Featured performer: Rona Topaz
30 March 2022
Rona is a Disabled performer who has mobility and hearing impairments. She has forged a career in the performing arts, and here writes about her career path, the challenges she has faced and overcome, and what performing means to her. If you’re interested in arts, culture and campaigns from people from seldom heard and diverse communities, sign up to our monthly arts bulletin Hear Me Out.
I started life singing. I always knew I wanted to sing. I’d watch people like Dusty Springfield and Lulu and copy them when I was three years old. No one took any notice. But that was more about my family, who should never have brought children into the world, sadly. Most of my disabilities resulted from the neglect and abuse in my childhood.
I am mobility and hearing challenged, with vascular damage from strokes. The medical profession ignored the severe spinal damage caused by the after effects of a vaccination given to me in early childhood. Thankfully I was diagnosed by an osteopath following a brutal attack by my late father.
And the throat infection following removal of my tonsils 9 years too late, thanks to my parents who never deserved to be parents, resulted in permanent hearing loss in both ears.
The neglect and physical abuse I endured also caused me to have a stroke affecting my memory, at age 13. This was diagnosed when I dragged myself to a walk in clinic because, being from New York, it “costs money” to see a GP, and my parents didn’t think I was worth it, even though I initially lost my speech and had to communicate via miming and pen and paper.
As I grew up, I found myself pestering my music teachers to assist them. When my efforts were refused, I found myself getting frustrated, and labelled as “temperamental” for my efforts. I was receiving negativity from every side-someone “like me”-disabled, overweight, unattractive, could “never” make a living in music. When my employer at the music school I worked in sacked me for being someone that will “amount to nothing” and was “in the wrong profession”, I ended up trying to end my life. And almost succeeded. But not quite.
After my attempt at suicide, I slowly resumed my music degree, and later that year, I met the recording artist Billy Joel. This was a turning point. He convinced me that everyone had something to offer the world, that people were always in a state of transition, and it was society and how it was structured- competitively- that made some of us feel “not good enough”. By the end our conversation I felt like I had been through a great therapy session.
I finished my degree with honours and set about looking for work. I was offered session singing work but it coincided with a chance to move back to London, having spent a number of years in New York with my family. So off I went to London. I got married, settled down, and started my career, with limited success.
Shortly after getting married I landed a production deal and a possible recording contract. When the contract fell through, I was given the opportunity to take part in a songwriting project with Ray Davies, a successful songwriter and playwright. Through no fault of his own, the experience scarred me emotionally and I stopped writing songs for more than a decade.
I worked as a singer/actor in musical theatre until my mum was diagnosed with dementia. Around that time, I discovered I could spread my artistic wings-I could lead workshops, teach singing, facilitate. When mum finally left me forever, I saw an advert that said: “we are all leaders”. It inspired me, so I decided to start leading choirs.
To this day, I don’t know how I did it, but I have a range of credits, from supporting Billy Bragg to appearing in a feature film directed by Stephen Fry.
I think it’s a question of self belief, talent and determination. And how you see yourself is probably most crucial of all.
My advice to aspiring performers:
Practise your craft. Strive to improve. Learn about who you are, what your selling points are, what you can offer. Make mistakes. Take the knocks. Learn from them if you can. Then let go. Learning from mistakes makes you better. Strive to improve. Build a network. Go out and perform. Know your worth when you quote a fee. Don’t think about “making it”. There are levels on levels of success.
Be grateful if even part of your income is from entertainment and the arts. If you dance, teach dancing. Learn to choreograph, facilitate, direct. If you sing, teach singing, lead choirs. If you act, learn to direct, write, facilitate. It’s all part of the same whole.
If you’re interested in arts, culture and campaigns from people from seldom heard and diverse communities, sign up to our monthly arts bulletin Hear Me Out.