A team of DAO writers went to Manchester to report on decibel 11 which took place from 12-16 September 2011
So decibel Performing Arts Showcase 2011 has come to an end. This was reputedly the biggest and best showcase yet, promoting diverse practice in the performing arts sector. This bi-annual event aims to more fully represent and reflect the different cultures and backgrounds that make our country unique in the world.
Artists and companies selected for the cross-art form four-day event represent the cutting edge of music, theatre, dance, live art, circus and street arts from around the country. 50 artists and companies were chosen to present work that is either tour-ready, work-in-progress or at a stage for pitching. A series of complementary activities for delegates also took place alongside the showcase performances. These ranged from introductory forums for first-time attendees, to an industry marketplace and panel discussions on issues such as diversity, touring and presenting work, or best practice for the sector.
Many international and international promoters, producers, programmers, artistic directors and venue managers were invited to see extracts from leading artists’ latest productions and new and developing work.
The week kicked off with the launch of Art Council's Creative Case for Diversity. This day-long symposium enabled invited speakers from not only the UK but from organisations from all over the world to put their perspective on the place for the Creative Case in the arts. DAO writers will be continuing to reflect on the Creative Case over the coming months to trace how theory merges with practice and what outcomes they see emerging from Art Council's initiative.
The Showcase week which followed saw a range of performers demonstrating drama, music, comedy, dance, puppetry and often a mash up of all sorts of theatre styles all devised through the most astounding imagination and creativity. All of this contributed further to the case for placing diverse work firmly in the heart of what the mainstream has to offer.
You can read DAO' interviews with some of the artists and reflections on decibel 2011 by clicking on the links to the right of this page.
DISCUSSION: The Creative Case: Are diverse artists at risk of being made into ‘a smoothie’?
DAO director, Trish Wheatley, unpicks the various threads emerging from the Creative Case symposium
The Arts Council’s widely anticipated Creative Case symposium has begun to spark a range of lively and interesting conversations around the issue of diversity in the arts. The event, which was held at The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester on 12 September 2011, was a day of presentations, questions and responses.
There was a general consensus among the 500-capacity auditorium that, first and foremost, diverse artists need to be programmed and valued by mainstream arts organisations because of the quality of their art rather than any legal, moral, ethical or business reasons which might have been built into those organisations’ equality plans. This is the crux of the Creative Case for diversity in the arts.
Where the debate still needs to be had is around the issue of how the art is framed. One of the panellists during a question-time session was Richard Appignanasi of Third Text who produced the publication Beyond Cultural Diversity: the Case for Creativity which was distributed at the symposium.
He argued that we must ‘put the art first. The ultimate aim, the final great achievement is what Third Text would call 'cultural integralism'. The day will have come when you are an artist, whether you are a black artist? I don’t want to hear that. Disabled artist? I’m an artist. That’s it. When we achieve that, then we will have cultural integralism and what is truly important is looking at what people creatively do. That should be the aim.’
Australian disabled artist Kath Duncan, who was also a panellist, responded by saying, ‘Some of us are always going to make different art. Some of that strength, some of those different places we come from, that is the gold. That is the gift. That’s what we bring.’
In an interview with DAO earlier in the day, symposium delegate and disabled artist Julie McNamara, who will be performing her new work, The Knitting Circle at decibel on Thursday 15 September, also responded to this risk of having the work of diverse artists dissolved into the mainstream by asking, ‘What are we going for? The human smoothie? It’s the differences we need to celebrate, not be afraid of.’
This is where the debate starts; here and now. As Tony Panayioutou rightly pointed out during the Creative Case launch event, the Arts Council have not produced yet another policy or strategy which is going to be imposed on organisations to implement. The Creative Case is an ‘approach’. And it is the responsibility of artists and organisations to take the Creative Case for Diversity forward.
INTERVIEW: Madani Younis reflects on decibel's place in the Creative Case
Madani Younis is currently Artistic Director of Freedom Studios in Bradford. He has recently been appointed the Artistic Director for the Bush Theatre in London. He spoke at the Creative Case launch event, which preceded decibel's Showcase week and afterwards, Amardeep Sohi stole him away from the symposium for a quick chat.
Why are you here today?
