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The Unlimited Festival: an overall impression

By Gary Thomas

I should begin with a note that I didn’t go to everything, but when I did attend the Southbank Centre was buzzing, and so was I.

The first thing I noticed when I walked in on the Tuesday, the opening day, was Jo Verrent & Luke Pell’s striking ‘Take Me To Bed’, on the large screen at the back of The Clore Ballroom. It’s a choreography of sleep, with familiar faces from the disability art world on a bed, sleeping in various positions. The screen is life size, and personally I would have liked to see the beds closer together, but it worked well in the space.

The first event was the screening of a series of films commissioned by Channel 4 and the commissions from Channel 4 and 14-18 NOW. I loved Katherine Araniello’s, ‘Oh! What A Lovely, Lovely Ward’ for its dark humour - and just the mess of it all. A great spoof.

Then it was on to the very same Katherine Araniello live show, The Dinner Party, Revisited. The first thing that struck me was that the performance is a homage to ‘Dinner For One’, which was filmed in 1963 and has become the most repeated programme in television history. 

Katherine’s show however, was unique, and made fun of her, the sign language interpreters, the butlers, and all aspects of having friends over for dinner. Each character on the 6 screens set up behind a large dining table was played by Katherine. This unscripted piece of Live Art touched satirically on themes of ‘assisted suicide’ and ‘the infliction’.

Let Me Stay, Vital Xposure’s new work, performed giftedly by Julie McNamara, has stayed with me for a while. This one woman play about dementia felt more like a play about family, and how one supports family members, whether they’re ‘going quietly’ or not.  

The fact that Shirley, (Julie’s real life mother) was never one to 'go quietly, anywhere' is where a lot of the humour - and affection - comes from. Julie shifts effortlessly between ‘Julie’ and ‘Shirley’. There is great comedy in the interaction with the signer. The show also features a filmed backdrop shown as accompaniment to song. Watching Julie sing with her mother on screen, felt like sharing intimate moments we were privileged to watch.

Overall the festival on the Saturday was buzzing with excitement. There were a lot of people there, but some of the time everything felt a little cramped, even in a venue like the Southbank Centre. At one point I came out of the toilets to find I wasn’t sure how to get back to the bar area as so much equipment was in the way.

I assume Unlimited had little control over what was programmed in the venue and how it was presented. It did make me wonder how people with other access needs were able to get around?

There was a lot to take in. The programme was a little confusing. I didn’t realise certain shows were on. For example I hadn’t realised that Dao were running a poetry reading or the context for the public talks on the R&D commissions.

I was worried when I got there on Tuesday night that the festival would be playing to people we know. That certainly wasn’t the case as by the Saturday it was heaving with a mix of people. Certainly the film and artworks on display in the Royal Festival Hall - including Jo Bannon’s photographs - were constantly busy with avid audiences. 

On the Spirit Level, Lea Cummings work shone brightly in the space. Unfortunately you had to go through ‘The Tunnel of Love’ to get there, which was a trifle confusing.

I also heard positive things about The Vacuum Cleaner artist talk, something which I tried to get tickets for but was sold out.

But overall, it was a great experience as audience, I only wish I had the capacity to see more.

A plea for the next Unlimited Festival. Can we have wider industry delegate passes please!

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 16 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

Owen Lowery reading at the Southbank Centre on 7 September

By John O'Donoghue

I was a little underwhelmed last week by the Poetry Book Society’s announcement of the ‘Next Generation of 20 Poets expected to dominate the poetry landscape of the coming decade.' For one thing I’m sceptical about marketing campaigns that seek to highlight poets and poetry.

The Great British Public seems as indifferent to their bards as they are to their politicians, as if the two tribes are becoming beleaguered, endangered species. And whilst I don’t equate the sheer enthusiasm of young poets like Kate Tempest with the battle-scarred exhaustion of Nick Clegg, I think any campaign that has a palpable design on us needs closer scrutiny.

Especially in the light of the reading I went to at Southbank on Sunday 7th September as part of the Unlimited Festival. This was Owen Lowery’s first event as part of a tour he’s undertaking to promote his work. Lowery sustained a spinal injury at a judo tournament nearly 20 years ago and was left paralysed from the shoulders down, needing a ventilator to breathe. He’s the one writer Unlimited have funded, and as such has already distinguished himself, as his reviews to date confirm.

