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> > > Interview: What impact did Unlimited and the Unlimited Festival have on the commissioned artists?
Three on a bike from the Box of Frogs performance Steve Eggleton 2012

Three on a bike from Box of Frogs

Image: Steve Eggleton 2012

What impact did Unlimited and the Unlimited Festival have on the commissioned artists? Nina Muehlemann has interviewed 10 of the artists for DAO to find out.

The artists interviewed were: Graeae’s artistic director Jenny Sealy and executive director Judith Kilvington, Stumble danceCircus’ Mish Weaver, Simon Allen, Fittings Multimedia Art’s Garry Robson, Ramesh Meyyappan, Claire Cunningham, Sue Austin, Rachel Gadsden, Simon McKeown and Kaite O’Reilly.

What did it mean to you to be part of Unlimited?

Graeae: Being part of Unlimited was extremely important, as we were part of an artistic body of work, which was a Deaf and disabled led festival. The buzz of creativity and inclusion at Southbank Centre was extraordinary and exciting.

Mish Weaver: It meant that I knew that I would be able to make the show well in advance and that I would be able to tour.  It meant performances at the Southbank Centre which is a big deal for a small performance company such as mine (I am a sole trader). It meant being labelled as disabled for the first time in my career, through my declaring my bipolar disorder, which felt both personal and political.

Simon Allen: This was an enormous amount of original work, made available for a wide audience. Whilst it goes without saying that as artists, we have benefitted greatly from this wider exposure and opportunity to create work that is for many of us, on a larger scale than usual, it is also notable that the whole festival, like the Paralympics, has a function of sensitizing audience to a wider variety of artistic voices. Apart from enjoying the artistic output, visitors to Unlimited leave with a heightened awareness of many other issues of access and communication.

Fittings Multimedia: Unlimited allowed us to dream. For a long time I'd wanted to make an immersive show for a small audience but based upon a new script. It was an experiment and could never guarantee a decent box office return because of the mismatch between the scale of the performance and the limited box office receipts. The Unlimited commission allowed me to realise this dream.

Ramesh Meyyappan: For quite a while I’ve been aware of and sensed frustration about the way deaf and disabled art is pigeonholed – there is a battle for the work to be seen on mainstream stages and by audiences.  Unlimited provided that platform and ensured that the quality of the work that audiences saw was absolutely comparable with ‘mainstream’ work and therefore challenged any misconceptions about our work. I feel very positive about the experience.

Claire Cunningham: it was important to have my work considered by a peer group of other disabled artists - on the panel, and also to have it then considered worthy of support in relation to the quantity and quality of other applications. It gave me a specific reason and launching off point to take a huge leap artistically in terms of creative ideas, physical scale, size of project and partnership.

Sue Austin: It was so much work, leading up to applying for this, probably the most work I’ve ever done for anything, so when we got the phone call to say the application had been accepted, it was the most amazing feeling of elation.

Rachel Gadsden: The Unlimited awards represented a commission of a lifetime for me, an opportunity to reach beyond and explore new creative territories, where the chance to build international collaborations and relationships underpinned the motivation of the artistic creativity.

Simon McKeown: I enjoy every exhibition of my work as they are all different and unique however exhibiting in London at the south bank was of course extremely special. London is one of my favourite cities and to show work, and in to the context of 2012, at such as prestigious and busy location as the Southbank Centre and Jubilee Gardens was amazing.

Kaite O’Reilly: I think it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to have that breadth of deaf and disabled artists’ work seen on that platform, on such a high profile.

What were your expectations for Unlimited? Did you have any concerns in advance?

Graeae: It was really important that there was a range of work profiling the skills of disabled artists from across the UK and that Unlimited showed the wealth of talent available. Our concern from the start was that the industry would see this as a one-off event and that the relationships established between producers and disabled artists wouldn’t be sustainable.

Mish Weaver: I was generally pretty terrified of the huge amount of rules and regulations.  I was also encouraged to have huge expectations of what Unlimited might do for me as an artist and Stumble as a company but I didn't really engage my faith in these fully and was therefore so not so disappointed when a lot of the promises didn't come off. I was scared of being branded disability arts, having been working in the arts for 20 odd years without such a label it was an interesting dialectic to take on. 

I was also scared of negative reactions to my going public about manic depression and the effect that may have on my immediate family.  I was scared of the effect of so much pressure on my mental health but I did put a lot of mechanisms in place to safeguard this as much as I could.

