer as well means I can stay more involved in the show. I think we’re a bit preoccupied as an industry about the definition between producer and artist, I think at a certain scale it’s useful to separate out those skillsets because of capacity, but at this scale, you can sit across both and it kind of makes sense too.
Writing and Producing are two of the closest disciplines in terms of working style, neither of them (there are exceptions) require you to be in the rehearsal room all the time and they can largely be done flexibly, so it really suits me to do both. I can do both around my part-time job as the Head of Development for Stockroom.
In terms of cons – it would be lovely to relax a bit more. It would be a luxury as an early-career artist to think someone else might produce your show but it’s not often a reality, especially if you make a commitment to pay people properly. Even though this is a con and it’s added pressure, it means that when I work with producers on other shows I have realistic expectations of what they can achieve because I understand what they’re doing. I’ve had a go at most jobs in theatre now in some way, it really helps me to be a good collaborator.
Q: What is at the heart of the production?
Tom: At the heart of the production is a story about the way in which we teach young people what they deserve. I grew up with epilepsy, it was pretty severe, my seizures only happened in my sleep and could stop my breathing so I spent a lot of time in hospital. Lots of people taught me how to survive, how to manage the seizures, but I wasn’t often taught about much else. Survival was the only aim and that’s what I thought I deserved, it wasn’t until I tried to make a show about my epilepsy that I realised this had happened so I set out to retell that story in a different way. So, I buried at the heart of the show the story of this boy learning that he deserves forgiveness and happiness and all those things that come after survival, it’s got such a joyful ending in this new version.
In a very literal sense, my parents are at the heart of it too. I interviewed them about my seizures and we use those recordings in the show. It means the show sort of blurs the lines of a solo show, it doesn’t feel like just one person, it feels like the epic journey of this one family. I love that my parents’ voices are in the show, we’re from Doncaster and it means that identity doesn’t get erased, and everyone always loves my Dad’s voice. Someone actually suggested he should narrate some audiobooks.
Q: Can you tell us about disability access in theatre, as well as your experience working in the creative sector as a disabled artist?
Tom: I think there’s a real growing movement at the moment to foreground disabled artists in theatre, we make some incredible work that isn’t often put on the biggest stages because it looks or feels different to what has gone before. I’m a trustee of an organisation called Unlimited who commission disabled artists in a huge funding round every two years – we’re trying to commission disabled artists until the rest of the industry does it for us because there’s such a problem. I think that speaks volumes about where disabled access is.
We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of accessibility for disabled audiences but, because people in decision-making positions are often not disabled and have little understanding of it, there’s a lot of bad things. For example, our director Deirdre McLaughlin has photosensitive epilepsy so she can be triggered by flashing lights, and she’s seen shows all the time where there’s suddenly a flashing light with no warning. Whereas, even when I’m not working on a show which specifically foregrounds disabled identities, I have a pretty good awareness of how to make something accessible because it’s about making sure my friends can come and see the shows.
I appear neurotypical most of the time but actually, I have ADHD. People often think this is about naughty boys running around the classroom, but it’s more similar to Autism than it is to simply hyperactivity. Luckily I can often manage that without having to tell people, because a lot of leaders in theatre don’t really have a deep understanding of any kind of neurodivergence. It means I often have to work twice as hard to achieve what other people achieve quickly – it also means I struggle with longer-form pieces though I recently got a DYCP grant to work on strategies for this.
Q: What needs to be done better?
Tom: Just about everything needs to be done better, which I know seems like a mammoth task. Though I don’t think this can happen within the industry, it has to tie into structural societal change. For example, it’s very difficult to receive funding for arts projects if you’re receiving any kind of benefits due to a disability, because you can’t access financial support on a part-time basis. But, arts funding and work isn’t sufficient for a lot of disabled artists to give up Universal Credit.
Supporting disabled artists isn’t just about representation and accessibility, you can make theatre buildings as accessible as possible but if disabled artists can’t afford to come into them and make work – you’ve wasted your money. It all has to happen simultaneously and I think theatre has a responsibility, if it intends to change its own art form, to change society so disabled artists can thrive.
Q: Why should theatregoers come along to see Can You See into A Black Hole?
Tom: I think it’s Epic. It was really important to me that I told a story that played around with big ideas and felt like it had some scale to it. Working-class and disabled stories are so often restricted to smaller domestic stories, and those stories need telling as well, but I wanted to tell a huge story that had music and magic and scale and happiness.
Also – the music is incredible. I’ve been working with Chris Czornyj for years on this show and he’s such an incredible composer. I can’t say we set about giving ourselves an easy task, he takes the voices of my parents and situates them in this phenomenal score, I wanted it to feel big but also be intimate and he’s really achieved that. I almost think the score is the star of the show sometimes, it’s where a lot of magic in the show comes from.
The festival also includes five pieces from the company’s Seed Commission Scheme for 2021, an initiative opened for applications from early-career artists or companies in Spring this year. The selected artists/companies are:
- Flux Theatre with Danielle Pearson’s Queen Mab in a co-production with Arsalan Sattari Productions
- Tom Ryalls presents Can You See Into A Black Hole?, directed by Deidre McLaughlin
- FAIR PLAY. present Shoes to Fill by Tanya Bridgeman, directed by Alex Miller
- Zoe Woodruff and Kathryn Tindall present new musical The Red Side of The Moon
- Tiny T’s Storytelling & Theatre present Spectacular! a new show for children
Flux Theatre, Arsalan Sattari Productions and Iris Theatre present
By Danielle Pearson
Directed by Georgie Staight; Designed by Isobel Nicolson
21 – 26 June 2021
Press Night: Tuesday 22 June at 7.30pm
Tom Ryalls and Iris Theatre present
CAN YOU SEE INTO A BLACK HOLE?
By Tom Ryalls
28 June – 3 July 2021
Press Night: Tuesday 29 June at 7.30pm
FAIR PLAY. and Iris Theatre present
SHOES TO FILL
Written by Tanya Bridgeman
5 – 10 July 2021
Press Night: Tuesday 6 July at 7.30pm
Zoe Woodruff, Kathryn Tindall and Iris Theatre present
The World Première of new musical
THE RED SIDE OF THE MOON
By Zoe Woodruff
12 – 17 July 2021
Press Night: Tuesday 13 July at 7.30pm
Tiny T’s Storytelling & Theatre and Iris Theatre present
24 – 28 July 2021
Press performance: Saturday 24 July at 2.30pm
Iris Theatre presents
by Reuben Johnson
4 – 22 August 2021
Press Night: Thursday 5 August at 7.30pm
St Pauls Covent Garden, Actors’ Church, Bedford Street, London, WC2E 9ED