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Alternative Dramaturgies informed by a Deaf and Disability perspective

sepia blurred female profile

No wonder my spine cries

Alicia Grace reviews a symposium which took place at Liverpool Hope University in November 2006

Alternative Dramaturgies: the term spawned by playwright Kaite O'Reilly, describing performance work informed by a d/Deaf and Disability perspective, took its second leap into symposium at Liverpool Hope University on November 6th 2006. To conclude her research fellowship on Alternative Dramaturgies Kaite O'Reilly teamed up with NWDAF to curate an assemblage of performance practitioners who use Disability not only as a theme for political content, but use it also to reinvent our working methods, processes and products.

Having attended the in first Alternative Dramaturgies symposium March 2006 as a panel member, I was delighted to be asked to return in this role to the sister symposium in Liverpool. For me it was a fantastic opportunity to deepen reflections on my own performance style which has been emerging as an alternative dramaturgy since discovering the potential in rejecting the many disabling factors in the conventions of theatre practice.

International Disability performance scholar and maker, Petra Kuppers delivered the keynote, first engaging us with a gentle stretch, then introducing us to the range of issues which effect Disability performance and its praxis.

In discussing her new piece of work, based on the myth of Tiresias (the blind prophet, leaning on a staff), Kuppers shared her dramaturgy of disruption and transformation. She declared that we need to steal and transform culturally embedded misinterpretations of impairment and deposit new references on to characters such as Tiresias - performing them with our own bodies, re-writing them with our own experiences. With the Olimpias performance project, Kuppers' poetic excavations of personal experience are used to subvert the mythic liberties taken on impairment, as in the original tale of Tiresias, where impairment is exchanged for compensatory power.

She reminded us that contemporary artists often reclaim narratives in order to move culture forward - and that this was what Disabled artists needed to do in order to move beyond Pride. In the Olimpias revision of Tiresias the performers use their walking canes with percussive power, not excusing the presence of their aid, instead giving it a resonant power. This is a precise example of how Kuppers' dramaturgy disrupts the mainstream's efficacious use of impairment as metaphorical appendage. Kuppers describes the shifting of the meaning of Disability as mobile semiotics. She reminded us that whilst embodiment does carry meaning, that we do not need positive images; instead, we need depth, heft and presence.

Continuing on the theme of redefining images, the formidable Mat Fraser took us on a whistle stop tour of the marketing strategies he has developed since embarking on his career as an actor and writer. Though not strictly focussing on the dramaturgical aspects of his work, he argued that marketing approaches were a crucial part of the creation of Disability performance. Given Fraser's strong entertainment ethos and mainstream aspirations this was a convincing argument and a fascinating deconstruction of images ensued. The defining characteristic of Fraser's dramaturgy could be summarised as an appropriation of existing theatrical form. He has done this both by reclaiming the freak show in his solo performance SealBoy Freak, and reclaiming the genre of musical theatre in his recent production Thalidomide! The Musical. His unrelenting entertainment ethos, does not however fall short of subversion, “you've got to get the audience in first, then give them the hard stuff”. In Thalidomide! The Musical, Fraser allows the audience to holler the word spaz, but later in the show uses it within the script, at which point the audience has developed empathy with the character and no longer sees the word as laughable. This element of Fraser's dramaturgy could be described as tactical gratification and is definitive to a performer who has developed an essential dramaturgy against the backdrop of the Disabling attitudes of the Theatre and television industries.

In the absence of Kaite O'Reilly and Jean St Clair, the work of the Fingersmiths Limited was presented by DVD and by live presentation from Jeni Draper. Both presentations gave fascinating insight to the complex toolbox of the bilingual aesthetic used by the company.

Draper described how Jean St Clair's visual projection of script is rooted in BSL but then theatricalised - this style is referred to as the Visual Vernacular (or V V). Though mime like in appearance it is distinguished from mime in that it is rooted in BSL and can only be learnt by BSL users. When creating a V V script for current work In Praise of Fallen Women, the company had to invent new signs for the various terms for prostitution, “when you don't know the sign, go for the meaning”, Draper explained. In fact the whole notion of script has been reconsidered in the work of the Fingersmiths, O'Reilly stating that in places the script looks more like dance notation and that there is no proper script.

Inclusive practice and cultural identity

Young woman in beret

Alicia Grace Anchoress site-specific improvisation. photograph taken by Kevin Aifford for the DanceScapes project promoting Dance in the South West. As seen in the British Dance Edition 2006.

Whilst the Fingersmiths use a bilingual approach in attempt to be non-exclusive, they explained that not everything is translated word for word, meaning that the audience have to make choices about their own interpretations. With this revolutionary dramaturgy of inclusion the company has also invented its own terminology to describe different methods of interpreting, such as drip-feed and under-voicing.

To conclude the panel presentations I shared documentation from recent my works No Wonder my Spine Cries (performance installation) and Anchoress (site-specific improvisation). These works were demonstrative of a dramaturgy I have termed as enactments of reclamation: a dramaturgy for finding potential in the rejected body/site. I explained how I have had to discard traditional theatrical devices such as the proscenium arch, in order to create performances, which do not depend on the precision of my performance, given the unpredictability of my impairment. Often this means my work incorporates the use of others disciplines such as film and photography, and uses unconventional performances sites to bring the audience closer to my small and slow performance style. The use of alternative sites also weaves into my dramaturgy the notion of empathic regard which I feel towards rejected or abandoned sites. I made this explicit by showing my dance film A Junction of Imprints, in which the text and choreography are informed by the desolate railway sheds of a Shropshire market town.

At the end of my presentation I was approached by an able-bodied visual arts student, who complimented that my use of film and photographic visuals greatly enhanced her understanding of my work. This comment was a firm reminder that presentations and performances augmented with multiple devices are not of exclusive advantage to Disabled people; that it is of mutual benefit to many.

In the closing discussion, the audience (who were diverse in interest and background - from mainstream theatre programmers, playwrights, and academics - to young aspiring Disabled performers) were generous with contributions. Here the absence of Kaite O'Reilly, Colette Conroy, and Jean Sinclair were sorely lamentable, with their presence I am sure debate around questions such as “does inclusive practice within the mainstream dilute d/Deaf and Disabled cultural identity?” could have been thrashed out with more rigour. With companies such as Graeae and the Fingersmiths Ltd touring the theatre circuit, defining where the mainstream ends and where Disability culture begins is hard to determine from my own perspective. Whilst the colonial nature of the mainstream should be approached with caution, I personally do not believe that, moving on from pride, or allegiance with the mainstream could dilute our political identity. Moving on from Pride aesthetics is not to say that pride should be a terminable aspect of the Disabled cultural identity. The Disabled identity is at once tensile and fluid; should not pride in difference be extended to pride in the sophistication of our approaches to performance making?

Alternative Dramaturgies informed by a d/Deaf and Disability perspective demand unprecedented innovations and challenges to theatre; our oldest institution. By harnessing a formal space for like minded practitioners distinguishable characteristics of Alternative Dramaturgies, including the use of multiple voices, creative access technologies, reclamation of stereotypes, and redefinition of performer/audience roles, are now beginning to emerge. The construction of these Dramaturgical apparatus, has not been crafted from choice or ego, but has been requisite in devising multi-sensory accessibility and mending cultural violations.

All those working within Disability and Performance have a responsibility to aspire to the standards of practice and debate explored in these symposiums. Responding to Disability with creative discernment encourages cross fertilisation of disciplines, new audiences, new critics - which in turn can only galvanise a sustainable future for Disability Performance and the careers of its artists.