Saturday 22 October 2016


"Uma menina perdida no seu século à procura do pai", CRINABEL Theatre (Photo: Paulo Pimenta, courtesy of National Theatre D. Maria II)

Two years ago, I was questioning here the purpose of festivals that present the art of specific groups of people (gay, black, disabled, etc). It was September 2014 and the second edition of Unlimited festival was taking place at Southbank in London. “I keep questioning myself”, I was writing at the time, “who attends these festivals, exhibitions, activities and what happens after? Do they attract the already ‘converted’ or they appeal to a wider audience? Do gay or disabled or black artists become more acknowledged by the sector and the public? Are they seen as the professionals they are? Are we moving towards an inclusive representation, where they are seen first and above all as artists, or rather curators and audiences still go to see something ‘special’, confined in a specific space and time, its ‘own’ space and time? Do these festivals help us move towards caring more and more about the art and less and less about ‘the rest’?”

Two years later, in September 2016, I had the opportunity to attend Unlimited in its first presentation outside London, in Glasgow. I was carrying with me all my previous questions, only that this time I would have the chance to discuss them with the people involved: what’s the purpose of a disability arts festival in a country like the UK, quite advanced, comparing to our countries, in what concerns disability rights? Is there something in it for disabled artists? Is there something for audiences?

When Jo Verrent, Unlimited Senior Producer, talked in one of our meetings about the “systemic oppression of disabled people”, I realised that the case was far from over even in the UK and that I had a lot to learn. Jo’s words were later reinforced by performer Claire Cunningham, a self-identifying disabled artist. Claire is by now a well-known international artist, whose work may be seen outside disability arts festivals. Even though, disability remains central in her work. On her website one reads that “[her] work is often rooted in the study and use/misuse of her crutches and the exploration of the potential of her own specific physicality with a conscious rejection of traditional dance techniques (developed for non-disabled bodies) or the attempt to move with the pretence of a body or aesthetic other than her own”. For Claire, identifying as disabled and dealing with disability through her work is a political choice, it is an activist’s statement. She constantly pushes things forward, for herself and other disabled artists - and disabled people in general.

In those meetings, it became clear to me that programmes like Unlimited (that is, commissioning programmes) are still very much necessary, so that disabled creators and artists may have the chance and conditions to be artists, to work on their art. But what about the festival? Shouldn’t Unlimited avoid such “special” and “exclusive” presentations of the work of disabled artists? Does the festival promote the art of disabled artists to a broader audience, allowing them to be seen as artists first?

It clearly does, starting with programmers. Tim Nunn, the programme manager of Tramway, the venue that hosted Unlimited in Glasgow, talked of the need to influence more artistic directors in critically viewing and programming these works. The tendency to look at this art as something “special” - but probably less professional, of a lesser quality -, something an artistic director may consider programming perhaps once in a season, as an act of “social responsibility”, and then tick the box until the following season, is something we see in most countries, and it is apparently still the case also in the UK.

But independent producer Nadja Dias added something else to this discussion. She talked about the audience, the people who attend Unlimited. People who are disabled and people who are “different” in all sorts of ways. We cannot underestimate the importance of the fact that a festival like Unlimited takes place in accessible venues and the performances include the necessary services for people with visual and hearing impairments (such as audiodescription and sign language). This is not “special”, it is what’s normal and expected in these festivals (the way it should be in every other festival, especially when publicly funded). This is a place where people feel welcome, where there are no strange looks and no feelings of embarrassment. This is a place where people feel accepted, where people meet and talk and enjoy a performance together; naturally. Many wouldn’t have come out of their homes if it wasn’t like this. Festivals like Unlimited make this happen.

"The Way You Look (at me) Tonight", Claire Cunningham (Image MJDA Films)

It was Nadja’s words that actually made me realize what I had seen the night before on the stage of Tramway, during Claire Cunningham’s performance “The Way You Look (at me) Tonight”* (trailer). Members of the audience were asked to take a seat on the stage, but I preferred to sit in the tier bench. A few minutes after the performance started, I moved to a higher row to have an unhindered view of the stage. And when I looked down… I saw the world. I saw each and every person composing the world. I saw Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis, but I also say the two blind ladies smiling at the audiodescription; I saw some people’s eyes following the sign language interpreter, moving along with Claire and Jess; I saw a girl in an electric wheelchair (the reason why I moved to a higher row) sitting next to her friends; I saw people looking the same and different is all sorts of ways. This was a view of a world at peace, free, pleased, fulfilled, open, tolerant, caring, humane. Not because of the performance, but still… because of it. This is what Unlimited gave me, this is why Unlimited is necessary.

As I am writing these words, I think of the 30-year-old Portuguese theatre company of physically and intellectually disabled artists, CRINABEL, that premiered yesterday on the main stage of the National Theatre D. Maria II in Lisbon. On the main stage… On Sunday, after their last performance, we shall all together commemorate their anniversary. We shall celebrate that vision of the world they are generously sharing with us.

Sincere thanks to The British Council for inviting Acesso Cultura (of which I am the Executive Director) to attend Unlimited. My thanks also to Nadja Dias for the image from “The Way You Look (at me) Tonight”.

*The Way You Look (at me) Tonight
Created and performed by Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis
Philosophical Consultation by Alva Noë
Composed by Matthias Herrmann
Costume Design by Michiel Keuper
Dramaturgy by Luke Pell
Video Design by Yoann Trellu
Lighting Design by Chris Copland
Image: MJDA films

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