I was invited to speak on one of the panels this afternoon, looking at how I would respond and implement the Creative Case into my practice as an artist and as the leader of an organisation.
How have you found the symposium?
I felt there has been a real diversity of voices from both chief executives of large institutions to smaller organisations.
I felt by the end of the day, we were really beginning to tease out some of the more immediate questions. I think what’s great about today was just the diversity of opinions in that room. If it shows us anything, it’s that diversity is really plural.
What do you see as the value of diversity within the arts?
I don’t know if it’s a value or rather a necessity. I think without diversity within the arts, we are looking at a dying art form.
How do you think the Creative Case will impact?
The Creative Case poses an amazing provocation. I think it’s a provocation that is asking people to respond to it. I think if we fail to respond, we only hold ourselves responsible for that.
You’ll be taking up the post of Artistic Director at the Bush Theatre in London in January 2012. How does your vision for the theatre tie in with the Creative Case?
I believe that I lived the Creative Case before the Creative Case was put into writing. If anything, it validates a position with an informed set of opinions from across the sector; from academia and from the annals of history. I think doing so gives us all a shared idea from which we can really begin to move forward.
Will you be staying for the decibel showcase?
Absolutely. I’m really looking forward to it. I think as someone who will soon be responsible for the programming within a new building, it’s exciting. What is unique about decibel for me is the opportunity of the pitching sessions. You get to see work at a very early stage of its development, with the potential of joining that artist or group of artists on that particular journey.
What links or partnerships do you think develop from a showcase like decibel ?
I think they affirm existing links and I think they allow you a creative space in which you can begin new conversations. For me, I think that’s key. This is not about creating secure, polite, networks that are familiar. I think it is always about broadening ones networks and about broadening the critique and stimulus that can inform ones own practice and inform others.
Finally, can you give us an indication of what we can expect to see at the Bush?
I’m very excited by what the Bush has, and I want to create the conditions under which the most reflective artists of our day find a place they can both call home and present their work in.
INTERVIEW: Brian Lobel talks Balls with DAO director, Trish Wheatley
Following his well-received performance of Ball and Other Funny Stories about Cancer, Brian Lobel took a break from seeing for himself the range of other performances previewing at decibel Showcase 2011 to talk to DAO’s director, Trish Wheatley, about what brought him to decibel and his take on disability arts.
Why are you here at decibel?
Because they accepted my application!
I’m at decibel because I read that it was a showcase of work about diversity and access in arts.
This specific work, Ball and Other Funny Stories about Cancer, has sat for a long time in interesting conversations with disability arts, medicine and arts, and me always trying to figure out my position between this world and that world, and this world and that world.
I don’t define myself as a disabled artist but I’ve always been in conversation with disabled artists who are thinking beyond disability and more thinking about the ways bodies move in space and the way other people look at bodies. So it’s been really fertile ground for me as a performer to be thinking about those conversations.
And I also very much think that the work I’m presenting is a piece which sits inside of a conversation about diversity. Because cancer work is really hard to programme. And it has its own thing around it. It always has its own challenges around it because it’s a very loaded term. Just that word can cause such a heaviness. So I’m interested in exploring that, teasing that out.
Because the word cancer sits more heavily and more specifically than say mental illness or multiple sclerosis or epilepsy. All these kind of things that people are thinking about in different ways. But the word cancer has this particular world still around it. And I’ve been trying to challenge that.
So that’s a very long way of saying, it’s exciting to be in a context like this where people are interested in engaging in that conversation. But why is this work difficult? Or alternative? Or why does it need a special conversation around it being programmed?
I was wondering what you thought about presenting work and programming issues which you touch on there. Have audiences ever been offended?
I think in part it’s to do with the power of the cancer card. People won’t be disrespectful because I had cancer, so that’s okay. And that’s kind of an exciting and messed-up dynamic that people with cancer seemingly get away with a lot of things that other people wouldn’t . Because there’s this pity associated with it. I haven’t had cancer for nine years. But I’ll still play it when I want to play it. And I think this show plays on that theme of like, “Will you get away with this? Or will you not?”
For myself as a performer, if a programmer is thinking that the space is wrong [for my show] and they’re not going to accept me, I don’t want to be there. It’s not my job to convince people that they’re going to have to like me.
