Vici Wreford-Sinnott tells her story and chats about her role in the history of disability arts in Ireland and North East England

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Vici Wreford-Sinnott has a long history as a practicing disability artist and activist. She talks to Colin Hambrook about her achievements over the decades she’s been at the forefront of Disability Arts practice.

Vici Wreford-Sinnott

Vici Wreford-Sinnott came of age during the punk era. She moved to London from the North-East, wore an attitude, spiked and dyed her hair and gravitated towards theatre after seeing Stephen Berkoff’s ground-breaking production of Metamorphosis with Tim Roth in 1986.

“I’d seen pantomime up until then and to see something so physical and so challenging of form was invigorating and it made me think ‘wow this is a whole different way of communicating’ and it tapped into the anti-establishment politics and the theatrical elements of punk.”

Vici went to Kent University from 1988-92 where her leanings towards experimental theatre and feminism were encouraged during what was a highly politicised time, culturally. On returning to the north-east, her feminism led her to Disability Arts. Although she didn’t identify having mental health issues with disability at that time, she was drawn to the vibrant voices that weren’t being reflected anywhere else that she found within National Disability Arts Forum projects that she became involved in at Spenymoore in County Durham in the early 1990s.

“We had these almost secret clubs where we were supporting each other as a community. I hit it off with a group of learning-disabled women and I remember Ian Stanton, The Fugertivs and Mavis Dishcloth. Mavis performed hilarious stints satirising expectations that all disabled people could do was to sit in day centres crocheting dishcloths together.”

Photo of a man who has no legs playing guitar

Ian Stanton. Image sourced from NDACA: All rights remain with the artist. WWW.THE-NDACA.ORG : Telling the Heritage story of the Disability Arts Movement”

It was the first time Vici had seen this sort of realisation out in the public domain; that we didn’t all want to be basket weavers, in the traditional ways that disabled people had been regarded.

“So she was quite a powerhouse was Mavis Dishcloth but really accessible and funny and she was a bit of a goth actually; it was quite a revelation. It felt important that the joke was made and that we all shared that joke together; it was a sharing of identity and a solidarity of community that was brilliant.”

In the early 2000s Vici went from running one of the first women’s theatre company’s in the North-east – Cirque Des Femmes to becoming chief executive officer of what’s now called Arts & Disability Ireland – but was then called VSA, Very Special Arts, the brainchild of Jean Kennedy Smith.

“Even then the use of the word special was contentious. I was instrumental in changing the name and the name came from all the disabled artists that we worked with. They wanted a name that had a bit of authority and included the name of the country.”

At the same time as working with a host of highly politicised artists Vici learned the language of disability and realised it encompassed mental health and re-assessed her relationship to disability arts.

“I started writing for Donal Toolan who was an actor and an influential Irish disability activist who had the ear of the president. My first artistic practice began with him in a cabaret setting; except it was more than a cabaret; these were full productions and the wonderful thing about Ireland was that we were welcomed into mainstream venues instantly. People were interested. They wanted to know what these new voices had to say. So we were in prestigious arts venues appreciated as artists even though there was an absence of legislation about disability. The arts in Ireland were way ahead of the UK – it all coalesced. The right people came together at the right time to create a disability arts movement.”

In 2002 Vici was working strategically with ADI. She met the accomplished Irish writer, activist and performer Rosaleen McDonagh and supported the development of her play The Baby Doll Project. McDonagh won a Met Eireann Award for diversity for the piece and it had a national tour.

“Rosaleen was probably one of the first traveller women to perform on a public stage, certainly in material she had developed herself. She was revolutionary in transforming public understanding of being a traveller and being institutionalised as a disabled woman.”

The late Donal Toolan had regularly appeared on television making the case for disability and following the acclaim received by Baby Doll, Vici co-devised a piece called ‘Broadcast’ with Toolan, which was commissioned for the Dublin Fringe Festival. Broadcast was experimental in its form and was loved by disabled and non-disabled audiences alike and the performances sold out, even though the critics didn’t get the politics of the piece.

“It was amazing that we had free reign. We were exploring our voices, our aesthetic and making the most exciting theatre that we could make and it was incredibly well supported. That was a key turning point for me artistically and for all those artists. We felt validated in our voices and it gave us a new platform with support from respected venues. It was a big deal because it meant we weren’t hidden away only making work in community centres. There was a strong tradition in Ireland of seeing new work and the theatre-going public didn’t hesitate.”

The experience had a direct impact on Vici’s approach to making the theatre she wanted to make and confirming her commitment to new writing. In the process she began to form new ideas about accessibility and started making the case for the kind of environment needed to make the work.

