The pandemic has proven what many already knew: the wisdom and knowledge of disabled people is invaluable. Jack Dean wants these disabled voices to be integrated into the rural touring scene in the post-covid world.
“And in that moment, I felt totally overwhelmed at being alive. There could be nothing but there was everything. I didn’t want to waste a single second more worrying about trivialities. Worrying that I’d never match up to an ideal that didn’t even exist. Nobody is normal. We are all different. I had to make sure that every moment I had left on this planet counted.”
― Francesca Martínez, from What the **** is Normal?!
I didn’t want to write a blog today. I wanted to go for a run, cry, play the ukulele, eat pizza, watch anything with James Acaster in, do any of the often-questionable self-care practices that have squished me through the meat-grinder of this year. Unlimited, who have commissioned this blog, have been accommodating about deadlines, their usual patient, good-humoured selves. So, I didn’t have to write this blog today. I could have left it for a bit, and maybe I should have. But in my experience, when you don’t want to write something is frequently exactly when you should.
Any honest discussion about rural touring has to factor in the uncertainty of its future, and that requires addressing the sources of the uncertainty that derive from the present, and that requires talking about the Thing. You know what I mean. The Thing that is now so ubiquitous that I don’t need to tell you what the Thing is. And that is what I am struggling with. There are so many assumptions you have to make to get to square one on this issue: that there will be a performing arts world, or an economy or society to support it, on the other side of the Thing; that there is any definable date that the other side of the Thing might emerge; that the rural touring system as we know it will exist when that does happen, and so on.
The video I made, attached to this post, ignores all of this stuff, and any practical light I can shed on rural touring probably lives there. But here I want to address the question from another angle, to look at the “why bother,” instead of just the comparatively straightforward “how” of rural touring. I want to persuade you, the artists who are any kind of different and who currently live outside the rural touring world, that it is worth doing rural touring, but also I think I need to persuade myself.
I like to take after Francesca Martinez and self-identify on a day-to-day basis as Wobbly, but on forms I’m still good old Disabled. The nature of that label as a thing that defines an absence rather than a presence is problematic. But it potentially has a new meaning in the era of the Thing. The Thing has arguably made all of us disabled, neatly fitting the 2010 Equality Act’s definition of “an impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.” The creation of more disabled people doesn’t necessarily equate to more disabled rights, or limb-destroying drone strikes in Syria would be a colossal win for equality. But like any great change, it presents an opportunity.
There is no normal, not on a global nor on an individual scale. There never was. As Wobblies, we always knew this. We have our 10,000 hours of not-normal practice in the bag. So, as Wobblies, we have the knowledge, the insights and the methodologies to lead people through a world where the myth of normality is dispelled. The rural touring world, which is secure and strengthened by its embedding in local communities, is also perhaps too secure in its ways at times, and needs the leadership and vision of those deemed abnormal to navigate into a better future, to rewrite and re-rewrite the rulebook on access, on inclusion, on the definitions and political taste judgements of art.
As the Curb Cut Effect demonstrates, what’s better for the Wobbly is better for everyone. More wheelchair access is also more access for prams, bikes and more elaborate stage sets. More captioning means more ways into a show’s text for the whole audience. Most relevant to me is the need for transformation of how mental health is treated in performances. The last decade saw shows about mental illness become a near-ubiquitous trend. But the care of performers who make themselves emotionally vulnerable, and of the audiences who engage with that vulnerability, is nearly non-existent. And who the fuck wouldn’t benefit from some emotional first-aid right now? By demanding improvement, by leading from example and by simply being present, we can transform what the rural touring scene looks like. And increasingly, what is done there is being copied elsewhere.
And no, it shouldn’t always be on those who are different to do that, but historically it always has been, and that’s one thing I don’t think is going to change. And no, I don’t know the how or the when. And to be completely honest, a lot of touring is shit, rural or not. It can be tiring and lonely and exhausting and poorly remunerated. I still have anxiety dreams about a gig I did last year where our set got stuck in a service lift. But at risk of pomposity, it is your goddamn duty to get out there and make it better. Because the arts world needs us more than ever, even if it doesn’t know it. We are still alive, and while we are alive we can still make it count.
A note from Unlimited
Our current commission round opens for applications soon and includes both partner and non-partner awards. We are delighted that Pentabus and Farnham Maltings are partnering with us on our Main Commission Awards for artists making work for rural touring.
Pentabus tour new plays about the contemporary rural world to new audiences in village halls, fields, festivals and theatres, telling stories with local relevance, plus national and international impact. They believe that every person living in an isolated rural community has a right to exceptional theatre.
Farnham Maltings is a producing organisation that believes that creativity helps us make sense of the world, bring people together and has the potential to articulate new ideas. By encouraging people to participate in the arts, as audience and makers, we will foster a healthier, happier and safer contemporary Britain.
You can make an Expressions of Interest application from 1 October 2020 and the application portal closes on the 27 October 2020. All information on how to apply and additional criteria can be found here.
Jack is a writer, composer, and theatre maker living in Devon. He’s currently working on a video game between unhinged rants and bouts of self-pity. You can find out more about that here.