Unlimited investigates the findings of a new report by the London Theatre Consortium and explains how you can add your voice to the debate in our tea and cake sessions.
Does what happens on our stages reflect the reality of our societies? The short answer is no. Disabled people are most often missing from the picture, or if present, they’re often (played by non-disabled people) there to transmit some warped stereotypical narrative reaffirming years old prejudice. And not just missing on our stages – missing in the associated professions too. For too long we’ve simply ranted. Now its time to change the status quo.
In spring 2015 the LTC, with assistance from Unlimited, met with disabled theatre makers to discuss the exclusion of disabled artists from mainstream culture. The conversations that emerged were frank and wide-ranging. Despite the UK having a pool of ambitious and high calibre disabled theatre-makers, they were struggling to overcome the significant structural obstacles of getting their work into mainstream engagement.
‘Don’t be limited by theatrical norms. These are often where exclusion begins’ LTC report
Three of the key barriers noted within the final report (summary available here) were:
Institutional segregation – due to the exclusion of disabled artists from training and early career development opportunities, disabled artists have to build their own networks often separate from mainstream theatre ecology. Some feel this is both a comforting safe space to show work but also an almost unbreakable glass ceiling for disabled performers. Any attempts to reach beyond this safe space and interact with theatres often leads to a frustrating cycle of research & development, allowing institutions to show intention but rarely leading to fully realised work. This results in work from artists who identify as disabled being undervalued.
Aesthetic apartheid – often unspoken aesthetic assumptions by which work made outside Disability Arts excluded the participation of disabled people. But in cases where institutions challenge those assumptions, exciting art emerges and everyone is invigorated.
Creative Injustice – the limited reach of legal access requirements and the status quo of institutional structures place disabled artists at a disadvantage. Efforts by organisations can appear tokenistic, unresearched and sometimes unsuitable causing another significant barrier. This is only exacerbated by the austerity agenda of this and previous governments.
Since its conception, Unlimited has pushed the industry to embed work by disabled artists within the UK cultural sector, allowing it to reach new audiences and change perceptions and misconceptions about disabled people. So when the LTC was encouraged to start a dialogue, and report on their findings, Unlimited was keen to help.
As well as bringing together artists, practitioners, producers, Artistic Directors and senior decision makers for joint meetings, there were several smaller, informal tea and cake sessions where Artistic Directors and Executive Directors/Producers of LTC theatres met with disabled artists. These were deliberately agenda-less and no notes were taken in order to create a space where people could be open.
Feedback from the whole process highlighted that it is of vital importance to recognise that disability generates and enriches the creative process -it does not impair it.
Also key is real engagement – disabled and non-disabled artists must be employed on an equal footing and understanding that different artists have differing perspectives.
‘In the past, disability arts was understood as art made by and/or for disabled people. Many disabled artists would prefer to simply make theatre.’ LTC report
The research recognises that representing disability is risky. Disability is currently underrepresented; so working with disabled artists feels risky because it comes with several unknowns. This included everything from the detailed practicalities of running rehearsals with disabled artists, to how the audience will react and respond to the work and how to make shows more accessible to disabled audiences (our resource pack offers some pointers).
However, these unknowns are often easier to explore and resolve in practice than in theory. Placing disability within any artistic piece will always have political connotations. But acknowledging and utilising this power is how real and lasting progress will be made.
So how do we move forward? The artistic focus cannot just be about ticking boxes by obeying legal requirements, creating apprenticeship roles or enforcing and fulfilling quotas. It is about enabling sustained culture change within the sector.
This must include building visibility and expectations. The more we see disabled artists the more the art will reflect the true diversity of society. Go and see work by disability companies and artists. Start a dialogue, those who are new to disability culture need to be brave enough to approach and ask questions. This seems simple, but is often one of the biggest barriers. It is also, as Julie McNamara of Vital Xposure reminded us at the recent ANT discussion on ‘Disability: A Creative Advantage’ about opening up about where and when we get things wrong so that everyone can learn.
This model is now being repeated with a group of Northern/Midlands Theatres (Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse, Manchester Royal Exchange and West Yorkshire Playhouse) with support from Unlimited Impact. These sessions will be opportunities to meet with Artistic Directors and producing staff and are running throughout March 2016. Please contact Unlimited if you would be interested in taking part.