Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme that aims to embed exceptional work by disabled artists within the UK and international cultural sectors, reach new audiences, and shift perceptions of disabled people. It is delivered in partnership by Shape Arts and Artsadmin, with funding from Arts Council England, Arts Council of Wales, British Council and Spirit of 2012.
In 2016 an Arts Council England’s Ambitions of Excellence award, match funded by the British Council, enabled Unlimited to extend global influence principally through co-commissions with non-UK based disabled artists. These case studies extend the learning from this work.
This phase of the international collaboration, initiated by lead UK artist Kaite O’Reilly in partnership with Singapore collaborator Peter Sau and the UK-Singapore team, focused on the development and professional staging of And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues. Written by O’Reilly and directed by Phillip Zarrilli, the show was staged at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre, 25-27 May 2018. The playwright categorised the project as an investigation into “difference, disability, and what it means to be human” in Singaporean society (O’Reilly, rehearsals-begin).[i] This production phase included the further development and training of emerging D/deaf and disabled Singaporean artists led by a UK-Singapore team of professionals. This work comes out of an earlier research and development phase where O’Reilly fictionalised personal accounts of members of the D/deaf and disabled communities in Singapore and the UK into a set of monologues for a 2017 workshop presentation in Singapore.
The core of this phase was to stage a full production of the play, deepen creative and community relationships and foster the further professionalisation of emerging Singaporean artists from the D/deaf and disabled communities.
The company of And Suddenly I Disappear… fleshed out its content and aesthetic within the context of Singaporean society. Aligned with “the aesthetics of access” (O’Reilly, a-rehearsal-photo), it featured multiple verbal, aural, and visual languages including Mandarin, English, Singlish, Hokkien, integrated audio description, music, beat-boxing, rap, closed-captioning, movement, mime, visual vernacular and projections.[ii] Key to developing the visual languages in this piece was to think beyond mere translation between the spoken and the visual, and to create parallel expressive languages (O’Reilly, email).[iii] In both content and form the play introduced the concept of the social model of disability to Singaporean society which normally functions on the charity model. Before and within its month-long rehearsal process, the script and direction were refined, the company developed its lighting, projection, and sound aesthetic, the team more clearly delineated creative duties and the company revised its practices around access worker support (Lee-Khoo, email).[iv] Emerging artists were introduced to the professional challenges of a full-scale production such as the rigor of daily rehearsal, the need to adapt to script changes and the additional demands of film acting and working in the larger performance space (Sau, email).[v] This work was the foundation for not only the show’s professional debut in Singapore in May but also a UK run later in the year.
What worked well/What was learnt?
This phase embodied the social model in both process and product. Participants commented on how they felt respected and empowered in the rehearsal process, and that they sensed that they were playing an integral part of a historic and important social development in Singapore (Fam and Lim, voice messages and Bawthan post-show discussion).[vi] Through both content and style, audiences were introduced to the social model as a way of understanding disability and were exposed to the way that this model allows for the D/deaf and disabled communities to make their presences known on their own terms. Another success of this project is the way in which it asserted its professional status. This distinction between professional artists and “talented hobbyists” (O’Reilly, post-show discussion)[vii] is an important one to assert for both emerging artists and the wider Singaporean community. Professionalisation also helped the artists enter the conversation about disability in Singapore (via the social model) from a place of experience, expertise, and articulacy.[viii] Emerging artists learned how to handle the personal challenges of a full-scale production including taking responsibility for both their artistic preparation and making provisions to care for their health (Fam voice message, Lee-Khoo email).
This project made good use of the multiple perspectives and expertise involved in an international dialogue, creating a true collaboration between UK and Singapore artists. Producer, researcher and performer Grace Koo described it as a “pooling of resources” rather than a one-way mentorship led only by the more experienced artists (Lee-Khoo email). The UK professionals were very open to local artists, professional and emerging alike, by constantly inviting them to give feedback on how to make the production more applicable to a Singaporean audience (Lim, voice message).
This project created further spin-off opportunities such as disability trainings and workshops with affiliated organisations, including O’Reilly’s workshop with the security staff of the hosting venue. In this way, a refreshed awareness of the social model and issues important to the Singaporean D/deaf and disabled communities extended far beyond those who personally experienced the play as a company member or spectator. Post-show discussions continued the dialogue to help audiences digest and investigate what they had seen and consider how this work might impact the social and artistic development of Singapore.
What can others take from this?
An important lesson from this project is that to start a new conversation about disability, it is useful to leverage the expertise of artists from other places who have already participated in similar conversations. In this way the new conversation can make use of models, approaches, examples and strategies that have proven to work in other contexts. Associate director, researcher and performer Peter Sau suggested that professional artists should not be afraid to collaborate with emerging artists, and with proper preparation and support they can successfully work together (Sau, email). This project demonstrates how fostering local leaders is key in developing a new wave of activity that will suit local communities. Here, the project becomes a beginning of a new phase rather than the culmination of a series of developments.
A project such as this can become a spark for other projects, and both phases of this work have created spin-offs. Therefore, while embarking on a main project, it is useful to have an awareness of ways in which other initiatives or workshops could arise from the primary activities, extending and diversifying the reach of the main project.
International collaboration has the potential to open up new frontiers on both sides of the collaboration. While the UK-based artists offered experience and expertise to the project, they also noted how the Singaporean context offered a new platform to expand the international conversation about disability arts and culture in a way that has become more difficult in the UK. Due to the current political climate in the UK where support for disability arts and culture is shrinking, the dawn of the conversation in Singapore offers a venue for expanding and developing the international conversation. In this way coalitions with strong communication and respectful relationships can help weather the social and political ups and downs that may be location-specific.
This project demonstrates the power of professionalisation in individual, social, artistic and political terms. Professionalisation helped the content and presentation find clarity and poignancy, and it empowered the emerging and professional artists alike to take their space as enthusiastic, educated, informed and active participants in a fresh conversation about D/deaf and disability culture in Singapore.
[iii] Email to the author from Kaite O’Reilly, 30 May 2018.
[iv] Email to the author from Grace Lee-Khoo, 31 May 2018.
[v] Email to the author from Peter Sau, 31 May 2018.
[vi] Whatsapp voicemails to the author from Stephanie Esther Fam, 30 May 2018 and Lim Lee Lee 31 May 2018, post-show discussion comment from Danial Bawthan 25 May 2018, notes taken by author.
[vii] Post-show discussion 25 May 2018, notes taken by author.
Links and Contacts
British Council Singapore
Arts Council of Wales
Kaite O’Reilly Blog
Access Path Production
National Arts Council Singapore
Singapore International Foundation
Singapore Press Holdings
Other Case Studies Available