Friday, August 31, 2012

Unlimited Day 1: 'Making creative performance for Deaf and hearing audiences' and Writing Workshop with Kaite O'Reilly

Yesterday was the kick-off day at the Southbank Centre for the Unlimited Festival. The first thing I attended was a talk about how to make creative performances accessible for both Deaf and hearing audiences.

Obviously, it is fairly commom to have a BSL interpreters standing on the side during a performance. However, all the artists at the talk where passionate about their belief that making a performance accessible can be a creative element in itself that should be explored and played with.

Ramesh Meyyappan, who shows his play Skewered Snails at the Unlimited next Thursday, explained how he uses 'performance language' and a 'visual vocabulary' to transcend the boxes of spoken English and British Sign Language. He uses neither in his very physical plays and completely relies on visuals, facial expressions and movement.

Sophie Woolley, meanwhile, who starred in the brilliant TV show Cast Offs and wrote a play for Children for the Unlimited called Bee Detective, said that in earlier work she relied on captioning, and tried to make the captions look beautiful and very much as part of the set design. For Bee Detective this approach did not work, however, as the main audience are young children who might not be able to read the captions. Instead, performers speak and sign simultaneously, something that can be difficult as sometimes sentences are structured completely different in BSL than they are in spoken English, so Sophie had to play around with some of the text as the rehearsals went along.

Jenny Sealy, artistic director of Graeae and artistic co-director of the Paralympic opening ceremony, and Kaite O'Reilly, who has her play In Water I'm Weightless performed at the Unlimited, very much agreed that the play or performance should inform and influence the way a play should be made accessible.

Towards the end of the talk, an audience member asked the four creatives how they market their plays. Ramesh, Sophie and Jenny all said they try not to emphasize that it's a 'deaf play', as this might scare off non-disabled audiences. Kaite, meanwhile, gave a very passionate shout out to 'crip pride' and says that she fully embraces her disabled identity and the disabled identity of people she works with.

This sentiment left me with a lot of excitement for Kaite O'Reilly's writing workshop, which I attended next, and those were indeed extremely versatile, fun, educational and encouraging two hours.  During the workshop we talked about the way disabled characters are usually portrayed and how the basic structures of a play, or of storytelling, may be partly responsible for the widely metaphoric use of disability - the protagonist has to overcome obstacles - and hey, who isn't better at that than disabled people? The first part of the workshop gave everyone a lot of food for thought and was absolutely inspiring in the best sense of the word.

In the second half, we talked about audio description in theatre and how this might be used creatively, especially in combination with making a play accessible for deaf audiences. I loved how Kaite embraces not only own disability, but truly believes that including everyone both on stage and in the audience makes for better, more exciting theatre and leads to new experiences and insights, which is a sentiment I share wholeheartedly.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Pushing beyond what's expected?

Since the Kardashians seem now to have spin-off shows for every combination of family members possible, the market for new reality TV shows seems rather saturated. But apparently, American TV channel Sundance thought otherwise and found a new twist on the genre: At the moment, it is airing the first season of a show called Push Girls

Push Girls

It centres around 5 sexy ladies living in California, but what sets them apart from Krazy Kim & co. is not only that they are not related, but also that they are all - wait for it - in wheelchairs, which is definitely a far cry from other reality TV episodes that include disabled people.

The Kardashians keep up with disability inclusion.. or something.

Intrigued, I started watching Push Girls, and so far I have mixed feelings about it, but I like it well enough to keep watching.
While the show definitely uses the supercrip trope and aims to portray those disabled women in a 'positive' light, it also addresses some social or political issues. Some of those are clearly linked to disability, for example when Push Girl Mia has difficulties finding accessible housing. Other issues, however, are relatable for everyone, and this is Push Girls' strong point. Auti, one of the main ladies, has difficulties getting pregnant, but the main reason for this is not her disability, but that she is 42 years old.
The advantage of using 5 disabled women as the main cast is that there is no token disability girl whose storyline is built only around her wheelchair.  The producers have to find other storylines that set the girls apart from each other, and for some parts of the show the wheelchairs fade into the background, and we might as well watch the Sex and the City girls. Those moments definitely make Push Girls interesting for me, as they provide a much needed example that disabled people, can be interesting and funny on TV even when the disability is not on focus. For a light-hearted genre like a reality show, this is definitely a step in the right direction, especially because I think disabled women who are not portrayed as damsels in distress or as de-feminized are still underrepresented in the media.
And those Push Girls are modern, feminine, girl power ladies: They all date, have careers, work out and always sport perfectly blow-dried hair and glossy lips. Indeed, they positively remind me of the Becky Barbie doll, who was released in the 90's and created a small scandal when her wheelchair could not access Barbie's dream house and thus was a bit too realistic for over-protective parents.

