Lisette Auton & Vici Wreford-Sinnott in conversation: Is Emerging Even a Thing?

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Guest Editor, Lisette Auton had an encounter with Vici Wreford-Sinnott in her role as Creative Lead on Little Cog’s Cultural Shift programme at ARC, which opened her eyes to the world of disability arts. Here was a stalwart, a doyen if you may of the movement, passing on words of wisdom. But that evolved into friendship, leopard print wearing, tea stealing and a realisation that never mind emerging, we’re both evolving and we’re supporting each other throughout. In a break with the norm, this interview to round up Auton’s Guest Editorship, becomes an ‘in conversation with’, where the whole issue of emergence is turned on its head and becomes one of evolution. Pour yourself a cuppa, crack open the biscuits and get comfy for a long read.

4 people

Vici and Lisette working together on ‘Occupation’ by Pauline Heath. Photo credit Black Robin

LISETTE: So Vici, key question for the editorship, what does the phrase emerging artist mean to you? Would you count yourself as emerging?

VICI: Emerging is one of those terms which has come to have multiple meanings depending on who you are I think. On the face of it, it could seem to describe a newly graduated artist striking out at an early stage in their career, ready to rise to all the challenges presented by a sustainable career in the arts.. It sounds exciting and progressive in that context. However, context is everything, and so if emerging as a term means a stage prior to progressing to the next level, then that begins to mean passing a ‘test’ of some sort – a graduation from one level of success to another. And if you’re an artist who hasn’t come through either a traditional route of arts training (i.e. art college or drama school), or has a career path which is meaningfully and genuinely accessible to you with equal status to all other artists, then does that mean that some artists get stuck at a particular stage of progression which is hugely challenging to shift?

LISETTE: I think it’s not just about getting stuck, it’s even unravelling that a bit further back, how do you even know that you’re stuck if you don’t know what possibilities are out there and available to you? How do we know that we can emerge, that there’s something else out there, if it doesn’t feel like there are many people leading the way or showing how it can be done. I was lucky that I found you.

VICI: I don’t know when emerging ends for us – it should be a transitional phase from one to another but quite what ‘another’ is, is sometimes unclear. More recognition? Being reviewed, programmed, invited, sought out? And despite always having development plans in place, I am constantly negotiating where I fit, partly because I have always felt ‘othered’ by the mainstream. I think that as a whole sector we are viewed as an emerging sector, save for a few heroes who make it a little closer towards the glass ceiling. If that tiny handful of heroes are celebrated and visible there is an illusion that the ‘disability question’ has been solved.

You work in the mainstream, how accessible have you found those opportunities? Do they ‘get’ that they need to meet your access requirements? Is it easy to ask for them to be met?

LISETTE: My experience is limited in the mainstream, but for example, with my work at MIMA, I’ve found a place that’s hungry to socially engage, to learn and evolve. I found it hard to ask at first, I didn’t want to stand out, to give cause to highlight something that may mean that they’d work with someone else who was ‘easier’. I mean, it could have spectacularly backfired, and I know how discrimination can be subtle and then all of a sudden the work dries up… But in this case it has been a nourishing experience, one where I’ve learned ‘how’ not to ask, but state what I need and MIMA has listened, applied and then will go on to apply that in future too. It’s been a massive learning curve for me, to realise that it won’t happen unless I ask, and to gain the confidence to do so.

As an emerging/evolving/let’s make a new word artist I’m struggling to find balance – with activism, paying the bills, creating new work. How on earth do you do it?

Seven people in a line

Disability Arts Family at International DaDaFest 2018 – Photo credit Kaite O’Reilly

VICI: This is really hard. Almost impossible in fact. Being a disabled person is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, not just in working hours. We don’t switch it off with the lights as we leave the office. It’s hard because it’s our identities on the line, our status as human beings in question, and our validity as artists and cultural leaders scrutinised in ways non-disabled people are not. When I first trained as a theatre director my plan was to make stunning, breath-taking, beautiful political theatre. Making work to change the world, to win hearts and minds.

