Woven willow basket bases
Basketcase by Kristina Veasey. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Wanted: Access Everywhere

When Unlimited read that of the £1.6bn which ACE provides to its National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), less than 3% (£40.1m) goes to rural areas – despite 18% of England’s population living in a rural location– we knew we had to do more. If we say Unlimited is about equality for disabled artists to be able to explore everything that their non-disabled counterparts can, then this has to include living and working in rural locations. Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, tells us more…

Unlimited has supported works that tour to rural locations. One example is Jack Dean’s Jeremiah, which began life as an Unlimited R&D and has toured from Cornwall to Chulmleigh, including village halls and pubs as well as theatres and arts centres. And in the last commissions round, Unlimited teamed up with Farnham Maltings to fund a work designed to reach such areas (Byron Vincent’s Instagramming the Apocalypse) and with the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust to host research and development exploring the wilder side of rurality through Kristina Veasey’s Basketcase.

We’ve also supported work such as Cheryl Martin’s One Woman which although technical (involving projection and an innovative sound element) has tour-ability at its heart, ensuring the piece can reach a wide variety of locations, including those at different sizes and scales.

But we need to do more; and to do more, we need to understand more. Hence Unlimited is teaming up with Rural Arts to host a day to look at disability, arts and rurality to delve deeper into the barriers – both real and assumed – and the varied solutions that we, artists, and arts organisations might wish to take.

WANTED: ACCESS EVERYWHERE will take place on Thursday 13 February at Rural Arts’ base, The Courthouse in Thirsk, North Yorkshire from 11am – 3.30pm, and is free to attend (booking via Rural Arts). The day aims to open up discussions on what more can be done to support disabled people in the arts – as artists, participants and audiences – in rural areas. With practical sessions and a focus on realistic solutions, we hope to provide an honest and open space on all sides to move the conversation into action. And if you want some 1-1 support or connections, there are bookable surgeries and networking from 3.30 – 5.30pm before an evening performance of Byron Vincent’s Instagramming the Apocalypse.

We know North Yorkshire isn’t accessible to everyone, and so are delighted to announce that we are partnering with the Somerset Diversity Forum and members Take Art, Somerset Film & Video and Somerset Art Works to hold the same discussion there at The Engine Room, Bridgwater (to book, please email takearttheatre@gmail.com or do so online at www.takeart.org). We’ll each discuss the same topics, then come together digitally to discuss our findings via a live digital hook up. Think Eurovision: “Hello Bridgwater, Thirsk calling.”

Access issues for disabled people are everywhere, but in rural locations, access barriers can be amplified. If there is only one bus a day, it really matters if you can’t fit on it and you can’t just wait for the next. It’s easy to make assumptions about solutions, the obvious one is to live stream everything, but that can also leave people feeling more isolated than ever. We really want to hear from people directly involved: artists living in rural areas, those who have toured in… And not just artists but audiences too, and arts organisations.

This year I spoke at a Big Conversation at Hi-Viz, the National Rural Touring Forum conference in Bangor, Wales, on a panel focusing on diversity in a rural context. There I heard first hand from performance programmers and touring scheme managers about the desire for a diverse product that was designed to reach their audiences. No one wanted work that was watered down, but everyone wanted work that understood the rural context.

So what questions should we be asking? Whose experiences should we be highlighting? Who has an answer to some of the questions that the barriers experienced in rural areas raise?

If you want to be part of the conversation but aren’t able to travel to Thirsk or Bridgwater, then please get in touch so that we can find a way to include your perspective, then please email info@weareunlimited.org.uk.