British Council Showcase at Edinburgh Festival: Neil Webb

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The British Council Theatre and Dance team are currently busy working on their tenth showcase since 1997 at the Edinburgh Festival. Colin Hambrook spoke to Neil Webb Director of Theatre and Dance about the outcomes British Council are hoping for as a result of the showcase and the broader spectrum of their disability arts work across the globe.

A photograph of Jess Thom and co-performer Jess Mabel Jones. The former has a superhero costume on, the latter has her hands under her chin and is smiling.

Touretteshero takes Backstage in Biscuit Land to the Edinburgh showcase. Image © Jonathan Birch

From nearly 250 applications British Council have selected a programme of 30 companies to showcase a snapshot of the diverse work currently being created in the UK, including devised, visual and physical theatre; new writing; live art and installation; interactive and immersive theatre; and dance theatre.

The programme will be presented to a delegation of visiting international programmers so that a new global audience can experience British performances. The British Council’s role is to create connections between artists in the UK and overseas, supporting touring opportunities and collaborations between artists here and abroad, so Edinburgh is an ideal platform to bring programmers, producers and artists to see work.

Neil Webb says:

“The Edinburgh showcase is very different from a platform like Unlimited. So work has not been selected because of its relationship to disability. Disability arts isn’t presented in parallel at the showcase, but rather forms part of the core programme of the festival.

“It just so happens that we are lucky to have a significant number of artists who’ve emerged from the disability arts sector who are making excellent work. As a result we’ve had more applicants from the disability sector this year: so Touretteshero, Caroline Bowditch, Claire Cunningham, Fittings, Paines Plough and Ramesh Meyyappan have all been selected. In fact this year we had more applicants than ever before – and it was all really strong work.”

“Delegates from anywhere up to 70 countries attend on any showcase year. This year the largest delegations are from Australia, China, Chile, Georgia, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, Turkey and USA, with a large delegation from across countries in East Asia. Generally they come looking for work they can either programme in their festivals, or artists whose work can be adapted or made afresh.”

“There are many reasons, principally to do with language or access that work needs to be recreated to be presented for a foreign audience – especially with less traditional work. What’s interesting is nearly all of our regions have disability arts as one of their key areas of work. So many partners we’re working with will be looking specifically to programme disability artists in one way shape or form.”

“It does vary from country to country as to how much disability awareness there is and what the access issues might be. So for example we programmed a specific Disability arts festival in Qatar in 2013. It was important that the festival was disability-specific because it was a first for Qatar in terms of engaging with disabled artists. In other places where there is more awareness of disability we are more likely to be programming a piece of work without any particular focus on disability issues. But the Arts and Disability Festival, delivered in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Arts & Heritage in Qatar was one of many projects spurred by 2012 and the Unlimited Festival, which marked a real step-change.”

“Listening to Rebecca Dawson, (Executive Director, Candoco) talking the other day it can start with basics like ‘can the actors get to the dressing room?’ ‘Can the actors get from the dressing room to the stage?’ Even in parts of the world where they’ve worked out how to make the auditorium accessible its often the case that there is little access or awareness around working with disabled performers. When you pick apart the societal issues, the religious issues and linguistic issues it soon becomes very complex.”

“What is amazing to me is the impact disability performance can have on society starting from the fact that it can bring about a very basic awareness. Often people who’ve never had contact with disabled people are brought face to face with individuals and so begin a conversation about what that means.  It varies from place to place but in cities and cultures that have previously had no exposure to disability arts it can soon becomes a catalyst for change with a knock on effect in terms of thinking about human rights and making changes in policy.”

“For the artists they don’t always want to be the crusader for disability rights or they may say they don’t want to go specifically to put the disability agenda at the forefront. But equally sometimes opportunities present themselves and grow into something bigger. So for instance Jenny Sealey from Graeae has been working in Bangladesh with a local company for two years developing the first integrated theatre company, who are working towards a production in 2016.”

“Jenny was invited to Bangladesh to meet Bachchu Yousuff who is a director of national and international repute who wants to do Shakespeare on the Dhaka National Theatre stage – and he wants an inclusive cast. At the moment actor training for disabled people is non-existent and there is very little inclusive practice. So starting with several visits and workshops the programme is building into something very exciting. We’ve had recent troubles with Access to Work provision but are doing what we can to support Jenny to ensure this work goes ahead.”

“Currently we have over 200 delegates booked on the Edinburgh showcase. At the moment it looks like the majority of those delegates are new to disability work with the British Council, so we can’t predict what specific results we’ll get from the prgramme. The outcomes will develop very much on a country by country basis.”

“However, in terms of current developments,  Japan are working towards an Olympics in 2020 and an Unlimited-type festival has been written into their bid. Our partners there have been looking to the UK for advice, support and content for producing the festival. Unlimited Producer Jo Verrent and British Council, Theatre and Dance Programme Manager, Carole McFadden have been to visit.  So opportunities there may well arise for our disability arts companies presenting in Edinburgh.”

Brief summary of British Council Disability Arts Work 2012-2014

image of a man with a distressed face holding arms up

Ramesh Meyyappan takes ‘Butterfly’ to the Edinburgh Showcase. Image Credit Ross Gilmore

In 2012 British Council created an international showcasing opportunity around the first Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre. They invited 50 international promoters/programmers who came from all corners of the globe – from Australia to the Middle East to Brazil.

For many of their overseas partners, attending the Unlimited Festival was a truly transformational moment, and the outcomes have been numerous and far-reaching, including:

  • Festivals and tours in Qatar, Brazil, South Africa, India and Barcelona with Graeae Theatre Company, Marc Brew, Claire Cunningham, Rachel Gadsden, Chris Tally Evans, Joel Simon, Sue Austin, Mat Fraser, Ramesh Meyyappan, Snails & Ketchup and Robert Softley
  • Performance by Stopgap Dance Company at the Sochi Winter Paralympic Games cultural programme, and 6ème Festival Culturel International de la Danse Contemporaine, Algeria winning second prize
  • On-going disability awareness and access training with Brazil for the Cultural Olympiads in Rio 2016
  • Candoco tour to Armenia, Georgia, Albania, Turkey, Croatia, Palestine, Jordan and Vietnam
  • Unlimited: Making the Right Moves in Armenia – a three year programme with Candoco to establish the first inclusive Theatre and Dance Company in Armenia by 2015
  • Jenny Sealey (of Graeae Theatre Company) and Jeni Draper 3-year exchange with Dhaka Theatre, Bangladesh to create the first integrated theatre company & performance
  • Graeae Theatre Company developing a new three year theatre education programme with schools and arts organisations, including Ida Rieu, in Pakistan
  • Unlimited Access EU – a two-year EU funded project working with partners in the UK, Portugal, Greece and Croatia to develop disability awareness and access, foster collaborations and identify high quality work for programming. Looking to widen scope Europe
  • Jo Verrent delivered workshops for the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority in Hong Kong for programmers and staff
  • Shape delivered Access training in Brazil for Rio 2016
  • Jo Verrent and Caroline Bowditch both spoke at the Arts Activated Conference in Sydney in October 2014
  • An extensive mapping and web project: www.disabilityartsinternational.org