LISETTE: Yes! Sorry, please continue, got a bit excited…

VICI: I’d done really well in my directing specialism and left my course to set up my first theatre company. It soon became apparent that there was a secret code that I didn’t have access to, and the theatre world was a complete mystery to me. I had to also become an activist to ensure the world in which I wanted to create work was accessible and welcoming. I worked with really exciting and we all shared similar experiences of either direct exclusion based on assumptions about our capacity as disabled people to make professional and relevant art, or a lack of accessibility to arts buildings, to key decision makers, and most importantly to information about how to navigate the arts. So I have straddled two worlds for a significant part of my career  – that of Chief Executive of both national and regional disabled-led development organisations promoting disability equality at all levels in the arts. If this strategic work isn’t done, the progress we want to make, the equality we want to achieve just isn’t going to happen. It is systemic. And of course to know this and to hold solutions to this, along with many disabled colleagues around the country, is a life’s work in itself as it takes more than a generation to effect genuine change to the status of disabled people, and an ongoing source of frustration. That we have the answers is not enough, we have to constantly be in the role of pragmatic, diplomatic persuaders.

LISETTE: That’s what I’m finding, the more I delve into the world of disability arts the more it ignites a, well, RAAAAAHHHH in me to fight for change in institutions, in the way the world is made and set up and accessed, in how disabled people are the most ingenious and creative people, because we have to be and how the mainstream is completely daft to not want to use that wealth of knowledge and wonder. I just don’t get it. And then making creative work becomes side-tracked by working out whether there’s a point to it, without fundamental change in the industry. I guess they have to go hand in hand?

VICI: It affects your heart and soul. But what makes those things sing?

LISETTE: For me it’s words. Anything to do with words and making connections and using them to explore this world. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stick to just one thing. Maybe it was those dark bedroom days, I just feel I’ve lost so much time and I want to have a go at ALL THE THINGS.

VICI: You’ve described yourself as a ‘secret scribbler’ – how long were you secretly scribbling and where are you now in that process?

LISETTE: From the age of 21 when I had to return home to be cared for by my parents to 34. How ridiculous is that? It makes me so sad, and so determined it won’t happen to anyone else. I eventually realised I was going to live a really sad life not being me if I didn’t try so I applied for a mentoring programme with Writers’ Block North East. And got on the thing! Then there was no choice, I had to ‘out’ myself. But that was a long time I guess of practising, reading, learning. It wasn’t completely wasted, just really lonely, and I could have got here so much sooner. So, for me emerging is an actual real thing, not an Arts Council construct, or a moving on to something else, it’s emerging from a dark lonely space into a new world of disability arts and being creative once more, which for me has only really happened in the last few years. You know what, it’s not just the words that make my heart and soul sing, it’s the people I’m meeting and working with. What about you?

VICI: Making theatre and telling stories, otherwise hidden stories in new and inventive ways, which engage my audiences directly with the work, make them feel part of a live experience that wouldn’t work without them. I love working with amazing people with brilliant skills, all pulling together with a belief in what we are creating together, an artistic family to add something new to the culture of our land, of the world. And equally, having the time to sit alone, or sit alongside other writers with time to reflect, to think, to research and to create. Ah. *Sighs*

LISETTE: So if we’re ditching the term emerging artist, how hard is it to forge new paths as an artist? To evolve? Is it important to evolve?

People seated in front of a large screen

Panel at DaDaFest.

VICI: It is difficult for all artists to forge a career path – it’s the nature of having both dominant and specific or specialist trends that come and go, and we are forever impacted by the government policy of the day. It is a fact that many, many talented artists do not make a living as an artist but have ‘day jobs’ or perhaps partners who support them to work. There are others of course, who do earn a living as artists. It is essential that we continue to evolve as artists, to diversify our practice to include participatory work and to continue to develop our practice. We have to be true to ourselves as artists, also deciding on a position for ourselves and our work. I think that is a really important development as an artist, identifying where their work both sits and fits.

LISETTE: What are you currently working on which you hope will become part of your evolution as an artist?

