Jamila Main is many things – an actor, an award-winning playwright and disability advocate. But they are not a sporty person.
When Main imagined their life as a child, they didn't imagine their twenties would be filled with doctors and Tupperware crammed with medication. No one imagines what a life of disability and chronic illness is like, but when have we seen an adequate representation of all that it could be?
In Benched, an innovative new theatre show created by and starring Main, they aim to open up our perspectives. The latest addition to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s ground-breaking access, equity and inclusion work, Benched provides us with an intimate look into the life of someone living with a disability and the battle that exists both externally with society and internally with their body.
As you walk into the theatre, you are transported to a sporting oval in the late hours of a cold winter's night. Fog lingers in the air.The Eternity Playhouse stage, covered in astroturf, features a single wooden bench with Main sprawled across it. Next to them is a container full of orange quarters – something that anyone who spent their childhood on a field in the Australian summer would appreciate.
The traditional barriers of the theatre don't exist here. The piece is temporal, interactive, and immersive, with a rotating roster of special guests joining Jamila on the bench throughout the season. Special guests are invited to the bench for a conversation and asked to choose from five items placed across the stage. Think of this like a choose-your-own-adventure play. Each item opens a discussion of Main’s and their guest's experience of sport and athleticism within their shifting bodies. Audience members are also encouraged to join the conversation – on opening night, the crowd went from nodding and clicking along like they were at a poetry slam, to vocalising their solidarity.
You never know what you'll get each night, which is synonymous with living with a disability. But each moment is sacred. Each moment is a love story to a body that has adapted through each shift and phase of its existence. These moments are not to be taken for granted.
The entire creative team of Benched identify as disabled and bring their own lived experiences to the realisation of the work. Main worked closely with Wiradjuri and Worimi director Amy Sole and producer and accessibility manager Jacqueline Tooley so that a wider audience could experience the work.
For many people living with a disability, our identities are often shaped by our exclusion from society. But what about disabled joy? What about disabled art? What about the kinship and deep sense of belonging that can come with sharing a heat pack or tips on mobility aids?
It makes sense that despite having enough stories about participating in sports to write an entire theatre piece, Main still does not identify as a sporty person. Because what does being sporty look like when you're disabled?
In Australia, one in six people live with a disability. Despite 80 per cent of all disabilities being invisible, discussions surrounding the long term impacts of chronic fatigue, chronic pain and disability have only just begun to make their way into our collective consciousness, thanks to the pandemic.
Both Main and Darlinghurst Theatre’s commitment to authenticity of storytelling and creating an accessible environment for all is evident throughout the piece. The show commences with a heartfelt and educational acknowledgement of country by Wiradjuri woman Auntie Norma Ingram, and before they launch into their performance, Main provides a detailed verbal description of the visual scene, including a genuinely funny dig at the expense of their “bisexual bob” haircut.
Benched is Jamila’s story, but many people will feel seen and heard by this work, even those who do not identify as disabled. Because this is more than disabled art, this is an opportunity. It’s time we redefined what living with a disability can look like by creating spaces where people can show up as their full selves, instead of confining them to society’s limiting beliefs. And remember, if all you can do some days is wake up and take your medication, that's ok.
Just as there is no one definition of ‘disability’, Benched can be experienced in several different ways. You can sit in the audience in the accustomed way and watch what happens ($32-$38). You can join Jamila on the bench and be part of the show for ten minutes before taking your seat in the stalls ($42). You can experience those ten minutes as a private experience (with no audience) for $42. You can watch a live stream of a performance ($10). Or you can purchase a recording of a ten-minute segment ($10).