The Republic of Inclusion: utopian strivings for better access and inclusion

The Republic of Inclusion was the culmination of a two-year dramaturgical and theatre-based inquiry about stories being told outside of so-called conventional theatrical fare. The project was produced by English Theatre at Canada’s National Arts Centre. Project co-Curator Sarah Garton Stanley reflects on some of the findings and their implications for access and inclusion.

In August, Fiona Slater from Shape Arts wrote a fascinating blog for Unlimited about her visit to Ottawa’s Republic of Inclusion, and about the artists she encountered there. Here we hear from one of the event’s organisers, Sarah Garton Stanley, who reflects on the wider context for the festival, and the structures and principles with which it was created.

Republic of Inclusion screen capture

Screen grab from livestream of the republic of inclusion including sign language interpretation

Two years in the making

This total project was called The Cycle and was comprised of a series of related events: a day-long trial balloon at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, in February 2015, co-curated by me and Alex Bulmer. Following from this, in the spring of 2016, Syrus Marcus Ware and I set out to curate The Summit,  a 3-day gathering hosted at The Stratford Festival (click here for our final report on the Summit). Then in June 2017, in Ottawa, an 8-day intensive, called The Study, held at The Canada Council for the Arts in advance of The Republic of Inclusion at the Shenkman Centre.

Some background, I am a 50 something, white, queer, cisgendered female canadian theatre director who does not identify as having the lived experience of disability. I think, aside from love and respect for one another, Syrus and I present very differently, and on top of his astonishing artistry and intellect, he also brought a lived experience of disability, intersectionality and unique needs to our curatorial duo. He, more than any other in this process was my teacher, my guide and the leader. Without Syrus, the work of The Cycle would not have been as deep, as disruptive or as transformative. His experience of working within large institutions, coupled with his central role in movements such as Black Lives Matter, Toronto made him the perfect person to take on this inquiry.

A bold opening statement

On June 27th over 125 people gathered for an opening meal, speeches, performances and a DJ dance party in the inclusion lounge. The first full day of The Republic of Inclusion was a livestreamed event and will be available here, through the NAC website soon. The day was a combination of performative conversations and performance bursts. It began with a massive projections of this that was also read aloud by Syrus:

Syrus Marcus Ware

Syrus Marcus Ware delivers the opening statement

“WELCOME TO THE REPUBLIC OF INCLUSION!

We are a beautiful, interdependent and borderless republic that centres a coming together and co-creation of a space wherein we all have everything that we need to survive and to thrive.

Here, we find ourselves living outside of the constraints of an ableist, audist, sanist and ocular-centric world.

Here, we are co-creating an environment that supports Indigenous resurgence, the movement for Black lives and status for all.

Here, we support gender diversity and freedom of expression, and we celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersexed, 2-Spirited, Queer, Questioning, and Asexual identities and all forms of sexual diversity.

Here, we are immersed within a community that recognizes multiple experiences of difference, and their intersections with disability, Deaf and Mad cultures.

While in the Republic, we will share the following commitments:

●       WE ARE ALL HERE

●       We support and maintain the self-determination of everyone here. This means that WE get to decide our lives for OURSELVES!

●       We celebrate the beautiful diversity of experiences, communities and cultures within this room.

●       We respect each other’s gender pronouns.  We each get to choose our own words and names to describe ourselves.

●       WE BUILD COMMUNITY

●       We build community together through shared discussion, collective experiences with artworks and artists, and through carrying these conversations forward as we head back to our home communities.

WE CARE FOR OURSELVES AND OTHERS

●       We celebrate and embrace the concept that things start when they need to start

●       We embrace and celebrate taking our time, and continue to try to find new ways to our own ways of creating, working and sharing space and time together.

●       We are all free to come and go and to take breaks and rest as much and as often as we need to.

We take care of ourselves, and we extend care to others with consent.”

The welcoming statement was created in conversation with the core company of artists and leaders who had been with us for The Study. It came out of an  expressed need to continue to lead and retain power when moving into a more public and potentially volatile environment. White supremacy and how it was impacting so much of the discourse was a key point that needed to be maintained and amplified in the public forum. A colleague from the Ontario Arts Council, Bushra Junaid said that she thought this statement would be discussed for years to come.

For my part, I think of it as one of the most exciting governing statements to emerge for an intentional gathering that I have ever seen. The statement was followed up with a gorgeous, flowing projection of The Compendium: an ongoing database project of all the work created by and about performance artists who identify as Deaf, disabled or Mad, and was accompanied by tunes from LAL, a Toronto-based electronic duo, known for their support for social movements including Black Lives Matter and issues that face Queer/Trans communities. The Compendium remains an ongoing project and intends to be accessible and updatable by artists and academics living and working within the milieu. At present it has no home. It is a important piece of The Cycle that remains unresolved.