VICI: My theatre practice, I have realised, has been fitting into three main areas of work. My own work as a writer-director, and as a playwright, which in honesty receives the least of my creative attention – in part because of the need to earn a living to keep a roof over my family’s heads. Although I say it gets the least of my attention, I’m still fairly productive. Then I have a practice in learning disability theatre – which I have had throughout most of my career as a director – and presently am the main artistic collaborator and director with Full Circle Theatre Company based at ARC Stockton. My other area of artistic work has been to mentor and support other disabled writers and actors to get their work staged. I’m looking at a new model of working in this way by bringing in Associate Artists to my theatre company Little Cog, and facilitating new collaborations.

LISETTE: You did that last bit for me, the mentoring and support, albeit unofficially. I’m realising how much as a community we rely on others who have gone before, to pass on information, to listen, to share. It’s something that needs to be put in place in a more structured manner, the days of regional forums are long gone and it really feels like we’re missing that. It’s something I’m really determined to make sure I always do, because of what you did for me. It’s just the managing it all, the working out who I want to be as an artist, as an activist, as a practitioner. They all feed into each other, but at times it feels, well, messy. Like I need to untangle them, but I don’t think they can be.

VICI: I acknowledge and embrace the complex jigsaw my practice ends up taking – I’m committed to my work with Little Cog, to telling the stories of disabled women, and to being an activist in strategic ways. I am setting up Disconsortia with a large group of disabled artists from around the country to make sure we have a national voice, and as Cultural Shift in the North East continues it has moved to supporting disabled artists and to working with disabled people as audiences. Lots happening strategically and artistically.

As I say all of this, I realise how very lucky I am to have the support of the people I do to make this happen. Little Cog collaborators and supporters, ARC Stockton and their director Annabel Turpin who is a hero to many artists making new contemporary work, and Arts Council England for a series of grants to realise my work.

In terms of my life as an artist, as playwright and theatre director I have lost time to make up for and no time to lose. I am forging ahead in new directions with my writing – I’m pushing myself to explore other dramaturgies for disability theatre and representations of disability in the arts. I have a new contract with myself to make time to be an artist as a priority.

Two women on stage

Jennifer Lisky and Colly Metcalfe as Pip and Mona in Lighthouse by Vici Wreford-Sinnott. Photo Credit Black Robin

LISETTE: That is so important. That’s something I need to do too to ensure my novel gets written. So easy not to prioritise ourselves, especially when it doesn’t pay. We should hold each other to account. What is happening in your artist role?

VICI: My piece Another England, starring Philippa Cole and Andrew McLay is touring nationally in May, June and July this year. And I’m currently working with Jonathan Meth who has been providing me with dramaturgical mentoring, in a number of ways, but rather excitingly on my new play Useless Fucker. I am being challenged hugely artistically, by design, as I wanted to look at alternative dramaturgies around the telling of stories of disabled characters.

LISETTE: Such exciting work, and even though it’s working on creative pieces, for you as an artist, again that work will filter back down and make a difference. Disability Arts saved me. Simples. Why is it important to you?

VICI: Disability Arts is my home. I happily identify as a disabled woman as a political statement about status. I hope that my work challenges negative expectations and also nourishes and supports my community. As a community we started out by telling stories to ourselves, making each other laugh, entertaining each other and as our confidence grew we realised that our stories deserved bigger platforms. Many of us know each other, but we are a broader community now than we have ever been with fresh new ideas coming in the latest wave of our movement and that excites me. We face a particular set of challenges as artists in today’s social climate. Government policy legitimises the deaths of people within our community through its austerity programme. So in addition to our growing body of internationally acclaimed art, we also have a sense of urgency about both telling the stories swept under the mainstream media’s carpet and also to create cultural interventions to bring about social, political and cultural change.

LISETTE: I love how you phrase identifying as a political statement. Remember our chat about this at ARC where you missed your lunch because I had ALL THE QUESTIONS?! So many questions! Mainly about identifying and could I, should I? What would you say to artists wondering if they should take the leap and claim the title disabled?

