Actress, Lisa Hammond is well known to TV fans as feisty market trader, Donna Yates in EastEnders. Here she speaks with Able Magazine about Albert Square and how disabled people are represented on television and on stage generally.
EastEnders can define an actor’s life and career. What are the ups and downs of that for you?
I think when you go up for an acting job on a soap you’d be silly not to understand that it will be a part of your life forever! That is what you are signing up for.
The upsides are many and a bit of regular money is up there! The downsides are that you will always be called by your character name, wherever you go, wherever you are, for the rest of your life!
You’ve been working recently as disability consultant on the Told By An Idiot (TBI) initiative, Let Me Play The Lion Too, that aims to tackle diversity on stage. What has that entailed?
As I’m working on EastEnders full time I’m floating in and out in my role as disability consultant. Partly, this project has its roots in all of the (angry/frustrated) chats that I have had with TBI’s artistic director and friend, Paul Hunter over the years about what it’s like being a disabled actor in the world of theatre and telly and how bloody hard it is!
Tackling diversity on stage won’t happen overnight and no single person or company can do it all but as a relatively small company, it’s brilliant to be working with them on this ambitious project. You have to put your money where your mouth is, right? I think TBI are doing that – with bells on – and for that, I’m really chuffed!
Can you tell us a bit about your own disability?
I have pseudoachondroplasia and hypermobility syndrome. I use a wheelchair as I get chronic pain and fatigue from both conditions.
Thankfully the Barbican is a welcoming and very accessible venue so it’s never a problem there; plus I grew up around the corner and know the Barbican like the back of my hand, which is useful.
TBI as a company are by nature a bunch of open, funny, curious and enquiring humans so nothing phases them in terms of ‘reasonable adjustments’.
Has the industry improved?
I’ve been acting for 24 years now and have seen a few changes, but it’s painstakingly slow and often very frustrating. There is still so much fear and resistance in employing disabled actors, which is why you have to be incredibly resilient and bloody-minded in order to work in this industry.
If you are an actor who already has experience but are finding it hard to get the jobs you want, then look into whether you are keeping your end of the bargain up. Yes of course, part of it is down to luck but a massive part of it is the spadework you do.
In some ways you will need to demonstrate more commitment and focus than your non-disabled peers. My top tips are to read books on the profession and how to be good at being your own business (such as) being on Spotlight, having a showreel and headshots etc.
Go to the theatre and follow companies that you like and want to work with in order to write to them asking to be on file for upcoming projects.
Find out about getting an agent and do regular mailouts to casting directors and people in the industry who you would like to work with and finally: research, research, research! None of this is easy but in my opinion, I think that’s what it takes. When you have an audition (which will be rare), make sure you are over-prepared, off book and confident.
Be open and responsible for your own access requirements. It’s a delicate game; you probably know all about being disabled; we are often adept at this as we live in a world that is so often not geared for us. It’s that old chestnut of balancing getting what you need but also being flexible and charming/funny of course.
Do you play ‘Donna Yates’ with a degree of ‘How does this make disabled people look?’
Of course, I always feel a bit aware that there are so few disabled characters on our stages and screens.
If I’m offered a role that I feel is damaging in terms of that, I just won’t take it to start with, no matter how desperate I am for work. The other option, if it’s a little dodgy but has potential, is to try to gently suggest why I feel it’s damaging and try to help change it.
I know some EastEnders viewers have been confused by your intermittent use of a wheelchair. How do you deal with this?
I ignore it and carry on doing it, ha! I think it’s really important that people see that wheelchair users are not always just one thing or another. A percentage of us use mobility aids in all sorts of ways depending on our disability. I use mine for pain relief. So just as I do as ‘Lisa’, I do the same with my character, Donna in EastEnders: if I feel like I want to get out of my chair I will, and if I don’t, I won’t. I think it’s important to show that nuance of disability and if you do it on screen, then hopefully the wider world will learn about that nuance.
The media has a huge impact in terms of changing perceptions which is why it’s so important that they represent disabled people. If we were more visible in the media as a whole, it would completely change our experience in the real world.
What are your views about disabled talent on TV?
I don’t think there is enough; that’s my main thought! But I probably know (and love) all of them. I could probably count them (the actors) on one hand!
Do you have any plans to go back into theatre or any other projects in the future?
Yes, I love theatre! As a fully paid up ‘Idiot’ I look forward to working as an actress with Told By An Idiot again in the future.
I have many, many plans for the future. I have a writing partner, Rachael Spence, who I’ve made theatre shows with and most recently we wrote and starred in a pilot for a Channel 4 comedy, ‘Blaps’ which we made with the award winning production company that made ‘Chewing Gum’, so that was an amazing experience. We hope to go further with that and get a series commissioned from it as we have loads more stories to tell.
Is Donna Yates good for disabled people?
Yes, I think so. What’s not to love about her?! She’s a gobby mare with a big and loyal heart who has the best one-liners in Albert Square!