Simon Allen: The concerns were many but all pertinent to any artist and no different within the Unlimited arena. Fundamentally, it is always true to say that once you have established your team of collaborators and have made your work; each subsequent relationship with the outside world that is needed to bring a performance to the stage, is a leap of faith that reduces efficiency and control.

Fittings Multimedia: I expected it to be bloody hard work, and it was. Creating a satisfying experience for everyone in this sort of work is always a concern. Theatre is always intangible, ephemeral. Immersive work is even more so. You’re infecting people’s dreams.

Ramesh Meyyappan: I expected that being part of Unlimited there would have been good exposure, particularly during the time of the Festival in London. 

Claire Cunningham: I had expected the work to be supported in terms of touring far more, in terms of helping getting work staged. This element of the project was unfortunately not that well planned and it left artists really struggling to get their work staged in 2012. In contrast I had expected at the Southbank to find the work somewhat sidelined or given low profile, but was genuinely impressed by how well the work was promoted and branded.

I was concerned that by taking a huge leap into making such large scale work - without working your way up over the years to making work on that scale - you miss out all the learning required of how to do it. Which is true, and without the huge amount of support I had around me - from my Co-Director Gail Sneddon to all the staff at the National Theatre of Scotland and its specific resources it would not have been possible.

The other fear - which still exists - was making this large work and then being left unable to stage or tour it in future - as we do not have the 'fame' or 'reputation' to get us into the big venues the work needs to play in.

Sue Austin: The information and programme I got from Unlimited seemed very well structured, so that was very reassuring, it felt very good right from the start. I had opportunity to familiarize myself with many of the people who worked on the Unlimited, so the project seemed much more achievable, and right from the beginning everyone was incredibly supportive. It felt like a new wave, a new perspective on art that was created from a perspective of diversity.

Rachel Gadsden: Working with a huge team of collaborators is a bit of an undertaking, and the process of facilitating everyone’s artistic expectations was at times quite a feast, but as each stage of the commission unravelled the jigsaw came together and I have been overwhelmed by the artistic generosity of everyone that contributed.

Simon McKeown: I was somewhat concerened that the event would be poorly supported, planned, and delivered. Fortunately this was not at all the case. I hoped for an exciting, happy event, which attracted viewers and interest.  I think the South Bank Centre achieved that and presented the work professionally with due care and attention fantastically.

Kaite O’Reilly: I didn’t have any. The production was happening anyway, and it had already been on a national platform, the National Theatre Wales, it was a project I had been building on for four years, so perhaps I am in a slightly different situation to other artists. I am very grateful, and I think it enabled something for me, but I don’t think it had the same impact on me that it had on some of the other artists, who perhaps have never been working on a national platform before.

How did you feel about the media coverage you got, for Unlimited and generally for your work during that time?

Graeae: It’s interesting that the Evening Standard Awards have just recognised the extraordinary moment which launched the 2012 Games with an award for Danny Boyle and his creative team but have omitted any reference to the equally powerful Paralympic Opening Ceremony. We still have a long way to go to achieve a level playing field in the eyes of the press and public.

Mish Weaver: It was largely okay. Mostly a bit lazy! It was intrusive and exhausting talking about my personal story so much but it was definitely a means to an end and I have been incredibly fortunate to have done lots of well attended shows, received industry review and toured the country, minimally but successfully. 

Simon Allen: Do you mean the blanket publicity? This functioned well enough for my show to sell out, and for the South Bank Centre, footfall was very high. However the appearance of the printed publicity was all about branding and cohesion with the design of the whole Olympic package. Artistically it could have been much more creative!

Fittings Multimedia: Excellent In Liverpool but other than that pretty moderate.

Ramesh Meyyappan: It was mixed actually – mostly positive.
Claire Cunningham: we were in a difficult situation as we had to open our show in Scotland at the same time as the Edinburgh Fringe was playing - which meant getting ANY media coverage was difficult but we did get some and we were very happy with the response.

Sue Austin: However people react to my work, the key is to get the concept out there. The way people wrote about me and the wheelchair revealed a lot about their understanding of disability. Overall, it’s given me a great deal of insight on how the media works and how that could be incorporated consciously into an arts practice.

