I recently caught up with Beth Hinton-Lever, an actor and disability activist born without her lower-right forearm who took a unique path into theatre. Our conversation begins, as all conversations seem to these days, with coronavirus and lockdown.

Wearing wearing fishnet tights, denim and leather, Beth, a long-haired white performer whose right arm ends before the elbow, stands in front of a microphone with one foot resting on the lap of a kneeling performer.
Hinton-Lever as Jaques in Graeae Theatre Company’s Reasons to be Cheerful (2019). Wearing wearing fishnet tights, denim and leather, she is standing in front of a microphone with one food resting on the lap of a kneeling man. Photo: Patrick Baldwin.

Beth puts a positive spin on her lockdown experience, explaining how the experience has been reaffirming:

“I was very lucky, and I still am, that I had months and months of work lined up at the beginning of the year, which is something I’ve never experienced as an actor. To have it all cancelled periodically over the lockdown gave me the time to ask ‘is this really what I want to do with my life?’ With the lack of care and appreciation from the government for everything that [theatre professionals] do for the country, I’ve had to sit down and really face it. But yes, this is what I want to do with my life. I’ve kind of come out of the other end and I’ll admit that I can’t imagine myself doing anything else and I’m ready to kind of wait it out.”

Beth found her way into acting after completing an undergraduate degree in Classical Archaeology and Classical Civilisations at UCL. She loves archaeology, but there wasn’t a single term that she wasn’t involved in a student production. In her third year, she was ‘hyped up to be an archaeologist’ and also choreographing Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. The production ended up going to the National Student Drama Festival, where Beth (two bottles of wine deep at the ceremony!) was presented with the award for Best Student Choreographer. This wasn’t the only surprise that the ceremony has in store – Beth was also approached by professional choreographer Lucy Hind, who offered her a job for the summer performing in a movement piece – her first professional show.

“My “break” (first agent interest) was someone saying “we’ll give her a chance”, which is kind of ridiculous and it also proves that it happens. You don’t have to go down the typical drama school and agent, path. I got no interest at drama school at all. There are so many ways into the industry, but the only one that we all ‘know’ – it’s a way, but not the way.”

The idea that there is more than one ‘path’ into professional performance is also something we’re seeing acknowledged more and more in relation to the opera industry (see my post on the 2019 CMIC conference for more about the National Opera Theatre’s and Royal Opera House’s efforts to tackle this).

Finding herself somewhat in at the deep end, Beth decided to get some professional training to improve her stamina, and she went to study for an MA in Musical Theatre at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London. Her first job out of drama school was with Graeae, who are leading in the industry (and the world!) in cultivating work by d/Deaf and disabled artists. Beth learnt much of what she now knows about access from Graeae, and now, part of her activism is getting back in touch with drama schools like Mountview to encourage them to educate themselves about access and inclusion.

“I’m staunch in my belief that access should be a pillar of what we do. I’ve been asked to [consult on access] before, and that’s amazing but I am not an Access Officer, I’m an actor! That’s a job that exists and we should be supporting that.”

Beth stands centre stage with her arm outstretched. She is a white person with bright red hair and one arm ending above the elbow, wearing dungarees. The rest of the cast are dressed colourfully and situated behind her, some standing and others using wheelchairs.
Hinton-Lever in the Public Acts production of As You Like It at Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. Beth stands centre stage with her arm outstretched. She is a white person with bright red hair and one arm ending above the elbow, wearing dungarees. The rest of the colourfully-dressed cast are behind her, some standing and others using wheelchairs. Photo: Camilla Greenwell.

One of the positive outcomes of this year’s lockdown has been an increase in the number of conversations that are happening about access and inclusivity. For Beth, this has meant more time to talk about theatre and reflect on where she can throw her weight in terms of her activism.

“We’ve been fighting for this for years…Lockdown has woken people up to realise how inaccessible a lot of what we do is, like, a LOT of what we do. But people are finally captioning their shit! That’s been wonderful, but it shouldn’t take able-bodied people to say “maybe we should caption this” and then the next day everything is captioned.

Making accessible theatre is so much easier and cheaper than people think it is. If you do put on a show, in any capacity, you should do at least one accessible performance. Whether that’s a relaxed performance, one with stage text, a dementia-friendly performance. In my experience, it makes shows so much more beautiful.”

But there’s also a danger of becoming performative in your accessibility and inclusivity. Beth has had experiences where her photograph has been used for theatre brochures when she wasn’t even performing in the season. She jokes that she’s one of the easiest people to cast because she has no access requirements, yet her disability is visible, meaning that the company gets all of the kudos:

“I’m very proud, I couldn’t be more proud of being disabled, but I would love to be an actor first, rather than a disabled actor. Now, if I even think there’s even an inkling of being cast for the wrong reasons or being seen for the wrong reasons, I won’t do it. Which is good for me, but also daunting to see how much of it is a box to tick. I’m not a box to tick, I’m an actor!”

Beth performs in disability-led as well as so-called ‘mainstream’ theatre, where she often finds herself as the only disabled cast member.

“Going into new rooms is always scary, I have this voice that says ‘maybe this will be the cast that shuns you…maybe this is the one where someone’s really ableist’. It happens, I don’t think I have had one job where someone has not said something quite horrific to me.”

It’s not always malicious either. Something that Beth has experienced frequently is being part of a new cast and being in the bar after a first rehearsal:

“Someone will come up to me, pretty much every night, and tell me that I’m brave. They won’t say that to anyone else. It’s hard because it’s a fine line, as actors we are brave – it’s hard to bear your soul on stage! But they don’t say it to anyone else, only me.”

She’s finding it easier and easier to call people out for their ableism, explaining that an experience like this in a first job could have put her off the industry for life. As she says, ‘we’re not there, but we are starting to turn a corner’.

Find Beth on Twitter to follow her work, and stay tuned for the second instalment of our conversation, coming soon!

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