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> > > Disability: a creative advantage?

Chaired by critic Lyn Gardner, Dao’s editor Colin Hambrook attended a debate at the Arena Theatre, which was part of a series of conversations hosted by the Guardian. A Nation’s Theatre is a joint initiative, from the newspaper and the Battersea Arts Centre highlighting a showcase of innovative theatre made in the regions to be brought to London this summer.

photo of performer Caroline Bowditch holding a large slice of watermelon

Caroline Bowditch, Falling in Love with Frida.

Speaking from the floor, Bob Findlay-Williams was first to challenge the title of the conversation: “how can oppression be a creative advantage?” How can ‘disability’ as a sign for discrimination be heralded as an artistic platform, except through the lens of a privileged perspective on the Arts. 

If you accept the Social Model of Disability then you’ll understand that ‘disability’ is not an attribute you have. Disability isn’t a condition. It’s a sine for barriers: social, economic and class barriers that limit opportunities for disabled people to realise potential.

Over the course of 90 minutes a panel of representatives from the disability arts sector: Paul Darke, Kinny Gardner, Garry Robson and Jo Verrent got enmeshed in a conversation that attempted to talk about art but got sidetracked by politics. And perhaps that answers the question about why such a dearth of mainstream arts organisations were present. How does disability arts attract producers, directors etc. when art is consistently left out of the equation?

It’s a discussion the movement has been having for many decades. How language reflects oppression is important, of course, but it’s a great shame that a precious opportunity to talk about art and aesthetic is overturned by the central agenda, which to many would appear to be about semantics. 

The panel conveyed passion for some of the innovations that have happened in recent years, but there could have been so much more discussion about ‘theatre’ and the ways that creative access has been pioneering new forms of theatre.

There was talk of Caroline Bowditch’s success as Scottish Dance Theatre's Dance Agent for Change from 2008-2012 when she radically altered perceptions of the narrow fit that defines the body of a dancer. Jo Verrent also went on to talk about Jess Thom’s success in changing attitudes with her tic-driven ‘Touretteshero’. Thom has significantly opened up ideas within the theatre profession about the idea of ‘relaxed performance’ as a creative theatrical language, which brings audience and performer closer. Yet somehow the conversation didn’t go far enough to convey that important step.

Kinny Gardner of Krazy Kat talked about the importance of making children’s theatre accessible and the impact that confers on the expectations of future generations.

Garry Robson as JJ Peachum, King of the Beggars, leads a chorus of policemen in Graeae's touring production of The Threepenny Opera. The policemen pose with their truncheons held high against a stark stage set

Garry Robson on stage as JJ Peachum in Graeae Theatre's touring production of The Threepenny Opera

And Garry Robson talked about the role that theatre can play in changing peoples’ hearts and minds. “Graeae’s Threepenny Opera took flight when the touring production became tied into a campaign to save the ILF. Many of the theatre people we were working with turned out for demonstrations when they realised the impact of the cuts to many of the cast.”

Us old folk within the disability arts sector have known each other a long time now. And we sit inside our little bubble having our own personal class battle. We love the drama of it. But to be honest I’m not sure if it is clever or noble. Our anger doesn’t address how different the landscape is now and the paucity of opportunity open to younger disabled people for whom the doors for receiving theatre training are closing ever more firmly, just when we had got to a point where we thought changes in the law meant drama schools were going to have to address access seriously. 

There was quite a bit of talk about ‘the table’: the pros and cons of speaking to the gatekeepers, those in power, what Mervyn Peake would have called ‘The Holders Of The Purse’.  Tim Wheeler of Mind the Gap came up with a pertinent quote: “You need to be at the table or you’ll find yourself on the menu”, promptly followed by an insistence that disabled people are on the menu; that we are separated by language and experience and as such are subject to assimilation or rejection. 

During the Paralympics we found ourselves at the height of being used in a way that doesn’t correlate with our experience. Quite rightly we are angry with the way that disability arts is being used to dismiss the politics of disability. Lyn Gardner related headlines heralding “disabled as the new able, the new art fashion,” as if being fucked over by society was a trendy thing to aspire to.  

