Access and Inclusion in the Arts – A provocation by Jeremy Smith

Theatre Network Australia (TNA) recently held a sector roundtable gathering in Perth, alongside Performing Lines WA’s Kolyang Creative Hub. Under the theme of ‘How to be a Good Ancestor‘, more than 40 guests in person and online were invited to discuss how we could empower our future generations of artists, audiences and participants, in response to a series of provocations.

The provocations around the theme were spoken by Conway Chunnery and Maisie Mulvaney from Yirra Yaakin’s Youth Ensemble, Annette Madden from the Australia Council, Andrew Baker from the Minderoo Foundation, Nicole Beyer from TNA and our Senior Producer Jeremy Smith.

Jeremy’s provocation questioning the way we consider access and inclusion in the arts left many speechless, and even days later, still resonates with those who heard it. Some have reached out asking if we could share Jeremy’s words. So here it is.

A man with fair skin, a dark beard and a beaming smile who identifies as a person with dwarfism. Jeremy is wearing a black beanie and a blue jumper with big orange dots. Two people out of focus are sitting behind him. Image of Jeremy Smith by Wendi Graham

Thank you Uncle Nick for your Welcome here on Whudjuk Noongar Boodja.

Thank you Theatre Network Australia for asking me to deliver this provocation. I usually don’t read from prepared notes, but tonight I need to – and you’ll all soon see why.

Thanks also to TNA and staff here at the State Theatre Centre of WA for organising this step for me to speak at the lectern. I really appreciate having my access needs thought of and considered in a pre-emptive way without being asked. Thank you.

Many here tonight will know I spent four years as the Head of Community and Experimental Arts at the Australia Council for the Arts. I began that tenure in 2016, the same year I embraced and owned up to the fact that I am a disabled man.

In hindsight, I’m thankful those two things happened somewhat concurrently as saw a shit tonne of art during the time I was in the role.

I learnt a lot, and I think seeing it through my newly identified lens helped me better understand what I want our sector to be

Four people sitting in a theatre. The man on the left identifies as a person with down syndrome and dark skin. He's wearing a black jumper and a pair of jeans. Sitting next to him, is a man with fair skin, bald head, knitted jumper and jeans. Then there is a young woman with fair skin, really short hair wearing a pair of jeans and a bright yellow jumper matching her bright yellow boots. On the right, we have another woman wth long brown hair from an asian background. Sh is sitting in a wheelchair and wears a denim jacket and a pair of jeans. They are all wearing facial masks Kolyang Artist Lab participants and ally artists

I learnt a lot, and I think seeing it through my newly identified lens helped me better understand what I want our sector to be. It also helped me to appreciate how disabled artists are at the forefront of exploring new genres and new aesthetics of artistic and creative expression.

One of my big learnings from my time at the Australia Council – especially at that moment in its history (post the George Brandis cuts and raids) – was to know and discover when it is right to get in the way, to structurally adjust and disrupt things for the better of those in our industry. Simultaneously, knowing when you need to get out of the way, just shut up and listen.

In my current role at Performing Lines WA, I find myself in the midst of delivering the third edition of the Kolyang Creative Hub at the Subiaco Arts Centre. This year I also curated and produced the Kolyang Artist Lab which we ran during the first week of August at The Blue Room Theatre.

After two years focusing on emerging First Nation artists and emerging artists from culturally diverse origins, we pivoted and invited 10 early-career disabled artists to form our 2022 cohort. I say early career as the context of ‘emerging’ in the disability space is quite bespoke in comparison to other parts of our industry.

We invited the wonderful Caroline Bowditch to be our lead mentor – Caroline is the CEO and Artistic Director of Arts Access Victoria, and creative lead for Arts Centre Melbourne’s upcoming Alter State Festival. Joining Caroline were five Ally Artists – each with their own lived experience, but in the most part non-identifying in the disability space.

The offer from the Lab was space, time, a fee, materials, plenty of rest and deep consideration of access. The cohort have spent the last three weeks at the Creative Hub integrating at their own pace, in their own way with the broader cohort – supported by the Ally Artists.

Image of Caroline Bowditch by Wendi Graham

Caroline – herself a proudly disabled and proudly queer woman – recently emailed me some thoughts once she returned to Melbourne. I’ll share an excerpt with you:

“It was such a privilege to work with such fantastic artists who were so open to trying whatever was thrown at them.

I feel the Lab artists arrived with clear ideas of what they wanted to explore and they made huge, and somewhat, unexpected discoveries throughout the week lead by each other. It was a pleasure to witness their growth throughout the week.

The ally artists were also incredible. They supported the Lab artists with respect, artistry and patience. 

Being able to bring in two artists, via Zoom, who were unable to attend in person was also great and really demonstrated what true access is and can be. 

Kolyang Lab feels like a such an important initiative and I hope it continues to focus on including Disabled leaders and on the development of Deaf and Disabled early career artists.”