And I know that sometimes it works for a space and sometimes it doesn’t. But for now it’s like, if that person believes that the show is good to bring to their people, and that their community will embrace it and get excited by it and be challenged by it and have all the appropriate information [such as] they don’t bring their 12-year-old child to it. It’s for adults. It’s meant for adults. And I’ll tell everyone it’s for adults. But that’s as much as I can do from my end.
So really the programming issue for me is kind of on their shoulders to deal with. And I’m trying to provide as much information as I can up front by being as up front as I can be.
And in fact, the biggest problem that I’ve had with programming is – and I’ve had to take it out of the show – but the show is originally built in with me smoking a cigarette. But everyone’s fine with everyone touching my genitals! But as soon as I smoke a cigarette, “Nope. There is no way. We are immovable about it.”
For the part of the show called ‘Appreciation’ [where Brian invites audience members to come up on stage and feel his remaining ball] I wondered if you had a fall-back plan if no one would get up on stage. What would you do?
I couldn’t tell you. It never happens.
I’ve done the show 80 times. 400 people have touched my genitals in the show. An average Saturday night, really!
But I do have a fall back. I am not interested in talking about it though because I think I can always get it [to happen]. So I do have a back-up plan but I’ve never needed to use it.
You’ve already touched on the way you position yourself in relation to disability arts. I just wondered if being here at decibel you’ve been able to expand on that conversation with other disabled artists and what’s come out of that at all.
I’ve had the opportunity to show to a few disabled artists here whose work I really admire. I’ve got the opportunity to actually show them my work which has been a first for me [which] I feel like I’ve been seeking out.
I have had a really nice exchange here. It’s important to connect about the work, about the social, about the politics, about all those things together. So I’ve had a chance to really spend more time with people. Which is always the rushed thing, right? Every time it’s we see the gig, maybe have a drink afterwards but then I have to get on a train and go back home somewhere. So it’s been a really nice opportunity which is a very exciting thing.
DISCUSSION: Breakfast at decibel -- Kaffee Klatsch with Aya Nakamura and Brian Lobel
DAO director, Trish Wheatley takes part in Showcase 2011's new-style feedback forum
As part of DAO’s coverage of the 2011 decibel Performing Arts Showcase we were invited to participate in the Kaffee Klatsch breakfast sessions. Translated from German, this was literally ‘coffee and a chat’, a time for two selected artists who had performed the previous day to gain feedback from their audience. Each round table discussion had a provocateur to get the conversations started and chair the session.
The provocateur for our session, Meli Hatzihrysidis of Arts Council England, kicked off with a brilliant summary of all the aspects of Brian Lobel’s performance of Ball and Other Funny Stories About Cancer. Early audience responses to the show have regarded this as the highlight of the first day and conversations flowed around the taboo subject matter. The discussion had many challenging moments and laughter followed by intense listening. The main focus was around how such a show might work with different types of audiences.
I was then invited to give feedback about the incredibly engaging showcase by Aya Nakamura of Urashima Taro. I explained how her exquisite mastery of the puppets had made these objects seem so real, so human and so alive. I never imagined for one minute that so many emotions could be teased from an object with a fixed face.
The discussions also covered the difficulties of fitting 55 minutes of narrative into the 30-minute showcase format.
At the end of the session it was clear that the artists, and I believe the delegates, had enjoyed and benefited from the session. The artists taking away the comments, and the delegates, particularly programmers, having a chance to get a better insight into options for booking the work.
Kaffee Klatsch sessions are therefore a welcome addition to the decibel programme.
INTERVIEW: Monique Martin talks to Trish Wheatley and gives an international perspective on decibel and the Creative Case debate
Monique Martin from New York’s City Parks Foundation was invited to the Creative Case for Diversity Symposium held at the start of decibel’s week-long Showcase 2011. She is responsible for producing and presenting over 1,200 programmes in over 700 parks every summer from June to August. Productions take place in Central Park and in all parks throughout New York’s five boroughs. Having attended the symposium, she then has spent a hectic week taking in what decibel has on offer.
It’s mid-afternoon on Thursday, what have your highlights been so far?
For me, it has been the pitch sessions. I found that because of the limited amount of time that the artist has they are far more stringent. They are forced to express the salient points of what the project is. So, I’ve enjoyed the innovation that the artists have brought to that limited space that they have to articulate their vision for their project.
