Photo by Kyle Purcell. Out The Window by Liza Balkan, Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley. A Luminato Commission in partnership with the Drama Centre Toronto.
I want to support and honour the land acknowledgement of Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, acknowledging the sacred land on which we gathered and operated, as the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, The Seneca, the Mississaugas of the New Credit, and any other nations who cared for the land in its history.
The territory is the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.
Today, the meeting place of Toronto is still the home to many indigenous people from across Turtle Island and I was grateful to work in the community, on that territory.
Context of My International Visit to Canada
I’m not a natural navel gazer, nor do I boast about opportunities afforded me, but I genuinely have always dreamed of going to Canada. I’m choosing to record and archive my experience as a disabled practitioner, and aim to contribute to discourses around, a) the equal status of disabled citizens and any injustices I witness or experience, and b) the equal status of the autonomous voices and artistic contribution of disabled people on many levels, in varying ways, across culture.
About 18 months ago, I decided that I wanted to explore some international possibilities, but then I didn’t even know opportunities like Directors Lab North in Toronto existed. Being selected to attend, in many ways, felt like I was risk-taking, with no other self-identifying disabled people attending, without a history of disabled people attending, to my knowledge, and not really appreciating the circumstances that both disabled and non-disabled artists in Canada and the US make their work – the systems and structures available to them.
And in honesty, I wasn’t sure whether what I have to offer was of value in this new context. There is a cyclic experience I encounter, where, as an artist from a less represented community, with historically less opportunities open to us due to societal prejudices and systemic failings, we must take on the role of both artist and educator, of both creative and campaigner, of both diplomat and activist. In diversity terms, not to in any way to diminish anyone else’s experience of discrimination and oppression, disability, because of all the social and historical baggage attached to common perceptions, usually finds itself at the bottom of everyone’s priority list. It’s often so difficult to get past the word ‘disability’, so conflated is it with inability, illness and incapacity. As a direct result of this conflation, in my own experience, it feels like disability is the only ‘other’ which the mainstream feels it can, wittingly or unwittingly, legitimately continue to represent as ‘less than’.
As I have said on many occasions, disabled artists are some of the most exciting and innovative people creating work today, as we challenge form, challenge content and absolutely challenge the dominant artistic status quo. And yet, often, due to the baggage, our work is perceived as ‘less than’ and you can see the shutters coming down once the word disability is introduced to artistic discussions. I remember chatting to a senior member of Arts Council staff about contemporary theatre in the UK, who literally glazed over once I mentioned that I work in disabled-led arts, took out his phone to check messages mid-conversation. Less than.
I have been able to reflect that I am at a shifting point in my career as an artist and as a voice within disabled-led arts working towards artistic and cultural equality for our community. If I can speak out, and this is just for me, I have a responsibility to do so. And I am driven to make the best, most compelling, powerful, meaningful, relevant work that I can, with thoughtful and analytical practice.
One of the most exciting elements of Directors Lab North and of the Toronto Luminato Theatre Festival (which, along with the British Council also supported our programme) was the theme of activism and what role activism has on the creative life of an artist. Right up my street. Invaluable.
The Theme of Activism
All 28 of us directors had answered a question on our application forms about whether it is necessary for the role of an artist to also be an activist, and if so, how do we do this effectively and theatrically without alienating an audience? We were all so different in many ways, those forms must have made for very interesting reading. These are matters I face daily in my practice – making sure the activism is in the form of excellent art, and discovering new ways to get audiences to both engage and invest in the work. It was such a luxury to see work at Luminato, to discuss it, to share practice, to meet guest speakers and practitioners and to explore different approaches.
Specific discussion points which have stayed with me relate to questions about
- who can tell the stories of people from diverse communities (whatever the mist screen of ‘diversity’ actually means), a concern and sometimes indignation for some non-diverse artists to feel they couldn’t explore these other peoples’ stories with authenticity
- the impact of access considerations on a non-disabled artists work, some real concerns about how to publicise trigger warnings, and make work accessible without artistic compromise.
- whether we want audiences to think or feel, this was a fascinating, at time binary discussion but really interesting to hear other directors thoughts on this and it gave room to discuss what we want to share with our audiences
- the roles of politeness and agency in theatrical settings, from the word go, in both the first theatre show we went to see which was largely ‘no-choice’ audience participation, and our first guest director, the differences between polite respect for someone’s position either as an artist or as an audience member, and sincerely intended enquiring questioning about supporting new and diverse stories to be developed in mainstream settings became evident. Again, we didn’t know what we didn’t know about each other.
- And crucially important to me is my ongoing research into how internationally acclaimed artists describe or ‘pitch’ their work to reach audiences and persuade programmers of the value of their activism as works of art.
I’ll blog separately about some of these discussions and the learning involved.
In a hugely conflicted world, it is essential to speak out, to be accountable and to build bridges. Artists have an important role to play in the conversations about society, humanity and, in these difficult times, resistance. And also to be a community. It’s not enough for me to stand on the shoulders of the disability rights movement, to sit back and observe the world, take public funding and make out of context, status quo serving, socially apolitical, comfortable and privileged work. I’m also going to be really careful that my work does not conflate disability with illness and ability, and I will not perpetuate existing stereotypes and tropes that exist around disability. So my practice is careful, considered and challenges me.
