How can we improve provision for young disabled artists?

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Kate Lovell, co-artistic director at theatre company, Bread and Goose and Agent for Change at Theatre Royal Stratford East was asked to deliver a speech to kick off ‘The Generation Gap’ talk at Unlimited Festival, Southbank Centre on 9 September. This is her provocation in full.

Photograph of a panel discussion

The panel for the Generation Gap which followed Lovell’s speech

I was asked to come and talk about what it means to be a young disabled artist working now and about my current work to make the theatre industry more accessible to disabled people. I was flattered to be asked to talk on a panel about being a young artist, and delighted to get the opportunity to promote Ramps on the Moon, a project I will be talking more about later, but I was also self-conscious. Having just turned 31, am I really still young? Many schemes make being young a realm reserved only for the under 30s at best.

But equally, isn’t it absurd to feel old aged just 31? If things continue in their current state government-wise, I could have another 50 years of working life ahead of me. And it led me to consider an issue I think is alive in the theatre industry as a whole, but is perhaps felt more acutely by disabled people. A lot of potentially career-boosting initiatives are aimed at young people, often under 25s, if you’re lucky, under 30.

For me, I feel there is a difference between being numerically young, and being a young artist. You can be rubbing up against numerical milestones you’d rather ignore, but be youthful in your practice as an artist, and I think you are more likely to find yourself in this position as a disabled artist.

Much of my own early adulthood was spent being unwell, getting wrongly diagnosed, being ill some more, before finally getting to a diagnosis that made some sense, all whilst attempting at getting on with the predicament of being an adult. With the added twist of managing a chronic illness, early adulthood becomes additionally complex and time can easily evaporate.

Many other disabled people can find their early twenties are consumed with finding the means and methods to get their independent adult life underway. It could be said that we are delayed in our artistic careers and endeavours because we have a lot more to negotiate than a non-disabled person trying to do the same things. Not only do we have the idiosyncrasies of our own impairment to contend with, but also we have the barriers and challenges thrown at us in the form of stigma and discrimination to negotiate too.

But I’m not doing disabled people down; I’m not trying to paint a gloomy or pathetic picture. I’m highlighting an observation, that we’re often late bloomers, and I hope that the sometimes youth-obsessed world, which permeates the arts industry, can accommodate that in disabled artists. I think we need to. I believe initiatives need to be aimed at those who are not necessarily numerically young, though they may well be, but those who are at an early stage of their career, and this is especially important for disabled artists.

I have considered and feel it could be true that the challenges and restrictions we face as disabled people do make us more creative, more resourceful, and ultimately, perhaps more exciting artists. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be striving to level out the playing field and pushing for change.  We can still be exciting without all the bonus hurdles and hills to scale. That’s why I myself was excited when I heard about the Ramps on the Moon project, funded by the Arts Council and born out of the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich.

A photograph of Francesca Mills as Maria and Rachel Denning as Dobchinsky. The former is leaning in looking surprised while the latter has her hands on her hips and is laughing.

Ramps on the Moon’s first show, The Government Inspector Photograph: Robert Day.

It’s a six-year initiative, which has big and bold aims to change the theatre industry to ensure that there is equality of opportunity to access the arts for disabled people who want to work in the industry, artists or otherwise, and also for disabled audiences. It also exists to support those who have already been working in the industry, but have hit the proverbial glass ceiling, and seeks not only to boost new disabled talent, but also to pave the way for disabled artistic leaders too.

Six theatres from across the UK have signed up to the project, and Graeae sits as a guiding light for these theatres as a company who has been forging forth on this work for many years already. All theatres have employed an Agent for Change who works within the theatre to support them to improve access for disabled artists, staff and audiences too.

I am the Agent for Change at Theatre Royal Stratford East, based in Stratford East London. I am very happy to be contributing to this project, and also very happy to have a James Bond-cool job title as an added perk of the job. Rest assured, though, we are not secret agents, we want to be visible, and we want to be talking about Ramps on the Moon and its aims anywhere and everywhere we can.

One of the main areas I am considering when I am hoping to improve access to the industry for disabled artists, young and otherwise, is opportunity. My own career as a disabled artist has mostly been populated by creating my own opportunities. I missed out on a lot of schemes aimed at the under 25s, tied up with aforementioned challenges. So I joined a small theatre company as writer, of which I am now co-artistic director.

We’re called Bread and Goose, and started life like many other fringe companies, making work for free, and we progressed onto gaining Arts Council grants, and to date have had a commission as part of London 2012, a Wellcome Trust grant for a national tour of a new work, and support from National Theatre Wales. Things got tough for us at the same time it did for everyone else, but this talk isn’t to dwell on the cuts. They affect all artists, disabled or not.

But there are barriers unique to being a disabled artist that we must address. I spoke to a young disabled artist who had a job offer revoked by a London theatre because they were ignorant of their duty to provide reasonable adjustments to allow them to do the role. The person in question was too anxious about gaining a reputation as troublemaker to pursue this, and that anxiety is understandable.

In an industry as competitive as theatre, it’s hard to ask for what you need, and are in fact legally entitled to. I have found myself too nervous to apply for roles which ask for full time, and sometimes longer, hours of early career directors. I know I won’t be able to maintain wellness and work full time, and the idea of asking for a job share on an already highly competitive scheme feels quite excruciating.

This is why it is so important that Ramps on the Moon can change the landscape so that reasonable adjustments are as normal as Equity minimum pay and being given proper breaks in long working days.

Each year, every theatre signed up to the Ramps on the Moon project will create a large-scale production with a majority disabled cast and creative team, and hopefully backstage team too. This year’s show was The Government Inspector, produced by Birmingham REP which toured across the UK, and next year Ipswich will be producing Tommy, the rock opera, which will also be on tour.

The idea is to have a popular, big-name show that will draw in crowds and allow disabled talent to be showcased. Also, all performances of these shows will be captioned, sign-language interpreted and audio described, often in creative ways. This means that disabled audiences can access any show in a three week run, rather than the usual one, if you’re lucky, and that non-disabled audiences are exposed to access being included as a creative aesthetic to a show.

I hope that Ramps on the Moon can bring out exciting and creative approaches to making the industry more accessible. Opening the doors of the theatre industry wider to embrace a greater diversity of artistic talent enriches and enlivens the landscape for all audiences, and it’s high time for an initiative like this one.

I am keen to meet disabled artists to understand what they need and want from the industry, and audiences too. I’m also eager that we don’t exclude anyone from the conversation and to ensure we are making way for those who manage mental distress, who manage chronic illness, who manage an invisible impairment, who identify as having a learning disability, to be at the heart of these important conversations too.