Arts journalist, Bella Todd reflects on Crossing the Line festival, a collaboration between three leading learning-disability theatre companies from across Europe, finding different approaches but some shared experiences.
Breaking (language) barriers
There are fascinating parallels, it turns out, between the task of translation and the art of access. This won’t come as news to those engaged with the rich history of deaf theatre, say, or simply anyone who caught Jerome Bel’s Disabled Theater with its German-to-English translator. But these parallels have been thrown into sharp relief by Crossing the Line, a unique partnership project involving three of Europe’s leading learning disabled theatre companies: Sweden’s Moomsteatern, England’s Mind the Gap, and France’s La Compagnie de l’Oiseau-Mouche.
These long-established companies met nine times over two and a half years, building towards January’s festival of work and debate in Roubaix. Over this period, they swapped their artistic and administrative experiences and shared their creative slants. One of the first workshops, held by Mind the Gap in Bradford, was conducted entirely in Cantonese – a bold experiment betting on the performers’ inbuilt knack for leaping over barriers.
Other workshops involved disco-dancing through l’Oiseau-Mouche’s costume department in Roubaix, and tackling Chekhov’s The Seagull (at Moomsteatern’s headquarters in Malmö) in consecutive lines of Swedish, English and French. Meanwhile, the administrators were engaged in their own task of translingual collaboration. They sought to understand each other’s development programmes, audience outreach strategies and funding models. This involved navigating different and at times seemingly inconsistent sensitivities around language. What was the propriety of discussing ‘disability aesthetics’? Did anyone still really use the phrase ‘mentally handicapped’?
For the concluding festival, Mind the Gap adapted their show, Contained, to include a live French translator and surtitles. As Executive Director Julia Skelton told me, the individual speech patterns of some Mind the Gap performers may at times be hard to follow. This makes surtitles a helpful addition all round. But it didn’t stop them learning a little French for the show’s central anthem, I'm Me. The Crossing the Line festival couldn’t have drawn to a more fitting close than with the chorus of, “C'est moi, c'est moi voilà, voici ce que je suis”.
“All good, just different”
For Skelton, one of the best things about Crossing the Line has been breaking out of the “echo chamber”: different people, different spaces, different experiences and attitudes. More refreshing still was, “not having to deal with any of this crap about ‘quality’: we think the other companies are good, just different”. Good, just different.
To hear this phrase being applied between learning disabled companies (rather than to disabled performers in comparison with non-disabled performers) was refreshing. As the audience filed in to a converted wool factory for the final performance of the festival, Skelton told me her hope was that, “if nothing else, no one could go home from this week still thinking learning disabled performers only make one kind of theatre.”
Job done. The three shows could hardly have been more different – or more piquant with national character. Moomsteatern’s A Dream Play was a gorgeously stylised staging of Strindberg’s surrealist classic. L’Oiseau-Mouche’s Pourvu Qu’on Ait L’ivresse was a fiercely sensual piece of physical theatre foregrounding the unique physicality of each performer. In a wide, informal staging that reminded us to attend to the peripheral, Mind the Gap’s Contained mined the personal histories of the performers and rang with the heroically prosaic detail of everyday life. I also caught a screening of Sanctuary, a feature film by Galway theatre company Blue Teapot, who would join a second phase of Crossing the Line if funding is secured for 2018. Sanctuary is a frank, moving and tea-spittingly funny romantic comedy exploring the illegality in Ireland of sex before marriage between people with learning disabilities.
Actors or performers? Received roles or autobiographical narratives?
Which brings us to an interesting interchange between Mind the Gap’s associate artist, Joyce Nga Yu Lee, and Moomsteatern’s Operations Manager Suzanne Hedström Hellberg. Contained originated with an invitation to the performers to “tell us a story from your life”. The company’s newer show, Mia, is about learning disability and parenthood (a subject suggested by performer Alison Short, whose autistic sister has a baby.) “Do you see a problem?” said Hellberg. “A learning disabled actor may say, ‘I’m interested in the power of telling a story outside of my context, outside of my every day?’ Is that in your grip?”
Lee’s response explored the importance of Mind the Gap’s work “coming from the heart”, whether that means using the performers’ direct experience, interests or opinions as touchpaper. Mind the Gap have not always worked in this way. Lee talks about a “recent shift in rhetoric” in which the ‘actors’ became ‘performers’, partly in response to musical director and longterm member Jez Colborne’s growing interest in devised multi-media work. “If one person changes,” Lee says, “the whole company has to change”.
By contrast, Moomsteatern are firm: “Our actors are actors, and we make theatre”. They underwrite this assertion by accepting only arts funding, and run a traditional theatre with a repertoire advisory board in which the mixed-ability performers can participate. For Tornqvist, the best place for a learning disabled company to make “edgy” work is, paradoxically, in the mainstream. Why? “Because the audience doesn’t expect us to do Shakespeare.”
“Safeguard the daring!”
A sense of flexibility and flux is central to Contained, which is framed as a rehearsal, rewritten as the performers’ real lives unfold, and feeds in their reflections on making the show. I wanted more moments of symbiosis, of the performers being creatively drawn into each other’s stories. But Contained is partly about claiming the right, and the space, to experiment. All artists need opportunities to take risks and the freedom to occasionally fail. For learning disabled artists, this is too often outweighed by the obligation to convince, to prove they can be artists at all. Contained’s opening lines, ‘Testing, testing… Testing, testing’, are far more significant than they seem.
