Reflection on practice: Un-Label – New Grounds for inclusive Performing Arts

By Lisette Reuter on July 1, 2016

Lisette Reuter explains how Un-Label is working to consolidate the leadership abilities of a Europe-wide group of performing artists by providing training experience in producing workshops to support live production events.

Back and white photo of studio based workshop
Un-Label Workshop Istanbul © Firat Bingol

For a period of two years, the international cultural project ‘Un-Label – New Grounds of inclusive performing arts’ will see about 100 artists with and without disabilities from all over Europe work with new inclusive and innovative ways of presenting performing arts.

Implementation happens within a framework of various workshops, an artistic residence and a large multidisciplinary dance theatre production “L – Do I need Labels to Love?”, which is presented as national and international guest performances at renowned festivals and venues. International symposia and new Audience Development methods are part of the project in the form of surtitles and audio description to ensure that visually impaired people and the hard of hearing can access all activities.

Un-Label is an open community of artists where the focus is on the diversity. Every individual is different and unique, seeking to develop his or her own expression. Within Un-Label, everybody perceives diversity as an opportunity for expressive pluralism and innovation, thus as an opportunity to evolve. This experience is then transformed into a coherent professional piece of art, a performance that on stage reflects our vision of a society without labels. 

Firstly, Un-label provides interdisciplinary workshops for artists with and without disabilities who want to gain inclusive artistic experiences. Workshops so far have been held in Germany, Turkey and Greece and were carried out by an international mixed-ability group of 9 artists from 5 different countries. The group consists of deaf artists and artists with a physical disability. Together with the artistic managerial team the group developed the concept and methodology for those inclusive workshops across artistic disciplines (dance, music, drama, poetry) during a one-week training seminar. The artists were trained to become coaches to hold their own workshops for other artists in the different countries.

Back and white photo of studio based workshop
Un-Label Workshop Larissa © Vicky Papaggeli

During the workshops the coaches were using an inspiring cross-genre mix to demonstrate how different artistic methods from the performing arts can be used in inclusive practice. They were using experimental spaces to develop new ways to develop artistic expression, starting from the ideas and input of each individual involved.

This concept and approach provides a large potential for disabled leadership and we offered those artists the opportunity to produce their own workshops and gain experience in leadership abilities. 

Our ambition was to achieve a “partnership between the coaches on equal terms.” There are not many opportunities to work as leaders and coaches, especially not for disabled artists, or to work in professional cultural settings and institutions. This leads automatically to difference in experience, confidence and limitations because of diverse expectations and approaches to making art. The main difficulties faced have been communication, accessibility as well as issues around language. In general, further training opportunities are particularly desired by all coaches to become more confident in their role as leaders and to be trained in other methods and ways of working for such diverse groups. 

However the evaluation from the coaches after they carried out the workshops has proven that the workshops – driven by a strong team spirit – opened up a large field of perspectives and possibilities to the arts and for everybody involved in the process. Disabled artists gave valuable feedback that they felt barriers to their inclusion were lifted through being given opportunities to work as coaches. To work as leaders through the arts helped them to understand other cultures, and how each country presents different barriers to participation. The diversity in personality, artistic ability and practical knowledge has been an enriching experience not only for the coaches but for the whole group and was also seen by participants as a major strength of the concept. 

Success of the Un-Label concept has been ratified as some of the coaches have gained further opportunities to deliver workshops.  In general, we have already received a lot of enquiries about the workshops from other target groups. The future objective is to train more artists and to adapt the concept to different audiences. 

Un-Label Symposia: 
The Un-Label symposia have taken place in each country bringing together artists, cultural operators, academics and politicians. Part of each symposium is an intensive exchange of ideas aimed at getting to know and to discuss different inclusive methods, political and social dimensions of inclusion and practiced diversity approaches in each European country.
From 3-4 May 2016 the first Symposium All In: Quality and Opening up to Cultural Work by Inclusion was held in Cologne / Germany. 160 guests from Germany and other European countries discussed the question of how inclusion can be presented in a qualitative manner in cultural practice and how cultural policy, cultural institutions and actors can open up to the concept of diversity.

Image © Theater Hora

Dr. Yvonne Schmidt from the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) presented a special project in relation to leadership and control of disabled artists: The long-term performance experiment Freie Republik HORA, uses the stage as a laboratory on which the performers create a theatre project under their own initiative and direction before a critical audience.

“At the beginning of the three-year project, there is only an empty stage and one single instruction: ‘Do what you want—just the way you like it!’ The professionally trained actors with intellectual disabilities are in charge of the production as directors, authors, stage and costume designers, musicians and performers.”

“The experimental set-up is reduced to a minimum of tools: each member of the ensemble has its own budget, from which the sets, costumes, fees, etc. are financed. According to Michael Elber, the director of Theater HORA, the aim of ‘Freie Republik HORA’ is to let the ensemble direct itself in order to abolish the hierarchy between a non-disabled director and the disabled performers.”
Quote from ‘After Disabled Theater. Authorship and Agency in Free Republic Hora’: Schmidt, Yvonne (2015). Benjamin Wihstutz & Sandra Umathum (eds.): Chicago University Press

Overall participants agreed that inclusion creates possibilities for a new artistic aesthetic but expressed regret that public and media reception often limits the art to the social aspects often failing to assess the work on artistic and cultural grounds. Cultural projects with people with disabilities are hardly ever reviewed by art critics. 

Other topics engaged discussion of the access measures required for inclusive cultural projects: the requirement for deaf artists to have sign language interpreters at hand whose costs are not covered by regular project budgets as well the challenge to find accessible rehearsal rooms, stages and accommodation.

The conference participants mutually agreed that further awareness and financial support of inclusive artistic and cultural projects needs to grow on a political and societal level to achieve sustainability within the cultural landscape.

“People with mental or physical disabilities have the right to develop their artistic potential,” said Bernd Neuendorf, State Secretary of North Rhine Westphalia for Families, Children, Youth, Culture and Sports. For this purpose, funding procedures, artistic training places, cultural institutions and their cultural offerings have to open up if politics and society want the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to be fully implemented and to be taken seriously. 

More information: www.un-label.eu
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/un.label.eu/

Author: Lisette Reuter and Costas Lamproulis 

Un-Label is run by the Verein der Freunde und Förderer des Sommertheaters Pusteblume e.V. Project partners are: Candoco Dance Company (England), Synergy of Music Theatre (Greece), Association for The Development of Social and Cultural Life (SKYGD) (Turkey), Cologne University of Applied Sciences (Germany). 
Contact: Sommertheater Pusteblume e.V. [ Lisette Reuter | Mail: info@un-label.eu

The project is funded by EU “Creative Europe” program and by the Aktion Mensch (German Association for the Care of the Disabled)

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