16 December 2006
Disabled performer, writer, producer and director Deborah Williams attended the launch of Strength: Broadsides from Disability on the Arts. Here she recalls meeting its author Paddy Masefield and the impact of his passionate commitment to Disability Arts
Earlier this year Shape were approached and asked to support Paddy Masefield in the London launch of this book and along with London Disability Arts Forum felt not only compelled but honoured to be in a position to make it happen. It seems appropriate that as I set to depart and move on from Shape I have been asked to write about the recent launch in London of the book.
I first met Paddy Masefield at the Birmingham Rep Theatre many years ago, when after coming off stage in my first national tour with Graeae Theatre Company, I was approached by a man in a wheelchair who was crying, holding out his hand and telling me how much he had enjoyed the performances by myself and Ray Harrison-Graham. I had no idea who he was; I was looking round for security and watching my family fall about in tears, but graciously accepted the compliments, if for no other reason than to get out of the strange situation. But I never forgot that night. It stayed with me, and is why I am proud to have been asked to write about this book, because that was the first time in my life someone had paid to see a theatre show I was in, and fully accepted me as an actor, someone with Ability.
In his book Strength, Paddy shares a lot with us. These are not only the insights of a man who has lived it all and done it all in the world of theatre and disability arts over the past 40 years, as a director, writer, advocate and raconteur; we are also given a selection of speeches made over this period. We gain a little more knowledge about the environments that have such an impact on our lives and careers as disabled and Deaf artists, performers and creatives.
Focusing on "Icons of a Decade" is a very generous way of sharing with others the work that has most moved and engaged one over a life such as Paddy's. The fact that he included me in there says not only a lot about his very good taste, but also about his ability to be open-minded and broad in his approach to the work that is created and presented. I don't think that there is an art form missing - at least one that can be reproduced in print anyway.
The most impressive thing about this book is Paddy Masefield's personal passion. It's not just the fact that you get to read and absorb his speeches in your own time and at your own pace, but you get a narrative commentary about the when, the how, the why. Over the years some of our people have passed away - people with passion, who spoke, performed, campaigned and generally made a heck of a lot of noise with eloquence and aplomb about Disability Arts. They are the reason Shape and London Disability Arts Forum worked so hard to get this event on - and in the centre of London. And why they along with all of the consortium members are still working together to make things work in favour of the contribution by disabled and Deaf professionals. Paddy is still with us, despite nature, God and anyone else who threw their hat into the ring, trying to take him from us. His speech at the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, in May of this year, helped me remember that. I am sure he sparked a little something in those who had either never heard or seen him speak before; those who were undecided about buying the book, and those on the first rung of the disability arts ladder. It offers a modicum of hope and an idea of a future.
Strength is a book about Disability Arts in the truest sense. It covers one person's experience from the inside, of life as a disabled person, whilst noting down all the little things that get missed, the stories and observations that turn into dinner-party stories and will eventually become part of the history and archive. How could Shape and LDAF have not been involved in bringing this book and Paddy to London to bring together a room full of people from different generations of Disability Arts to talk, drink and celebrate the fact that this book has at all been published? Sales on the night proved that there is a market for it, and don't let anyone tell you different.
It is not all wine and roses. The past five years in particular have seen the demise of many of the original artists, the evolution of some faster and quicker than others, and many new births that are about to hit puberty - and we all know how painful that can be. So we are not there yet. There still a long way to go, but as Paddy said in his speech,
the creation of alliances personifies our future. It is time to think bigger, bolder and greater than ever before. Time to say
I want that - I want you to help me gain that and to go and get it. If there is one thing to be learnt from reading this book, it is that the foundation is well and truly laid and ready to be built on. You are not alone. Take Strength to identify your goals and what you want to achieve, then go out and find the right people to help you get that. It should always be about that ability.
This book has set the tone. I hope and expect there will be many more. If they call it vanity publishing, so what? There is a hell of a lot that this sector, its artists and organisations have to be vain about and for which they should stand up and be counted. And if we don't say it, who will?
Strength: Broadsides from Disability on the Arts by Paddy Masefield OBE MA is published by Trentham Books at £17.99.