Quizzed about ‘quality’, Hellberg argued it can’t be a certainty when you are making work that is “new, different, odd”. We are, she said, “in the business of trying to find new expressions”. It is essential to “safeguard the daring!” Riffing on Yinka Shonibare, Ben Evans of the British Council made a bid for a positive retention of the ‘learning disabled’ label for precisely these reasons. “One potential advantage of the label,” he argued, “is to say, ‘this is an avant garde movement, and we reject your training, and we reject your way of funding, and we reject your way of making work’, in the same way Ibsen and Strindberg rejected the models of their time.”
Risk clearly excites l’Oiseau-Mouche. Pourvu Qu’on Ait L’ivresse begins with a giant game of Pick-a-Stick, played with a bundle of sharp stakes. In the opening moments, a lone performer lets these fall with a crash, running backwards to dodge the spikes. After carefully removing each stake from the jumble, the cast mime impaling themselves in a series of comic tableaux. It is a piece that insists on the performers’ agency as you watch them make hundreds of micro-decisions, take chances. And their ownership of the space is never in doubt. At one point they attack the stage with scissors, cutting the flooring into the shapes of countries. These are brashly auctioned off to the audience with considerable showmanship and cheek.
The thorny topic of ‘disability aesthetics’
Moomsteartern’s show, on the other hand, finds its heroine in foreign territory. Frida Schriver, an actress with Down’s Syndrome, has played Miranda in The Tempest. In A Dream Play she is Agnes, the daughter of a Hindu deity, who descends to earth to bear Christ-like witness to human misery. Barefoot in a white dress, Schriver is a convincing ingénue. Sometimes she can be seen attending carefully to where she is standing on stage, which makes me think of Agnes’ tentative footing on earth. There is a flat, keening quality to her voice as she repeats the refrain: ‘Mankind is to be pitied!’ (or, alternatively, ‘What a pity about men!’) It’s hard to gauge tone in a language you don’t speak, but there is mischievous enjoyment to be had from seeing a learning disabled artist playing the proclaimer, rather than the object, of pity.
How playfully is Schriver’s learning disability being used here? Is it being used by Schriver, or the casting director? Or are these considerations incongruous to the artistic intent of the piece – an example of the tendency Tornqvist observes in mainstream audiences to refuse to “relax and receive the play” and instead “force a lot of garbage back on us”?
Chaired by Crossing the Line’s project dramaturg, Jonathan Meth, an informal round table on the subject of ‘disability aesthetics’ attempted to tackle some of these issues. It began with Moomstearten producer Sandra Johansson describing the homogeneity of theatre in Sweden: “Everything in the theatre is the same. You have to go to a certain higher university to train, and that leads to everyone acting in the same way. Our actors act differently, and they don’t all look the same”.
L’Oiseau-Mouche were represented in the audience but absent from the panel. As Sarah Bagshaw of British Council France explained to me, historically there is a distrust of labels in French culture: “a resistance to categories that divide us rather than an emphasis on differences that enrich us”. But the founder of l’Oiseau-Mouche was present in the stalls, and animated in his description of learning disabled artists. They have, “a spiritual dimension that questions us”, or perhaps “an energy that breaks the normative codes and rewires the audience’s circuit”. Later, watching each performer move to the taut post punk of Young Marble Giants with total individuality, inhibition and magnetic sensuality, I understood what he was getting at.
The long view
What was missing for me, from Crossing the Line’s otherwise 360° profiling of its partner companies, was a sense of the critical landscape they inhabit – or feel excluded from. What is the state of their country’s arts criticism? How is their work contextualised and received? A preeminent Parisian reviewer was apparently in the house for the final day of the festival’s performances. But Moomsteartern’s director seemed wearily au fait with the ‘tragedy and inspiration’ narrative that still dogs UK coverage of disability arts.
“Is it our responsibility, as theatremakers, to train the next generation of critics?” asked Meth. Not quite. But perhaps there is a responsibility on the part of learning disabled theatre companies to invite and involve critics. In the UK at least, this means exploring beyond the entrenched national bylines to the struggling emerging writers and commentators who will appreciate engagement with their work as much as these companies might, in time, come to appreciate theirs.
But in its first incarnation, Crossing the Line has provided something much more important: an opportunity for learning disabled artists themselves to see and reflect on work outside their own rehearsal room. Pádraig Naughton, Director of Arts and Disabilty Ireland, hit the nail on the head when he said that, “We are the one group who are given permission to participate but not to go and see”. Too much learning disabled theatre is made in a critical and creative vacuum. Staged in the round, l’Oiseau-Mouche’s show afforded me a diagonal view of Mind the Gap artists watching from the other side. Their engagement – unguarded but inquiring, focussed but full-bodied – was as much a part of my experience as the performance.
I look forward to Crossing the Line 2.0, which would commence in 2018, subject to a successful €2 million funding bid to Creative Europe. This would see the fellowship of three companies expand to seven. This time around, the artists are lobbying for more time simply being artists together. Moomsteartern’s Ronnie Larsson didn’t want his place on the introductory panel: “I like best to be with the actors”, he said. “I just want to perform”. If phase one has necessarily focussed on connection, phase two of Crossing the Line would hopefully be about collaboration, encouraging the companies to make still deeper and more lasting incursions into each other’s comfort zones.