Rachel Gadsden: I was ultimately pleased with the media coverage. Being selected as one of the 21 events you shouldn’t miss in Huffington Post’s guide to the Cultural Olympiad and Luke Jenning’s article for the Guardian/Observer were possible highlights for me. 

Simon McKeown: I would have like the overall event to have more, and in particular less peculiar reports. I know the BBC for instance covered the exhibition with the strapline 'Art Therapy'. For instance, the Culture Show and relevant newspapers with art sections and art journals should have covered the event in some detail. I am not sure this happened.

Kaite O’Reilly: It’s improving, but it’s still looking for the soap opera story. It’s all about ‘what’s wrong with you then’, or finding the supercrip, and I’m not interested in that. It was different from some of the critics – if you have a critic from the mainstream who does not even know what disability is, who is going to write immediately from a viewpoint of the medical model of disability, how much attention are you going to pay to that anyway? Nowadays, online, everyone can review – if someone is coming from a nondisabled point of view, maybe that’s less important than someone’s review, like Tom’s from DAO, that comes completely from within a disability context.

How did you feel about the audience of Unlimited?

Graeae: The audiences at the Southbank Centre were fantastic. The area is now such a focal point for outdoor socialising and entertainment and The Garden drew in audiences, who I suspect, would never have seen a Graeae show before. It was very good to see the diversity of the audience – young and old, disabled and non-disabled – and to know that because it was a free and unticketed event, with sign language and audio description provided at every performance, this really was providing theatre for everyone.

Mish Weaver: I felt the audience was good.  Warm, intelligent and mixed.  It made quite an impact on me to be able to perform to such a wide demographic.

Simon Allen: Delighted. The audience feedback for my own work form all quarters and ages is far more voluble and varied than I expected. For Unlimited in general, this is a direct result of the originality of the Unlimited commissions and the sheer plurality of the programming.

Fittings Multimedia: The Unlimited Festival at The Southbank was a joy to be part of and there was a real festival buzz in the air.

Ramesh Meyyappan: In London the audience was fantastic – lots of questions at Southbank after the performance, I enjoyed this as it was great to engage with audiences at this level and get feedback that was instant and not over thought-through – just honest and open dialogue!  I loved the audiences at the Esplanade in Singapore, a real mainstream audience who also responded positively to the work.

Audiences in Edinburgh during the festival were tough, in the sense it was tough to get audiences to fill such a big space. This was a little soul destroying for a while and I had to pick myself up after this and not take it so personally. Edinburgh is always a massive risk – but I survived!

Claire Cunningham: there is always a risk when you are telling a personal story that you alienate an audience, but i am always aware, and trying to make work which - although personal  - does leave enough space for people to identify with the themes themselves, and that seems to have worked here too.

One of Gail’s and mine main intentions was to merge the different elements of the work as one organic whole - the choreography, the projection/video, the music the text, etc. We constantly got feedback from people that this had been an overwhelming aspect of the show for them - the synergy of the work and the balancing of all the elements. that is immensely satisfying.

Sue Austin: The audience’s responses I got prove that practice can transform preconception. Watching people sitting down in front of the projection at the Southbank Centre’s Clore Ballroom, and children running around in front of it, was amazing – people treated it exactly like I had envisioned it, like an aquarium, and then a wheelchair would appear.

Rachel Gadsden: Everywhere the commission went, it was the most incredibly empowering experience for both myself and the Bambanani Group to see how audiences engaged with such positive enthusiasm to our commission.

Simon McKeown: Great. I loved presenting a large scale sculpture in this environment. Large crowds were able to see my work and I was thrilled by this and witness their interaction with my work.

Kaite O’Reilly: We had an incredible response from the audience. Whether it was a disabled audience or a nondisabled audience, I don’t think I heard a bad word.

Did Unlimited have an impact on your career and if so, what kind of impact?

Graeae: It is the first time that any Olympic Games has placed such value and committed funds to the work of Deaf and disabled artists. It’s really important that it doesn’t end here. It is good to see that a programme is already in place to take Unlimited from London to Rio but we need to see the impact locally and nationally as well.

For Graeae the performances at the Southbank Centre have brought a new collaboration with the Southbank Centre which has already led to us producing a new show by the Rhinestone Rollers, Sequins and Snowballs, at the Clore Ballroom on 15 December. We have also been approached by British Councils in Brazil and Qatar to take The Garden out on an international tour.

