An initiative for disabled artists, Unlimited, has announced bold shows including Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide: The Musical (pictured) and Kaite O’Reilly’s Cosy. The aim is to stop venues programming ‘the first work they came across with a wheelchair and a guide dog in it.’
“Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, no matter how progressive they are politically,” declared Mao Zedong, and although I don’t often find myself in accord with the late Chinese Communist leader, I reckon he was right in this instance. Great art often has a social function, but not every piece of work made with a social or political agenda turns out to be great art.
Purpose and artistic quality was an issue raised at Mind the Gap’s recent event in Bradford on learning disability performance, where a range of international speakers and participants considered issues around ownership, as well as quality and positioning in work made by disabled artists.
Jez Colborne, a resident artist with Mind the Gap, spoke eloquently about owning his own work from initial idea through to its delivery, and Dennis Nilsson, an actor with Moomsteatern, a learning disability company from Sweden, said that when he is on stage he is not disabled, but an actor. David Amelot from French learning disability company Compagnie de l’Oiseau-Mouche, said that performing allowed him to show that he was a “real actor not a monster”.
Moomsteatern apparently banned all political and social aims when it was founded, arguing that they make and stage the work that they do for the benefit of the audience, not the actors. It just so happens that when the audience rate and love a show, it often means that there are significant knock-on benefits for the performers too. Moomsteatern’s artistic director Per Tornqvist spoke of the performers’ right to be on stage and tell a story “that isn’t their own”. He views the Moomsteatern ensemble simply as “actors like any other actors. Like all actors, they have their own toolbox and you have to find what screw fits the screwdriver.”
It was a fascinating day and a considerable advance on my experience last year at a Creative Minds event in Bristol when discussion of quality when applied to learning disabled theatre slipped entirely off the agenda. Here it was central. Matt Hargrave of the University of Northumbria quoted DV8’s Lloyd Newson who has said that disabled art “has to be good or it demeans the art form” and argued that quality work “combats social prejudice because the person on stage is not seen as a burden but as an artist”. Jo Verrent of Unlimited, the world’s largest commissioning programme for disabled artists which has just announced a new clutch of brilliant-sounding, ambitious commissions, argued passionately that quality is crucial but alone it is not enough and that the disability arts sector has to develop a range of work with depth and breadth. The nine Unlimited commissions certainly demonstrate that and include Noemi Lakmaier’s Cherophobia, a 48-hour living installation in which an attempt will be used to lift the artist’s body off the ground with 20,000 helium filled party balloons, as well as Liz Carr’s Assisted Suicide: The Musical and Kaite O’Reilly’s Cosy, looking at our relationship to the medical profession.
The £3m, three-year Unlimited initiative aims to give venues a choice of work and stop them from, as Verrent put it, “programming shit, and the first piece of work that they came across with a wheelchair and a guide dog in it”. Getting the right people to programme the right work in the right situation is very much part of that, and Verrent says that things have shifted significantly since 2012 when Unlimited started. The point of Unlimited is not to build the “world’s most expensive ghetto” but work that competes on a level playing field with every other piece of art being produced in the UK.
But as Pádraig Naughton of Arts and Disability Ireland pointed out, it’s not just a question of developing disabled artists but also developing other advocates including disabled programmers, curators and marketeers who can assist in widening audiences and help institutions think differently about how and where they place work and how they support it.
That could of course include encouraging critical coverage which is currently very low for work made by disabled artists and particularly low for learning disabled artists. Of course there are plenty of other ways to validate work other than a review, but reviews do help raise quality as does a culture of critical self-awareness. Reviewers will be less likely to shy away from writing about work if they feel they can be honest about what they’ve seen and can review it not on the basis of the individual achievements of those involved making the work, or its social value, but on its aesthetics and whether the show sits proudly cheek by jowl with other work being reviewed at the same theatre or other venues. To do anything else fails readers, audiences and those making the work. The encouraging thing about the Mind the Gap event was that it recognised this and understood that the over-praising or programming of poor work damages not just disabled artists but all artists.