His first collection of poetry, Otherwise Unchanged, was published by Carcanet in 2012, and I read the book over the summer. I was intrigued to see how Lowery’s meticulous craftsmanship as a poet would transfer to the vagaries of a poetry reading. 

As a veteran of events where the audience outnumbered the performers; where poets are always asking promoters, ‘How am I doing for time?’ – you should know, pal!; where readers mumble, shuffle papers looking for poems they can’t find, and say they’ll finish with just one more – lasting a full twenty minutes, I know only too well how bad things can get.

But Lowery wasn’t like that. He took to the stage of the Function Room on Level 5 at the Royal Festival Hall with his wife Jayne and explained that the majority of the poems in the first half of his reading would be about the life that he and his wife share, with several of the poems written for her. So it seemed only right that Jayne read alongside him in the first half.

This suite of poems perhaps reached a zenith of tenderness and intimacy with ‘Morning Call’, a poem that reflected on Jayne’s relationship with her father: ‘the simple rewards/stack up when it’s your love coming/up the stairs, you for a daughter.’

Lowery builds this poem stanza by intricate stanza, that double focus on Jayne and her father so deftly handled that the we’re aware of the bonds between all three – wife, father, husband. As Lowery said introducing the poem, ‘I wanted to place myself in relationship to Jayne’s devotion to her father, and write from the position of a fascinated and partial observer, aware that Jayne also looks after me in a similar way.’  

The Lowerys went on to read poems inspired by their life together, taking in holidays in Wales, Mull, and in the Western Highlands. Lowery told us these poems were largely informed by the fluidity of these areas, the transitions between air, sea, and land, and this came through strongly in the sensuous, sinuous unwinding of Lowery’s lines: 

When it closes on the bark
the world has found a new colour.
We miss the moment it re-folds
in the curled breath of pre-dark. 
(A buzzard from Rose Cottage)

When Jayne read this poem in her earthy Lancashire accent I imagined Ted Hughes off to one side smiling and nodding his great head. But Hughes was not the only magician present at the Lowerys’ reading. As a lifelong Liverpool supporter Lowery shared a poem he’d written called ‘An apparition of Kenny Dalglish’. I think it was here that the evocative visuals and sounds really complemented the poem and Owen’s reading of it. A stencilled graffito of Dalglish didn’t ‘close down’ the poem, but rather opened it out, as we saw a stylised animation of the image: 

I’m hoping it was done from memory, 
from wearing on the artist’s back  that number seven,
scoring, re-scoring the same goals 
to the same commentator’s vocal hard-on.

The sounds and images were devised by Sam Skiner and Simon Jones, and added another dimension to the event. Never obtrusive, always evocative, these collages, montages, and animations acted to further mesmerise me, as the poems’ spell lulled me into a Sunday afternoon reverie. Through the window of the room five floors up I could see the London Eye, a carousel revolving in the blue air, the city stretching away.

Lowery’s poems, the visuals inside and outside the room, and his distinctive husky voice entranced me. He finished his reading with poems about soldier poets such as Keith Douglas and a glimpse of his next book. This is a series of poems inspired by Dame Paula Rego’s paintings, and one of these was displayed on the screens in the room, ‘Two women being stoned’.

It’s a stunning image, and Lowery’s poem brilliantly interpreted the painting. As he finished up with two final poems – ‘Elgar’s Cello Concerto’ and another poem about a Rego painting, ‘Dybbuk’ – I reflected on Lowery’s commitment to his craft and his command not only of language but of his ability to hold an audience. I thought too of Jayne and how she also brought a completeness to Lowery’s reading, a fine reader in her own right, and the inspiration of some of his most touching poems.

In the wake of the ‘Next Generation’ hype, Lowery is one poet I believe is truly touched with greatness. He is that rare thing in the ‘poetry landscape’: a poet whose talent seems to accumulate with each image, each poem, and I’m sure – judging by the peek he gave us of what’s to come – each book. I can’t wait for his next generation.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 15 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

'Shifting Identities: Otherwise Unchanged’ panel discussion at the Southbank Centre on 6 September

By Emmeline Burdett

Skillfully chaired by Tony Heaton, the chief executive of Shape, various disabled artists took part as panellists in the discussion: performance artist Sue Austin, dancers Marc Brew and Michelle Ryan, and the poet Owen Lowery.

Introducing the debate Tony mentioned that Shape Arts had been founded by a dancer who had met a young disabled person and had been determined to refute the claim that his impairment made it impossible for him to be a dancer.

