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Art and disability: The performers demanding to be judged on merit

A new play, Lady Eats Apple, is inspired by near-death experiencesImage copyright Jeff Busby
Image caption A new play, Lady Eats Apple, is inspired by near-death experiences

People with disabilities are becoming more visible in professional arts companies in Australia, reports Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.

In 2000, Bruce Gladwin, artistic director of the Back to Back theatre company, received a call from a newspaper in the city of Geelong. New statistics showed that fewer people were being born with Down’s syndrome due to increasing abortion rates. Would he comment?

For Back to Back – a theatre made up of actors with intellectual disabilities, including Down’s syndrome – such news could be worrying. But Mr Gladwin saw an opportunity. Prenatal testing, and a growing prevalence of “designer babies”, would become the subject of the Geelong-based company’s new production SOFT.

“It led us to make a work that looks at the huge implications [concerning] the number of actors in the company that have genetic conditions. It’s a work about the questions of our own existence in society,” says Gladwin of the 2002 play.

Back to Back remains one of Australia’s most successful theatre companies. Next month their new production Lady Eats Apple, inspired by stories of near-death experiences, will be shown in Perth and Sydney. The 2011 hit Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, meanwhile, has toured in 35 cities and 18 countries.

Disability across the performing arts is becoming more visible. Proponents include dance companies Rawcus in Melbourne and Restless Dance Theatre in Adelaide. Last December, Opera Queensland’s Orpheus and Eurydice featured amateur disabled performers alongside lead singers.

For productions, technology can be one way to circumvent physical challenges.

Image copyright Jeff Busby
Image caption Theatre company Back to Back’s plays often do not focus on disability at all

“Putting [cast members] into a large space, you think, how are they going to project their voice?” says Gladwin of Back to Back’s ensemble, who are not formally trained. In Lady Eats Apple, radio microphones attached to audience headphones project sound. Yet rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, Gladwin insists such decisions “start to define the aesthetics of the company”.

The history of disabled performers in the West is long, if fraught. So-called “freak shows” were a key component of travelling exhibitions in the Victorian era. And in more recent decades a focus has been on community projects, which are often more about charity and occupational therapy than professional art.

Today, however, disabled performers are making a stand. They are claiming the right to both control their own narratives and to put on productions judged not by the context of their own life stories but on merit.

“Our objective is to make the best art possible,” says Gladwin.

Back to Back’s productions often do not focus on disability at all as a subject matter. As important is “that the actors are seen as professional artists and are paid for their work”, says Gladwin.

It is a cause that has been taken up by national lobbying body Arts Access Australia, which, in 2012, launched the campaign “Don’t Play Us, Pay Us”, which called for disabled characters to be played by disabled actors.

Hollywood-style narratives, however, continue to tap into storylines of characters overcoming a disability to achieve great things – with characters often played by able-bodied actors.

Talk of an individual’s “success ‘in spite of’ their impairments” is common, wrote former Arts Access Australia chief Kate Larsen in an article for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Larson views such language as “disempowering” and, when it creeps out of scripts and into theatrical criticism, detrimental.

Image copyright Bryony Jackson
Image caption Heather Lawson (left) and Michelle Stevens in the multi-sensory show Imagined Touch

“If every piece of work that features people with disability is patronised as being ‘inspirational’ and ‘amazing'[even when it’s not], it … perpetuates the [incorrect] assumption that arts and disability work equates only to community, amateur or therapeutic art,” she wrote.

Gladwin, for one, has witnessed a critical change in the way theatre featuring disabled actors is reviewed.

“That older guard could only see the company as some of benevolent organisation that was giving people an opportunity and somehow if they kept trying they would get somewhere,” he says. Since then, there has been a “shift of their understanding”.

Michelle Ryan, artistic director of youth dance company Restless Dance, which has performers with and without disabilities, believes productions should be informed by, but not defined by, disability.

Intimate Space, premiering at the Adelaide Festival in March, has no mention of the word disability in promotional material. “I see our dancers as artists,” says Ryan.

“I think a lot of people can go to a performance with the expectation of ‘isn’t it nice that disabled people are dancing’,” she adds. “And that really irks me. I wanted Restless to be sexy; I wanted it to be not the poor cousin of other dance companies. It’s about the art, it’s not about the disability – we just happen to have disability.”

Ryan’s artistic direction is informed by her own experiences. The professional dancer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis aged 30 and now uses a wheelchair.

“Immediately I didn’t fit into the dance sector which was very much about body beautiful,” says Ryan, now 46. “I lost my career and my identity.”

It was only in 2011 when Ryan once again performed on stage – sitting in a chair – that she realised her vocation as a dancer was not over. “My perception of who I was was holding me back, but also a lack of opportunities in Australia. It was that moment where I felt my soul soar again,” she recalls.

Image copyright Bryony Jackson
Image caption Heather Lawson (left) meets audience member through touch

Jodee Mundy, director of multi-sensory show Imagined Touch, which premiered at the Sydney Festival in January, has a different aim: to confront disability head-on and plunge the audience into what it’s like to be deaf-blind.

Created by deaf-blind artists Michelle Stevens and Heather Lawson, Imagined Touch uses headphones and goggles to restrict light and sound, and asks audience members to break an abiding societal taboo: touch amongst strangers.

“There is almost a sense of voyeurism,” says Mundy. Yet the work is about “what it is to be human – that fundamentally we are all the same”.

“Heather and I are just like anyone else,” says Stevens. “The only difference is that we communicate in a different way than most people. Often people’s ignorance and a lack of knowledge about deaf-blindness is our disability. We want the audience to take away compassion, not pity, for us.”

Above all, she says, “we wanted to do this in an artistic way”.

Thirty-year-old Back to Back actor Scott Price, who has autism and Tourette’s Syndrome and has been with the company for a decade, agrees. As he says: “Art needs to come first, disability second.”

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