In December 2019, senior producer for Unlimited, Jo Verrent, was invited to Lisbon, Portugal and Barcelona, Spain to talk about Unlimited, access, culture and more. What did she learn in exchange?
I always think that visiting other countries is a gift – so ideally there should be an exchange. When asked to speak at an event, you have the chance to take in alternative perspectives – if you don’t, it’s a missed opportunity. Luckily, both trips provided me with plenty to absorb, and plenty that I can take into 2020 and beyond.
1. Impact is not always immediate. Both invitations were from people I first met at an IETM Brussels in 2017 when I ran a workshop testing the Cards for Inclusion prototype. A good reminder as often we try and evaluate ‘impact’ immediately rather than leaving time for the ripples, and we can underestimate the impact of meeting people at networking events if we don’t see an instant result. It was lovely to be able to give out packs out of the fully finished game to people who had experienced the prototype.
2. Plan travel carefully, balancing environmental and economic responsibilities. One event was fixed, one more flexible. By placing both in the same week I was able to minimise air travel and still work remotely – with great views and better food! Looking carefully at each opportunity is key for this year and beyond: what can be done remotely and what needs to be face to face, what can be linked together to provide a better balance, what can be done better by someone more local who doesn’t have to travel. It’s a complex one and hard to ‘capture’: more thinking needed there for sure.
3. First change the mindset, then provide tools for change. There is a tendency in some training to rush in with the ‘how’, before addressing the ‘why’. By ensuring people are motivated and fully understand the need for change, the change part becomes much easier. In Lisbon, their evaluation shows more people seeing access in relation to choice, freedom and equality rather than simply being about the accessibility of buildings.
4. Local context is key – Disability access and advocacy is sometimes at a different stage to that within the UK. Equally the arts themselves are often funded and supported differently. It’s not often possible or advisable to take an approach lock, stock and barrel and transplant it without really understanding the details of the local context. In Lisbon, Acesso Cultura gathered together a wide range of organisations and individuals across a number of training days so that they could hear from a range of projects and crucially, from each other. The arts were described as a potential engine of freedom, of disruption, change, social cohesion and dialogue. Plenty there to build on for the future of disabled people in the arts long term.
5. Keep trying – I’ve been wanting to attend Festival Simbiotic for a couple of years now, but the dates just didn’t work out – until 2019. Often when I can’t make something I think, that’s it. But it rarely is. Opportunities can sometimes be cyclical, or reappear when I least expect them to.
6. Keep finding new formats for events – I really like the ‘front row’ format that was used at Festival Simbiotic. Three speakers each have 20 mins, then a curated ‘front row’ of experts ask the first set of questions before a more general Q&A, replacing the single chair model. Which also meant that there were 6 great questions lined up, relating directly to the local context yet covering multiple perspectives. Also good from a marketing perspective as some people had come to the event on the basis of these people attending.
7. An image says 1000 words – Unlimited focuses on high quality work and nothing can illustrate that better than the work itself. If the work isn’t there, using high quality visual materials is essential (audio described of course – great tips here on ensuring presentations are accessible). It also means we get to introduce a wide range of artists to new audiences in every place we talk about the work and it’s great for audiences who are listening to translation too, adding further depth and clarity. It takes some time prepping and selecting images and videos but always pays dividends in the end. Having used nearly 50 images for a 30 minute presentation, I still need to learn to edit down!
8. Work with other speakers – it’s not a competition – It’s about preparation. I was lucky as I was speaking with the amazing Kaite O’Reilly and the incredible Sara Beer from Disability Arts Cymru and luckily what we were saying was different, yet complimentary. The learning for me is to really examine the context and the programme, and to dig in further to find out what others are covering so that the sum impression is always this harmonious. Sometimes people booking speakers have limited capacity, so they don’t get to really drill down into content in quite the way you might hope, but that doesn’t stop you doing it.
9. Don’t assume the UK always creates the best work – when in Barcelona I got to see a brilliant piece of inclusive work, honestly one of the best I have seen for many years. It was witty, accessible, insightful and with excellent performances. And brought together on a shoe string for one single performance. It was called ‘ÓRDAGO A LA GARNDE‘, in Spanish “echar un órdago” is a bid in which players of the “mus” card game bet their complete hand and risk everything. If it goes well, they win the game. In this piece, we got to see all of the characters way up their successes and failures, and find out who was going to ‘go big’ and win. If they are able to tour it at any point, I really recommend you get out to watch it – lifts will never be the same again!
10. If you can, add on an extra day. There is an incredible privilege involved in travel and international exchange. If one zips in, works and then races off, you can miss out on the cultural exchange as well as fail to actually recognise where you are. I was part of a Common Purpose set once, that encouraged us all to add on an extra day, if we could, when travelling anywhere. A day to experience the location that we were in outside of the conference hall, meeting room or office. Sometimes I’ve forgotten this as diaries get tight, but I remembered, paid for an extra night myself and got to soak up Barcelona, a city that I love at a time of year when I haven’t had the chance to visit before.
All this also meant I got a little extra vitamin D before the festive season began, and came home with a log with eyes on that I could hit with a stick on Christmas Eve to give me presents. And now that’s in the loft for a year and it’s time to get on with the learning and implementing. Bring on 2020!