Entertainment & Culture

Neal Pike: disabled poet, performer and theatre-maker

Neal Pike is a disabled poet, performer, theatre-maker and workshop leader/facilitator from Nottingham. He is currently starring in his own stage production Five Years, which is based on his memories of being a pupil at a special educational need school. Our writer, Emma Purcell, interviewed Neal Pike to find out about his life with a disability and his writing and performing career.

Neal Pike’s disability and education

What is your disability and how does it affect you on a daily basis?

I have dyspraxia, which affects my balance and fine control, such as writing and tying shoelaces. I also find that I need to do certain tasks, such as planning – if I don’t plan my days, nothing will happen.

Did you prefer mainstream or special educational need (SEN) schools?

As much as I moan about SEN schools, I think I preferred them to mainstream school. Yes, the education side of it was rather limited, but I felt like I learnt a lot of life skills that I wouldn’t have at a mainstream school. I will always be someone who likes to learn stuff.

Neal Pike sat cross legged on the floor

Did you go onto higher education after school?

I went to college but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, so I didn’t really do anything much.

I spent six years from 2004 to 2010, while at college and after leaving, just going to gigs all around England and ignoring life. I hoped it would sort itself out.

Music is very important to me. But I was definitely using it as a crutch. However, I met some of my best friends through music and going to gigs. That time also helped to inform my work as a writer and performer.

It was a great influence on my next show, which I’m working on with Matt Miller. It is about music and everything around it.

Neal Pike’s writing career

What inspired you to become a writer?

I’ve always been interested in words – mainly lyrics. When I was younger, I always found poetry a bit too pompous and long (says the person who can listen to 20-minute songs). But I never quite had the confidence to start writing. I was always a big reader though.

Then, in 2013, I was having a really bad year – life was s*** and looking like it was always going to be s***. So my friend Jim suggested I go to a Mouthy Poets session.

Neal Pike standng far back

What is the Mouthy Poets and how did you join?

Mouthy Poets is a poetry collective based in Nottingham. I joined because I needed an outlet. I was struggling to process life in general.

I’ve also always had a deep-down desire to be on stage, but as I can’t sing or play an instrument, so thought, “This will never happen”.

But Mouthy Poets gave me a lot of confidence. We ran two shows a year at Nottingham Playhouse and it made me realise I belong on stage and that I don’t suck at it.

You wrote a poetry book Identity Bike Ride. Which is your favourite poem from the book?

My favourite poem in Identity Bike Ride is probably 23.12.08 as it’s about my grandmother, who I miss dearly.

But I also love Box. It is a poem about my journey to writing poetry, about being confined and wanting to be a writer, despite people telling me I couldn’t be. 

Again, it’s rooted in my time at school. It’s a poem I am immensely proud of.  It also probably, accidentally, what made me think about writing Five Years as a full show based on the same ideas.

You have a second collection of poetry due to be published. Have you got a title for it and a release date yet?

The title is Do You Happen To Sell Sleep? and at the moment it’s scheduled for early 2020.

Can you tell us about your disability writers network Tentacles?

Me and a good friend of mine, Maresa, were talking one day about how it’s a shame that there wasn’t a support network for disabled writers in the UK. So I started one, called Tentacles, with monthly workshops. They’re based at Nottingham Playhouse and supported by funding from Unlimited.

The plan is to relaunch a slightly rejigged model next year. It’s something I am extremely proud of creating.

Five Years by Neal Pike

Neal Pike

Can you give us a brief description of your production Five Years?

Five Years is a show about my time at an SEN school in the 90s. It’s just me on stage, with a table and nine chairs. While it is fairly autobiographical, there are some parts that have made my parents try and guess who is who, which is what I was aiming for.

It’s a coming of age story in many ways, but is also about my experiences of disability and being told that I’ll always just be defined as ‘special’ and trying to overcome that.

I believe it’s surprisingly funny for a person who doesn’t think he’s very funny.

What inspired you to make your memories into a stage performance?

I was at an Arvon writing retreat in Devon with the Mouthy Poets, and the guest workshop host was Jess Thom – a.k.a Tourettes Hero – who was talking about her experiences of writing as a disabled writer and about disability. Her work is rooted around her disability, but tries not to be about it entirely.

As she spoke, it just clicked – I need to write about this part of me, the part that went to SEN school. It took me a long time to process everything, but 2015 was the time when I was coming to terms with memories, mainly of my time at school, so it all fit.

What message are you hoping to send out to your audience about special needs education?

Basically, SEN school isn’t really much different from mainstream school. We had inspirational teachers and we had awful teachers. There are people who became friends and people who were bullies.

On a wider level though, I’m looking at the attitude that I think still exists – that disabled people are less likely to achieve as much and are put into boxes as ‘disabled’ in the world as well as at school.

I think lots of people are put in boxes, but it can be damaging. I heard one statistic, which is in the show, that only 5% of people from SEN schools gets employed, even today.

Have any staff or students from Fox Wood SEN school seen your performance and have you received any feedback from them?

One of the teachers from Fox Wood school, who is characterised in the show, has seen it and really liked it. He said: “You were a nightmare, but it was a great pleasure to teach you at the same time.” Another said: “It’s your story, you’re allowed to tell it.”

I was more worried about my parents seeing it to be honest.

After this tour, have you got any future projects in the pipeline?

Me and my director, Matt Miller, will be picking up our next show, which we started working in May and June this year. It’s called I Bet You Got Stuck On The Dancefloor. It’s a reference to the sticky floor at one of Nottingham’s main music venues, Rock City.

It’s a show about my relationship with music, particularly post-hardcore, and some of the uncomfortable effects of masculinity in that scene. It also asks whether or not it’s a good thing to have heroes and uncritically-admired people. In short, it’s about music, masculinity, hero worship and death.

Like Five Years, it’ll be BSL interpreted and the shows will be Relaxed. We’re trying to integrate that more. We’re both very excited to get back to work on it once we’ve toured Five Years.

Five Years Tour Dates 2019

1 Nov – Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester
University of Leicester, Lancaster Rd, Leicester, LE1 7HA
7pm | £10 (£5 concs)
01162 522455 | www.attenborougharts.com 

8 Nov – Chapel FM Arts Centre, Leeds
Old Seacroft Chapel, York Road, Leeds, LS14 6JB
Times and prices TBC
01132 255944 www.chapelfm.co.uk

15 & 16 Nov – Camden People’s Theatre
58-60 Hampstead Road, London, NW1 2PY
9pm | £12 (£10 concs)
0207 4194841 www.cptheatre.co.uk

21 Nov – Theatre Shop, Theatre Orchard, Clevedon
Unit 5, Queens Square, Clevedon, North Somerset, BS21 6HX
Times and prices TBC
0333 666 3366 www.theatreshop.org.uk

23 Nov – Phoenix, Exeter
Gandy Street, Exeter, EX4 3LS
Times and prices TBC
01392 667080 www.exeterphoenix.org.uk

3 Dec – Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton
Wulfruna Street, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, WV1 1SE
Times and prices TBC
01902 321321 | arena.wlv.ac.uk

You can follow Neal Pike on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

By Emma Purcell

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