26th July 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a key point in history for disability legislation in the USA. To mark this occasion OneOfUs, co-directed by Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser, produced CripFest, their first one-day disability arts festival with support from the British Council. Trish Wheatley was at Bam Fisher, Brooklyn, soaking up a performance, visual arts and discussion programme sure to excite any diehard disability arts fan.
A panel discussion opened the festival, featuring Liz Carr, Simon Minty and Mat Fraser offering a British perspective with Christine Bruno and Becky Curran giving the American view on ‘Visibility of Disability: Getting Disabled Performers Cast in Popular Media’.
With a video provocation and facilitated by Lawrence Carter Long this delved into the archives to explore the representation of disability on screen. Seeing clips from films including Lucky Star, Phantom of the Opera, The Elephant Man, Mask, My Left Foot, Forest Gump, Dance Me to My Song, and Me Too, this was a great starting point to understanding how representing the disabled experience has progressed.
The panel discussion then focused on the present and the future. Becky and Christine explained their advocacy roles in the States. Interestingly, Christine has done more creative work in the UK, putting this down to the idea that there is “more of an embracing of disability culture” and a better understanding of the social model in Britain. There was an acceptance among the panel that whilst there are now some better roles for disabled actors, there is still a long way to go. One only has to look at the long list of past Oscar nominations and winners of non-disabled people playing disabled characters to understand that.
Liz Carr, described her time playing Clarissa Mullery on the BBC’s Silent Witness as “amazing”, but also identified that script writers are scared about roles for disabled people, saying “[Clarissa] has no personal life because they don’t know how to write that, they think that me wheeling into a scene is enough disability”. Liz pointed out that disabled people’s lives are rich territory and that “we need to get real disabled people on TV, we don’t want [writers] obsessing about the fact that we’re ‘crips’, but we don’t want them so scared that they don’t reflect our reality.”
Simon Minty summed up the situation: “It’s not just about getting the role, it’s about the quality of the role”, whilst Mat Fraser offered a way of getting there explaining that “we need writers, directors and producers and we need training.”
Lawrence Carter Long concluded the panel discussion with a provocation to the audience: “Don’t be afraid of the ‘Dis’. You can disturb, you can distil the information, you can discover new ways of being… ‘Dis’ the prefix means to be set apart a little bit, that you are over and above and beyond whatever is attached to that word. So if you are looking at disability, you are beyond ability, you are reframing ability, you are putting ability in a new context, looking at it from a new angle, from a different direction. In everything that you do, whether it’s CripFest here today or the work you bring out to the world, don’t be afraid to own it and don’t be afraid to shake that up.”
And the programme of performances that followed certainly did. Theatre, dance, cabaret, comedy and music entertained the audience into the evening. There were some tension-filled moments when of couple of the comedians didn’t quite hit the spot. However, Laurence Clark had a wonderfully pithy and laugh-out-loud ‘best of’ stand-up routine selected from his previous shows. Bill Shannon gave an outstanding performance with his signature dance on crutches.
CripFest set out to showcase the edgy, politicised, professional work that has been developed over the last 25 years. It did this brilliantly with an informing and entertaining day. Let’s hope there isn’t another 25-year wait for CripFest 2!