Push Girl Tiphany
Barbie's friend Becky

The main flaw of Push Girls are its narrow standards of both female beauty and disability. All five women were born non-disabled, and four of them had car accidents during their 'wild' youth that left them disabled. They all have bodies that look, at least in clothes, non-disabled and respond to the narrow Hollywood standard of female beauty.  It's not a show about disability, it's not even a show about women in wheelchairs. It's a show about women who look like models, had a car accident and are now paraplegic. Is this really the only way disability can be shown on TV in a sexy manner? I won't go on about Hollywood beauty standards, as I find it a tiresome and frustrating subject, but I do wish non-disabled viewers of Push Girls were not left under the impression that all wheelchair users had car accidents, and I think the show could stick closer to reality by showing someone with a body that looks different from a non-disabled body, as I think right now they leave out to represent a huge part of wheelchair users.

Push Girl Chelsie
The 'car accident' back stories, which are brought up in almost every episode, are there, I think, so that a non-disabled audience can relate to the women, thinking 'oh, they were just like me'. But because they are brought up so often, they do amount to a giant snooze-fest and are frustrating for the disabled audience, because such a narrow disabled identity is portrayed. It is interesting to see how different the women deal with their disability, butif the producers would add one person to the cast who was born disabled, it would bring much needed variety to the show and provide a different view-point, so the show would be much more representative of wheelchair users than it is right now.
It is good to see that a TV show portrays disability in a stylish, light-hearted and sexy manner and shows real disabled women. But Push Girls could be much more representative, interesting and less repetitive if the cast was a bit more diverse.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Dean Rodney Singers are on tonight.. Interview time!

Welcome to the magical world of The Dean Rodney Singers. It's a magical music project that involves 7 dimensions, 7 countries, 72 musicians and is inspired by dreams, bright colours and superheroes. Sounds wicked, doesn't it?

Dean Rodney, front man of the punk/funk/hip hop group The Fish Police, created this project together with Heart'n'Soul, an arts organisation that provides artistic opportunities to learning disabled people.
Seven countries are part of the Dean Rodney Singers, and each country represents another dimension of Dean Rodney's vision.
During the Unlimited, The Dean Rodney Singers' project will take over a space at the Southbank Centre, and will also present dance videos and remixes that people have uploaded through youtube. Unfortunately I missed the deadline to do something, but you can watch their call out here:

In anticipation of their Unlimited project, Heart'n'Soul granted me a little interview, talking about the ideas behind the project, about the Unlimited and about how the Dean Rodney Singers have been received by the media so far. You can read it below. Enjoy!!

SW: The Dean Rodney singers project sounds amazing, all those different Countries and even dimensions that are involved! I also love how people could do their own videos or remixes to be involved (unfortunately, I missed the deadline myself to do something). What was the initial inspiration, or idea, behind the project? 

The initial idea came from a dream that lead artist Dean Rodney had in 2008. In the dream he saw a band with 72 different performers and they were called ‘DRS’. The band wasn’t sure what ‘DRS’ stood for, so Dean named them the ‘Dean Rodney Singers’.
SW: In what respect, do you think, is the Unlimited different to other disability arts events?

What makes Unlimited different to other disability arts events is the scale and ambition of the project.  It’s not putting disability arts into a box, it’s about recognizing that there are deaf and disabled artists in the UK whose work is suitable for the global platform that the Paralympic brings. Unlimited is putting their work on a par with all the other artists commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad.  

SW: Do you think the Unlimited will create a legacy for the disability arts?

I think that Unlimitedwill definitely create a legacy. However, perhaps one of the best legacies would be for the term ‘disability arts’ to become less important and for people to think more about the individual artists involved in the programme and their creative opportunities. 

SW: How was the response of the media so far regarding this project?

4. The media response to Unlimited has been very positive so far. Our experience has been one of genuine interest in the creative product rather than the traditional focus on the artist’s disability. 

SW: Thank you very much for the interview, Heart'n'Soul. Can't wait to bust some moves to the Dean Rodney Singers!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Unlimited Under the Sea

What makes London 2012 special is that there seems to be a strong focus on promoting and showcasing the arts alongside the sports.
The most exciting series of cultural events this summer for me are the Unlimited commissions, which are projects by disabled and deaf artists in the UK.
Some of the commissions are being shown right now around the country: comedian Laurence Clark and dancer Caroline Bowditch have taken their shows to Edinburgh, and 'In Water I'm Weightless, written by the welsh playwright Kaite O'Reilly and starring, amongst others, Mat Fraser, is on at the National Theatre Wales.
During the time the Paralympic games are on, all the commissions will be shown in London, and most of them at the Southbank Centre.
In the next few weeks, I hope to post many reviews or articles about the Unlimited, as I am very excited about it. Most projects seem absolutely amazing, and there should be something for everyone, regardless your interests.