But what we conveniently forget of course is that a few miles across the channel in Europe our conversation, which inevitably ends up as a slanging match aimed at Arts Council England would be ridiculed by the arts intelligentsia. 

There is no precedent in Europe for professional arts practice, which explores the human body in all its diversity. Art that carries a hint of a social agenda simply isn’t considered art. There is no consideration for ‘the audience’ or the idea that your theatre should reflect the demographic of who comes through the door. Art is about a history of form and aesthetic that is the preserve of the artist. End of.

In Europe we would have no place in an artistic landscape, which prides itself on the inalienable rigor of Art for its own sake. The few disability arts organisations that exist there translate as ‘defected’, ‘incapacitated’ or ‘handicapped’. 

My point is that while we are busy biting the hand that feeds, there are more serious conversations that go unheeded. If we want our message about the value and importance of disability art to carry weight then there has to be more rigour applied to the language of art.

Disability doesn’t carry a creative advantage but what it does do is open the doors to original forms of expression, rooted in our experience. In reflecting on the title of the discussion and thinking about the disabled artist who has changed art irrevocably, the first artist who comes to mind is Antonin Artaud, the French disabled artist who lived from 1896 – 1948.

There are few forms within contemporary performing arts that Artaud didn’t have a hand in inventing or influencing in a significant way. Sound Art, Butoh, and many forms of Physical Theatre would not have come into being without Artaud. Like Picasso or Hendrix Artaud shines as the artist who tore up the rule-book and gave the world something new. He scorned theatre’s script-based format and single-handedly created a dramaturgy rooted in the body that is now the basis of all radical contemporary theatre.

And he did that because he was a disabled artist. Artaud made his contribution in the face of rejection and incarceration at every turn of his short life. Yet in 25 years of involvement in disability arts I’ve never heard anyone valuing Artaud’s immense accomplishment from a disability perspective. We don’t seem to know how to value the achievement a disability aesthetic brings to Art. 

And if we’re not careful Disability Arts will go the way of Artaud, rendered by the history books as an anomaly. Artaud is consistently acknowledged by the artists who have come in his wake, Peter Brook being possibly the most notable theatre director to credit the impact of Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ on his own ideas. And the creative advantage and innovation that individual practitioners have brought to theatre will not be forgotten. But the movement that nurtured an attitude that questioned prejudice and discrimination could all too easily get lost in a sea of squabbling.


Colin Hambrook

29 February 2016

To coin Simon Raven’s phrase we have to a significant extent moved into an age of Disability Arts Lite. Medical model stories of individuals and their impairments seem to be prescient within a lot of the ‘disability’ work that is being picked up within the mainstream performing arts arena.

Disability arts is wider, bigger, watered and fettered by ideas of inclusivity. Medical model language is more entrenched than ever and the sense of oppression within is heavier and more insidious. And the ‘whiteness’ of the world disability arts has grown to occupy is as white as it ever was.

In its heyday in the 1990s Disability Arts was 95 per cent white. It was a small world of “white work, for white people, in a white world”. And Sadieei Brown is right. We haven’t moved on from that entrenched position. There is no excuse. A lot of us work very hard to keep plugging identity as a key creative force within the arts but it needs to move beyond personal narrative and it needs to be a far more dynamic force.

Possibly one of the reason’s why we’re continuing to fail to attract a wider and more diverse pool of artists within the sector is because we constantly pull the rug from under ourselves by not talking seriously about the ART. And by allowing ourselves to get embroiled in the same old conversation about funding and being 'special'.

There is a subtle line where a more expansive universal story gets told. It’s everything to do with the integrity of the artist. We need to redress the balance or hand in the towel.

Sadieei Brown

20 February 2016

I was at the event and it was very depressing, in fact so depressing I had a panic attack that night after getting home. There is much of good within this original post and much I agree with in terms of the squabbling and the political vs artistic but the two things that really got me about it were.

