Garry Robson, the Artistic Director of Fittings Mutimedia Arts, took time during rehearsals for their performance of Edmund the Learned Pig at London’s Southbank Centre as part of the Unlimited festival, to talk about the mainstreaming of disability arts and the creative opportunities of making accessible work.
What do you believe have been the key turning points in the shift of arts and disability from a niche market to the mainstream in the UK?
In my time in the business, deaf and disability arts has moved on from its early roots in the civil rights movement, mainly cabarets and agitprop theatre, to a small but definite spot in the mainstream. I think the change has largely been brought about by a greater awareness of the social inclusion agenda in society generally and, in world terms, Britain becoming a relatively affluent society that can afford to spend time and resources over such things.
At the same time, pioneering companies such as ourselves, Graeae, Candoco, etc. began receiving resources from the Arts Council and in particular core resources that allowed us to employ professional artists and performers and produce high quality and entertaining work. The quality of the work improved and then began to speak for itself. Gradually the work has moved from the small-scale touring network to larger mainstream venues.
Many companies have also invested a lot of time and energy in working with educational establishments to improve their access for aspiring deaf and disabled performers. Gradually more and more drama schools have become physically accessible and many, though not all, have changed their attitude to deaf and disabled applicants. They understand that access is not just a legal requirement but that if creatively applied can invigorate their teaching methods and practice. It’s still not easy to find a route into the profession but more young people are able to get their wheels over the first step.
Do you think that the sector has gained enough momentum to survive changes to support and funding or is there a danger of it slowly slipping back to being niche?
Yes I think the sector has now gained sufficient momentum for some of it at least to remain in the mainstream. There are more and more deaf and disabled performers and companies out there that’s think of themselves as artists, and for artists to stop making work just because the funding platform has changed is not going to happen.
What worries me more is where the next generation of artists are coming from. A number of factors are impacting on this. The very success of deaf and disabled work has led to it becoming increasingly professionalised. At the same time financial support for the disabled community has become fragmented and privatised and despite the pressure for integrated education the number of young disabled people in “special schools” is increasing.
When I was young I was able to find my voice and eventually my way into the professional through the civil rights movement and small localised initiatives. I’m not sure where these outlets are for many disabled people doubly marginalised not only by their disability but also by their class and their education. My fear is that it is in danger of becoming an increasingly middle class profession, rather like the acting world in general in England.
What are the themes that interest you most in your work?
I have lived in a Scotland for many years and am still continually inspired by playwright, screenwriter, producer, director and founder of the 7:84 Theatre Companies John McGrath and his passion for taking theatre out of its red-plush, middle-class setting, and bringing it to audiences who might otherwise never have been theatregoers.
John believed that popular accessible theatre had nine key qualities: directness; comedy; music; emotion; directness rather than obscurity; effect; immediacy; and localism, both of material and performers. There is something of these that underpins all of Fittings’ shows and outreach.
In our work, we use new writing to tell stories formed from hidden histories. We work with culturally diverse companies that reflect our audiences. We use music, comedy, direct address and employ a variety of storytelling techniques. We stage our work in ways that, as well as occupying traditional spaces, it can also travel to where people are and we make it so that it can be accessed through a variety of media.
Broadly, we are aiming for entertaining accessible theatre that has something to say. However, our emphasis on access is not a chore or a tick box exercise as it seems to be for many companies. It’s at the core of what we do and inspires us to be imaginative and creative not only in how we make work but also how we operate as a theatre company – from recruitment to how we stage meetings to the way we distribute information.
What type of shows do Fittings Multimedia Arts produce and how do they compare with what other companies are doing?
I’m writing this during the first morning of re-rehearsals for our show Edmund the Learned Pig prior to our performances at the Unlimited Festival. Although Edmund is our first show geared towards young people and their families, it is in many ways a typical Fittings’ show.
It was created as a new age-appropriate deaf and disabled led sign language musical theatre production for children. Written by a key Young Persons playwright, Mike Kenny and featuring music and songs by Martyn Jacques of The Tiger Lillies, it gives young deaf and disabled audiences in particular easy access.
It features deaf and disabled characters as central to the resolution of conflict, showing them to be visible, articulate and resilient. It uses a variety of deaf-friendly storytelling techniques – puppetry, mime, aerial, tap-dancing, embedded BSL and sign-supported English – as well as a colourful and surreal set and costumes. All these enrich the palette for every audience member.
Being creative about access is of course not only about how you tell it but also what you’re telling. In Edmund’s case, the show also reflects, in a suitably mature way, upon social definitions of ‘family’ and choices we make around acceptance and diversity. In the story, the Pig chooses to join a circus/carnival or family and finds that, for once, an educated pig is not an oddity…..
What should international promoters keep in mind and what provisions do they need to make, when they want to book your company or other disability led companies?
Attitude is not exactly everything but it can go a long way to sorting out problems so first be excited about what we are bringing to the table and work with us to make that happen.
In practical terms, if we are bringing performers and artists with mobility issues we need accessible transport and accommodation and you need to budget for this because it’s usually a slightly more expensive option.
Our hosts/guides need to know about the options in their locality. Not only what are the good bars and restaurants but which ones are accessible with accessible toilets!
Equally, do the venues we are performing in have backstage and front-of-house facilities that meet the profile of the company?
Companies will usually travel with interpreters and personal assistants so once again this needs to be understood and budgeted for.
This may sound a lot to cover but we’re keen to make this happen. Work with us and you’ll be surprised how easy some of this stuff is and what a creative force for change it can be in your own practice.
What do you feel are the most positive outcomes of international collaborations?
Quite simply, that we all have a lot to learn from one another and that, in my experience, international collaborations are fabulous for enriching practice and generally making the world a better place to be.