Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre is busy preparing for their annual Pulse Festival, a festival that this year dedicates a day for conversation and ideas around disability and inclusion in theatre. Ramps On The Moon: Is It Possible? will be chaired by Jamie Beddard, one of the venue’s two Agents For Change. Beddard spoke to Glen Pearce about the day and inclusion in the arts generally.
You work as an Agent of Change for the New Wolsey Theatre – what does that rôle entail?
The rôle was created to ensure Deaf and disabled people are visible and present throughout the New Wolsey Theatre – in audiences, on stage and backstage. The theatre is a civic resource, and all communities should be included and represented in the programme of activities throughout the organisation. Disabled people have always been under-represented and marginalised in the arts, and face many barriers in engaging with the offers taken for granted by their non-disabled counterparts. Our rôle is identifying and mitigating these barriers, ensuring the creative programme reflects the voices, talents and aesthetics of disabled artists and inclusion and that access is embedded throughout the New Wolsey Theatre.
Pulse this year features a day entitled Ramps On The Moon: Is it Possible? – what does the day entail?
It’s about spreading best practice and experience, showing good work and provoking discussion and debate around access and inclusion. We have representatives from the New Wolsey Theatre, casting/theatre directors, and disabled actors and activists. We are keen to broaden conversations, and have invited all theatre makers who are contributing to the Pulse Festival. Unlikely allies, collaborations and conversations are the key to instigating change, and we hope this day will foster these.
Why the title Ramps On The Moon?
Our Head of Operations, David Watson, came up with the title, to suggest big ambition and aspiration. Access cannot be an add-on, but needs to be at the centre of what we do and think. It is ridiculous that we can send a man to the moon, and yet disabled people are still unable to access buildings, transport and basic services. Our ambition is an accessible world, then on to the moon!
The New Wolsey has been at the forefront of championing accessibility in the arts – what difference has that support made in the industry?
For me personally, working with an organisation that understands the ‘carrot’, rather than ‘stick’ of inclusion and diversity has been revelatory, and is testimony to the potential of real, rather than token engagement with voices previously unheard, stories untold and creativity untapped. The New Wolsey Theatre is a centre of good practice, albeit learning and sometimes getting it wrong, and our experiences, alongside others leading in the field, need disseminating to bring about sectorial change, and turn diversity rhetoric into reality.
Pulse champions new work. How important is it that inclusive theatre is included when showcasing new work?
Inclusion and access must become embedded in practice and presentation, at the core of the creative process. For this to happen, emerging artists and those making new work need to understand and embrace inclusive practice. Pulse is the perfect platform for exciting, cutting-edge and experimental new work. By planting seeds and provoking these theatre makers we can bring about changes across the sector.
Companies such as Graeae have worked hard to dispel some of the myths around disability and performance – how have perceptions changed over recent years?
When I was growing up as a disabled person, the arts were never on my radar. I fell onto and into theatre by complete accident, becoming one of a handful of disabled performers, operating largely in the shadows. Some twenty years later, and far more disabled people are pursuing their creative aspirations, and challenging the stale status quos we have all become accustomed too and bored off. The Paralympic Games offered a glimpse of the skills, talents and aesthetic of disability and performance, both sporting and artistic, and initiatives such as Unlimited have mainstreamed the excellence of disabled artists. Companies such as Graeae initiated this journey, and remain key players, alongside different and often unexpected partners. Unfortunately, the political climate and austerity agenda is disproportionately affecting disabled people and artists, and with the closure of the Independent Living Fund and changes to Access to Work the hard-fought gains in representation and opportunity, are very much in jeopardy.
You’ve talked in the past against casting non-disabled actors to play characters with disabilities. Why do you think casting directors and directors are sometimes reluctant to cast a disabled performer?
I’ve heard many misguided and often ludicrous reasons for casting non-disabled performers in disabled parts, most recently Kill Me Now at The Park Theatre – yes, naming and shaming! All are based of convenient assumptions and lazy stereotypes, as if disabled people are some kind of amorphous mass who tire easily, cannot change quick enough in set changes, lack the technique or training, etc etc. Of course all these might be true of some actors, disabled or not. But an ‘us’ and ‘them’ construct is created, authenticity and nuance sacrificed, Oscars are given out and the comfy status quo or ‘jobs for the boys’ mentality maintained. All of which is offensive and unacceptable, and bloody annoying for disabled practitioners who must continue fighting arcane battles, rather than telling their stories and displaying their talents.
Do you think drama schools and other industry training does enough to make the arts inclusive to all participants, regardless of ability or disability?
No, and they have conveniently hidden behind the excuse that there is no demand in the industry, and they would be setting up people to fail. The fact is that those few disabled people who go through Drama schools and training are far more likely to go to an acting career than their non-disabled counterparts. If the ‘carrot’ of inclusive training does not work, more ‘stick’ is required. Only through a diversity of trained performers can we begin to reflect the diversity of real life.
Alongside the day of events at Pulse and the New Wolsey Theatre’s ongoing inclusion work, the venue has just been awarded £2.3 million from the Arts Council to lead on disability arts provision in the UK. What difference will that funding make?
It’s brilliantly exciting, an opportunity to make real and lasting change to the UK’s theatre ecology. No longer will isolated organisations be taking a lead, but responsibility will be divulged, and flagship organisations will be developing their own approach and practice to placing disabled people and artists centrally. Previously, many diversity and disability-specific initiatives have been regarded as additional, rather than core. This needs to change, and the big aspirations and ambitions of Ramps On The Moon, offers the real opportunity of ensuring rhetoric becomes reality.
What is your hope for the outcome after the Ramps On The Moon day on 5th June?
A good lunch! Seriously, an exciting day of discussion, networking and productions, offering glimpses of what is possible. And inspiring those not previously involved in inclusive practice to enhance and change their thinking and working. And celebrate where we are, and where we could be going. Let’s get on that Ramp!
Ramps On The Moon: Is It Possible? takes place as part of the Pulse Festival, Ipswich on Friday 5 June.
For more information visit www.pulseipswich.co.uk