Some of the highlights in terms of the performances have been StopGAP, Pen-ultimate and Arun Ghosh and many, many others that I don’t want to single anyone out. But these have been pieces that I had no expectation about or really didn’t have a clear understanding of what the project was. Once I experienced them it was quite different and I was surprised and inspired by the work.
And there were others where I had an idea of what is was, and it was that or more. But those kind of turned out as surprises. They weren’t really on my schedule.
I’ve also enjoyed the discussion panels and a Kaffee Klatsch I led this morning that was on two pieces: Shadow Boxing and the Invisible Man. That was an interesting construct in providing feedback for the artists that was safe and loving yet critical in a way that serves the vision of the artist. I thought that was a wonderful addition to the process and to the conference to have that and I do believe the artists appreciated this process.
What I would say I would like to experience more of at the Showcase is spaces for discussion. The schedule is just so tight that I would like to meet with other presenters and producers, colleagues that I can collaborate with for the artists, in support of the work.
Have you already seen shows that City Parks Foundation might think of programming or partnerships that will move on from decibel and into the future?
There are definitely companies that I would love to programme, not necessarily for the show that I saw today or this week but I am inspired by their vision of their work and am looking forward to forging relationships with them to see what is possible long term.
Some of the work was extraordinary but not necessarily right for my audience and that just is not any fault of the artist but really the limited information or experience that my audience may have. I can now share the work with colleagues at other venues that are a better fit.
I think that Europeans and people in the UK know far more about Americans than Americans know about you and so, that being said, there’s work that I find wonderful but may not translate to my audience, due to the specificity of the geographic experience or regional slang coupled with the UK accent.
So what I’m thinking about now in moving forward is perhaps some construct or device where it’s more about UK artists as opposed to a specific performance as a way to engage curiosity about where the artists are from geographically and then that could be a portal to getting them in the room.
How do you think the Creative Case for Diversity might translate in the US? Do you think it’s relevant?
It’s definitely relevant and I am inspired and excited to bring the conversation back. I applaud you in the courage that it took to put that together and to really look at diversity in all of it multiplicities.
I think in the US we look at black and white. We are so stuck in that conversation that we often miss the subtleties of the diversity within the diversity. What is the distinction between a black person who is a migrant versus an immigrant? We know, as people of colour, that the dominant culture clearly is missing those subtleties and having a form that does not take place in academia, but takes place in the arts is extraordinary. I hope that I can take the lead in my own way to have those kind of dialogues within the arts because it is definitely critical.
Whilst the diversities are being developed and nurtured within the arts, the audience also has to be nurtured at the same time, otherwise you have this fabulous, wonderful art but not the audience for it. I think that issue was really touched upon well at the Creative Case symposium and I appreciate that.
I also appreciated the mainstream performing arts centres like the Royal Shakespeare Company and others that were at the table as well, because it is effectively supporting the diverse artists and diverse artistic companies. But we do also need to have the so-called mainstream arts organisations and organisations that are getting the lion’s share of the funding to have more diverse representation on their stages. And that’s also for the US as well.
PRESENTATION: Art in a Time of Conflict: Rawand Arqawi from the Freedom Theatre in Palestine
John O'Donoghue reflects on the Creative Case in the context of conflict at this very special decibel forum event
Decibel this year has seen artists from all over the world come to Manchester to be part of the Performing Arts Showcase. Delegates have flown in from India, Australia, America and other parts of the globe to network, see shows, perform, and take part in discussions.
One artist in this firmament of talent has for me shone brighter than all the rest. This is Rawand Arqawi from the Freedom Theatre in Palestine. On Wednesday morning she was introduced by Peter Jenkinson, a member of Derry’s successful bid team for the UK City of Culture 2013.
The theme of the forum was Art In A Time Of Conflict and Jenkinson threw out a range of interesting questions to start the forum:
• How can art challenge cycles of conflict?
• Can art play a part in preventing, managing, resolving conflict?
• Can art play a negative role in conflict situations?
• Is there something specific about the nature of what art does and can do in a time of conflict?
• Is too much expected of artists?
• Should art take sides?
• What about art post-conflict?
