I’m really excited to announce our new project A Different Way, a ‘show and tell’ project connecting Theatre for Young Audiences with Disabled audiences and artists, funded by Arts Council England. The project will see the development of 3 new Disabled-led shows alongside and sector development that puts the voices of young Disabled people at the heart of the creative process.
So why this project and why now? Well I’ve worked in Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) for a few years now (insert joke about how old I am here) and it is apparent to me that representation of Disabled people is an issue. There just aren’t that many Disabled people involved with the writing, production and touring of quality creative new theatre for young people. We want to change that.
Although I have been working for many years in the sector, it wasn’t until 2017 when I was touring A Square World (my show for young audiences which took a creative and fun approach to exploring ideas around access) that it hit me… theatre programmers were eager for similar Disabled-led productions for young audiences – productions that place creative access at the core. But it was beginning to feel like I was the only one.
For me theatre for young audiences was always at the forefront of reflecting our society on stage. Just think back to the 80’s and 90’s, many companies were pushing the boundaries by putting Disabled artists and their stories on stage. TYA led the way in challenging perceptions around disability, but over the years the sector has been overtaken by other art forms and the so-called “mainstream theatre”.
More recently In TYA we have, rightly so, focused on our audience, but in doing so our focus has become too external facing. Yes we are making work for young Disabled people, but where is the creative exchange happening between Disabled artists and young audiences? How are we encouraging Disabled artists to make work for young audiences? What is stopping us?
Obviously as a Disabled artist I have a very personal view on the unique and creative opportunities Disabled-led work can produce. Living our lives differently from the perceived norm allows us to look at the world around us from a different view point. We’re not in the middle of it all, not in the centre of society – because of the barriers placed there – but sat at the side looking in.
Being on the edge of mainstream is a unique position. For all its negativity it can be one of luxury, not of pity. It allows us to sit back, to examine and observe the world, question what we are seeing and spot the bizarre, the humour and the injustice happening all around. This unique view of life enriches our thinking, our creativity and our approach to the rules we are made to play by. For us the rules don’t always apply, which means we have the luxury of improvising and making up our own. It is this approach we can then apply to making theatre that speaks to more than just other Disabled people.
So the TYA sector should be embracing this as much as we have begun to embrace the need to make shows tailored for disabled audiences. We should be seizing this opportunity to start a new narrative led by Disabled artists who have been using every creative tool necessary to make challenging, experimental, accessible and inclusive theatre for many years.
So, I want to be able to share the experience and skills I’ve developed in Theatre for Young Audiences with other Disabled creatives. I want to help wedge open the door, to introduce these exciting artists to this exciting sector.
I want us to make original, inventive and authentic work which tells a whole range of different stories, led by Disabled artists. I want young Disabled people to see themselves and their experiences reflected and represented onstage.
Let’s see Disabled artists in the rehearsal rooms, on our stages and in the classrooms. It’s time to open up the sector and have frank and honest discussions about what is stopping us from programming, investing or creating Disabled-led work for young audiences.
A Different Way hopes to be the catalyst for this. This year-long programme will see diverse and different Disabled-led creative teams working with young disabled people in participatory workshops, collecting ideas and inspiration before developing 3 new R&D performances.
The programme will culminate with the A Different Way Symposium in April 2020 which will bring all these elements and the sector together. We’re looking forward to connecting with our colleagues across the sector to showcase this work and debate a way forward. Together we can ensure I’m not the only Disabled artist making and touring new inclusive work for young audiences… because, to be fair, I’m not getting any younger!