All of the panellists have acquired impairments, and it became clear during the discussion that, in different ways, they had challenged others’ expectations of how this would affect their lives.

For example, Sue Austin described how her own artistic practice had developed due to the dissonance between her own view of her situation, and that of others. She described how being given a powerchair after a long period of being housebound gave her an enormous sense of freedom, which she has never lost, and how this contrasted sharply with others’ views that using a wheelchair was a tragedy.

Tony remarked that visibly impaired people are often thrust into the role of ‘unintended performer’, meaning that we are expected to ‘manage’ others’ reactions to our presence, as though such reactions were ‘natural’ and thus did not constitute behaviour.

Owen gave an example of this from his own recent experience. Owen and his wife were unobtrusively enjoying a meal whilst on holiday, when Owen became the object of unwelcome attention from diners at a nearby table. The diners began by whispering to each other about what Owen and his wife were having to eat – a self-evidently fascinating subject. When Owen’s wife kissed him, the diners asked each other “Is he [Owen] MARRIED?”

Marc Brew grew up in a small country town in Australia, and already felt like something of an outsider due to his desire to be a dancer. After being involved in a car accident in South Africa, his previous experience of ‘otherness’ perhaps made him more open to finding new ways of working and doing things.

Michelle Ryan had quite a different experience: she recalled that, after being diagnosed with MS at the age of thirty, she hid in an airport toilet to avoid a group of her fellow dancers.

There is obviously quite a gulf between hiding in an airport toilet and appearing at a Disability Arts festival. After a traumatic period of not acknowledging her own worth, she began to get back into dancing.

Similarly Sue Austin recalled how her impetus to perform such works as ‘Underwater Wheelchair’ grew when someone told her that his mother, who needed a wheelchair, was limiting her life by refusing to use one. This was, in some ways, a metaphor for the whole discussion. Simply dismissing all the feelings and experiences that disability brings is to limit one’s understanding of life as a whole.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 14 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 17 September 2014

'Happy to be Me': panel discussion at the Southbank Centre on 6 September

By Emmeline Burdett

‘Happy to be Me’ was chaired by Jude Kelly, featuring the disabled artists Liz Carr, Alex Bulmer, Claire Cunningham and Katherine Araniello. The subject under discussion was the ways in which disabled artists use art to get across ideas about impairment and disability which often differ markedly from those to be found in mainstream discourse.

To this end, the session opened with a performance of the opening number from Liz Carr and Alex Bulmer’s work-in-progress production, Assisted Suicide: The Musical.

The song, entitled ‘It’s a Great Day to Die!’ featured Alex Bulmer sitting in a hoist and wearing a hospital gown, whilst the song’s lyrics satirized the over-simplification of the assisted suicide debate, urging anyone whose life was changed by an acquired impairment to ‘Do the right thing –hurry now – before  it is too late!’

This acknowledgment that the acquisition of an impairment is often viewed by the mainstream as a kind of death (for which the only remedy is physical death) strongly linked ‘Happy to be Me’ to the previous panel discussion, ‘Shifting Identities: Otherwise Unchanged’.

In the discussion following the performance, Liz Carr and Alex Bulmer, the show’s co-creators, underlined their determination that the show should contribute to the debate by showing an alternative to what were usually very one-sided debates.

For example, Liz Carr remarked how all art tends to assume that support for assisted suicide is a given, and this very much echoes a recent Dao blog post by Colin Hambrook in which he wrote about his experience of attending a symposium (at a non-accessible theatre) on the subject of ‘Art and the End of Life’

The panel discussion also encompassed discussion of Claire Cunningham’s work Guide Gods, and Katherine Araniello’s The Dinner Party Revisited.

Cunningham explained how the work had grown partly out of her conversation with a former Buddhist monk that she met in Cambodia, who told her that an impaired person could not be a monk, and who attributed his impairment to karma.

This set her on a path to discovering what attitudes various religions took towards disability and impairment, and along the way she discovered that faith-based organisations can sometimes be fairly fatalistic about their lack of disabled worshippers, as the fact that they have never had to address access issues means that they have never really thought seriously about the problem. At the same time Cunningham found that her research led her to question her own preconceived ideas about religion.

