Reflecting on Mind the Gap’s latest production, Contained, which tells the personal stories of its performers, Allan Sutherland argues that work which reflects disabled people’s experience of disability is essential to counter non-disabled narratives and assumptions.
Contained is a sophisticated multi-media show, but at its core lies the performers’ personal experiences, narrated directly to the audience. It reminds me a little of Heart n Soul’s 2001 Large, about which I wrote at the time, ‘I know from my own performance work that this kind of honesty isn't easy, but it's enormously liberating. ‘
One key issue in Disability Arts has been autobiography. Making art that is informed by a personal experience of disability almost certainly means incorporating elements of that experience into the work, whether or not the fact is apparent to that work’s audience. But how to transform the experiences into art without losing the power of direct telling? This is a question that Contained responds to magnificently.
There is an utterly misguided view that disabled people shouldn’t tell their stories at all, they’re just whining on when they do so, creating a kind of art that can be as bad as it likes because no-one’s allowed to criticise it. I reject that attitude absolutely.
Disabled people get talked about, but less often listened to; looked at but rarely seen. So it is absolutely essential that disabled people tell their own stories. Many non-disabled people assume that the experience of disability is only what they can see, and what they imagine it to be. This tends to tell us more about the experience, and vulnerabilities, of being supposedly non-disabled than it does about the experience of living with real impairments and real disability. But disability is not a spectator sport. Disabled people’s experience of disability is more important than non-disabled people’s limited experience of the visible aspects of our impairments. We are the ones who have that experience, and we are the ones who have the right to say what it consists of.
Some stories need telling more than others. I don’t mean that they are more important, but that they are more unheard. In my case, I have responded to the fact that epilepsy, though a very common condition, is largely unseen and heavily demonised, so that few epileptics come out as such. From the time I was diagnosed, it was over 20 years before I met someone I knew to have my own disability. So my stage performances, stand-up and then poetry, have tried to inform people about what it’s like to live with the condition and all the crap that gets aimed at you when you have it. But they’re also a public coming-out, a way of saying to other epileptics, ‘It’s okay, you’re not on your own’.
Similarly, it’s vitally important for people with learning difficulties to tell their stories, because they are so often overlooked, patronised or sidelined. This can happen even to performers. I remember a show some years ago by a prestigious French theatre company. In a question session afterwards, the (non-disabled) director answered various questions from the audience, until the disability activist Sian Vasey stated that she’d like to know what the members of the cast thought. The director entirely failed to understand the point of the question, and tried to answer for the performers (‘They think that...’) until he was shouted down by the disabled audience.
Contained uses autobiographical material, but that should not lead anyone to think that the show is artistically unambitious. One part of the film material was shot out of hours in the Louvre. How the hell did they manage that?