Little Cog and ARC Stockton create pioneering model of equality in Cultural Shift

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Vici Wreford-Sinnott, a disabled playwright, theatre director and equality strategist, has spent much of her career in Disability Arts promoting disability equality in all aspects of the arts, and, creating and supporting new opportunities for disabled artists and audiences. Vici talks to DAO about how the partnership between her disabled-led theatre company, Little Cog, and ARC Stockton, one of the largest arts venues in the North East of England, began.

Head shot of Vici Wreford-Sinnott under a red light

Vici Wreford-Sinnott, Co-founder Cultural Shift

The two companies were committed to a set of significant strategic aims around disability equality and disabled-led work in a mainstream setting. This grew into their pioneering Cultural Shift project – a model of practice that aims to be a microcosm of the cultural disability equality measures we can replicate and achieve in wider arts, culture and communities.

Having worked strategically in Disability Arts as CEO with both Arts and Disability Ireland and ARCADEA for over ten years, I formed disabled-led theatre company Little Cog in 2011 – a return to my artistic work after having earlier specialised in Theatre Direction at the University of Kent.

Little Cog began an artistic relationship with ARC Stockton in 2012 when I approached Director Annabel Turpin, to ask for support to develop a play called The Art of Not Getting Lost. Signifying my return to artistic practice full time, the piece examined the intricacies around identity, mental health and social stigma in a mix of text, visuals and a physical style. As ARC supports the development of contemporary theatre practice in the heart of Teesside, my new play was a good fit.

Photo of an ensemble carrying large beige umbrellas, pictured with a bolt of lightning behind them

Full Circle ensemble of learning disabled actors in their devised production ‘Out of the Shadows’

An organic process of mutual artistic collaboration began through a series of projects with me creating my own work, mentoring other disabled theatre makers, creating platforms for their work at ARC, and devising an exciting new production The Lab with an ensemble of learning disabled actors, Full Circle, on the main stage. We felt like genuine change was happening in a number of ways and that there was a momentum gathering around our work.

We discussed our work together and knew that we wanted to move it on to another stage, with greater ambitions. The North East has little infrastructural support for disabled artists, and there had been a dearth of opportunities for disabled-led work, so we started to create a three year plan of action. By the power of serendipity, our plan coincided with funding from Spirit of 2012 Trust, which allowed us to realise our ambitions. It’s been truly amazing to see greater representation of disabled people in all sorts of ways at ARC – and beyond – as a result of our work.

Headshot of Paul Wilshaw

Artists Rowan James, Pauline Heath and Paul Wilshaw (pictured) were awarded residencies on Cultural Shift. Photograph Les Parkinson

After trying a title of Agent of Change (an ambassador for a particular area of social or cultural change working in close association with a cultural venue to bring about that change) for a while, we realised that everyone in the organisation had to become agents and take responsibility for their own areas of change, so I became the Creative Lead. I have delivered much of the activity, although the project enabled us to grow a small team of disabled creative practitioners including actors, photographers, film makers, writers and theatre makers.

The work was championed by Annabel and the Board, who supported each department and all staff to better understand disability equality and embed it into the policies and practices of the organisation. The project was viewed as an artistic project and one of the first impacts was a new Artistic Policy incorporated into ARC’s overall artistic policy.

The three year plan grew into a project called Cultural Shift. There are three layers to the work – the first is around Creative Practice, the second is around Organisational Shift and the third is how we share what we’ve learned – a three tiered cake with each layer dependent on the other for its whole.

Actress Philippa Cole pictured on stage at ARC Stockton

Vici was commissioned to make three new pieces of work – Butterfly toured nationally in 2017 and Another England (Philippa Cole Pictured) is hoping to tour next year.

Creative Practice was the dominant strand creating opportunities for disabled artists in the professional programme at ARC. We also supported new work and emerging artists with residencies and commissions.

Creative Practice also included working artistically with local disabled people in participatory projects, including supporting a new generation of disabled artists. Our objective was to remove the many barriers disabled people experience in either attending or creating the arts, and creating more and better opportunities to get involved, which of course was dependent on the second layer of work.

Organisational Shift was about transforming ARC’s understanding of disability, the Social Model in terms of both access and content of work, and improving its approaches to disability equality across everything it does. All staff, Board and associated artists and companies have had in-depth disability equality training to appreciate and understand the experiences of disabled artists and audiences, to understand our social and historical contexts, and to appreciate that work needs to be both driven and led by disabled people ourselves. Each department was supported to draw up its own action points, which are reviewed and evolve throughout the project. The first policy had an impact on ARC’s Artistic Policy and was the first to be changed, which has had tremendous results.

Sharing what we’ve learned is the third layer of Cultural Shift – ensuring that we get information out to Disability Arts colleagues, the wider public, other cultural organisations, practitioners and decision makers. And we’re just getting our teeth into this now! I am giving talks, holding discussion groups, speaking on panels, writing blogs and delivering training to colleagues.

The partnership between Little Cog and ARC, started small, and although we committed to our large scale project as our relationship grew, change can happen on a small scale and with very little money. It starts with openness and with a willingness to be supportive within a learning process. The benefits to both mainstream (dominant arts) and disabled-led work are significant and enrich both, ensuring that the four decades where disabled artists have made an artistic case for equality are validated, and our work regarded with parity of esteem having a rightful place in the cultural landscape.