Sophie Partridge saw a recent performance of 'Changing Lives, Changing Times' by students from the Cathedral Academy of Performing Arts and Cockburn School, staged by the The Centre for Disability Studies and School of Performance & Cultural Industries at Leeds University
Staged by The Centre for Disability Studies at Leeds University, 'Changing Lives, Changing Times' was billed as ‘a musical theatre performance based on real stories of disability history and social change between the Second World War and today.
The real stories were taken from transcripts originally compiled from interviews undertaken by disabled academic Sonali Shah, as a cross-generational study of disabled people’s experiences, over the last 50 years.
This publication then led to students from the Cathedral Academy of Performing Arts and students from Cockburn School attending workshops led by both non-disabled academics and disabled practitioners, culminating in a performance which included performer David Toole with narration by Lara Woodhouse.
The afternoon began with an introduction to disability history from Richard Rieser, known for his commitment to Inclusive Education. The tone of this was somewhat harsh. Whilst I personally, fully acknowledge the evils of Pudsey Bear, I think more explanation is needed than just stating ‘Rights not Charity’ without putting it in any meaningful context for a school audience. Hopefully that concept was explored in the workshops but I think for the majority that afternoon, the de-sanctifying of said Bear was something of an upsetting revelation! Perhaps rightly so...
That right I felt, was then unfortunately undermined by the fact that all the performers bar Toole, were non-disabled; particularly when the piece was tagged with the disability history label. I understand that there had been problems in locating both disabled participants and even an Inclusive school for the project – and that the premise was to focus on disability awareness. For me though, Disability is always about Equality. If a parallel piece were part of Black History Month – would it ever be acceptable to have White people tell Black stories?
However, the performance itself was strong and enjoyable. Clearly the students had responded in an honest and open way to the material they had been given. At times it was difficult to discern the original stories from new material the students themselves had contributed. I was familiar with the three main `characters’ whose stories were being told, so was able to distinguish that material from contemporary interviews of views on disability. I can imagine it was difficult to do so, without prior knowledge.
David Toole and Lara Woodhouse both added an authenticity, which was very much needed. I struggled with the `abuse scene’, feeling that drama students were ‘going for it’ somewhat, but they really got to grips with ideas of isolation and the fear of revealing a character’s disabled identity, signified by one performer literally dancing on the spot. Also the `fundraising for CP’ scene was the point where the whole glee genre, really came into its own with that American-styley glitz & glam appeal.
The performance was very clearly a hit with its audience and my hope is that if it has a future run, it will show evidence of another old favourite slogan “Nothing About Us, Without Us.”