Reshaping Our Future: Theatre and Disability

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Reshaping Our Future: Theatre and Disability was a one-day conference, organised in collaboration between Park Theatre, Graeae Theatre Company and UK Disability History Month aimed at encouraging the inclusion of disability in plays. Kate Lovell was amongst the artistic directors, producers, managers, casting directors, writers and actors who took place on 11 October 2016, finding both strength and absence of voice at the event.

Panel discussion including Amit Sharma, Kerry Michael, Jez Bond, Vicky Featherstone

Panel discussion from the day. Chair: Amit Sharma (Graeae)
Panel: Kerry Michael (Stratford East), Jez Bond (Park Theatre), Vicky Featherstone (Royal Court). Photograph: Andrew Wilson

Jez Bond, artistic director of the Park Theatre opened this one-day conference looking at disability in theatre with an honest statement of potentially having got it wrong, leading the theatre to want to get it right. He referred to last year’s controversial hosting of a play called Kill Me Now!, which follows a man who gives up his career in writing to care for his disabled teenage son. Perhaps even more controversial than the difficult-to-stomach title referring to the father’s state of dismay at his life’s lot, was the casting of a non-disabled actor in a disabled role.

This was not well received by the disability arts community. Bond does not absolutely condemn or regret his decision to host this play, but does state that the reaction to this piece, along with the theatre’s commitment to diversity, led the Park to host this conference on the state of disability in theatre now and in the future.

Pioneers of disability in theatre, Graeae, co-facilitated this day of discussion, and artistic director Jenny Sealey kicked off with a blackly comic insight into the barriers faced by disabled artists with a short and didactic play called Sorry. She put a callout for the real-life barriers faced by disabled artists, and the responses came thick and fast, from having interpreter hours slashed to personal independence payments vanishing, all meaning that making art has, in recent times, become secondary to simply surviving.

For those working in the field as disabled artists, the stories are unsurprising and all too familiar. But the room was host to those working across many major theatres in London and beyond who may not be so well-versed in the challenges of being a disabled person. Sealey is quick to explain that she doesn’t voice these issues to harbour doom and gloom; she is only being honest. It is important that those running theatres who want to improve diversity do understand the context within which we operate, which has profoundly changed under Cameron’s (and now May’s) Britain.

A presentation by Richard Rieser of UK Disability History Month − who instigated this conference − and a video show reel of work by Graeae, Access All Areas and Deafinitely Theatre, provided clips of work by some of the relative giants of the disability arts field. This was a useful round-up for those not familiar with the disability arts landscape.

It does feel uncomfortable, though, that within this round-up, some voices are still absent. I raise my concerns that those with invisible impairment are often forgotten. We must remember that access is not only about ramps or audio description, though these are vital. It feels significant that I hesitate to raise this point for fear of being accused of side-lining other people’s access needs; perhaps this is a sign that the debate on disability in the arts does need to make space for a greater diversity of voices even within its own world.

I want to see companies that acknowledge invisible impairment also represented at these events; I wonder if Vital Xposure, Playing On and Daily Life Ltd have been invited. I am reminded by the organiser that the event is aimed at filling a room with those who are less likely to be considering these diversity issues. It is, though, troubling that in these conversations there is, perhaps, a bias towards certain types of impairment. At the risk of creating artistic ghettos, perhaps access in relation to invisible impairment is a topic all of its own.

Graeae generously give us a window into their rehearsal process, throwing up the gloriously sticky creative challenges that can come with trying to incorporate access onstage as an integral aesthetic; how do you represent a close and intimate scene between two actors when two BSL interpreters must also be present?

The conference doesn’t provide answers to any questions posed, but it does keep the balls in the air, and ensures that disabled people are not forgotten in the conversations around diversity. Working as a disabled artist, the barriers are daily present, and we surmount them with resilience and truckloads of creativity, producing bold and important work.

But it can become lonely, especially if you are often working solo, pushing for change in your particular corner of the arts world, so days such as this provide an opportunity to galvanise those of us working towards the same aims.

More importantly, they provide an opportunity to speak with those running major theatres nationwide, to remind them that diversity does absolutely include disability. Even when disabled people are conspicuously absent from more high-profile debates that claim to be about diversity; when new medical tests are developed which ignore the social model and stray frighteningly into the realms of screening us out; when assisted suicide is seen as acceptable over and above high-quality palliative care; events like this, and projects such as Ramps on the Moon, are keeping disabled artists visible and present.

The arts world is a space where disabled can use our voices to push back against the darkening skies, and so it’s imperative that through organising and facilitating days of debate and discussion such as this one, we continue to stake our claim to a place onstage at the National, in the halls of drama schools, and far beyond.