• And should artists have greater representation at the tables of the power-brokers?
Jenkinson then played a short film featuring the work of the Freedom Theatre. Against a backdrop of tanks rolling down dusty streets, young men with guns ducking around corners, and blasted buildings, the Freedom Theatre does its work. The theatre offers the young people of Jenin Refugee Camp a safe space where they can express themselves, explore their creativity, and their emotions, through art. The theatre has been running since 2006 and seeks to empower the traumatised young people of the area who live under siege by the Israeli military.
Death was a common preoccupation of the young people shown on the film. One boy said that his brother had become a ‘martyr’; another that because of theatre he now thinks there is an alternative to martyrdom. That he may die a natural death. He was about 14.
But the work of the theatre doesn’t just face oppression from the Occupation. The girls also face opposition from within their own families for taking part in the work of the theatre – so the Freedom Theatre campaigns on two fronts: against the soldiers and against the conservative culture that persists in Jenin.
Rawana Arqawi then spoke about life in Jenin and the work of the theatre. She told delegates that the Freedom Theatre builds on the work of Arna Mer Khamis, a Jewish woman who founded the Stone Theatre in Jenin during the first Intifada (1987 – 1993).
Arna's project challenged young people to create an alternative reality to their existence in Jenin. Arqawi said that in the Camp ‘life is blood’. When Khamis’s son, Juliano, the Director of the Freedom Theatre, was killed in March this year, more blood was shed.
We never did get around to discussing Jenkinson’s questions. We just let Arqawi tell her story. As the voices of Manchester schoolchildren walking past the Town Hall singing ‘Hey Jude’ floated up to us from Albert Square below, I thought of Jenin and the work of this tiny, extraordinary woman standing before us.
Like all of the delegates in the room, I found her story incredibly moving. And perhaps in a way Rawand Arqawi answered the questions posed by Peter Jenkinson at the beginning of the forum. Where life is blood, the Freedom Theatre continues to do its work. And unusually perhaps in the context of a forum and debate, as the session ended, we all stood and applauded the spirit of Rawan Arqawi and of the Freedom Theatre.
PRESENTATION: Nikesh Shukla: How to be Ethnic and Write
Amardeep Sohi gets inspiration for writing and persevering
Nikesh Shukla has achieved what most writers from an ethnic minority struggle with: he has broken through the rigid glass cube that is the publishing world. His first published novel, Coconut Unlimited, was nominated for two awards, including the Costa First Novel Award, not to mention being granted a double-page spread in the London Metro!
Nikesh came to the decibel Showcase to share his experiences, struggles and successes with the delegates. He spoke of how unimaginative publishers didn’t know where to place his novel, which they stated was well written.
They commented on the lack of oppressive mothers and arranged marriages in the plot, a dilemma indeed. One even went so far as to say, ‘I don’t feel like these characters are authentically Asian.’ These responses provide a shocking insight into the short-sightedness of those at the helm of the publishing sector. And Nikesh’s story is synonymous with those of many who have inspired the Creative Case for Diversity.
During the talk, Nikesh offered tips on how to get noticed, including comparing the work to two other titles to ‘illicit some interest.’ He also discussed the personal obstacles he faced on the journey: his family didn’t quite appreciate his desire to be a writer and he didn’t feel that he could call himself one until his first novel was published.
Animated and peppered with anecdotes, his energetic talk not only entertained and informed, but it was inspirational enough to encourage any struggling scribe to persevere despite the short-sightedness of others.
Nikesh said, "Write whatever you want. Own it." He has pushed through the stereotyping and out of the pigeon-holes which confine artists from ethnic minority backgrounds. It’s reassuring to hear that it’s a battle which can eventually be won, given the opportunity.
PRESENTATION: Theatre and the Creative Case
John O'Donoghue hears about the place, past and present, of women in the theatre
To what extent has theatre excluded women over the past 40 years? Have changes in government policy and attitudes to women in general created opportunities for women in the theatre? And how far should the theatre go in addressing the diversity deficit when it comes to women? These and other questions were discussed at Theatre and the Creative Case on Tuesday as decibel got into full swing.
In the municipal splendour of Manchester Town Hall, four women spoke about their experiences. Gwenda Hughes started her career on the stage in Manchester in 1974 after her mother saw an ad in the local evening paper for an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager). She painted a vivid picture of British theatre in the mid-70s.