Katherine Araniello also spoke about the ways in which her own work challenged expectations – not in the sense of having Araniello jumping out of her wheelchair, but by such things as producing work in which disability is removed from its usual medicalised context. In the case of The Dinner Party Revisited, questions such as that of who controls who were raised in an anarchic and original way.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 14 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

The Royal Festival Hall hosted a series of Unlimited presentations, visual arts, film and t-shirts

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By Richard Downes

Summer can’t decide whether it should be autumn today. Reaching the end of Hungerford Bridge I hear the Buzzcocks asking ‘Ever Fallen In Love’, Diverse City’s Young Performance Company have drawn a crowd appreciative of dance and circus skills.

Entering the foyer Tom Doughty and Adrian Lee from the Paraorchestra are strumming and singing to an attentive audience. The whole place is buzzing. I’ve got friends here and I’m at Unlimited a festival I’ve fallen in love with. It must be summer.

Or is it Autumn? Something calling itself The Unlimited Story is before me: photographs from 2013. Behind them images promoting 2014. In the empty space behind that space, future seasons. Autumn is harsh this year. The leaves are shaken from my tree. The presentation of our people’s work hang from tawdry banners, emblazoned with platitudes.

This is no story. Or maybe there is. The company men have stepped in to promote themselves and the festival. It’s a painful allegory alluding to the risks we run as non-appreciated units categorised as non-productive.

If someone had manipulated my work as a practicing artist or as a photographer recording the work and making my own, in this way, I’d have felt like returning to Hungerford Bridge. A shameful soiling of the hope our true story and the story of Unlimited brings.

Over the last month I’ve been noting facebook messages that have smacked of desperation. Calling young activist artists. Please send us a word or two. "We need your slogan here". I’m sure the kids who coughed up for this are as proud as punch to have their slogans on a shirt hanging in this amazing place even if they are right at the back of the building.

It just feels like someone had a spare tenner and decided to give it to the kids. There are no signs of engagement, involvement, or creativity. The slogans are old school.

It’s getting cold in here. I was really looking forward to Unlimited On Screen though. I’ve seen some great use of space to do projections at the Southbank and you only have to take a look at the Unlimited website to know how great these films are.

But as of last year I’ve got a problem with the presentation. Yes… access to the telly is much improved. I’m more comfortable. The telly’s bigger. But there's too much happening around me to concentrate.

I note Katherine Araniello’s 2013 Mascot is turned away from the screen. I’m off too. I didn’t bring a coat and it's cold and I’m thinking of the Buzzcocks; ‘Should na' fallen in love with’.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 12 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

The Kaos Signing Choir took over the Clore Ballroom on Sunday morning to spread a bit of happiness

By Amardeep Sohi

I went to the Learn How to Sign, Sing and Dance to Pharrell William’s Happy Workshop and participatory workshop

Happy: a state of mind and the title of the infectious single by Pharrell Williams, which induced adults and children alike, to gather at the Southbank Centre on a sunny Sunday afternoon to sign, sing and dance.

It’s not often that I abandon my pen and notebook when reviewing, but abandon them I did. Learning how to sign is engraved onto my list of things to learn, and this workshop presented the perfect opportunity to start.

The fedora-sporting Jemima and Mikeel led the crowd that had gathered under the glistening glitterball of the Clore Ballroom. Forming a large circle, the group was asked to begin the warm-up session by introducing a dance move to the group that signified happiness for them.

Examples of the happy moves put forth by the group included: swirling, body-rolling, leaping and hip shaking. Warm up complete, the session moved onto learning sign language to accompany the song lyrics. The song is only made up of two verses and that clap calling chorus, so it seemed achievable for even the most inexperienced novice.

The pace was a little fast for this particular novice, but nothing that the repetitive structure of the workshop didn’t resolve. Although, breaking down the signing, would have resulted in less repetition.

Organisers of this participatory workshop could not have chosen a more befitting soundtrack.  Not only is it a song that can compel the most reluctant of dancer to move, but the joyous energy is catching. By the end of the session, the steady stream of adults easily outnumbered the children.

The final performance was enhanced by the uplifting sound of the Kaos Signing Choir, who raised the musical bar during a final performance that brought the footfall of the Southbank Centre to a halt, and commandeered the attention of all those in the vicinity.

I struggle to think of a more creative and memorable way of learning BSL.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 9 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

Two of the British Paraorchestra’s finest musicians, Tom Doughty and Adrian Lee, entertain an appreciative crowd in the main foyer space of the Royal Festival Hall

By Lloyd Coleman

Because of the nature of this free Unlimited Festival event, last Friday afternoon, audience members were able to come and go as they pleased. It was a testament to the skill and natural charm of these two men that so many chose to stay for the whole hour-long set, once we had settled into the comfy sofas and (not so comfy) chairs laid out in front of the performance area.

