On the eve of the Unlimited Festival 2014 at London’s Southbank Centre, Jo Verrent talks to Bella Todd about the commissions programme and delivers some exciting partnership news set to ensure the festival’s legacy reverberates throughout the UK… and beyond.
“The audience comment I most want to hear during next week’s Unlimited Festival is: this show has transformed my perception of disability. We got that over and over and over during the first Unlimited Festival, which ran as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012. And I want that again. It’s all about making people understand that disability isn’t a negative, awful experience, just a facet of life that can give you as much as it apparently appears to take away. In fact, it just gives you more.
“I’m Senior Producer for the Unlimited commissions programme, which has worked with nine disabled artists to develop a particular piece of work. Those nine pieces form the basis for the festival at Southbank. We had a strict set of criteria. They had to be established artists. They had to be people at the top of their game, because this is an international opportunity, with delegates coming from Indonesia, Australia, even Qatar. But we also wanted variety, in terms of artform and approach. It isn’t solely a disability arts festival. It’s not just for political work, or work that speaks of a disability experience. The work had to stand on its own merits.
“I love the audacity of Katharine Araniello’s piece, The Dinner Party Revisited. It’s political, in your face, raw, edgy live art. To get round her issues with touring and access, her performance takes place at the Southbank and also, simultaneously, at another venue in London, where she is going to be beamed in onto an inflatable Katharine. I love that we’re really testing and pushing what touring means, and what might be possible. This could help so many other disabled artists. I also think Wendy Hoose, when that show is seen at Southbank, will fundamentally shift people’s perceptions about how you can use ‘assisted performance’ creatively in a show. What they’ve done with audio description is hysterically funny, because it’s delivered by a character who’s quite disapproving of what’s going on.
“But there isn’t anything that I’m not looking forward to. Owen Lowery, a former British Judo champion turned to studying poetry after an accident which left him with a spinal injury. He is now a real poet’s poet, published by the Carcanet poetry press. Juan DelGado’s The Flickering Darkness is a stunning immersive multi-screen installation. It isn’t about disability. But it is about alienation, underclass, and the work that is done overnight in Bogotá food markets to enable the rich to have their luxurious meals. Julie McNamara’s Let Me Stay offers, not flippantly but poignantly, a whole new way of seeing dementia. What she’s experiencing with her mother is a release from social conformity and norms. I also love the fact that we’ve got a kids’ show, Edmund the Learned Pig, and a sex comedy, Wendy Hoose.
“I’ve got a dual role this year. I’m also at the Unlimited Festival as an artist in my own right, with a video installation I made in collaboration with Luke Pell called Take Me To Bed, running in the Clore Ballroom. So one of the first things I’ll be doing next week is looking at my own work, and then probably running away and putting my head in a bucket and going ‘oh my god this is too exposing’. It features Luke, Caroline Bowditch, Robert Softley-Gale and Janice Parker’s bodies in close-up, in underwear, lying in beds. It’s very much about the beauty of difference: Robert has cerebral palsy, and the way his feet spasm and flex is just beautiful. Caroline, being so small, can tightly curl and unfurl.
How can Unlimited help Edinburgh Fringe Festival become more accessible? An elephant is eaten one bite at a time
“For me, the legacy of Unlimited 2014 will be setting up relationships in order to push the work out, and get it seen beyond London, and beyond the confines of a disability arts festival. It’s all about mutual benefit, so we’re setting up partnerships wherever we can. We’re delighted that Spirit of 2012 is giving us resources to work with young people and extend the geographic reach. We’re working with Summerhall in Edinburgh. We’re going to work with Hull City of Culture 2017. We’re working with the Luminate festival of creative aging across Scotland – we can help them with access, they can help us get our work out to a wider audience.
"We’ve got over 70 allies across the whole of the UK now, including a theatre festival in Birmingham, Third Angel company in Sheffield, and Farnham Maltings in Surrey. They run a base-level entry scheme for young people called No Strings Attached where they give young people £1,000 to make their first show. We said, okay, ever had any disabled young people apply? No. So over the next two years we’ll be helping them with their marketing and putting someone on the selection panel, and funding two additional awards, plus access, to help them reach out within their local communities.
“The latest discussion is with Colchester Arts Centre. They do a big escalator arts project up to the Edinburgh Fringe. They say the majority of accessible stuff this year was in the venue they were running, which isn’t good enough. British Council have a showcase in Edinburgh next year, so plans are afoot. How can Unlimited help Edinburgh Fringe Festival become more accessible? Everyone says: oh, you can’t, it’s too big! But, you know, an elephant is eaten one bite at a time. So start eating now!
“There will be no one, defining image for me this year – unless it’s a kaleidoscope: a constantly shifting and evolving mosaic of work, artists, conversations, perceptions. We open the second Unlimited round in November with a deadline in February, and I want to double the number of applicants. We had a real range before – people we did and people we didn’t know. But I know there are more people out there who could be producing fantastic work. We want it! We can help them take it further.
“The changes the government is making to Access to Work and the Independent Living Fund are huge threats to disabled artists having equality, and it makes what we’re doing more vital than ever. Being in London during the Unlimited Festival feels awesome. As a disabled person, for once, when you go out, you don’t feel alone. There will be disabled people all over the Southbank, in huge numbers, and a real sense of camaraderie and spirit. It’s incredible the number of shows that are sold out already, we’re cramming people in. I would hate for this work to only ever be seen in this context. But, when we all get together, we certainly have a great party.”
A version of this interview is also running on The Arts Desk.