Cuts to disability arts: is this strategic thinking in Scotland?

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Last week Creative Scotland announced the results from their highly competitive process to select the next members of their Regular Funding Network – the arts organisations championed with delivering their key aims and selected to demonstrate ‘creative excellence, potential and ambition, with significant reach throughout Scotland, and internationally.’ Where is the thinking behind this funding decision, asks Jo Verrent, especially as three disability companies who have been cut, are seen internationally as examples of excellence in their fields.

Photo of two actors dressed in white face paint, staged in a theatre dressing-room

L to R Garry Robson and Kinny Gardner. Birds of Paradise and Tron Theatre present Blanche and Butch by Robert Softley Gale. Credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Surprisingly for many in the disability sector, three key disability related companies were not on the list – Birds of Paradise, Janice Parker Projects and Lung Ha Theatre Company – and it’s certainly kicking up a storm with articles in the Scottish press, media, and an open letter calling for the decisions to be overturned signed by theatre, arts and TV stars along with many others.

Possibly the only disabled led arts company in Scotland, Birds of Paradise create edgy, intersectional work that is ground breaking. They gained support from Unlimited to tour the incredible Wendy Hoose, which after transferring to London, only stopped touring when its lead actress got a role on Hollyoaks (and brilliant, feisty actresses with no legs aren’t that easy to replace).

Actors James Young and Amy Conachan in 'Wendy Hoose', they are lying on a bed with a projection behind them

James Young and Amy Conachan star in ‘Wendy Hoose’. Image © Eamonn McGoldrick

They rewrote the rule book with Purposeless Movements, with a fantastic twist turning the whole ‘cripping up’ narrative on its head in possibly the rawest and bravest piece of writing I’ve ever seen on a stage. And they’ve reached out to younger audiences with The Tin Soldier getting a raft of 4 star reviews and consistently providing access for all audiences across all of these and more with integrated BSL, captions and audio description in a way that is envied and emulated around the world.

Janice Parker Projects is also groundbreaking, for example, the Unlimited supported Private Dancer in 2012, Glory in 2014 and last year’s 1973 Archiving the Live amongst others. In a quieter way this work has also lead to huge shifts in the way inclusive practice is delivered and framed around the world.

And, Lung Ha’s have also long been seen as an exemplar for theatre involving learning disabled artists in a full professional frame (with both, for example, Un Petit Moliere and Antigone).

I used to feel Scotland was ahead of the curve in relation to its support of disabled artists, companies and indeed the needs of the sector as a whole. Scotland led the way in the development of the Agent for Change model with the inspired appointment of Caroline Bowditch as part of Scottish Dance Theatre, a model readily taken up in England within Ramps on the Moon and also part of the roots underpinning Arts Council England’s Changemakers programme.

Scotland leads the world with its innovative degree in performance making for deaf artists able to work in their own language but with the cuts as they stand, one has to wonder where the wider employment opportunities for successful graduates might be found?

Back in 2012 the Pathways to the Profession Symposium in Dundee pushed the need for coherent pathways to employment and since then, really only the companies above have made that a reality. Change is a slow process, and if it’s not coming fast enough, perhaps the issues lie in the lack of acceptance of disabled artists within the mainstream rather than the impact of the companies who are actually doing it and making a difference?

There is talk of a new Touring Fund – but as yet no details. However, if there are fewer disability-focussed theatre companies, it’s fairly obvious there will be less product to tour. And audiences too – the BSL National Plan for Scotland has strong priorities for culture and arts, so while there may be some plans for developing deaf audiences and extending Sign Language Interpretation in theatre, I’m not sure if there are plans for a strategic push for wider disabled audiences, one area where surely these companies have considerable strengths?

Of course, with any funding decisions there is much below the surface that those of us on the outside don’t know and can’t see. But if there were issues with these companies, then surely as a development agency Creative Scotland could have supported them to deliver better?

Through the work of these companies, Scotland has led the way for inclusive practice, innovative access delivery, and put intersectional narratives on a world stage. If that’s not demonstrating ‘creative excellence, potential and ambition, with significant reach throughout Scotland, and internationally’ then I’m not sure what is – and what’s out there that’s going to replace it?

I can only raise a glass in solidarity from where I sit in England and look forward to see more details than provided in the Equality Analysis. That might give us more of a clue as to why these decisions have been taken and what might happen next.