It became apparent immediately that there were cultural differences between US, Canada, European and UK participants that perhaps none of us had given much thought to in advance. And there were a variety of intersectional differences between all of us wherever we were from. It took a while to acclimatize to each other and to work out what we didn’t know about each other. It was both a huge and beautiful learning process. There were matters of communication – politeness versus enquiring questions, straight talking versus diplomacy, diversity versus mainstream, political versus apolitical, political versus entertainment, perceptions of construction of identity including gender, disability, LGBTQI, social class, race and age. All genuinely fascinating and the impressive thing was the level of genuine mutual respect amongst the group. The word ‘versus’ was removed from the discussion.
We realized that all of the six UK based directors, not exclusively, were all mission led. We all make work for a specific purpose which is socially engaged. Other directors were perhaps led by a particular theory of practice, or a specific form, and others were jobbing directors, often working as unpaid assistant directors for the experience as an accepted part of the existing hierarchy. It was fascinating to see how our discussions unfolded and then also how are practice was shared and demonstrated. And we were able to have conversations about some of the fundamentals of a rehearsal room – do we do warm ups, how do we do them, why do we do them and also, how much table work do we do, if any, depending on our training and our approach to the process. We rarely get to spend time in other directors rehearsals so this was really interesting. I learned so much that I will continue to use.
One of the biggest cultural differences was of course the role of indigenous artists activism, artistry and protection of the true history of indigenous people in Canada and their experiences at the hands of settlers. One of the guest directors who presented to us was the amazing Jill Carter, Assistant Professor, Centre for Drama, Centre for Indigenous Studies, University of Toronto. She talked with passion about the representation of indigenous women, and characters created by both non-indigenous people and indigenous artists. It was absolutely fascinating. I could happily have spent the whole day with her. We also got to see a production called bug by Yolanda Bonnell, a queer performer and playwright of Ojibwe and South Asian descent, hailing from the Fort William First Nation Indian Reserve in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The piece was haunting and challenging on many levels, with Bonnell playing many women, and weaving the creation story throughout. Bonnell was captivating as she moved from character to character with great skill and expertise. Though painful, the piece concluded with hope for future women and the safeguarding of the land. It was brilliant to be part of discussions involving such strong women.
High Impact Work
Two pieces of work had a really big impact on me, in quite different ways. I’d say both were politically urgent pieces – often where I position my own work – delivered and followed up in quite different ways. The first was Burning Doors by Belarus Free Theatre who had combined forces with Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina – a pulsing, visceral and physical piece sharing stories of persecuted artists, living under dictatorship, who will not be silenced. It was powerful and relentless in its anger and fire. For me, the intensity is shocking, and then sadly numbing, the audience breathing a sigh of relief when it is over but not really knowing what to do with its new information. ‘Isn’t this where we clap enthusiastically, perhaps give a standing ovation and then go to dinner?’. We didn’t have to wait long as we were choreographed into being videoed chanting ‘Free Sentsov’, Oleg Sentsov a film maker in a Russian prison for alleged acts of terrorism and currently on hunger strike, by one of the productions co-directors Natalia Kaliada. It was fascinating and challenging and has given me lots to think about. I spoke with Natalia Kaliada the next day as part of our DLN session which I’ll blog about separately.
The second piece I saw had an impact on me that I don’t think I’ve previously ever had in a theatre. It was the most moved I have ever been by a piece of theatre. Out The Window by Liza Balkan and directed by Sarah Garton Stanley tells the real story of the death of Otto Vass, a man with mental health problems, after being physically assaulted by four police officers outside a 7-11 store. Liza Balkan saw the last minutes of Otto Vass’s life out of her window. The piece uses verbatim interviews and court transcripts, a physical and visual style, and artist and activist Syrus Marcus Ware drew a portrait of Vass throughout the first two acts of the piece. So although Vass’s voice is not heard, his presence is respected and felt. I loved the piece from the beginning but in the third act, all actors dropped their characters and presented as versions of themselves, they invited people to eat with them and they talked about other people in portraits who had the same experience as Otto Vass. And the Bruised Years Choir sang Everybody Hurts. I have never experienced survivors of mental health problems or the families of those with mental health problems singing to those of us who know what they meant, ‘Hold On, hold on’. They were singing it to me, to a member of my close family who couldn’t hold on, and to a close friend who also found the struggle of holding on too great. God it was so powerful. The humanity of that. The kindness. Reaching out. I couldn’t speak for two hours after the show but kept replaying it all in my mind. More to come about the impact of this on me as a person and me as a practitioner. But isn’t it wonderful to be part of the community that can do this to other people, can communicate humanity, share kindness and reach out.
A massive thank you to British Council Canada, Directors Lab North and the whole team there, ARC Stockton UK and the Luminato Festival Toronto for this unbelievable experience. And a huge thank you to my fellow labbies - we united!
I think we all came away from Directors Lab North changed in some way – more questions, inspired, fired up, more confident about our voices, and keen to find new directions and develop new collaborations. This activists door is always open.