Tom led the proceedings with his usual dry wit, which I have come to know and love through our collaborations in the Paraorchestra. When we toured to Qatar earlier this year, I remember he spoke to a roomful of EU diplomats in the British Ambassador’s residence, and without effort pierced the thin layer of po-faced formality and forced a wide grin onto everyone in the room.

He has a knack for making an audience, however big or small, feel completely at ease. In between songs, Tom would turn to Adrian (also a Northerner, now living in London) and ask such questions as: “How does this one go again?” and “We’re doing the one in E minor now, right?” This relaxed style of presentation is something from which many of my colleagues – particularly in the world of classical music – could learn a lot.  

While they may share the same instrument, Tom and Adrian come from quite different musical backgrounds. Tom plays the slide guitar on his lap, and sings songs that follow on the tradition of blues music.

Adrian will more often be found playing an electric guitar, and if you come to a Paraorchestra gig you won’t fail to see (or indeed hear) him dancing with his feet across a board of effect pedals. Though it has to be said that on this particular occasion, Adrian offered us a more ‘stripped back’ version of his magical sound worlds, in order to match Tom’s gentle strumming.

That last observation reaches to the heart of what made this particular pairing so beautiful to listen to. Both are renowned for their musical sensitivity within the Paraorchestra. Adrian can always be relied upon to provide a rock steady pulse with his ostinati, and Tom somehow always hits the sweet spot with his solo lines, entering and concluding at just the ideal moment.

Things were no different at this gig; it was apparent that there was a real, deep and mutual respect between them. When Tom announced that the last number of the set would be one that everyone would “all definitely know, for a change”, he conveyed some nervousness. But they needn’t have worried that the only song everyone would definitely know was Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘I heard it Through the Grapevine’, recalled in their own inimitable style. That’s because no matter how unfamiliar the material was, it was an absolute pleasure to spend a Friday lunchtime in the company of these two brilliant artists.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 9 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

Ian Johnston & Gary Gardiner share some tender moments in 'Dancer'

By Sophie Partridge

You know you've found yourself on to a good thing when entering a space and Greatest Dancer by Sister Sledge is playing! A lady `terp signs the lyrics, whilst two men dressed in dinner suits dance in front of a screen on which they are projected. On the dark floor are placed pairs of those white feet silhouettes, used in dance classes. I come in half way through the track and to my delight, it's looped again.

Dancer was created by Ian Johnston and Gary Gardiner, alongside the late-lamented Adrian Howells and is described as ‘a gentle provocation of what it is to be a dancer’. The exuberance of dance – of that freedom in that moment, is at it's heart.

As Sister Sledge fades and Ian, a young man, pauses for breath, Gary also younger, invites us audience to dance. I'm in my chair on the side, next to Colin Hambrook but most of the audience are seated opposite the dance space and apart from a little gentle foot tapping, have remained staid.

I'm tempted to join in, but am here to review and as my Mum formally instructed me yesterday morning, “I must CONCENTRATE”. So the moment passes and Gary introduces Ian; `interesting facts' about his family, the bands he likes and definitely doesn't like (Robbie Williams) plus the tracks we'll hear in the show. 

Ian's impairment name is also given; it's that usual thing where words make up a long title, which in reality, bare very little relation to the person. Basically, Ian can be both shy and gregarious at times (can't we all?) and has ok'd it with Gary to speak for him. 

Gary mentions the passing of their friend Adrian and Ian's Mum; Ian's Dad gets bigged up a lot! I suddenly have a little inner panic; maybe this is going to be the show that catches me out? Will this be the one where I blub? 

CONCENTRATE and I'm rescued at that moment by Ian taking around a basket of badges with the feet silhouettes on, to the audience. I don't usually do badges but I really wanted one right then! I whispered “Can I have one?” to Ian and avoiding eye-contact, he moved the basket back into my reach. We all moved on.

Ian and Gary then proceeded to try the steps, hesitantly, on the ground; they make it together to the front of the space and Gary assures us that anyone can dance; even those `wheelchair-bound' (but I'll forgive them that term! Once!) 

And then Gary and Ian dance some more. The screen comes into it's own as it felt okay to watch closely, without making Ian uncomfortable with forced eye-contact. The tables are turned when Ian holds up question cards for Gary to answer. We're not sure how truthful Gary's answers are, but Ian doesn't seem bothered. Does it matter? 

