Person in a blue superhero costume
Touretteshero's Backstage in Biscuit Land. Photo by Sam Robinson

What’s Changed? By Lyn Gardner

When at the end of March 2017 Unlimited announced its latest commissions, offering £945,000 of support to a wide-ranging programme of work made by disabled artists across different disciplines, it marked a coming of age for the commissions programme that since 2013 has been steadily changing attitudes to work made by disabled artists and performers.

And it’s not just shifting perceptions amongst programmers and audiences. The Unlimited programme is helping to change the critical discourse around work made by disabled artists, not just in terms of quality but also because of the quantity of work being made available, and because it is encouraging a dialogue around the ways that critics and bloggers might approach and write about difference and its creative possibilities.

After all nobody—critic or not—watching Touretteshero’s gloriously absurd Backstage in Biscuit Land could fail to appreciate that while unpredictability—in this case Jess Thom’s physical and vocal tics— might bring challenges, it can also bring huge creative dividends. Particularly in a theatre culture where often so much is locked down that every performance is pretty much the same as the last one, and productions keep picking the same limited number of tools from the toolbox over and over. Much of the work in the Unlimited programme makes use of familiar tools, but like Jess Thom with Backstage in Biscuit Land or Jo Bannon’s remarkable Exposure it adds some new ones too. With often surprising and exhilarating results.

The increasing amount of work being made by disabled artists is a welcome and important effect of the Unlimited programme because it impacts on the wider theatre landscape, where we might find disabled artists (the Young Vic, Southbank Centre, most of our big regional theatres) and performers (the Globe; on the stages of the National Theatre or the Royal Exchange in Manchester) and what might or might not be reviewed.

On the day that the new Unlimited commissions were announced, it was also announced that Graeae would be remounting one of its most successful shows, the Ian Drury-inspired musical Reasons to be Cheerful. Ramps on the Moons’ staging of The Who’s Tommy with a disabled and non-disabled cast began previewing at the New Wolsey in Ipswich ahead of a national tour, and Meet Fred, the collaboration between Blind Summit and learning disabled company Hijinx, headed off on the Welsh leg of a UK tour.

All this amounts to a critical mass of work that simply can no longer be ignored by critics who in the past have often showed themselves less than willing to engage with work made by disabled artists, working on the basis that what is out of sight can remain out of mind. Unlimited have not just upped the game, they have upped the visibility of disabled art. Whereas once a critic might have had to seek out work made by disabled artists, it is now part of the mainstream, and therefore must be part of critical discourse. Work by Unlimited artists is to be found in venues and festivals across the country and increasingly on international stages.

This is crucial because often it is only what is reviewed that is really valued in our culture, and work that receives critical attention is work that often gets developed and nudged further in terms of both ambition and indeed quality. It’s the work that gets further funding too, with reviews and features often playing a part in successful applications. Work that is not reviewed often remains invisible, which leaves the lives and stories of disabled people under-represented on our stages and in our galleries.

But simply adding to the quantity of art made by disabled artists, increasing its visibility and nudging it into the mainstream all counts for nothing if the work is not of the highest quality. It’s often a chicken and egg situation: without a level of consistency and quality, the work will not be programmed, and it won’t achieve those levels unless it is programmed, widely seen and widely discussed and reviewed.

Of course ideas of quality and excellence come freighted with notions of high art, and of exclusivity and elitism. This includes the possibility that to many people, including critics, certain kinds of work inherently carry quality within them. Shakespeare springs to mind. Yet we have all sat through dire revivals of Shakespeare, often produced by fêted and well-funded theatre companies, while the brilliant community show created for or with a community on minimal resources gets no critical attention.

As the disabled artist and activist Paul Darke observed at a debate at the Arena in Wolverhampton last year: “A lot of what we make is crap, but a lot of what they make is crap, but they have the money to make it look good.” Unlimited has offered the resources to make the already good look even better.

The successes of the Unlimited programme and the way over the years it has helped to raise skill levels prove that there is increasingly no need to make any excuses for the work that is commissioned. But that doesn’t mean that critics and cultural commentators will necessarily be flocking and putting disabled-led work at the top of their lists for review. Maybe that’s because there is still a lingering misplaced concern about the purpose of the work, its status as art and the fact that it is made not just by artists, but by disabled artists.

The writer Susan Sontag once observed that while a “work of art may appeal to our sympathy,” it is not always validated “by the worthiness of this appeal.” After all the fact that Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You can make us weep doesn’t necessarily mean it is a great novel or movie. A play may be full of noble sentiment but it doesn’t make it good drama. We might also say that work made by disabled artists is not validated by the fact the artists are disabled but only by the fact that it is made by skilled up, talented, well-resourced artists with the means to express themselves and something urgent to say.