Considering different needs for the space

Welcome to the Republic of Inclusion

The intention was to make a welcoming and inclusive space

The space for The Republic of Inclusion was devised with an amalgam of forethought about how best to inspire and accommodate the variety of intersecting needs for all. We made a bunch of decisions that we  anticipated would be interrogated, shifted and improved upon as part of the second day. To imagine there was “one right way” for any of this was never in our thinking. To have fully understood the disruptive force of intersectionality and conflicting personal needs was however a force field that left both Syrus and I, and the whole producing team, feeling overwhelmed by the steepness of our strivings and the need to breathe and take things as they came. 

In terms of accessibility provided, interpretation services in American Sign Language, Captioning and Audio Description were provided for all Republic of Inclusion events. Listening assistance services were also made available, and all speaking was amplified. The entire event was conceived as a relaxed environment, with everyone encouraged to make noise and move around, use their technologies to assist with participation, and participate according to their abilities or their needs. The space was fully wheelchair accessible. We provided designated spaces to give people privacy and a place to relax if they felt they needed it. It was also a chemical and fragrance-free event, meaning we requested attendees arrive without perfumes, colognes, or products with chemical fragrances such as deodorants, hair products or oils, to make the event accessible for those with chemical and fragrance sensitivities.

interpretation services in American Sign Language, Captioning and Audio Description were provided for all Republic of Inclusion events. Listening assistance services were also made available, and all speaking was amplified. The entire event was conceived as a relaxed environment, with everyone encouraged to make noise and movement,
use their technologies to assist with participation, and participate according to their abilities or their needs. The space was fully wheelchair accessible. We provided designated spaces to give people privacy and a place to relax if they felt they needed it.

The final morning was dedicated to Response and Co-Design and artist and instigator, Jan Derbyshire brought her brilliant core principle of “one size fits one” to the thinking. The theatre was emptied from the previous day’s set up and time was dedicated to making room for the individual development of comfort zones that would, over time, create a successful environment for all to enjoy a closing performance from houseband LAL. It was both a risk and a necessity, and from the feedback it seemed to achieve its goal of co-creating a republic for the day.

Principles to guide the programme

The Cycle: Deaf, disability Mad Arts and Inclusion has a qualifying statement attached to its mission: “Changing the shape of Canadian Theatre and impacting the processes used in in creation”. Together, Syrus and I, landed on 5 organizing principles for the project to have lasting and impactful momentum :

1. Artists and Leaders who identify as Deaf, disabled or Mad must retain the balance of power throughout the process

2. Arts Institutions who hold decision-making power, and resources to enact them, must be present to listen and learn from these Artists and Leaders.

3. All participants must share a desire to see real and meaningful change with respect to how theatre is considered in Canada.

4. A need to unlock a space or mechanism that would clearly communicate widely the many stories and approaches to story from the perspectives of artists creating and living with disabilities.

5. None of this would be happening without you.

While far from perfect, or complete, these principles gave Syrus and I an opportunity to hold all the decisions that needed to be made accountable to them. The principles, in part, came forward from previous explorations during the first cycle I was involved with directly before this one. And, while helpful, the transplanting of process from one inquiry to another proved limiting. When I look back at these 5 points I am aware of two major gaps: intersectionality and unique needs, and how these gaps will combine to disrupt governing principles of any kind. Easy for me to see now, that the key lack in my own consideration was how interdependent the conversation(s) needed to be. I felt so clear about the need for more interdependence in all things but failed to see that this meant the dramaturgical inquiry itself.

The Republic of Inclusion is utopian. It does not exist. But the striving for it does. And it was in the spirit of this striving, this wish for substantive change that we embarked on this journey. The future holds the key to the success of this, but signs are looking good for our work having been a disruptive force in its own right, and I look forward to seeing where and how we can continue to make necessary change that includes intersectionality, race, gender and the realities of white supremacy as part of how we define interdependence in the creation of contemporary theatrical performance practice.

For more information about The Cycle please visit here. The Republic of Inclusion was produced by English Theatre at Canada’s National Arts Centre in collaboration with Tangled Arts, the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Council, Playwrights Workshop Montreal, The Stratford Festival, The University of British Columbia Film and Theatre Department, Bodies in Translation and was supported by The Ontario Arts Council, The British Columbia Arts Council and the Howard J Webster Foundation.