ShareMusic’s Sophia Alexandersson shares the learning

By David on May 11, 2017

ShareMusic & Performing Arts is an arts organisation focussing on inclusion based in Sweden, which produces performances and holds courses both domestically and internationally. ShareMusic’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director Sophia Alexandersson shares some of the lessons learned from over 14 years of using music and performing arts to foster a more inclusive society, reflecting on their latest production SHANGHAI with The Göteborg Opera.

Hi-Hat Xpres
ShareMusic Hi-Hat Xpres. Photograph: Mikolaj Zajac

ShareMusic is an international arts organisation, staging performances and initiating artistic processes. We lead courses in performing arts and share our way of working in workshops and seminars throughout Sweden and internationally. We started in 2002 as a pilot project initiated by the former British trust, ShareMusic. The independent Swedish non-profit organisation was founded in 2003. During our formative years, we ran short courses in Sweden, which often ended in a public performance. In 2009 we performed our first commissioned work, Dawn at Galamanta, in collaboration with the Stockholm Wind Orchestra and the composer and conductor Christian Lindberg.

Since then, more commissions have followed. Developing new work is exciting, but also very challenging in terms of timing. As a small arts organisation one has to adjust to the longer timeline bigger organisations have for planning. They need to present the programme to their audience often before the work has been developed. This makes marketing and audience work more complicated, selling something which does not exist yet. Wording around inclusive ensembles is something we have realised is rather complicated. ShareMusic prefers to describe the work without focusing on disability; on the other hand, it is important to stress the inclusive approach. It is a paradox and not easy to solve. It seems to be a language barrier, where perhaps the right words are missing.

ShareMusic and Goteburg Opera SHANGHAI. Photograph: Tilo Stengel

Our most recent production, SHANGHAI has been a long process. It all began with a discussion about the importance of developing an inclusive approach within opera and music theatre between myself and Stephen Langridge, Artistic Director (Opera/Drama) at the Göteborg Opera. Langridge was involved in ShareMusic already in the UK. When he moved to Sweden, it was a chance to finally try out something together. The collaboration started with a series of ShareMusic courses, where artists from the Göteborg Opera participated together with a very mixed group of people from ShareMusic. A stage production was our goal from the beginning and a call for composer in 2015 set off the journey.

The response to the video call we sent out was far beyond expectation. We received applications from 155 composers from 34 countries worldwide. The Danish composer Line Tjørnhøj was chosen together with the Swedish librettist Erik Fägerborn. The next step was to find the artists who could join those chosen from the opera company. Interest in being part of the ensemble was very high, even though the number of disabled artists among the applicants was lower than expected. We invited some of the applicants to workshop auditions in three cities. We worked together for several hours to learn more about each person’s way of expression. After a call-back we chose the ensemble, and the workshops for generating material began. The ensemble had five weeks of intense rehearsals before the premiere. SHANGHAI is now performing on several stages in western Sweden.

One cannot underestimate the value and importance of the fact that one of the biggest opera institutions in North Europe, has embarked on this bold journey. The impact has not only been posing questions such as ‘who can be on stage’, but also on accessibility in many forms. Most departments in the opera house have been involved, and have faced new challenges due to the diverse cast. We have all learned a lot, which we hope to share with others. One topic is learning; how do you deal with the fact that members have very different abilities to learn a new work, with some artists who cannot read a traditional score? The intention was to provide sufficient time for individual rehearsals, adding recordings and videos. Despite this, it was not enough, so the first few weeks were hard for everyone, as all the artists were challenged musically.

SHANGHAI. Photograph: Tilo Stengel

But the ensemble very quickly forged strong bonds, and thanks to that, the process moved forward in the right way. A follow-up question is around notation and the need for scores. Is it possible for a composer to create the same musical result without strict notation? Some of the artists expressed that they would have liked to develop the collaborative process with the artistic team even more through feeding back continuously in the creative process before the work was completed. One advantage ShareMusic can see in this process in comparison to our previous work, was the strong focus created by the rehearsals taking place in the same venue every day. Göteborg Opera has a second stage in Skövde and the ensemble was the only production rehearsing in the space, which made it a very safe and supportive environment where people felt at home.

ShareMusic has an extensive international network. As a rights-based organisation, it is interesting to find out what is happening within the arts in other countries. We have a particular interest in how the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is playing out in Belarus and Russia. The Inclusive Dance festival in Russia (click here for more information)is doing impressive work. I have been on the jury twice and seen hundreds of films from all parts of Russia, with children and adults dancing in various genres. The first year I was really astonished by the amount of good work involving young children. We are also curious about how other arts organisations are finding ways to be part of the mainstream arts scene. One successful organisation is barner 16 in Hamburg, Germany − an inclusive network of professional production companies with both disabled and non-disabled artists. Among many things they do, barner 16 stages productions for the mainstream scene and non-disabled artists use the services they offer.

Our advocacy work has grown from discovering that the pathways within performing arts are limited and the job market is closed for many disabled artists. Collaborating with arts institutions is one way to initiate new ways of thinking and challenge the norm from the inside. For three years, we undertook our WORK-project, where we used artistic work for exploring functionality and power in the board room, as well as running seminars for target groups with the power to change. We created a focus group with representatives from different sectors, discussing solutions for improving the possibilities to be a disabled artist. Inclusive artistic work can be done in many ways. We have chosen our way, mixing different art forms and people, using a new cast for each production and engaging many workshop leaders and artists. We do not define our work by the diagnosis of the artists, and we are not interested in a separate arts scene for disabled people. We believe in a broader culture and a wider definition of artistry.

Göteborg Opera’s Artistic Director, Stephen Langridge discusses the process behind SHANGAI in this short film. We did not produce this film and we regret that there is no audio description:

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