Disability: a creative advantage?

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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.

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.”

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

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.