Now I'm enjoying myself more than concentrating! And then they dance some more. This time embracing, hands entwined, holding each other close: two young men dancing together… waltzing? Oh so tender. Dancer moves me. I've finally found my emotional fix at Unlimited, no need to blub. 

Paper balls are thrown at the mention of Robbie Williams (I'll forgive that as well!) and we finish on an upbeat track; again we audience are invited to dance and this time, (still pretty staid), most of them do. 

I simply stay sat next to Colin. I'm happy and wobbly. I danced.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 7 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

Michelle Ryan lays bare some intimate moments in one of the most compelling shows in Unlimited

Blog by Colin Hambrook

I was very excited when I heard Wendy Martin talking about her reasons for programming Michelle Ryan & Torque for Unlimited. Michelle had been a dancer with the Belgian Dance Company Les Ballets C De La B and Alain had encouraged Michelle to carry on dancing after the onset of MS meant that her movement changed enormously. She was frightened to dance. She was frightened she’d fall over. And Alain said “what’s to be frightened of? You just get up and carry on.”

If anyone out there remembers Les Ballets C de la B performing Foi (Faith) in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in March 2003 they are likely to recall a raving fool standing up and screaming “stop the war” at the top of his voice for five minutes at the end of the performance. I’m embarrassed to let you know that that was me! 

Foi was a dance theatre piece about dispossession and what happens to communities living through war. It had the dancers doing the most violent things to themselves and to each other that I’ve seen on a stage. And the show featured a learning disabled dancer who was there because it was important that Foi embrace community in as realistic a way as possible.

Michelle Ryan’s Intimacy is about the internal dispossession that happens with impairment. I could relate wholeheartedly to the images in the horrific dreams of being cut and sliced that Michelle tells with such a disarming, deadpan delivery.

The authenticity with which Michelle relays her experience touched on something universal that tells an 'everyman' experience about disabled peoples' lives. It reminded me of the dreams that come back to me from time to time; always about being buried; lost in caves that have no entrance or exit; of forgetting my name, or anything about myself.

And I thought these are important stories to convey. The last thing we want is pity, but in order for people to appreciate, there needs to be understanding of the reality of disabled peoples' lives. Of what it's like to live with impairment.

The show is also about the rejection and dishonesty you can face from others, from those you thought you trusted most, when impairment storms your life. 

Not that Intimacy is a tragic but brave story. It tells a tale of finding the inner resources to deal with the impact of disability and to make something poweful and authentic out of that experience. Intimacy finds it way with an all-abiding wry humour that permeates the songs, the stories, the engagement with the audience (yes, there is a fair bit of audience participation).

Intimacy doesn't set out to make its audience feel uncomfortable. Its intention is to let you know just how ridiculous life can be; and that when life undermines everything you thought you knew, the only option is to carry on and make the most of it; to make more of it than perhaps you would have made if you’d gone through life without an impairment.

Michelle Ryan is an artistic director with Restless Dance Theatre in Adelaide, whose work I'd thoroughly recommend.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 6 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

Be there at the start: Ailís Ní Ríain talks about her fascinating BSL, film, live music, new writing and live drawing project 'The Drawing Rooms'

By Colin Hambrook

It became clear this morning during the presentations of Unlimited projects in research & development that the clear thing that Unlimited is doing, is to allow the voices of individual disabled artists to come through; to experiment in new and exciting ways; and to allow something fresh to happen, outside of the often limiting constraints of companies within the disability arts sector who work to specific impairment-related agendas.

I was entranced by the imagination of classical composer and theatre writer Ailís Ní Ríain. Her R&D project The Drawing Rooms will be a place where strange stories are told through BSL, film, live contemporary classical music, new writing and live drawing.

Ailís talked about her love of the paintings of 15th century painter Hieronymous Bosch and  the similarities in terms of  the concept of ‘difference’ similar to the stories told through the Unlimited programme.

His paintings are crammed full of colourful characters who find themselves in unusual predicaments. The question the images pose is one all of us are familiar with, as disabled people: namely how do we make situations work for us when they are extremely difficult to navigate? 

These are often very individual pieces of problem-solving and, as such, often difficult to deal with or communicate the need for some consideration from a world that doesn’t meet our expectations. To put it into a personal context Ailís told us that her hearing aids often presented her with a world where there was too much sound. 