VICI: I’m always very careful about the advice I give in this area. It is similar to whether job applicants out themselves as disabled and risk not being interviewed, given a job, or being underestimated when in a job. There are definitely battles to be fought when adopting the title of disabled and I’m not naïve, a lifelong battle for equality is not for everyone. It genuinely has to be right for the person to identify themselves as they choose. There is still so much stigma and shame attached to disability, mainly because it is such a misunderstood and mythologised area of our lives. We’ve been here before, but I’ve noticed that some people are much more comfortable attaching their specific impairment to themselves as an artist, and many artists are grouping together in impairment specific projects. I absolutely understand why this happens but its not for me. I believe strongly in a pan-disability approach using the social model of disability and its definitions, so that whilst we acknowledge each others’ differences, we are not divided by them. I personally am really proud to be part of the disability community. And on the same way that I proudly describe myself as a feminist I also take the title disabled artist. We don’t live in a perfect egalitarian utopia yet and so it is a political statement to describe myself as disabled. It also signifies me as an activist, and that I acknowledge the necessity to take a position in relation to the fact that society / the dominant arts world might not prioritise the stories I’m excited to share.

Two people on stage

Andrew McLay and Philippa Cole playing Murphy and Rat in Another England by Vici Wreford-Sinnott. Photo credit Black Robin

LISETTE: The thing I wanted to do most with this editorship came from that discussion with you about identifying and finding a home. I wanted to find, mentor and give opportunities to new disabled writers, just like you did that for me. It’s been really bizarre and wonderful being on the receiving end of the questions that I had for you. It’s so important that our visibility is there, so that people can find us. The pride and kick-ass nature of the writers has been brilliant. I kind of took a softly, softly approach, talking to people who I knew had impairments, but didn’t necessarily identify as disabled. It’s about showing that there is a welcoming world here I guess, and offering an invitation. How do we find and encourage new disabled artists?

VICI: New disabled artists need to feel they are entering a safe space where they are not judged – they do not have to identify in a certain way, they do not have to be political or activists, its absolutely fine to just want the same opportunities as non-disabled artists to make work. It’s absolutely fine to say you need support. Essential in fact. That is not a weakness but a strength. I remember struggling with how to identify myself – what are the pros and cons. Will I just find doors closed to me? I had to ask if the doors were already open and if not what was I going to do to create work that I knew would speak to people not seeing themselves represented. Other people like me.

LISETTE: That bit is so important. What else?

VICI: I think we need informal opportunities to meet each other, without the pressure of ‘speed-dating’ networking – how intimidating. I know not everyone agrees with me on this, but if there are those of us who have found doors opening, we have to bring others with us. Make introductions, support each other and see each others’ work.

We do need disabled artist led and informed strategic plans in place to meaningfully support new artists, and artists new to disability arts/disabled-led arts. I’m sorry to use ‘artspeak’ or ‘business speak’ but we need systemic change and we can do that – but policy makers at national level need to value us and listen to us. We know what the solutions are – they’re actually really easy and the beginnings of them might not cost much more than funding they’re putting into questionable initiatives. It is essential that we do not assume that ‘new’ artists are generally unskilled with little experience. All of us bring the richness of our experience with us into our work.

LISETTE: I’d say richness and experience also comes from place too, another big element of my editorship. It informs my writing, my voice, my stubbornness. It is my heritage and somewhere I’m tremendously proud of. But, oh my goodness, it does my head in that opportunities are so London-centric. What do you think is special about the North from an artistic perspective?

Band on stage

Archipelago with Lisette Auton ‘Between Waves’ Photo: Ken Drew

VICI: I left, but I came back. I came home. I love it here. I don’t love the lack of equality and the systemic ableism we see every day in arts and culture.  But that is a national problem not a specifically Northern one. 25% of the population of the North East is disabled – that means every family in the region is affected by the obstacles and inequalities disabled family members experience in every day life. We’re an innovative region which has only fairly recently found its voice – it’s okay to admit you’re from the North East these days – we even hear North eastern accents popularised on TV more and more. We’ve often felt like the underdog, in no small part due to unfair national proportioning of funding. But we’re on the rise. We’re strong people to have survived what we have historically and economically, and actually our diverse communities are one of our greatest strengths – we’re natural fighters and champions, we are naturally innovative and strategic – we’ve had to be to survive. A younger generation of arts leaders are more open and excited by the innovation found in the margins. And many of us are making greater platforms for our communities. From a disability perspective there is a very healthy community of learning disability theatre companies in the North East, and some phenomenally talented artists forging regional, national and international careers for themselves (it’s a hard slog and it doesn’t come handed on a plate). And of course I’m very proud of the momentum of energy and equality which has emerged from Little Cog’s work with ARC Stockton – we created over 1000 participation opportunities, programmed 16 pieces of disability theatre, supported ten disabled artists with residencies, mentoring or getaways, we introduced accessible performances across comedy, theatre and cinema with subtitles, BSL, audio description and relaxed performances. Disability equality is championed and supported, is valued and enshrined in artistic policy. Disabled artists and companies from around the country are contacting us to work here…that’s amazing. I am now presenting our model of working at national and international events. There is a lot of learning to share.