1 - It was curated and presented in such a way as to suggest that this is something that mainstream theatre is grappling with, and that is a falsehood. There was no one in that room who was from that area of work, or at least no one who made themselves known, to offer any insight as to what they were actually trying to achieve with the concept of disability as a creative advantage. So that allowed for the in fighting and digressions to happen as they always do. It was good to have Lyn in the room as she is genuine about this stuff and goes to see things and will always put herself in a position where she is viewing something that is way outside her comfort zone. But the debate she was seeking was not allowed to happen, because we love a fight. And as a group were not intelligent enough to take advantage of her in the space and bring to the fore something positive and constructive for all of us. Which leads me to my second point.

2 - The comments so far have done nothing except prove my long felt opinion that this is white work, for white people, in a white world. There is little to nothing in what we now calling disability theatre (to appease the so called oppressor) because unless there is a label you can't exclude those who you want to. As far as I am concerned the people who collude and pretend that this is 'happening to me' are liers. They maintain the oppression by seeking to create structures that work for them and that will allow the ladder to be pulled up behind them. Usually non-disabled people who have discovered disability theatre in tow, to add validity to their claims.

The session was a real wasted opportunity, but the Lyn Gardner door is an open one I intend to push on very hard and to extend the conversation into a real one about ART and practice and creating work as a disabled person. Which is an identity not a label to gain an advantage with.

Simon Raven

19 February 2016

I agree with Danny's point - it is important that the subversive potential of Disability Art is not co-opted by attempts to appease the mainstream. Otherwise there is a danger of promoting 'Disability Art Lite', which might offer an appearance of inclusivity whilst offering no formal or conceptual challenge to divisive mainstream art/politics.

It's important to resist a neoliberal 'politics of the individual' (Blair). There is beauty in the type of collective action and artistic activity that the social model promotes. This need not be at the expense of a critically engaged and nuanced aesthetic.

Danny Braverman

18 February 2016

I'm sorry I couldn't be at the event, but it obviously threw up some intense debate.

Hasn't emancipatory art always had to embrace the contradiction that its power emanates from oppression? It seems to me that the debate might well highlight the flaws in "social model" analysis. Perhaps the idea of an "affirmative model", as described by Swain and French, might be a more useful starting point?

In terms of current practice, there seem to be two areas that need addressing. Firstly, economics. As Owen Kelly once memorably said, "being a cultural revolutionary salaried by the state is a contradiction in terms". In days like these, where disabled people are generally becoming poorer, the supplicant relationship with state funding is bound to become increasingly compromising to disabled artists' integrity. Secondly, and of course related to this, the interest of the mainstream - the table in the metaphor - is problematic. It seems to me that the mainstream is interested more in form than content (although of course it's crude to separate the two). I'm not advocating for a stream of agitprop, but a recognition of the political context affecting our communities. Austerity and neo-conservative economics are devastating communities beyond the walls of the theatre and disabled people are the most severely affected. I'd be interested to see if projects such as Unlimited and Ramps end up, arguably like Paralympic sport, providing a PR job for a state that claims to support disabled people, when we are in effect paying for the privatisation of the state. I don't think this is easily solvable - resources are needed to make work and state funding streams are in some ways, for some, low-hanging fruit. I would suggest that the disability arts movement needs to start by acknowledging its own contradictions and to challenge the gatekeepers (some of whom may be disabled themselves, of course) to put disabled people's experiences of Cameron's Britain front and centre in some of the work. Graeae's 'Threepenny Opera' was a triumph in this respect - but it should be used as a call to arms to inspire other politically-engaged work that raises the debate about the state we're in.

Tim Wheeler

17 February 2016

I think some people arrived at the event already stoked up, seeking only to confirm their pre-exisiting bias. It's a real shame that there is still such small-world thinking in the disability arts sector. It's... disabling. I understand why some find the idea of disability as an advantage offensive, but no art really concerns me unless it subverts me. Makes me think, think twice. I remember speaking at an event ten years ago in Serbia to a room full of defectologists - that's what social workers were called there then. I remember being simultaneously offended and intrigued. To be clear, I am no longer "of Mind the Gap". In a sense Mind the Gap was "of" a younger, more optimistic me. I think the debate is shifting focus, with Ramps on the Moon, Unlimited, the Creative Case, we need to be more sophisticated (less shouty) or else we will, as Colin says, become just a passing anomaly. There is too much beauty to reflect in our experience to allow that to happen.