Going back to Bosch, there is a character in The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1501) who has found himself inside the body of a duck. He has limited mobility and motor functions. So what can he do? He can sing about his challenges, so that’s what he does.

Another, particular favourite of Ailís’ is a character from the same painting she’s named Mr Rollercoaster who rolls and strolls on four wheels “flying the flag for a no mans nation.”

Bosch included a lot of strange musical instruments in the his paintings. Ailís told us that all the musicians come to a terrible end through playing the instruments. So she’s set herself the task of writing a score for replica’s of these instruments and she’s planning to work out a way of looking at how the sound produced can be gestured in a way that works in British Sign Language.

It sounds a wonderful experiment. But that’s only part of it. As well as the live musicians she is collaborating with an artist who draws exremely fast and detailed drawings. We rarely see drawing as performance, but it is a magical thing. She intends to give her audience a birds eye view on the drawing as it happens. 

A showcase for The Drawings Rooms happens in December. Watch this space for further details.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 4 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

Be there at the start: Pete Edwards talks about making work on sexual abuse

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By Colin Hambrook

Pete Edwards has set himself some interesting challenges for his Unlimited research and development project.

Pete’s award is to explore the difficult and taboo subject of rape and sexual abuse. He wrote a play about his life story after doing a Graeae Missing Pieces training course. However, when it came to the proposal for Unlimited he put the script to one side, making the decision that he wanted to devise a piece with actors, who like himself, have different speech patterns.

He toured his one-man show FAT - a multi-media exploration of a gay disabled man’s desire, sexuality and urge to communicate through 2009-10 and took it to Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, produced by ArtsAdmin. After FAT, he decided he wanted to concentrate on directing, specifically working out a way of including actors with different speech, without the constraint of having the speech interpreted for the audience.

He said that “A year ago we did a whole range of drama exercises looking at how actors could work on stage without text or without someone speaking on their behalf and that’s why I wanted to direct, so I can look at that for other people.”

Sexual abuse is an issue that gets hidden and needs addressing. Working on such a sensitive subject has meant putting his actors through some upsetting scenarios. He wanted to highlight the oft-forgotten fact that disabled people can be also be the abusers! So through the dividing process they have a code word ‘banana’, which basically means ‘I’m uncomfortable with what I’m doing. Can we stop and talk about what’s happening.”

Sexual abuse is not a comfortable subject for mainstream theatres to programme. Ruth Gould from DaDaFest raised the fear that issue-based shows are often pushed into an educational context, instead of being made for larger theatre spaces for a wider audience. 

As the piece is developing so it’s turning into a story that contains a mix of realism with more abstract scenes that weave in and out of each other. 

Abuse is something that often gets pushed to one side. But with the rise in hate crime against disabled people, it strikes me as a more and more important area to make art about.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 4 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 10 September 2014

The Flickering Darkness in the White Room in the underbelly of the Royal Festival Hall

Blog by Colin Hambrook

Unlimited kicked off today with slow, measured start. It was a day of watching films and chatting to disabled artists and friends. 

I made sure to see Juan delGado’s Flickering Darkness and decided it was a point in the festival I’d return to a few times during Unlimited at the Southbank Centre.

It’s tucked away in the White Room on the downstairs Spirit Level of the building; an space easy to miss as you have to journey through the Tunnel of Love in the underbelly of the Royal Festival Hall, to find it.

Here, Flickering Darkness has the setting it deserves. I saw the film some years ago but missed the nuances of the composition of what is essentially a complex film installation that gives an artistic flavour to the processes of food production, distribution and consumption in Bogota. 

In a previous interview on Dao, Spanish film-maker Juan delGado said the film sets out to “pose an enigmatic invitation to think about effects and atmospheres.”

On the way to the White Room you cannot miss Lea Cummins Field of Infinite Possibilities - a terrific exhibition of some bright and beautiful coloured drawings, created in the unconscious techniques first pioneered by the Surrealists.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 2 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

The Unlimited opening event: Does It Matter? WW I Shorts commissioned by Channel 4

By Colin Hambrook

The launch event of the day was a presentation of the series of World War I shorts commissioned made for Channel 4 by a series of artists who feature regularly on Dao: Claire Cunningham, Simon Mckeown, Katherine Araniello, Tony Heaton and Jez Colbourne.