The most stunning image I have seen so far of the Unlimited, and its main marketing image, is a Little Mermaid-esque performance with a self-propelled underwater wheelchair by Sue Austin.
When I was a little girl, I used to be obsessed with Disney's Little Mermaid, and to be honest, I still am - Ariel is the main reason I dyed my hair red. But I always thought that if only Ariel had gotten herself a wheelchair to go around on land, instead of those legs sponsored by the sea witch, she could have saved herself a lot of trouble. For that reason, Sue Austin's project resonates with me, and I can't wait to see more of it. Her 'Creating the Spectacle!' project will be shown in the Southbank Centre from the 1st of September until the 9th.
You can see Sue's, and many other projects, for free, but some events require tickets. More information on the Unlimited Festival at the Southbank Centre can be found here.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What about the Superhumans?

Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion with my friend, and fellow Disability Studies academic, Louise Hickman about the Paralympics in general and about Channel 4's 'Meet the Superhumans' advert for the Paralympics, which you can watch here.

 It has inspired (no pun intended) me to write down my thoughts about the advert.

First of all, I like the ad, for the simple reason that I think it does what it should do, without grossly offending anyone.
It does make the Paralympics seem cool, fresh and interesting. The two main attributes of the video that make this happen are the music, and the scene with the pregnant mother, the car crash and the war scene.

The music is by Public Enemy. Now, if you are really into disability activism, you might shout out: 'Why didn't they let someone who is disabled themselves provide the music? The Dean Rodney Singers, for example?'
Because the music works. It is exciting and energetic, and provides a great rhythm for the video. It makes you move and it makes you want to be involved with what's on the telly. Also, I think the main goal of the video was to make non-disabled people buy a ticket for the Paralympics.  In a day and age, when Blogger still highlights the word 'Paralympics' for me, because apparently it is not a real word, and maybe I meant 'Paralytics' instead, that's a reasonable goal, in my book.
It is a shame that disabled musicians are vastly underrepresented in the charts, and I do hope Channel 4 will do their bit to include Disability Arts alongside their Paralympics coverage, but for this video, the track works perfectly. It seems like they wanted to use a well-known artist that is liked by many people and Stevie Wonder probably wasn't available to do a song.

So we have some sporty people with amazing bodies, and some good music. A nice video, but not enough to make it all that memorable. Enter the pregnant lady, the war scene and the car crash scene.
In the audience that is not aware of most of the discourse around disability, this triggers probably some uncomfortable feelings, which are quickly resolved when the scene is over and the video goes back to showing the athletes, full of energy and life. It can suggest, but only very subtly, the context of disabled people overcoming struggles, being inspiring and all that. It can also suggest that most of those athletes have a human-interest story to tell. Both those things are problematic from a disabled activist point of view, but again, it might be just what it needs to fill those stadium seats.
Also, those scenes show disabled people everywhere that while they might not have the gorgeous bodies of the athletes, or their energy, we all have this story in common, and we all have in common that people want to know about it, whether we like it or not. Because the scene does not clearly mark those events - the car crash, the bomb' as horrible or tragic, but just acknowledges that they are part of the story, in my point of view the the video works, with a little bit of goodwill, both for a disabled and a non-disabled audience.

At no point the athletes seem to be struggling with their bodies - or at least, not more than any athlete would. Sports on this level always includes a struggle with one's body - the idea, that one has to push their body beyond its limits to achieve things that maybe it was not built for. It doesn't imply that ALL disabled people are superhumans, but that the paralympic athletes are - just like all athletes you've met before you met those superhumans.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Stay Positive

I will be starting my PhD in September.

My topic will be: 'Positive Portrayals of Disability'.
What is considered to be a positive portrayal of disablity in mainstream culture? Is it that kid from Glee who stole my idea of the flashing wheels?  Is it the disabled superheroes in X-Men?
Which audience considers those portrayals to be positive, a disabled audience, an able-bodied audience or pretty much everyone?
And what kind of 'positive' portrayals are created inside Disability Culture? Do disabled performers and writers reject the idea of the super crip, do they satirize it, do they embrace it?

I created this new blog to highlight interesting debates or events around my research topic in a non-acamic writing style, but it will be sprinkled with other flashes of my daily life, too.