She told of being cast as Mexican flower seller and negro prostitute in A Streetcar Named Desire, ‘browning up’ and ‘blacking up’ for these roles, of losing the part of the nurse who comes to take Blanche DuBois away at the end of the play – as an ingénue she just wasn’t terrifying enough to evoke the reaction the script demanded from the terrified Blanche.
Tales followed of being cast in sexist plays – this was the era of No Sex Please, We’re British – until she finally had had enough and in the late 70s started to move into directing with a number of more radical theatre companies including the Women’s Theatre Group.
Here was a very different theatrical culture – profit sharing, politically motivated, run on egalitarian, collective lines. Hughes spoke warmly of this time. The collective decision-making process could be cumbersome at times and policy decisions to employ only women meant that if a leak occurred in rehearsal rooms, finding a woman plumber during that era could be awkward.
Hughes was a warm and witty speaker. She was particularly funny about her time with the RSC, which she characterised as spending 18 months agreeing with Adrian Noble. And I found her testimony, a potted history of women and the theatre since the 70s, very thought-provoking.
Muriel Romanes then spoke, echoing much of what Gwenda Hughes had to say. A Scottish actor and director, she too has had a similar journey from in front of the lights to behind the scenes as a director.
An impassioned speaker, Romanes said the theatre should be about ‘Creating the extraordinary, not the ordinary.’ Her own career has led her to forging links with Quebecois theatre so that now she feels, when most people are thinking about taking it easy, a whole new vista is opening up for her.
These speakers then gave way to Daljinder Singh, currently Artistic Director of the Brixton Empire in London. Singh introduced herself by saying she was a ‘test tube baby of New Labour.’ By this she meant that she owed much of her career to government and local-authority initiatives which enabled people from BME backgrounds to make headway in the theatre. Singh went straight from university to the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre and has built a successful career.
The presentation was ably facilitated by Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh and I was struck by the contrast between Hughes and Romanes’ testimony, of their struggles against a theatre that sought to exclude, stereotype and objectify them, until they felt they had to get their hands on the levers of power as directors. For Singh, it was government policy and municipal initiatives that opened the doors of the theatre to her.
In all cases the means of production it seems is an end in itself.
INTERVIEW: Ailís Ní Ríain talks to John O'Donaghue about Brief-Blue-Electric-Bloom
Tell us about Brief-Blue-Electric-Bloom?
Brief-Blue-Electric-Bloom was originally commissioned by Cornerhouse Manchester and Abandon Normal Devices Festival and premiered as a concert piece in late 2010. My ambition is to develop it further into an immersive music-theatre piece.
You said you want to 'enable disabled audiences and disable enabled audiences'. Could you expand?
In 2005 I started to lose my hearing and have found it an isolating and frustrating experience. It is not possible to present a BSL version of poetry? Poetry is full of inference, metaphor and sub-text. For me, BSL is too blunt a tool to express what I want to say. The signers are drawing on their experience as actors and professional BSL signers to create a physical language which, for me, is more representative of my writing – evoking, inferring, provoking and engaging. The creative essence of Brief-Blue-Electric-Bloom is to experiment with the idea of embedding interpretive signing within a work combining poetry, animation and contemporary music. My aim here is to enable a deaf audience and disable a hearing audience in the hope that we ‘receive’ the work equally.
Could you tell us about your background?
I am an Irish, female classical composer and writer. I studied composition at York and Manchester Universities and the Royal Northern College of Music. I aim to produce work which challenges, provokes and engages and I'm particularly interested in cross-artform collaboration, public sound art, chamber opera, music-theatre and presenting contemporary music in diverse spaces. My music has been performed throughout Europe, in the USA (Carnegie Hall), commissioned and performed on BBC Radio 3 and RTE.
What part does disability play in your practice?
My disability has informed my practice in a number of ways, primarily in respect of how I interpret the concept of communication. This was something that always interested me; however, now it’s taken on a new dimension. As a trained classical composer I rely on my hearing for everything I do. This provoked me into exploring the use of interpretive signing within my work both as an artform and a means of communication.
Many thanks and good luck with Brief-Blue-Electric-Bloom.