I’d thoroughly recommend going to the Channel 4 website to view the films. However, it was a treat being able to see them in the Clore Ballroom on a large scale. And to hear some of the stories behind the making of the films through a conversation between Unlimited Producer Jo Verrent and Shape CEO Tony Heaton.

For instance I hadn’t realised the fate of learning disabled people during the First World War. Whilst many were thrown in at the deep end in the first rush to conscript young men; soon after they were refused from conscription completely; thus the tone and execution of Jez Colborne’s lyric in Soldiering On.

It was interesting to hear from Tony too, talking about his research, looking at war memorials; bearing witness to the fact that they’ve become invisible because we’ve stopped looking at them. 

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 2 September 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

Julie McNamara's 'Let Me Stay', another of the shows which has just received Unlimited funding, previews at CoolTan Arts

I am delighted that Julie McNamara and her company Vital Xposure have received an Unlimited award for Let Me Stay. I’ve known Julie a long time now – through thick and thin you might say. And I know her well enough to say that she puts everything into whatever she turns her attention to.

Let Me Stay is a treat. I saw Julie perform Let Me Stay in a makeshift theatre space – the sort of space that proves that you can make theatre anywhere, if you are good enough and committed enough to what you’re doing.

Okay, so it probably helped that Julie had loads of mates in the audience; so that when the stage lights stopped suddenly, she was able to improvise, calling out “somebody lend them 50p for the ‘leccy”, slipping into her mums character like a well-worn and much loved frock… or shoe, possibly. Let Me Stay involves lots of shoes.

Julie moves effortlessly between herself, her mum, and a massive cast of do-gooders, ne ‘er do wells and various motley bods.

The tempo is loud, brash and full of warmth and heart as Julie takes us into her mother Shirley’s world, before and after the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Let Me Stay lifts the lid off the taboo of Alzheimer’s and gently, good spiritedly confronts the audience with their fears to lead us into a humane space, undressing the nuts and bolts of being human and finding that when the mind unravels, yes there is darkness and despair, but there is poetry too.

If there was a weakness to the last round of Unlimited it was perhaps that much of the work was too ambitious and therefore too expensive for any but larger venues, like the Southbank Centre. This round will show a larger variety of performance for big and small venues.

Vital Xposure’s Let Me Stay engages with issues that affect people from all walks of life. It's great that the Southbank Centre is taking it, and the kind of family orientated audience you can expect there, will see it, but it has the potential to fit a range of types of theatre space and therefore to be seen by a host of different types of audience.

I’ve just found out that Let Me Stay has been selected for the PULSE festival on Thursday 5th June as well as for the ANXIETY festival running from May through June 2014. 

If you can get to see it, I'd thoroughly recommend it.

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 4 April 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014

Trish Wheatley gives her first reactions to the Unlimited selections

Unlimited represents a big investment in disabled artists and the selection for this round of full commissions and research and development projects contains some really exciting work.

After the huge success of the Unlimited programme in 2012, which culminated in the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre it is easy to try to make comparisons. Without the backdrop of the Olympic and Paralympic Games there is less funding – and that which is available has to stretch across three years, but investments from Arts Council England and Creative Scotland, combined with a collaborative delivery team from Shape and Arts Admin means there is still much to look forward to from this programme. This will include another partnership with the Southbank Centre plus a welcome emphasis on touring in the regions.

The main 2014 programme comprises of nine commissions with an interesting selection that leans towards theatre, dance and performance/live art. Recent productions including Let Me Stay (Vital Exposure/Julie McNamara), Edmund the Learned Pig (Fittings) and Wendy Hoose (Bird of Paradise Theatre) will tour, exposing the work to new audiences. 

I’m delighted that Dao blogger Katherine Araniello has received a commission and I’m really looking forward to her work in The Dinner Party Revisited, which “sees the artists play host to six television monitor ‘guests’, all played by Araniello” with the work forming “a satirical and darkly comic take on some of the clichés around disability.”

A first for Unlimited is a poetry collection called Otherwise Unchanged by Owen Lowery, which I’m very curious to find out more about. There are 17 R&D grants being given and the rumour is we may see the work in progress at Southbank Centre and other venues over the coming months. Dao will be following these closely so look out for interviews with the artists.

Ultimately, it’s an exciting time for many and there is another round still to come for those who weren’t successful this time. 

Dao is the official media partner for Unlimited and we are pleased to be working to bring you all the latest news and insights on this exciting programme.  Watch this space!

Posted by Colin Hambrook, 1 April 2014

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 December 2014