Art is made for many different reasons. Some art may have a social or political function. Some, particularly participatory work, may be the visible manifestation of a much longer process that has been taking place over many weeks, maybe even years. The show is merely the tip of an iceberg, the bulk of which lurks unseen under the water. The value of the project and its quality may reside not just in the final show produced but elsewhere. What was the experience of making the work like for those involved? What impact and legacy has it left? Has it created new possibilities and changed the participants in any way?

Those are all interesting questions and valid ones to ask in any evaluation of the piece. They are exactly the kinds of questions that I might have asked when my children were younger and I went to see them perform with their class-mates in their end of year primary school play. It would be absurd to expect Year Six’s revival of Annie to boast the production values of the National Theatre, the directorial flair of a Katie Mitchell production, or display the acting skills of Andrew Scott. It’s not its function, and so I would expect to receive it in a different way.

But for the mainstream critic reviewing performance in a mainstream publication in a traditional fashion, all these considerations often fall by the wayside. It cannot be reviewed on the basis of the individual achievements of those involved or its social value. It can only be reviewed on what is witnessed and experienced, its aesthetics and whether the piece stands proudly cheek by jowl with other work being made within that art form, on a similar scale and with similar ambition and which sits in similar venues.

To do anything else fails both readers and those making the work. Particularly when the review is likely to come with a star rating, a device which has all the subtlety of a cosh and entirely fails to offer even a glimmer of context. In such situations, good intentions on the part of those commissioning the work are not enough. As Unlimited senior producer, Jo Verrent has observed, the point of Unlimited is not to create “the world’s most expensive ghetto,” it is to generate a body of work that competes on a level playing field with every other piece of art being made in the UK.

Jess Thom put it rather well when, talking at a Sick of the Fringe event at the Wellcome earlier this year about her proposed staging of Not I, she said that “I don’t want to get a pat on the back for being a disabled person performing Beckett,” but rather to explore what her experience of Tourette’s brings to the piece and challenging the assumptions around the cultural curation of classic work questioning who has a right to perform it and see it.

In the past I suspect that critics shied away from writing about the work made by and with disabled artists because they feared that they may end up feeling that they could not be honest about it. This attitude is summed up by dance critic Arlene Croce’s infamous essay entitled Discussing the Undiscussable, published in December 1994 in the New Yorker in which she explains her refusal to review Bill T Jones’ Still/Here, which featured people living, and in some cases dying, from AIDS related illnesses, on the grounds that “I can’t review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about.” Croce went on to label Jones’ piece as “victim art.”

There were glimpses of a similar reaction, in this instance not featuring the sick but the disabled, at the start of a review by Daily Telegraph theatre critic Charles Spencer of On Blindness at Soho Theatre in 2004. He began his review detailing an exchange with his wife on his return home, after she enquired what his evening had been like:

“Ghastly,” I replied, “one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen.”

“What was it about then?” she enquired.

“Love, sex and people with various kinds of disability. There’s a deaf actor, a blind actress and a chap with very little in the way of arms in the cast.”

“Ah,” she said thoughtfully, “so you won’t be able to put the boot in then, will you.”

Both Spencer and Croce’s responses, although separated by a decade, reflect a squeamishness on the part of critics to engage with work that they fear may call upon them to be less than honest about their response.

We cannot legislate for art critics’ own humanity or indeed their willingness to engage with the entire spectrum of human experience, but what the Unlimited programme has done is to create a landscape where anyone who engages with the arts is likely to find themselves with the opportunity to engage and be inspired by disabled-led art. In all its multi-facetted glory, from Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide: The Musical, to Bekki Perriman’s enormously affecting Doorways Project, which places everyone in a position in which they can empathise with the experiences of a homeless person.

It’s this depth and breadth of work that has helped change the way work by disabled artists is seen and received, and critics across many platforms and not just in the mainstream media (maybe least of all in mainstream media) are increasingly part of that process, offering not just validation of individual pieces of art but also creating a dialogue with venues, curators, programmers and audiences about where and in what context disabled-led art is currently seen and where it may yet take root and blossom.

It is often not mainstream critics who are leading that debate but rather bloggers and websites who have the space to write long form and therefore write more thoughtfully, who are unhampered by star ratings, and who are prepared to learn the new vocabularies that much of the Unlimited programme demands. A new vocabulary demanded not because it is art made by disabled artists but because it is art right in the vanguard of 21 Century practice.

 This essay was written by Lyn Gardner in response to our recent “What’s Changed?” publication, which you can read online here.