Turtle Key Arts have a long-standing reputation in their role as creative producers advancing participation in the arts by disabled, disadvantaged and socially excluded people. For the second year running they partnered with the Lyric, Hammersmith to produce JOY – a flagship project of the Hammersmith and Fulham ArtsFest showcasing local established and emerging disabled artists between 5-8 June 2019.
When Arts Council England began dis-investing in the disability-led Forums across the UK coming on for 20 years ago now, it left a hole in the disability arts landscape where cabaret and performance had been the core activity providing opportunities to showcase talent and to develop artistic practice through a circuit of regular events up and down the country. It provided a safe space to try out and to develop work within an environment where disability and access were understood and catered for.
Sadly the hope that mainstream arts organisations would continue to produce disability arts events on a regular basis never materialised. Having gone to The JOY of Theatre on 6th June I was reminded of the days of the Workhouse Cabaret – a monthly night produced by the London Disability Arts Forum, which took place up until the late 1990s.
Featuring Sahera Khan performing Am I Dulhan Yet?, Ignite Me Workshop Theatre with Kill the Noise, Elinor Rowlands’ Outside, My Hands are Clapping, and NOT DYING by Jamie Hale, the evening had a similar aesthetic to an LDAF event with politicised performance informed directly by disability culture and lived experience.
The four artist/ groups gave a varied evening of performance beginning with Sahera Khan sharing a slapstick mimed piece with elements of BSL about being a Muslim woman seeking a husband. She had a wonderful physicality and comic timing in a skit that parodied cultural identity and issues of independence and convention.
Ignite Me Workshop Theatre followed with a more serious short play developed from a piece of forum theatre, about the experience of the temporary housing system. The surreality of the piece left me somewhat bemused, although the group certainly conveyed a sense of the frustration of constantly being vulnerable to being made homeless.
I came to the show specifically to see Elinor Rowlands whose work has influenced some of my own writing in recent months. Outside, My Hands are Clapping could be described as a piece of scripted poetic storytelling using elements of multimedia. Rowlands is a gifted writer/ poet and producer of film and soundscape. She layers sound and sculpts it around repeated images from nature. Images like that of a feather on a wall become emblematic, gaining meaning with each repetition. Both epic and ripe with intricate detail, her work reminds me of a Leonora Carrington psychological landscape, at one level displaying a consciousness echoing an ancient sensibility and at another level expressing something intensely contemporary.
Rowlands tells stories of her childhood and of family trauma, yet woven inside a poetry that takes us out away from the personal and into a universal space. There is rhythm to her performance; an enigmatic presence that persistently takes us out of her stories of oppression, abuse and hardship and back to nature. In many respects Outside, My Hands are Clapping is a hymn to womanhood, to childbirth and to old age. As Rowlands tells us; she comes from a long line of strong women.
Lastly Jamie Hale’s performance piece Not Dying took us into the kind of territory that would have been par for the course in an LDAF Workhouse Cabaret. Unashamedly loud and proud, Hale comes alive – and is indeed at his best – when he’s making comedy about the frustrations of with living in a non-disabled world full of non-disabled assumptions about what his life is like. He comes into his own when he takes command of the stage proclaiming the joys of sex in a world that sees him as sexless.
Certain phrases remained with me after the performance: “I grew into myself, a crucible in charcoal”, “happiness is a journey … not a gift” leaving me with a sense of connection to a deeper sensibility around what it is to grow up ‘different’, to be unable to relate to the world in the way that society expects and to be vulnerable to punishment for not being ‘normal’.
It will be interesting to see what Hale does next. He’s clearly on the ascendant with last years’ Spread the Word award under his belt. He comes across as confident and full of potential as a writer and performer. The difficulty is where and when the next opportunities will come from to allow these performers to craft their performance work. It seems to me that the kinds of autobiographical writing that JOY attracts has a lot of merit, but opportunities for scope to push the writing beyond a focus on personal lived experience are rare but vital.
Spaces like JOY are crucial in offering a chance to showcase disability performance / writing, but the question remains as to whether what Turtle Key and the Lyric Theatre can offer is enough? There is so much more emphasis on the artist to create their own opportunities; to develop business skills on top of simply being an artist in comparison with the days of the DAFs when there were regular forums to perform.