During the Lab, we held Two public program events. At the second event on Friday evening, I had the thrill of hosting a conversation with Caroline and independent artist Georgi Ivers – who has a work coming up later this year at The Blue Room Theatre.

Those interested in hearing it can head to a recording which is now available on The Blue Room Theatre’s website. I encourage you to do so.

During our conversation, Caroline reminded me of the words and ethos of UK-based artist Jenny Sealey – who has previously been to Perth and who some of you may have met. She is currently the Artistic Director of Graeae company.

Jenny has an approach to her practice which embeds access from the VERY beginning, just as you would a lead character.

It requires its own wage and oncosts.

It needs its own plot.

It needs to be directed.

It needs to be built into your schedule.

It needs appropriate rests and breaks.

And once it is there from the start, perhaps other aspects of the project will start to be questioned or viewed as being too expensive. Think about opening night hospitality for instance…

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter anyway as it’s often in the centre of high tables and counters that even I can barely reach.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to read some abridged excerpts from an article ‘The Aesthetics of Access’ from the British Council’s Disability Arts International web platform.

It is several years old, so my apologies to those of you who have read it…

Jenny Sealey and Graeae have developed what has been called the “aesthetics of access”; essentially, the ways in which accessibility concerns are not simply last-minute add-ons but actually influence and shape the work in wonderful, unexpected ways.

While Jenny accepts that there are aspects of Graeae’s work that can be thought of as “a Jenny Sealey style of doing things”, she’s the first to underline how she’s always learning. “Every single play offers a different challenge; a new journey, a new exploration,” she insists. “I haven’t got a template. I think the day we have a template is the day I leave Graeae because Art cannot have a template. It makes it boring.”

Garry Robson is an acclaimed actor, director and co-artistic director of Glasgow-based Birds of Paradise Theatre Company; for him it’s all about using access to add something to a performance.

“The one thing we have discovered at Birds of Paradise is that if you’re serious about access, you have to embed it from the start of the creative process. It has to be budgeted for, for example; it’s not cheap to do. But once it’s in there at the beginning – I don’t mean at the start of rehearsals, but from when you’re thinking of putting on the show in the first place – then it makes you think again about everything you’re doing which, as an artist, is always exciting. No one is going to mark you down if you decide you don’t want to go ahead with it, but at least consider it.”

In recent years, “mainstream” theatres have begun to introduce specific, audio-described, BSL-interpreted and autism-friendly “relaxed” performances, but the general approach is not without problems (for instance you can only attend one show out of a three-week season). “I think you often find that things like captioning and interpreting are seen as the realm of Front of House rather than the artistic team,” says Garry. “That seems crazy to me: if you’re going to have captioning, you need to work with the lights; and not involving the interpreter in rehearsals is just shocking oversight, really.”

So why am I saying this?

You have probably heard the shakiness in my voice tonight whilst delivering this provocation. I’m very nervous and very emotional.

The Kolyang Artist Lab has affected me deeply. Since early August, I have been experiencing a whole new level of anxiety as it has made me realise so much.

It has hit me right between the eyes that here at Performing Lines WA, we can’t ethically prioritise disability in a meaningful way through the work we are doing in equity and justice, as it’s more than representation on stage and statistics.

Access is one thing, but inclusion is altogether something else. I don’t think enough people in our sector ‘get’ that.

Access is one thing, but inclusion is altogether something else.

Since the Lab, I’ve been reflecting and asking myself why organisations do a Disability Action Plan. What is the initial driver? Is it because it is trendy or seen as the right thing to do?

Or is there genuine commitment to change in a way that is needed, and in a way that is ethical and safe? Do you just want to build a ramp, or do you really want to change?

It made me realise the true meaning of care, of support, of allyship, of responsibility, of accountability and perhaps most significantly, of labour. And by labour, I mean whose shoulders that labour does rest on, versus whose shoulders SHOULD it rest on.

Who is breaking their back to enable the change needed, and slowly dismantle ableism?

More broadly, it made me realise many in the sector need to think outside the box, outside their comfort circles and see beyond the usual suspects. It’s time to bring some new voices to the table. Honestly, I’m too old and too jaded to be part of any more access, inclusion or equity working groups.

Yet the invitations keep coming.

So too the invitations for places on boards from well-meaning folk wanting greater diversity in time for the upcoming OIP round.

The Lab has made me realise I need to do more for me. I need to do less, so what I keep doing I can do better and far more effectively. I need to be present and engaged in the moment, and not thinking about my next meeting.

Yes I am disabled, but I also speak from the privilege of being in a salaried position, in a great organisation, and through that a keeper of certain gates in our industry.

So to conclude, I will go back to one of my opening remarks.

I need to be better to knowing when to step in the way, adjust, disrupt, provoke, anger and upset… all in a safe way… and know also when it’s time for me to sit down, take a breath, shut up and listen.

That’s how I hope to be a good ancestor and leave a lasting legacy.

Thank you.

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