Why we need Disability Arts Festivals, now and in the future

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Dr Nina Muehlemann completed her PhD at the English Department of King’s College London in December 2017. Her thesis, entitled ‘Beyond the Superhuman – Disabled Artists Working in the Context of London 2012’, focused on the Unlimited Initiative and 2012 Unlimited festival. Her research examines works by disabled artists and the context these works are produced in, namely austerity, London 2012 and its aftermath. She discusses some of the insights she has gained through this work.

Pullen's Party

Adam Smith and the Pullen’s Giant performing in Vital Xposure’s Admiral Pullen’s Party.

One of the moments in my life that had the deepest impact on me was when I attended the 2011 Liberty festival. Until then, I was aware of political issues around disability through activism work, and I had begun a couple of years before to educate myself in the field of disability studies (no-one at the university where I did my undergrad was even aware that such a field existed).

The performances I saw at the festival, however, went beyond these political issues (even though they also addressed them) and celebrated the diversity of bodies by engendering creativity through them. Disabled people were everywhere, both on and off stage, and I felt a strong sense of community and solidarity all around me. I had found my tribe at the festival.

My passion for disability arts and community ultimately led me to write my PhD about the Unlimited 2012 festival and its aftermath. Unlimited 2012 was in many ways different from other festivals that showcase art by disabled people, as it’s place was firmly in the mainstream, and the festival featured big productions that were well-funded. Despite all of this, I still felt the same sense of community at the festival itself; It felt as if the presence of disabled people had joyfully taken over the Southbank Centre area, and suddenly there were so many of us. The atmosphere was intoxicating.

Disability Arts festivals have been taking place in the UK since the 1980s and have earned their place in the cultural landscape during the last few decades. And yet, whenever Disability Arts festivals are discussed, there are certain questions and anxieties present: Do they create or maintain a ‘disability ghetto’? Are they a force of segregation? Shouldn’t we focus on bringing Disability Arts into the mainstream, instead of keeping them contained at niche festivals? Do Disability Arts festivals just ‘preach to the converted’, those who are already knowledgeable about disability, instead of educating non-disabled people? What is their impact, if they have any at all, in the ‘real world’? In short, are Disability Arts festivals redundant, or is the end goal that they become redundant?

A 2016 article by Jo Verrent, senior producer of Unlimited, dealt with exactly these questions. Entitled ‘Will we always need Disability Arts festivals?’ and timed with the launch of the Unlimited festival 2016, the article features the opinions on the matter by several artists who had work commissioned by Unlimited in 2012 or since. Verrent herself confessed in the article that she prefers seeing work when it’s touring, “with audiences who often absorb the artistry of the work before they look at who has made it.”

Photo of Mat Fraser on stage dressed as Ricahrd III

Northern Broadsides & Hull Truck Theatre April 2017
Mat Fraser as Richard III. Image © NOBBY CLARK

That touring work isn’t necessarily performed under the label ‘Disability Arts’, puts, according to Verrent, the artistic value before identity politics. Artist Mat Fraser, meanwhile, stated that he thinks festivals are useful “until disability is reflected in one seventh of all media”, as one seventh of the UK’s population are disabled people. Several artists echoed the point that Disability Arts festivals are needed until disabled people are better included in every aspect of society. Some also claimed that the festivals do not reach new audiences and merely speak to those who already are invested in disability.

I was surprised by this quite skeptical discussion of Disability Arts festivals and I devoted a sub-chapter of my thesis to respond to it, on which this piece is based. There is not much academic literature that specifically discusses the merits or risks of disability arts festivals, but what I found extremely useful in addition to these few texts that focus on disability specifically was to look at material from gender studies, queer theory and critical race studies, as other marginalised communities face very similar questions.

Artists and queer theorists Tim Miller and David Román for example investigated the idea of ‘preaching to the converted’, which means that performance only reaches those people who are already emotionally invested in a certain issue. This worry might be particularly present at a festival. Miller and Román convincingly demonstrate how this idea assumes two things that are very problematic: first, it assumes that the main aim of queer theatre should be to educate straight audiences. As I have already discussed last month, this is also a problem present in the Disability Arts sector:

photo of performer Jo-Anne Cox playing cello with a Together 2012 banner in the background

Jo-Anne Cox performing in the Together 2012 tent at Liberty 2016. Photo by Colin Hambrook

The work is sometimes reduced to the educational value it has for non-disabled audiences, and its value for disabled audiences gets little attention. The second problem Miller and Román discuss is that the phrase ‘preaching to the converted’ assumes a uniform community, where everyone agrees with each other.