Mish Weaver: I really don't know. The fact that I got to make and tour Box of Frogs has obviously helped my profile, but at the same time I directed a show for another company which has received glowing industry review and that seems to be raising my reputaion as a director a bit more as with that show I am not being judged as part of massively hyped Olympic project, rather at face value.

Simon Allen: This commission for Unlimited will affect every piece I make in future. It has allowed me to exercise far greater breadth of vision than usual and to discover just how enabling and enjoyable the role of Director added to that of composer can be. The impact of this experience will continue to resonate through my work as far as I can imagine.

Fittings Multimedia: It reinforced for me the belief that to make great art needs time, craft and inspiration and is not achieved by ambulance chasing.

Ramesh Meyyappan: Certainly engaging with the process for so long – lots of new disciplines were developed – not just my performance skills but also the way that I work with larger production teams. I think it has raised my profile in Scotland and possibly in some other areas of the UK – this is a positive as there are more possibilities to work with a wider range of people in the future.

Claire Cunningham: I think being part of Unlimited has created opportunities for me in in various ways, such as building a strong relationship with Candoco Dance company which then led to creating a link for me with the Dance Umbrella festival which continues to develop, and also therefore with the Southbank with whom I am enjoying developing another partnership.

In terms of my profile, much as I do rail against the London-centricity of the arts world, it has given me a way to get more work staged there and so develop a better profile in London.

Sue Austin: It’s just the most amazing experience, and it had a profound impact. Particularly, the level of coverage I had, and the projection at the Southbank. It’s been so well received, it just gives me a sense of confidence in the work and a feeling that I must be doing something right.

Rachel Gadsden: It has most definitely impacted on my career, a couple of amazing future opportunities are emerging, but apart for anything else, the Commission really was everything I hoped it would be.

Simon McKeown: That is not known yet. We will know when approaches to exhibit and commissions are returned. Hopefully the strength of the Unlimited festival will have some effect.

Kaite O’Reilly: Not on mine, no. I’ve worked on national platforms, I had work shown at the Southbank Centre, and the relationships and connections for this project existed already.

What are your future plans?

Graeae: We are looking at developing a new show with GDIF for summer 2013 which builds on the training with Circus Space and partnerships developed between Jenny, Bradley Hemmings (of GDIF who co-directed the POC with Jenny) and their team over the summer. We are also developing a new script by Sophie Woolley, with Theatre Royal Plymouth. And then there are plans to take Graeae internationally…

Mish Weaver: I have applied to the Arts Council to research and develop and idea for an outdoor show called Parade of Horribles. I very much want to tour Box of Frogs again as the positive response I am getting from within the mental health sector, especially individual users makes me feel that it is work that should be seen and discussed. However the touring climate is grim to say the least. I am going to try as hard as I can, and am exploring all avenues of support that I can.

Simon Allen: To repeat the work on tour around the UK, hoping to reach both across the North and the South West. Also I feel propelled to continue in similar vein, with lager scale projects than in the past and to expand my research into the combination of audio and visual elements further.

Fittings Multimedia: To keep making great art for everyone.

Ramesh Meyyappan: Certainly to continue to develop my own work. However, it looks as though 2013 will be busy and I’m not so sure if I will get the same luxury of time to create my own work.

Claire Cunningham: future plans are the beginnings of a new work, entitled pink mist, based on the study of landmines which will see me take a research trip to Cambodia in January. Ménage à Trois will hopefully return to London in March for the Women of the World Festival - for which I have also been asked to be Artist in Residence, and then a possible tour of the show to the Middle East and through Europe in the summer.

Sue Austin: I literally get enquiries from all over the world from people who want to play the film. I am also in negotiations with the world’s second largest aquarium in Istanbul, Turkey, to perform there. Unlimited really has shown me that it is good to dream!

Rachel Gadsden: my creative journey is moving forward and I hope to continue to develop further UK and International artistic relationships and to create new artworks that explore issues about the human condition that reflect the experiences of both disabled and none disabled people.

Simon McKeown: My immediate plans involve catching up with normal life! My artistic plans involve building on the success of 2012, approaching galleries and developing new commissions and completing an existing project entitled Faces.

Kaite O’Reilly: I know what I’m doing until 2015. Most of my projects were in place well before Unlimited, I think that is just to do with the point I am at in my career. I really hope that doors will be opened, and minds will be opened, because we have such amazing artists within our community.