The Art of Accessibility
By Nikki Shaffeeullah
“Many Canadian theatre and performance scholars have not yet fully confronted ableist assumptions at play in their fields, whether they deal with mainstream or marginalized communities,” asserts Kirsty Johnston in her 2009 article, “Building a Canadian Disability Arts Network: An Intercultural Approach.” The alt.theatre editorial team was eager to take up this task, and so, when choosing a theme for this special issue, we sought to create a dedicated space to address ableism in performing arts and explore (dis)ability performance as it intersects with politics, social activism, and cultural diversity. (Dis)ability, Diversity, and Performance is alt.theatre’s third special issue, after 2013’s Gender and Theatre at the Margins and 2012’s two-part Oral History and Performance. The field of disability performance is growing and deserves to become an integrated part of all theatre practice, discourse, and scholarship. This issue is an effort to contribute to that process.
What can theatre makers and scholars from all backgrounds and abilities learn from disability justice activists and artists? There is tremendous wealth in the analyses and ways of knowing that were born in these movements, and I suggest we begin by foregrounding accessibility in our work and research. I borrow the name of this editorial from “The Art of Access/ability,” a collaborative event hosted in February 2014 by the Edmonton queer collective Qmunity League and local indie theatre group mindhive collective. As an attendee, I was inspired by how this thoughtfully crafted evening of performance and party not only provided a comprehensively accessible space for guests, but in its design and programming unpacked the aesthetic possibilities of accessibility. What does accessibility look like when it is held as an artistic value?
The active and intentional employment of accessibility frameworks in theatre-making should absolutely not be understood as simply a provision of services. And while working against (dis)ability-based oppression is of course a matter of human rights, the practice of doing so in the performing arts is not even just that. Accessibility is central to the craft of theatre-making; it is an artistic asset, for theatre and (dis)ability justice share the core value of interdependence. Disability justice activist Mia Mingus affirms: “With disability justice, we want to move away from the ‘myth of independence,’ that everyone can and should be able to do everything on their own. I am not fighting for independence … I am fighting for an interdependence that embraces needs and tells the truth: no one does it on their own and the myth of independence is just that, a myth.” Theatre is, by its very nature, collaboration: at its simplest, it is the relationship between artist and audience; in its most common iterations it is the sum of the creative exchanges between performers, designers, playwright, director, and others. Theatre is interdependence, and that interdependence is a strength.
This issue brings together artists, activists, and scholars working across different areas of (dis)ability performance. Ruica Kong and Sabina England each offer insight into how (dis)ability performance can work in intersectional ways to challenge other planes of oppression. In “Stigmas of Capitalism: The Wounded and Disabled Body in Li Ning’s Physical Theatre” (pp. 10-15), Kong’s analysis of new capitalism in China considers how the state values productivity of physical bodies and how this manifests in mainstream theatre. He illustrates that “state capitalism and mainstream theatre share the same values: both enshrine productivity and exclude people with disabilities . . . The problem thus is how theatrical practices can serve to redefine ability and disability in contemporary China.” Kong asks, “Could the theatre employ the disabled without being caught up in the economics of efficiency and profitability, and in this way provide an alternative?” and in his ensuing discussion demonstrates how Chinese artist Li Ning’s work is a creative challenge to ableism and capitalism. In “Deaf Performance Art, Sound, and Allah Earth” (pp. 23-25), England thoughtfully offers her perspective as a Deaf filmmaker and performance artist who values using sound in her work despite not being able to hear. She identifies culturally specific reasons why she believes sound to be a key tool for bridging cultural divides, and explains how this is a priority for her as an Indian Muslim woman artist working to counter Islamophobia and racism.
“With disability justice, we want to move away from the ‘myth of independence,’ that everyone can and should be able to do everything on their own. I am not fighting for independence … I am fighting for an interdependence that embraces needs and tells the truth: no one does it on their own and the myth of independence is just that, a myth.”