“We didn’t fit into this pre-existing framework of 6 weeks to write the piece; 3 weeks rehearsal and off you go. There were so many other things to factor in to our process around the access requirements of those involved.”

Vici also found that disability theatre could not be made in isolation. Lots of conversations needed to happen around the work. There was a need to educate non-disabled partners in how to talk about the work; that disabled actors weren’t on stage to be inspirational or to be curiosities. And then between 2003 and 2010 she came back to the north-east and took on the mantle of running Nordaf, the Northern Disability Arts Forum.

In stark contrast to her experience in Ireland, things in the UK had not moved on and disability arts was still seen very much as only fit for community centres and local arts centre with no access to main stages.

“My own creativity went on the backburner because here I was in a region that was not open to disability arts or disability theatre. We had Tyneside Disability Arts and Get Off Our Backs theatre company and my time was taken up with strategic work. I spent a lot of time trying to persuade arts institutions to be more accessible and welcoming of disabled artists. We knocked on the doors of Northern Stage, Live Theatre and the Sage with differing degrees of success. Across the NE there were some toe-curling moments in terms of just how resistant the arts funding system could be to supporting new work.”

After a recuperation period following a fairly intense 10 years of trying to make a difference nationally and regionally Vici tip-toed into ARC her local venue. Several conversations later her theatre company Little Cog was formed.

“Annabel Turpin had been supportive of an Arcadea online poetry project and then she took my first piece of work ‘the Art of Not Getting Lost’. It was a two-hander looking at the stigma around mental health from a social model perspective. It looked at the historical impact of the construction of disability identity. It’s important to me that we understand what status we are given within society. Lots of us as disabled artists, as academics and as thinkers acknowledge that throughout history disabled people have been positioned as low status within society. It’s important to me as an artist to reference that, because if people don’t get that it’s hard to then unpick where we are now.”

An old brown leather suitcase placed on grass with a luggage label which reads The Art Of Not Getting Lost

Secret suitcases of forgotten asylums

‘The Art of Not Getting Lost’ was a two-hander. Everybody and Nobody were based in a disused underground train station and had the job of collecting significant objects from within history. They’d discuss where the pieces came from, the stories attached to them and their relevance. They also talked about the butterfly effect from chaos theory, where a small trigger, eg the action of one person, can expand and have a massive consequence.

“I saw a parallel with the disability movement and how collectively we have power and agency. And so my next play ‘Butterfly’ reflected on that. The two pieces connected through the thematic of the impact of the historical characters experiences of the now. Butterfly looked at the impact of forced treatment on peoples’ lives and how pretty horrible things are able to be carried out in the name of society.”

Vici’s intent is to make political work that challenges how disability is viewed and that tells truths about disabled peoples’ lives and experiences.

“Some say the social model is there to create a more accessible world and a more equal world. For me it also affects the content of my work because I believe the medical model has created the stereotypes and the tropes in culture that we have so readily accepted.”

Jacqueline Phillips in Butterfly

Jacqueline Phillips as Butterfly

Characters within Vici’s writing are more than the sum of their parts and embody sets of ideas. So within ‘Butterfly’ the historical character of Boudicca, for example, was the embodiment of the social model.

“Our ideas about Boudicca, were created in a certain way. If you read the history books you’ll find everything that was written about her was written by men. Her voice doesn’t exist and so there is a parallel for lots of disabled people whose identity is constructed by the doctors, the charities, the media etc… and Boudicca was a disabled woman.”

Following on from Butterfly, Vici wrote and produced her latest touring play, Another England, based on a similar premise that society’s understanding of disability has been constructed.

“Another England started out as a near future dystopian concept but ended up much closer to what is actually happening in our country today. The premise of the play is that there is a degree of political game-playing for survival in the modern world and we’re all expected to pass certain tests and to meet certain standards. It is politically urgent, describing how disabled people are having their citizenship withdrawn, cast as burdens on the state. The piece has a surreal element around the idea of game-playing and that is how Rat helps Murphy unravel his own internalised oppression, through a series of games that take place in the central space described alternately as an arena, a coliseum and a no-mans-land. The piece is non-linear to a degree and so we dip in and out of history; the characters reflect on their own pasts to understand where they are now. And that helps us reflect on the bigger picture about disability and what’s shaped our current situation. Rat is a young woman ready to lead a revolution.”

production shot

Murphy (Andrew McLay) and Rat (Phillipa Cole) are surrounded by papers in Another England

Vici is a year in to doing a practice-based PhD. ‘Another England’ and her reading around theatre and history have been central to her studies. As she was developing the back-stories for Rat and Murphy, Vici looked at historical parallels in the economic climate during the 1890s, the 1930s and now and some key figures who shaped culture, and whose stories influenced her characters’ actions. On all three occasions a banking crash has impacted on world economics alongside the rise of right-wing thinking. The sub-cultures that evolve in times of financial crisis is another parallel between the three eras. And so figures like Jane Avril make an appearance in Another England. In Paris in the 1890s the Moulin Rouge gave a platform to Avril who was an example of a disabled woman who absorbed her own impairment into her dance.