The idea thus doesn’t allow for intersectional identities to be acknowledged and doesn’t do justice to a community that is extremely varied and sometimes at odds with itself, whether that is the queer community or the disabled community. On top of this, they point out what a powerful experience it can be to feel ownership of a space, even if it’s just for a short moment (p. 173 – 175).

It is this exact feeling of ownership of a space that had, and still has, such a deep impact on me at disability arts festivals. As disabled people, we are so often treated as if our presence is a huge inconvenience, as if we are in the way and merely tolerated, if even that. This makes it especially powerful to have events where disabled people can come together, barriers are less likely to occur (although many disability arts festivals could still improve their accessibility) and where our presence is anticipated and welcome.

a woman and a bus driver, both carrying white canes entertain a group of people aboard a double decker bus

Extant’s ‘ComBUStion’ premiered at Liberty Festival

Connecting with other disabled people can also be difficult in a society where disability is still so stigmatized, and a lot of the spaces where disabled people can come together have a history deeply affected by the medical model of disability (for example hospitals or disability sports). In those spaces it can be difficult to celebrate disability as a cultural or political force. Festivals not only provide an opportunity to meet other disabled people, but also to gain a practice-based understanding of disability politics and activism.

While this highlights some of the benefits of Disability Arts festivals for audiences, what might be their appeal for artists? In an article about a women’s festival, performance studies scholar Lara Shalson points out that the community itself might be more suited to give useful feedback to a piece of work, as audiences are already familiar with comparable work and aware of important questions the work poses or addresses (p. 237).

Indeed, as I wrote in last week’s piece, I have often encountered the phenomenon in my research that nondisabled critics sometimes focus so strongly on the presence of disability that they can miss out on the finer nuances of a piece of work, and this happens less with disabled critics.

Furthermore, a critical mass of works by disabled artists eases what academic Kobena Mercer, whose research focuses on work by black artists, calls the ‘burden of representation’: The effect that is created when one person from a marginalised community is assumed to speak on behalf of their entire community, rather than as individuals, because they are the only ones provided with a platform to speak (p. 63).

Assisted Suicide the Musical

Liz Carr in Assisted Suicide the Musical. Photgraph: Manuel Vason

Both disability scholar Kirsty Johnston and several of the artists in Verrent’s article point out that there are also practical considerations that speak for festivals: amplified marketing, sharing costs and resources (some of which have to do with access), and an opportunity to network and connect are all important reasons why we should have and support disability arts festivals (Johnston, p. 22).

However, these practical considerations are not what make me feel passionate about disability arts festivals. Instead artist Liz Carr sums up my feelings perfectly: “I don’t know if we’ll always need them but we should always have them. We need those places and those spaces for ourselves and for our art and our community”.

I agree with Liz Carr that the joy of celebrating the disabled community and disability arts should not be tied to the question of how much disabled people are included in the mainstream: Disability Arts festivals might be needed to work towards equality while mainstream culture is still reluctant to include disability, but this is far from their only value.

Cited works:
Johnston, Kirsty, Disability Theatre and Modern Drama (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2016)
Mercer, Kobena, ‘Black Art and the Burden of Representation’, Third Text: Third World Perspectives on Contemporary Art & Culture, 10.4 (1990), 61-78
Miller, Tim and David Román, ‘Preaching to the Converted’, Theatre Journal, 47.2 (1995), 169-188
Shalson, Lara, ‘Creating Community, Constructing Criticism: The Women’s One World Festival 1980-1981’, Theatre Topics, 15.2 (2005), 221-239
Verrent, Jo, ‘Will we always need disability arts festivals?’, British Council Theatre and Dance Blog (2016), [accessed 21.05.18]

Unlimited Festival takes place at the Southbank Centre, London from 5-9 September 2018, celebrating the artistic vision and originality of disabled artists.

DaDaFest International will be returning in winter 2018 with a unique, thought-provoking programme of performances, exhibitions and events across Merseyside.