Mat Fraser: ‘I’m hardcore – I want equality and I’m not going to stop’ | Stage

Earlier this year, Mat Fraser found himself in Los Angeles pitching a TV pilot in which he would play the lead. Things couldn’t have gone better but the project was stopped in its tracks by Covid-19. Filming on season four of the comedy series Fraser stars in, Loudermilk, has also been scuppered by the pandemic. So has a new panto he’d written for his local theatre in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“I’ve been given a swift kick in the nuts, but haven’t we all,” he says over Skype, eyebrows raising towards a pink quiff. That rosy streak comes from his response to all those halted plans. Fraser and his wife, Julie Atlas Muz, decided to hell with it and decamped to make a horror film at a property they know “that looks like some weird swinger house from the 1960s”. It turns out their homemade blood has been hard to wash out.

Having storyboarded and starred in the film themselves, they’re now busy editing it for an online release. Fraser is exhilarated about this sort of DIY spirit that has emerged in lockdown. Wary that theatres and TV companies will be risk-averse in the coming months – “They were all up for the dangerous new thing; now everyone is going to play safe because no one knows what’s around the corner” – he is nevertheless confident that new voices will burst through. Consider the early 80s, he says. “Thatcher was raging and The Young Ones came out. That was a response. Young people were being squeezed out and then … bang!”

Jonny Dixon, Julie Atlas Muz, Mat Fraser and Jess Mabel Jones in Beauty and the Beast at the Young Vic in 2013.

Jonny Dixon, Julie Atlas Muz, Mat Fraser and Jess Mabel Jones in Beauty and the Beast at the Young Vic in 2013. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Tough times, says Fraser, “call for a tough response in art”. Deaf and disabled artists, he believes, “are among the sharpest to critique where society alarmingly seems to be going in terms of how it treats its more vulnerable population”. Fraser, who was born with underdeveloped arms after his mother was prescribed thalidomide during pregnancy, has been a force in disability arts since the mid-90s when he began to work with the deaf and disabled-led theatre company Graeae. He credits Graeae’s artistic director, Jenny Sealey, with transforming attitudes by steadily creating strong relationships with a network of theatres around the UK.

Fraser is now championing the company’s new initiative, Beyond, which uses these relationships to enable development, training, mentoring and use of creative spaces for deaf and disabled artists at all stages of their careers. It’s a partnership with several theatres including Bolton’s Octagon, Curve in Leicester, Cast in Doncaster and Hull Truck, where Fraser played Richard III in 2017. Theatres, Fraser says, are at last “ready, willing and looking” to work with deaf and disabled artists who, in turn, “expect to be listened to, as they should”. But he believes there are still barriers that prevent them establishing working relationships, “no doubt from nervousness on both sides, and reticence”. The initiative will act as a bridge between individuals and companies. Although the project predates the pandemic, it comes at a critical time, with the industry reeling from the shutdown that began more than four months ago.

At an all-party parliamentary group last week, discussing theatre’s recovery, Robert Softley Gale of the theatre company Birds of Paradise spoke of the danger of hard-won equality being lost when theatres reopen. Deaf and disabled people have been classed as vulnerable during the pandemic, said Softley Gale, and the visibility of their contribution to society has been significantly reduced. He stressed that targeted funding is needed to keep artists within the sector. Routes to Recovery, a recently published study of theatre’s freelancers (who make up 70% of the industry’s workforce), concludes that deaf and disabled arts workers have suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 crisis – more than 40% said they were likely to leave the theatre industry.

Mat Fraser discusses his role in American Horror Story: Freak Show

Fraser says: “It’s a tough time – and it’s got tougher for disabled people.” Many haven’t qualified for support from the government’s self-employment income support scheme or the coronavirus job retention scheme. Those that have must now prepare for those schemes to be wound down. When that moment comes, “it’s going to get desperate,” he warns. He remembers demonstrating in Westminster for what would become the Disability Discrimination Act, “toothless as it was”, back in 1994. “I’m hardcore,” he says. “I want equality and I’m not going to stop until we’ve got it.”

Fraser is quick to acknowledge that he is fortunate to have achieved a degree of security from starring in the hit US TV series American Horror Story, a role he landed after being spotted in an explicit stage version of Beauty and the Beast. He has worked hard to enter the mainstream, he stresses. “Being militant is great but only three people watch it.”

There are always barriers in the industry, he observes, but “no one wants it to be like that. Everyone wants to do better – they just haven’t quite managed it yet.” With the industry in crisis, it’s ever more important for Graeae to be empowering the next wave of deaf and disabled talent on our stages, he says. And while we wait for restrictions to be further eased, the lockdown living-room revolution in theatre continues. “I’ve got very high faith in this DIY ethic in our living rooms,” he says. “It’s going to bring forth new voices that we wouldn’t maybe have heard before.”

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