Deaf and disabled artists take centre stage

With the Paralympics bringing elite disabled athletes to the world's attention, Emily Wight looks at the elite deaf and disabled artists also showcasing their talent

Imagine you are in Shakespeare’s globe theatre on a warm summer’s evening. Merrymakers line the South Bank, drinking, talking and laughing; across the river, St Paul’s cathedral towers above London’s skyline. But within the cylindrical walls you wouldn’t hear a pin drop. As soon as the performance starts, you are set apart from the rest of the audience as they react to what they hear onstage. All you can hear is a ringing silence.

It might sound surreal, but this is what the 8.7m deaf people in the UK experience when they go to the theatre. And just weeks ago, London-based theatre company Deafinitely Theatre turned this on its head by performing Love’s Labour’s Lost – the first full-length Shakespeare play to be performed in British Sign Language – at one of the most celebrated theatre venues in the world. This time, the deaf members of the audience were in the majority. The people set apart were those who take hearing for granted.

Even weeks after the show has ended, Artistic Director Paula Garfield is determined that their performance represents a turning point in the history of deaf theatre: “I think it’s the first time that we’ve been so well profiled in such a well known venue and it’s a very rare opportunity. It’s every director and actor’s dream to work at the Globe.”

Stephen Collins, a deaf actor and filmmaker who played the role of Ferdinand in the production, adds: “Deaf theatre has been around for quite a long time, but it’s part of a minority, and I think we had a major impact because it was at the Globe, and we really made our mark on deaf theatre history for the first time.”

The exposure doesn’t stop there. For the past 20 years, disabled artists have thrived on the fringes of the UK’s culture scene. But this summer offers them the opportunity to reach mainstream society. The Olympics and Paralympics are coming to the UK, along with the opportunity to showcase a wealth of disabled talent. Exposure of disabled athletes will be bigger and better than ever before, with Channel 4 broadcasting more than 150 hours of all-day, every-day coverage. And the Cultural Olympiad’s Unlimited programme has pumped over a million pounds worth of National Lottery, Arts Council and British Council money into 35 commissions for deaf and disabled artists.

Unlimited is championed by the Director of the Cultural Olympiad, Ruth Mackenzie. She says: “We are pretty confident this is the largest ever programme of work of professional disabled and deaf artists that has happened in any Paralympics and indeed anywhere.”

Sipping coffee and nibbling at the end of a custard cream from her office on the 23rd floor of a Canary Wharf skyscraper, where the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games is based, Mackenzie may seem a world apart from an organisation such as Lawnmowers, a theatre group for people with learning disabilities in Gateshead, whose musical production Boomba down the Tyne will be performed as part of the London 2012 Festival.  But she insists that her commissions are first and foremost about artistic credibility: “We haven’t chosen the best artists because they’re disabled. We’ve chosen the best artists because they’re the best artists – this is a festival of world class artists. And amongst this programme of world class artists there are some world class disabled and deaf artists.”

Mackenzie admits that while the Paralympics has gained a fair amount of media coverage, disabled artists have not yet been celebrated on the same scale. And with the Olympics and Paralympics in London this year, the chance to promote disability arts could not have come at a better time. Culture is London’s biggest tourist attraction, she says: people flock to the capital for the free museums, the Shakespeare, the West End.  She quotes the mayoral adviser Munira Murza, who said “as sun is to Spain, culture is to London.”

“What I think has been brilliant about the Paralympics is that they have raised the profile of disabled athletes in an amazing way over the last decade, and they have opened the doors to many opportunities for disabled athletes, so they have transformed perceptions and they have transformed opportunities. I very much hope that we can play our part in doing the same for disabled and deaf artists.”

Many would argue that this is more urgent now than ever before. Disabled people in the UK are bearing the brunt of the coalition government’s austerity drive. The welfare reform act is capping employment support allowance, despite the Department for Work and Pensions forecasting that 94% of disabled jobseekers would struggle to find work within this time. The government has contracted the French IT firm ATOS to undertake work capability assessments that doctors criticise as “inadequate”. More than 1,700 have lost their jobs as the government has shut down Remploy factories, which have provided disabled people with sheltered employment since the Second World War.

How can the arts give a voice to a section of society that is becoming increasingly marginalised? One of the acts commissioned for Unlimited is Diverse City’s Breathe, a spectacle of music, circus and dance that will close the Olympic sailing events on Weymouth beach.  Diverse City, an amateur performing arts organisation for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, is working with leading figures in disability arts, such as the blind playwright Alex Bulmer and the choreographer Dave Toole, who has no legs.

Diverse City has taken on professional circus company Cirque Bijou to train six young performers – only one of whom isn’t disabled. And the company has sent 15 performers out to Brazil, where they will bring back 25 disabled and non-disabled artists to work on Breathe in time for the performance at the end of July.

Chief Executive Claire Hodgson, who founded Diverse City in 2006, is positive about the two-fold benefit that disability arts have on society. Not only is it about offering artists a platform they might not have in mainstream culture, she says, it is also about normalising their exposure to audiences who might not previously have seen disabled people in such a spotlight.

She says: “I founded this company because I feel really strongly that the performing arts should be accessible to everyone, but also that we should really try and represent different groups in high profile performances so that people get to see people with disabilities both creating art and performance as well.”

Graeae is the UK’s leading professional theatre company for disabled and deaf actors and has been working on a number of projects for the Unlimited programme this summer, including Prometheus Awakes and The Garden, performed last month, and the musical Reasons to be cheerful in September. Jenny Sealey has been Graeae’s Artistic Director for 15 years and is also co-Artistic Director of the Paralympic Opening Ceremony and artistic advisor to the Unlimited programme, the importance of which, she says, is paramount: “It’s about non-disabled young people realising that deaf and disabled people are part of the fabric of society, so we have to get in there to change theatre and drama, to change hearts and perceptions, and challenge those prejudices that people have.”

There is one question on the tips of many tongues. Will the celebration of disabled artists really last beyond this summer? Can the buzzword – albeit rather tired by now – “legacy” really live up to its potential, particularly with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport cutting Arts Council funding by 29.6% between 2010 and 2014?

 Sealey is ambivalent: “What’s more important than anything is that it’s not just a one off – we are already starting to prepare for 2013. If we let this just be oh well done, 2012 we did it, well, in 2013 where are we? We’ve got to carry on – we have to – it’s crucial because there is that sort of cynicism on my behalf that people will say ‘oh, we did a big one for them then.’”

But the threat of losing publicity again only makes her more determined: “Because of all the Arts Council cuts we don’t know what our future is – so we’ve got to make sure that we are always the best of the best so that they will want to continue to fund us.”

Graeae's 'The Garden' is 6 - 9 September; and 'Reasons to be Cheerful' is 9 September

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