Image of the audience engaged in conversation and watching the panel

Unlimited Connects Wales: Making it Mainstream, Making it Ours

This month Unlimited Connects continued with our events across Wales. Kelly Barr from Age Cymru recounts her experience at the Connects event in Llanelli. 

Unlimited Connects Wales couldn’t be timelier. There’s a gathering of pace. A coming together of those that want to be included, represented and be part of the conversation, and the allies that want to help to make it happen. Not only that, but the desire for Wales to be leading the way.

Last week, we had the opportunity to discuss what’s already happening in accessible theatre, and how much more there’s still to do. It’s been a bleak month in Wales, with awful weather dampening spirits. But despite the challenges we face, it felt like the sun came out a little bit that Thursday in Llanelli.

The event, supported by Unlimited, Arts Council of Wales and Carmarthenshire County Council, prompted us to explore the work that we’re creating, programming, marketing, and championing, with a particular focus on language. There’s so much to discuss with disabled-led arts, language, accessibility, and inclusion so it’s encouraging to see that these events will be replicated around Wales with a different theme each time.

In my role as Arts and Creativity Programme Manager at Age Cymru, and managing the annual Gwanwyn Festival which celebrates creativity in older age, I was keen to see how I could encourage more inclusivity in the work that we programme. Gwanwyn is nothing without our partner organisations, from grass-roots charities to national portfolio producers whose activities make up the festival. We’ve been able to work with specialised groups who are able to provide creative opportunities for older people with specific needs. But how can we ensure that, with very limited budgets, the whole festival programme is accessible?

A highlight of the day for me was seeing a deaf-led work in progress, I Said I Love You, by Stephanie Back, Elise Davidson, Alun Saunders and Jed O’Reilly. The work explores the breakdown in communication in society, through British Sign Language (BSL) as well as through Welsh-language. Many of the issues it raised were things that I had never considered before, coming from an English-speaking/hearing world. The work is profoundly moving, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being really excited to see where it goes.

According to NHS Wales, over 40% of people over 50 have some form of hearing loss. That’s a significant percentage of our audience. It cannot be underestimated how many people can benefit from access provisions like BSL interpretation and captioning, whether they identify as being D/deaf or not.

In terms of the Welsh language, we’ve partnered with many Welsh-speaking artists and organisations through the festival and our other programmes, such as Theatr Genedlaethol and visual artist Alice Briggs. And we have recognised the importance of language, particularly for those living with dementia, which you can read about in the Baring Foundation’s recent report, On Diversity and Creative Ageing.

The intersection of BSL and the Welsh language really made me consider communication in a new way and impressed upon me the importance of the desire to try to get it right, even if we sometimes get it wrong. The strength of the arts sector is our openness to try new things, so we’re ideally placed to push the agenda forward.

Identity, the restriction of legislation, and purism versus bilingualism were all discussed in a safe environment during the panel discussion where yet again, it felt OK to get things wrong. The panel was made up of multi-lingual actress Pinar Ogun, director Angharad Lee, Wale’s only Welsh-speaker audio describer, Ioan Gwyn and was chaired by Theatr Genedlaethol’s Executive Director, Rhian A Davies. They identified many of the challenges faced when working in the Welsh-language or bilingually and used their own experiences to inform the audience. With the Welsh Government’s strategy to create one billion Welsh-speakers by 2050, this discussion reminded us all that the only way for this to be achieved is through mutual respect and understanding, with a consideration of the past but an eye to the future.

The case studies presented by Angharad Lee (Leeway Productions), Natasha Sutton Williams (Working Birthday Productions) and Nye Russell-Thompson (StammerMouth) provided real, tangible ways of working (SSE, Sign Supported English, and BSL Syntax) and reminded me that you can explore complex and challenging themes, and use multiple languages, through confident marketing. The appeal of a ‘good night out’ still exists for us all, and can overcome many barriers.

A significant point for me, raised by Angharad Lee, was that by supplying multiple access provisions, she had enabled one couple to see the performance on the same night, something that had become difficult for them when one of them needed to access a BSL performance, and one a captioned performance. It’s vitally important that families with differing needs are able to attend and enjoy art together.

My main takeaway from the event is that as exhausting as it can be, the troublemakers are the change-makers and that we as a sector need to support them as they try to shake up the status quo. We have a responsibility to be curious audience members, with open minds. It’s also not the responsibility of a disabled artist to represent their disability or language, another reason why our troublemakers are so important.

There’s so much learning out there and a real desire to share that knowledge, so we need to keep talking about our successes (and failures). Promoting the work of disabled artists to our colleagues across the sector is critical and an easy way for us to move things forward.

I don’t have the answer for my own work yet, especially in a time when budgets are tight, but I do have the desire to try, which means that not only will I continue to use my very limited conversational Welsh in emails and through social media, but I will ensure that access is a thought-through and significant part of any future project. A tokenistic gesture just won’t do, if we’re not going out there and inviting a more diverse audience in.

Kelly Barr

Twitter: @GwanwynAgeCymru @kbarrdiff

Sadly we have had to cancel the Unlimited Connects events at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Taliesin, Swansea but the rescheduled visual arts focused event ‘Making Space’ will now take place online.