“Before she became a performer Avril was expected to perform hysteria for doctors and so there is that connection to performing disability and the sense many disabled people have that we are performing all the time because we’re being looked at.“

‘Another England’ consciously contrasts the three eras in terms of politics; the popularity of policies involving eugenics at the heart of politics in governments worldwide in the 1930s and the current thinking around isolating certain genes to eliminate certain impairments. At the nub of the relationship between Rat and Murphy is a conversation about ways in which disabled peoples’ lives are devalued through the manipulation of identity. “We have been created in the imaginations of someone else”, says Rat.

“The language around what is happening to disabled people is not part of our common conversations even though the UN and Amnesty have released reports; our internal reporting within the UK makes them appear distant and irrelevant – and the government dismiss them and tell barefaced lies, distorting the facts about how much they’ve invested in disabled people.”

As part of her PhD it’s been important to Vici to define what traditional and dominant theatre practice is, whether it’s at the national theatre or whether it’s in a regional theatre. A part of her task is to examine what theatre is today.

“Dominant theatre will usually follow a line of Aristotlean poetics – a beginning, middle and end, a 3 act play… but radical theatre both extends and challenges form and content. As disabled practitioners we have to challenge the form. And actually it’s also about where we begin as disabled people, as disabled artists, as feminists, to tell our stories in a way that reflects our culture, that comes from our culture and our experiences that isn’t necessarily Aristotlean… so as someone neurodivergent with a mental health condition, I definitely don’t think in 3 act plays; my life isn’t a 3 act play… and so it’s probably not how I’m going to tell the story.”

A large part of this task has been about looking at the history of our theatre and the theatre-makers who have been radical and political.

“So if we’re going to challenge form within theatre there are examples of playwrights of theatre makers who have made it through who began as challenging figures in the fringes.”

Citing playwrights like Caryll Churchill, Edward Bond and Trevor Griffiths, Vici has been exploring examples of radical political theatre that have been produced on our larger known stages.

“Caryll Churchill is the playwrights’ playwright …. and what is it about her and her constantly evolving radicalism that gets to sit on those big stages. It’s right that her work should be there but there are other radical stories that aren’t making it through. Who are the theatre-makers who might have been in the fringes for 25 years because they’re disabled people… but whose work isn’t getting on to those stages … isn’t on tv and who’re not getting television commissions.”

“There’s not a lot of relevant disability narrative within the dominant theatre canon. We have to challenge that canon and to also create new characters, and boldly tell the stories bursting from the shadows. I want to really try to capture what our canon is; what our pantheon of new work and what the new narratives are; how they’re being told and where they’re being told.”

In addition to Vici’s work as an artist, her career long commitment to changing the environment for disabled practitioners has seen her develop a number of pioneering models of practice. Conscious that due to changes in the cultural landscape and arts policy over the last decade the voice of the disabled artist has been diluted in many ways, Vici has created a number of opportunities for disabled artist-led gatherings to have exciting and vital discussions about our place and our position.

This has led to the development of Disconsortia, a consortium of disabled artists. This activity ties in with work being undertaken by Colin Hambrook and Allan Sutherland’s D4D project Electric Bodies – exploring the voices of disabled artists, their experiences and the connections between disability arts and the communities attached to disability arts practice.

So in partnership with DAO and ARC Stockton, Disconsortia is holding the first of a series of pilot regional gatherings at ARC on 6 & 7 of November. 20 invited North Eastern disabled artists will explore: i) whether disabled artists draw from a disability palette and whether there is a recognisable aesthetic; ii) what is involved in being a community and what actions are needed to support a self-led community; iii) just what has the Disability Arts Movement achieved and is it relevant today; iv) a collaborative cross-artform collaborative session; and culminating in a DIY sharing of work.

The DIY Cabaret will be open to the public, with five programmed artists and five open mic slots for NE based artists to share work.

Actions will be agreed for a North Eastern Disconsortia of Disabled Artists Voices. This will be followed up with a sister event in the South West in February 2020 and other events in other regions as the year goes on and artists voices rise.

To find out more about Vici’s work go to www.viciwreford-sinnott.com