What kind of experience was the Unlimited Festival for the Southbank Centre? How will they continue to support disability arts? Nina Muehlemann talks to Wendy Martin, Head of Performance and Dance at London’s Southbank Centre, to find out.
How did the Unlimited Festival at Southbank happen?
Southbank has a long history of working with artists with disabilities. Of course Candoco had its first public performance here, and last year they celebrated their 20th anniversary during Dance Umbrella in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Also, in a way, Southbank is like the people’s palace. One of the really special events that happens here every year is Heart’n’Soul’s Beautiful Octopus Club.
Southbank is really interested in engaging the audiences in discussion and debate, and in events in which they feel like they have a deep participation in. So in many ways, Southbank felt like the right place at the right time. We were actually invited by the Arts Council to host this event, which I think turned out to be very unique.
Having had the Unlimited here, do you think it has changed the Southbank Centre’s relationship with disability arts?
I think everybody at Southbank Centre, from the CEO to the front of house staff, everyone was deeply committed to making the festival work, and we did an enormous amount of work in the lead-up to the festival, so that people had a very special experience, and I think that paid off.
We had a lot of training sessions, and I thought the feedback we got from audiences and the artists showed that it paid off. We learnt an enormous deal while putting the festival together. It changed the physical nature of entering some of our venues, we created a website unique to Unlimited so that it was as accessible as possible, we tried to make the venues as accessible as possible.
And we will never put on an event now without making those considerations. It has become embedded in our thinking. We are in the process of organising a renovation for the Purcell Room and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the whole East wing of the Centre and everything that we learnt during Unlimited will go into the renovation of those two venues. By the time they re open, the Southbank Centre will hopefully be fully and utterly accessible to everyone.
But I think the deep resonance with Southbank Centre lies in the work that we saw here, the quality of discussion and debate. I think there was a wonderful sense of community between the artists and the audiences. People seemed to be coming back, and artists seemed to be going to each other’s shows. There was an enormous spirit of generosity around the events.
How did the programming work? Most of the things that were on were Cultural Olympiad commissions, but there were some exceptions, can you tell me more about this?
It was my job to program the festival, and in the 12 months prior to it I travelled around the UK, seeing the commissioned work. Once I got an understanding of the Unlimited commissions, I felt it was important that we rounded the program out. For example, there was not a lot of comedy, cabaret and live music. There was the visual arts side to it, but performances were mainly dance or theatre.
We also wanted it to be accessible to people who maybe could not afford to buy tickets, so the Clore Ballroom became sort of a festival hub, and that’s where we presented comedy, cabaret and the Beautiful Octopus Club. I just felt it was important to embellish the programme, so that it felt rounded and accessible to kids, to adults and to people who might not necessarily go and see straight dance, circus or theatre.
Did you have any concerns in advance?
All our anxieties were around taking care of the artists and the audiences. These are buildings that were made in the 1950s, and they are not fully accessible, so we invested a lot of time trying to make certain that it was a good experience to be in this space. Of course, it was imperfect – there were issues for people, but we tried to deal with them the best we could.
As a programmer, I was here all day every day, and I was talking to the audiences, and I was talking to the artists. And what touched me the most was the feedback from the artists – I think nobody quite expected the incredible atmosphere and the sense of community. We couldn’t have asked for more.
The thing that I realised is the importance of the funding support for artists, whether disabled or not. What Unlimited showed was that if artists who are talented are properly supported, they are able to fly.
Do you think the Unlimited will have an impact on cultural life in the UK/abroad?
I travel a lot around the UK and abroad, and I’m telling everybody about Unlimited. I know for example Claire Cunningham has had many, many invitations. Personally, I came to the UK from Australia 18 months ago, and I’ve seen many shows in Europe in that time, and for me Claire’s Ménage a Trois was one of the finest pieces of theatre I had the privilege to see. It’s a great piece of art.
I think the Paralympics resonated hugely with people. I think what we all learn from those athletes competing in the Paralympics is the endless possibility for all of us. I think the art of Unlimited did the same for people – it showed that anything is possible and that nobody should be judged at face value. And I think if that’s the legacy of London 2012, then that’s a brilliant thing.
What are the things The Southbank Centre is doing to make sure Unlimited keeps having an impact?
Well of course, my eyes were really opened to the whole range of artists, and I got to know them very well, so of course I am going to follow their careers and look out for other artists I have been made aware of because of the international delegates who came to Unlimited.
There’s extraordinary work going on in Spain, in Switzerland, but what is very interesting, and I think this is an important thing, is that the festival in Switzerland presents the work of disabled and non-disabled artists together. I think in one way, it’s great to have a disability arts festival, because you get the focus of the media. There is a strong story to tell. But you have to consider the question of separation. Why?
Last Christmas, we presented the Rhinestone Rollers in the Clore Ballroom, so we are very consciously looking for strong work by Deaf and disabled artists – it is in our DNA now, it’s part of what we do – We have done it before, but this has really fired us up to make sure that there is a strong legacy and that those weren’t just 11 fantastic days in 2012.
Since we conducted this interview, the Southbank Centre has also announced that Claire Cunningham’s Unlimited piece ‘Ménage à Trois’ will be shown again in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday 6 March, as part of the Women of the World festival.
In addition, the Southbank Centre is showing Push Me’s film 'Total Permission', a documentary following conductor Charles Hazlewood and the British Paraorchestra during the 2012 Unlimited festival, on Wednesday 6 February at 7.45pm in the Purcell Room. Documentary curator Jo Verrent hosts this evening of film and discussion.