On 5 June New Wolsey Theatre’s Pulse Festival brought together 60 representatives from the world of theatre for 'Ramps on the Moon': a day of reflection and performance centred around the involvement of Deaf and disabled people in the sector. Liz Porter gives an overview of a day of provocation and discussion.
The day kicked off with speeches from a panel chaired by Jamie Beddard New Wolsey’s Agent for change. Speakers included Sarah Holmes Artistic Director New Wolsey, Amy Netleton another NW Agent for Change, Charlotte Bevan the National Theatre Casting Director and actor/ activist Simon Startin.
Simon passionately prompted the audience to consider his provocation: ‘An Art that Excludes is an Art that lies’ he urged those in positions of power to look around, to notice the real world and embrace: “include Deaf and disabled people in all aspects of your work.”
Despite all that has been pushed for especially in the last 20 years, the current sector is still nowhere near representative of our diversity and it seems hard to push conversations beyond ‘access to audience issues’ – and the wheel turn-eth round and seems to keep on turning without much change.
Yet there are positive initiatives. New Wolsey’s 'Agent for Change' programme is making waves and generating partnership working. The last time they held an event like this there were only about 20 organisations present. Their network has grown and the day was a sell-out with organisations on a waiting list. It’s excellent that they have been awarded a significant new touring grant to expand on collaborative work in this field. The impact of involving disabled professionals at the heart of this work is definitely making a difference.
Charlotte Bevan (National Theatre Casting Director) reflected on their experience last year when they put out a call for Deaf and disabled actors to audition. They were delighted in the response they had, learnt a great deal during the process and said that the day had not cost a huge amount to put on in terms of access and they will be doing it again. They are a huge institution, a member of the audience questioned how the learning could be cascaded to smaller organisations and asked if there was potential for sharing audition days?
Auditions ought to lead to roles? So hopefully we should see the NT include more Deaf and disabled performers in their work. At lunch I was chatting to Charlotte about creative casting. I’ve always thought classical theatre (which largely seems to remain one-dimensional) would be one of the easiest platforms to include Deaf and disabled people. After all, historically there were far more of us around, and for the sake of authenticity there could surely be an opportunity here to move away from just including disabled people in impairment-related roles?
We’ve got a heck of a long way to go to redress the balance in theatre, film and TV. It’s great the NT have a proactive casting team but the directors and producers need to buy in to the package too. There was much reflection from the floor about the need for more disabled people in positions of power with meaningful mentoring support; the need for more disabled people and disability related research in drama training and university degree courses; the need for support to be provided to enable disabled people to put in more funding applications.
It was pointed out that ACE G4A applications from disabled people are undersubscribed in many regions outside of London. How can the network be developed through Agent for Change programmes and be a vehicle for supporting applications? And what could be done to keep this network engaged and connected with disability? The wheel keeps a turning...
It was exciting to meet dynamic young producers: new faces, such as Sarah Jane Leigh who had come with Welsh-based Buddug James Jones Collective whose award winning show Hiraeth was being shown that Friday night. Sarah was passionate about her work, and genuinely interested in how the company could include more disabled people in their work and explore creative aesthetic access in productions.