Disability and the New Normal in Australia

27 September 2016
Australian theatre company Back to Back, which performs internationally and featured in the New Zealand Festival’s 2016 programme in Wellington, will premiere its new play, Lady Eats Apple, at the Melbourne Arts Festival opening on 8 October.

Sarah Mainwaring, left, and Simon Laherty peer into the world in Back to Back Theatre company’s Lady Eats Apple Photo: Jeff BusbyAn article in The Guardian newspaper examines Australia’s progress in encouraging, enabling and presenting disability-led performance. Reporter Steve Dowe attended the recent Arts Activated conference in Sydney, where he got comment from a number of performers, including Sarah Houbolt, a strategic projects manager with Accessible Arts in Sydney and conference convenor.

The article states: “Lady Eats Apple will take the audience from a creation story into the contemporary realm when it is staged at the Melbourne festival next month, and next year at Sydney’s Carriageworks. Most of the actors would be perceived by the general community to have an intellectual disability. They write the scripts in part by drawing on improvisations based on their own lives; the story also explores euthanasia and gods destroyed by their own success.”

Embracing disability

Back to Back artistic director Bruce Gladwin has overseen the ground-breaking company since 1999. He says that in 2016 there are probably more independent productions and films being developed around the world that embrace disability “almost like an aesthetic choice” and with “larger casts of actors with disabilities”.

Dance Integrated Australia’s founder and creative director, Philip Channells, says Australia is 20 years behind the UK in terms of disability-led performance.

Sarah Houbolt in KooKoo the Bird GirlAustralian arts companies often fail to budget for access needs for performers with disabilities, he says, and there is still a lack of educational opportunities for performers with disabilities.

Sarah Houbolt, an Australian who lived and performed in Auckland for many years, is a circus and physical theatre performer. She will perform her one-woman show, KooKoo the Bird Girl, in Brisbane in November.

“We’re not knocking at a closed door,” she says. “We’re going, ‘You’ve got to keep that door open. That door is already open; how dare you shut it in our face’.”

Australian dancer Marc Brew told Arts Activated conference delegates: “Access can be embedded in the creative process rather than an afterthought” – meaning that access for his wheelchair becomes part of his act.

When Marc Brew was 20, he was in a car in Victoria with a group of friends when a drunk driver travelling on the wrong side of the road crashed into their vehicle head-on. Brew suffered massive internal injuries.

Seventeen years ago, the idea of people with disabilities being dancers was poorly understood in Australia, Brew told the conference. So he left for the UK, where he found greater support. Today, as artistic director of the Marc Brew Company in Glasgow, he choreographs as well as performs in his own works. Scotland’s The Herald gave five stars to his latest show, MayBe.

Marc said he was encouraged that Australia seems to be making progress in presenting work for dancers with disabilities.

New Normal strategy

Sydney’s Carriageworks arts centre, for instance, has committed to a national strategy called New Normal, which is commissioning ten new works by artists with disability over three 

Australia is 20 years behind the UK in terms of disability-led performance, says Dance Integrated Australia’s founder and creative director, Philip Channells, in an article in The Guardian newspaper.  

Australian arts companies often fail to budget for access needs for performers with disabilities, says Channells, and there is still a lack of educational opportunities for performers with disabilities.

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Disability and the New Normal in Australia

 
 
 
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