Through specific case studies, Ashley McAskill, Kelsie Acton, and Christina Brassard provide insight into contemporary theatrical works across Canada that engage with (dis)ability. McAskill’s “Reconfiguring the “Disabled” Artist: Tender Reverberations in Portraits, a Theatre Terrific Fringe Production” (pp. 17-22) interrogates several phenomena in the field of (dis)ability and performance, and specifically the problems and possibility in how the word “tender” is used. McAskill argues that “tender” has the “potential to perpetuate the disabling culture of people with disabilities being inferior to the non-disabled,” but also “has the potential to loosen such fixed frames of difference, whether in the field of disability or in other intercultural performance works.” Using Vancouver-based Theatre Terrific as a case study, she carefully explores the nuances of tenderness in mixed-ability theatre workshops. Kelsie Acton’s “We are the chair . . . and many things besides”: Multiplicity of Identity and Brechtian Staging Techniques in Inter-RelationCRIPS” (pp. 26-29) looks at a performance work by artists Lindsay Eales and Danielle Peers that was presented as part of Stage Left’s Woman’s Work in Calgary. Acton illustrates Inter-RelationCRIPS’ disruption of mainstream understandings of disability, and she unpacks how the show’s Brechtian sensibility engages with capitalism, gender, and sexuality to “transcend the potential limits of identity-based politics and to explore intersecting multiple oppressions.” In “The Performativity of (Dis)ability,” Christina Brassard interviews Menka Nagrani, founder of Montreal dance theatre company Les Productions des pieds des mains, and they discuss Nagrani’s character-driven choreography in the work she creates with artists with intellectual disabilities.
This issue’s Dispatch section sees two practitioners offer perspective on disability theatre creation. Brooke Leifso self-identifies as an artist with mild cerebral palsy, and her reflections in “Unravelling the Disabled” speak to how theatre and its focus on embodiment can facilitate a space for people with disabilities to resist (dis)ability-based oppression. Of her process, Leifso shares: “I reached a place of personal development where I knew I had to face the shame and my internalized ableism. I wanted to come to terms with what my body was and, ultimately, to finally be okay living in these bones.” Michael Actman is a support worker based in England who collaborates with Pete Edwards, an actor and writer with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair and has limited control of his movement and speech. In “How Creative is the Creative Enabler,” Actman describes the model of “creative enabler,” a specialized support worker with “skills and experience in the area practiced by the disabled artist” who supports the artist through creation and performance. He shares his experience with this evolving model and invites questions on if and how creative enablers can artistically contribute to the projects they work on.
This issue’s small sampling of rich work demonstrates how this field called (dis)ability performance comprises an extremely diverse range of practices. As Kirsty Johnston describes in her book Stage Turns: Canadian Disability Theatre (which Ashley McAskill reviews on pp. 37-39), “disability theatre in Canada may best be understood as an intercultural project, one in which artists from a range of disability cultures contribute to a polyvalent disability culture . . . disability culture is not a monolith that essentializes one world-view or disability experience” (6). The field is dynamic, and it is still evolving. We are working through the language—Brassard highlights Nagrani’s concern with the limitations of the term “integrated dance”; England explains how the choice to capitalize or not “Deaf” relates to community-based identity; McAskill problematizes “tender” and the use of the word “disability” itself. We are working through our tactics—England shares how she sometimes uses her “creative work as a celebration of life, and other times to vent [her] frustration and lament [her] struggles in the world”; Leifso charts her personal creative journey that moved away from the body, to the mind, and back to the body. We are working through the still-necessary need to compartmentalize marginalized practices into distinct fields like “(dis)ability arts” or “culturally diverse performance” and toward practices that go beyond creating avenues for inclusion and instead actively dismantle the systems that create barriers in the first place. The foregrounding of accessibility in our creative processes is essential in this project of equity and an indispensible lens for artistic creation.
This article was originally published as the editorial in Issue 11.3 of alt.theatre.
Johnston, Kirsty. “Building a Canadian Disability Arts Network: An Intercultural Approach.” Theatre Research in Canada 30.1-2 (2009): 152-174.
Mingus, Mia. “Changing the Framework: Disability Justice.” RESIST Newsletter. November 2010.