Time to stand up and be counted

January 14th, 2011

Nottingham law graduate Liz Carr dreamt of changing attitudes to disability.

Fast forward 20 years and she’s doing just that. It’s not in a court of law that Liz is making people sit up and take notice — but on the comedy circuit.

The stand-up star of It Hasn’t Happened Yet at Lakeside Arts Centre said: “Law sounded glamorous. It was the era of LA Law on TV.”

Wheelchair-using Liz chose Nottingham because at the time, there weren’t that many universities that had disabled access and personal care assistants.

Liz said: “it allowed me to have the same experience as everyone else. My time at uni was, like for so many teenagers but more so for me, about having a laugh, getting drunk for the first time, finding out who I was — life was full of expectations.”

She became involved in politics, disabled rights and activism “I wanted to change the world.” But after graduating in 1993 with a place at law school and articles at a prestigious legal firm, Liz turned her back on law.

“I had the dream ticket. But I thought, you know what, I don’t want to do this. It was very scary.”

Liz worked at Nottingham Law Centre, then as a disability equality trainer, and as an independent living adviser. Then in 2001 a course at Unity Theatre in Liverpool changed her life.

“I’d never done drama. In school, it was always like ‘well you can be the Queen because you’ve got your own throne’.”

It was at Unity that Liz met Anne Cunningham and they went on to form The Nasty Girls, a disabled/ deaf women’s sketch group that toured comedy festivals — including Edinburgh.

That changed in 2005 when a group called Abnormally Funny People was looking for disabled comedians, established and new, for a fly-on-thewall documentary for Sky TV. Someone dropped out and Liz — who’d since spent six months at London’s Graeae Theatre Co for disabled people — took the place.

Her premiere at Soho Theatre was a disaster.

“It was dreadful. The audience just sat there, looking at me and wondering ‘what has she just said’. In sketch shows, I’d always played characters but that night, doing stand-up without a character to hide behind, I felt naked. The audience was stunned. The theatre was silent. It was a terrible experience.”

Abandoning the project wasn’t an option. “It was like I’d got on a roller coaster and there was no emergency cord. It would have felt more humiliating not to carry on, but it was so painful. I survived a month, doing well and getting great reviews. I thought ‘this is a hobby. I’d never do it full time’. Before you know it, I’ve got 500 gigs under my belt.”

In 2007, there came another life-changing moment. A friend booked Wolverhampton Arena for her for and titled the event: It hasn’t Happened Yet. With the help of Huw Thomas, director in Abnormally Funny People, she created Alex Saunders and her puppet alter-ego, Little Al.

“I have a Quentin Blake-esque backdrop of 12 characters who are the voices in my head — the teachers at school, people in the street, etc. There are lots of barriers in life but some of the biggest are the internal ones. We all have these insecurities and that helps the audience to connect with me.”

The show has evolved in the three years that it’s toured the country, becoming darker.

“A lot of stuff in the play is true or based on the truth and my experiences. My act is fairly no-holds barred, but hopefully in a funny way. I’m not trying to be deliberately shocking — that’s just the way I am. I had a girl come up to me once after a gig. She said I shouldn’t headline a show because I’d made her and her boyfriend depressed.

“I’ve performed in lots of places that have poor access, something I thought I’d never do. But I can get my message across to more people by performing at these clubs and hope that by doing that, the clubs will rethink their access arrangements. Just being there is better than not being visible.”

Her parents come to every show and they love it. “They shouldn’t, there’s some foul language in it.” You’d expect nothing less from parents who used to video the TV news in case their daughter was filmed during a demo.

Liz — who produces articles and podcasts for the BBC’s Ouch! website and works at Hat- Trick Productions, the company behind Have I Got News for You — is in talks about It Hasn’t Happened Yet featuring on BBC Radio 4. But first there’s the show.

“It feels like a real journey for me. It was 20 years ago when I was at University and here I am back again. In the 80s, I was a student, the 90s was about activism and social justice, the 00s have been as a performance artist.

“And you know what, I’m 38 and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”

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