Creative Minds is an invitation to the learning-disability arts sector to have a conversation about how we define ‘quality’. Colin Hambrook reviews some of the presentations at the conference: how do we know something is quality? And when we do decide what 'quality' is, how do we then talk about it?
The responses were varied and I think summarised the different aspirations for what learning-disabled artists want to get out of engaging with the arts. For some, it was about finding a sense of belonging, feeling wanted and having fun. For others, it was more about breaking boundaries, expressing something unique about themselves and finding a voice as an artist, connecting with both peers and audiences.
Through the presentations ran threads of conversation about how artists find ‘connection’ ie something unique about themselves that makes for a good story. For example, Chris Pavia talked about his experience of choreographing dance for StopGap. The Awakening was influenced by the Sci-Fi film Bladerunner with its imagining of futuristic tribes. E.T. was another film he referenced with its emphasis on fear of the ‘alien’.
Pavia told us how he used mood boards to convey the emotions he wanted his dancers to express through different sections of the piece. He talked about wanting to create contrasts between light and dark. Overall he gave us a fascinating insight into both how he had developed accessible tools for working with StopGap, and how he honed his artistry by drawing from his experience of art.
Jez Colborne presented a sequence of songs from Mind the Gap’s current touring show ‘Contained’. With a catchy tune and powerful lyrics Colborne’s song ‘I’m Me’ is at the heart of the musical theatre piece and gets to the nub of what makes a good piece of storytelling. There is an underlying political energy in Colborne’s delivery demanding that “we all have a right to be here” cutting through discrimination and ignorance. He followed with a rendition of ‘Judge and Jury’ a song about the kinds of judgements about peoples’ lives, that people with learning difficulties are subject to.
Another highlight was a sequence of three Oska Bright films to be shown at the up-coming festival in Brighton at the Dome from 9-11 November. They all highlighted the core elements of what the Oska Bright team look for in terms of films that illustrate artistic excellence in representing the lives of people with learning difficulties: that there is a clear learning-disability perspective; ie that artistic control shines through, and that it grabs the viewers attention.
I came away from Creative Minds thinking more about what makes for ‘quality’ in learning-disability arts. A key ingredient is that the artist is in control of the expression: that you feel more closely connected with what the performer/artist wants to tell you about their lives.
Some of the conversation was about wanting to do away with the disability context: to see an equal playing field. Those discussions seemed to mirror some of the work presented aspiring to traditional forms of dance and theatre. But why aspire to being ‘normal’? As poet and stand-up Allan Sutherland says: “why lower your standards?” A disability theatre company performing a traditional piece of theatre – be it comedy, drama or tragedy – will always be seen within a disability context and be critiqued accordingly. If you look at it positively the disability is a strength, not something to rail against.
And that leads me to thinking more about what I’d like to see in a future Creative Minds event. To further explore what ‘quality’ is, there needs to be more emphasis on how an artistic director/ choreographer/ producer/ film-maker gets the best out of the artist or performers they work with. What does it mean to work with an artist's strengths?
It was interesting hearing Scott Ramsay, Director of Harlow Playhouse talking about encouraging the resident learning-disabled company Razed Roof to come and see more productions at the theatre. Unless you know what art you like and push yourself to see work you might not necessarily like, how can you have aspirations as an artist? You need to be able to judge whether what you’re doing meets your own expectations.
And, you need to know that you’re on the same wavelength as the person who is leading artistic director. The relationship between director and artist is key to making work that has resonance. In response to Creative Minds I recently wrote a blog recalling a visit to see Australian theatre company Back to Back rehearse six years ago. Theatre Director Bruce Gladwin talked about how he got the best from his actors, drawing something unique, individual and true to their nature, as a starting point for making theatre.
In conclusion the question of what makes for ‘quality’ is key to the Dao commission to work with film-maker Matthew Hellett from Oska Bright to expand on what makes a ‘good’ film? How do Oska Bright judge what is good practice in film-making from a learning-disability perspective? It would great to see the filmed interview between Matthew and New Wolsey Theatre Agent for Change, Jamie Bedard inform further discussions about ‘quality’ at Creative Minds.