LISETTE: Learning that was pioneered in the North-East. I’ve talked before about what our meeting each other has done for me. And how meeting other disabled artists has felt, it’s like being part of a family. Everyone has been so welcoming and inclusive. But this is a family you’ve been part of for such a long time, my enthusiasm must annoy at times. Sorry! Has our meeting each other had an impact on you?

VICI: Meeting you has definitely been a game changer. From the first day we met in that disability equality workshop I was delivering, and you were a warm friendly face. I watched you as a series of pennies began to drop, there was realisation and relief on your face. And you being you, you crackled with energy, read everything you could find, absorbed the whole history of everything in a week flat, and began your first mission – granting yourself the permission to be, well, yourself. But from there your innate sense of justice and equality has fired you onwards, your talents as an artist never in question – the commissions you have secured and the literary prizes you have won, the penguin mentoring you have been awarded for your novel – you want to bring everyone with you. You proudly wear your t-shirt ‘Disability is not a bad word’ and because of your personal style, the beautiful way you interact with people, people listen to you and other disabled people (who may not yet describe themselves in that way, but whom we would include under that umbrella term based on social model definitions) have pennies drop too. You have injected disability consciousness into the diverse spoken word scene in the North East, and nationally through your Creative Future Literary Award. The impact of your Guest editorship of DAO genuinely is massive for North East artists.

LISETTE: You’re making me blush. And also realise how far I’ve come. You do realise people are going to think I paid you?!

Lisette seated

Lisette Auton photo credit Ken Drew

VICI: For me personally, it has been brilliant to develop a close collaborator who is an artist and an activist – whether it’s talking about the world, working together creatively, or unswervingly jumping on a mini-bus to London to meet other amazing disabled artists in a DIY gathering to try to rekindle our community and its connections around the country. You are refreshing, energised, insightful, passionate and a woman on a mission! It is brilliant to have someone, to have you, to look forward with to common goals for our community.

LISETTE: That so echoes everything I’ve found in you. Though maybe you do lead me astray, we won’t be allowed back to Liverpool again after stealing tea not once, but twice at DaDaFest…

VICI: And you are one of very few people who gives me permission to be an artist, and not a strategist. You inspire me (in a genuine and meaningful way) through your own work, your belief in our right to be artists and your support means the world to me.  As an arts movement we are still fairly young, and we still have a long way to go in terms of dominant arts even beginning to understand us, our position and our right to be in the building. I am learning from you and a new wave of disabled artists, with respect for how you and they choose to identify themselves, that we are always learning, that we learn mutually from each other, that our wonderful creative fight is not over. I find us invigorated by new voices who must be given platforms and who must be invested in. We are at a time of transformation – our movement continues to evolve and must not be allowed to stall by top-down policy which has stifled the disability arts community for a while – and that really excites me.

LISETTE: Me too. I may be naïve and I know there is so much hard work involved, but I love the challenge, the fight, the creativity combined with activism. The seat of pant rollercoaster that this evolution seems to be.

VICI: It is important for me to say, that in spite of funding cuts to support organisations, disabled artists and our movement have not disappeared altogether! Many of us have kept working, continued creating opportunities and kept disability equality on the agenda. We’re not entering a new wave of disability arts because disabled artists stopped being effective in any way. We’re entering a new wave precisely because of hardworking disabled artists and activists, and it’s the next logical stage. I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved in the North East – with those Boards of organisations, hundreds of artists and participants, audiences, supporters and allies we have made significant change happen. It continues…

Together we forge a new path – the time is right!