Kaite O'Reilly reflects on a Symposium at Exeter University's Drama Department
…The theatre, if it has a future, belongs to the artists who take the art in their hands and who know the properties of their instrument as you would know the seat of your bicycle… (Hollis Huston 1995:129)
I believe that radical developments are emerging within the visual and performing arts and that many of these innovators are disability artists and d/Deaf practitioners. For some years I have been working in and reflecting on what I coin alternative dramaturgies informed by a d/Deaf and disability perspective, both in my own work as a theatre practitioner, but also as AHRC Creative Fellow at Exeter University.
By alternative dramaturgies I mean the processes, structures, content and form which reinvent, subvert or critique traditional or conventional routes (for which read mainstream, hearing and non-disabled). Practitioners who, often working from the social model of disability and informed by their impairments, are at the cutting edge of innovative practice, exploring new territory, refashioning styles and modes of communication.
The symposium was primarily a gathering of disabled and d/Deaf academics and practitioners, a day of provocations and sharing of diverse practice, with the opportunity to present hypotheses based on my stimulus questions, below.
- What impact have disabled and d/Deaf practitioners had on the dramaturgy of text and non-text based performance work?
- How are these dramaturgies similar to and/or different from mainstream or traditional forms?
- How has form been subverted or reinvented?
- Is it possible to make inclusive, bilingual performance (British Sign Language and spoken English) without resorting to translation or interpretation? Will one language or culture always be dominant?
- What is the relationship between the dominant and subaltern language/cultures in performance work made by disability artists and/or those informed by a disability of d/Deaf perspective? Are such divisions still relevant or current?
- Do alternative dramaturgies exist?
What follows is my reflection on the panellist presentations and my own lecture-demonstration as a member of The Fingersmiths Limited, whilst the keynotes of Petra Kuppers and Aaron Williamson are discussed in the accompanying article by Colette Conroy.
Disability as metaphor
There have been many papers reflecting on how disability and impairment has been a metaphor for the human condition within the dramatic canon. Whether as a metaphor for loss, enlightenment, tragedy or evil incarnate, the Ancient Greeks and Shakespeare would be nowhere without their crip characters. This has been well documented - to the point that Colette Conroy challenged us to think of a play in which impairment doesn't figure at all. We need to acknowledge that disabled bodies are exemplary bodies in performance, she asserted. We need to recognise that a theatre without impairments is a theatre without human beings.
However, she maintained, there is the possibility in performance to develop new figures that stand for us. New figures that incorporate loss, dependence, pain, difference. Figures that do a better job of standing for human beings.
The disabled body featured in Alicia Grace's presentation, a reflection on an enactment of reclamation in her durational installation No Wonder my Spine Cries. Having reclaimed an x-ray from a hospital where she was treated for childhood cancer, she also reclaimed the idea of the performance space from expectations of body and genre conformity. I find a way to present my body as an able and valid performance tool by discarding traditional performance frameworks and using my physical limitations as source for choreography as well as source for material/ content she explained.
Impairment as the starting-point for creativity figured in Alison Jones's presentation on Silent Rhythm, a collaboration for Liverpool International Live Art festival between a visually impaired visual artist (Jones), a Deaf dancer/choreographer (Denise Armstrong) and a visually impaired writer/director (Kaite O'Reilly). Alison played part of the soundtrack from the installation, an experimental soundscape incorporating fragmented audio-description and recorded choreography, using the dancer's body as sound-source. The accompanying video, sign theatre performance and installation using natural products (syrup, coconut and rice) created a multi-sensory experience. It arose directly from the artists' negotiations in communication - subverting the access tools needed in order to work together (audio description, sign language interpretation, subtitles, etc) and transforming them into creative material, the actual product of the collaboration. Access not as an add-on, but informing the aesthetic.
In Praise of Fallen Women
The interplay of languages in performance
This touches on my own area of interest - innovations in form and the dramaturgical relationship between the spectacle and spectator in performance. I am currently co-devising In Praise Of Fallen Women with Jeni Draper and Jean St Clair, for the Drill Hall in July 06.
As The Fingersmiths Limited, we are exploring bilingual performance - spoken/projected English and theatricalised BSL (British Sign Language). Many of our concerns involve issues of translation and interpretation, as we are not interested in a conflation of BSL and English. Our work aims to respect both languages and cultures, giving them equal presence on stage and trying to ensure from our content, staging and framing, that to a mainstream, non-signing audience, BSL isn't reduced into a kind of braille for the Deaf.
We are interested in the space - or the interface - between hearing and d/Deaf cultures, analysing the relationship and dynamic between the two languages. I am particularly engaged with how this manifests in practice - how one source may be reinvented theatrically into another, revealing cultural, political and social perspectives - and their resulting impact on artistic concerns.
Denise Armstrong, artistic director of Common Ground Sign Dance Theatre, is also engaged in a creative dialogue between English and BSL. In her presentation, she gave an example of a symbiotic collaboration between her company and the non-signing poetry group The Dead Good Poet's Society. Meeting monthly, the poets read work aloud, whilst CGSDT present visual poetry, a movement or dance-based representation of written ideas. Denise explained how after the initial sharing, the sign users told the English language poets that their work was boring and inaccessible to a d/Deaf audience - so the poets began incorporating stronger visual imagery and humour, discovering strengths and new possibilities from allowing d/Deaf cultural influences inform their work and process.
Denise believes that collaborations across cultures can bring a richness to your own practice. If individual artists have both a strong artistic identity and a willingness and openness to other artists, then true fusion is possible, without dominant or subaltern roles she maintained.
At the close of the day it was clear that not only did alternative dramaturgies exist, but they were practised in many different ways by the majority of artists in the room. The diversity of work was striking, as was the realisation a new terminology was needed in order to further discuss the innovations in practice and form. It was evident that new terminologies that take account of the evolving aesthetics and practices within d/Deaf arts and disability culture are beginning to develop in the emerging field of disability performance studies, helping us to make work in new ways and think afresh about that work.
Colette Conroy, Lecturer in Drama, University of Exeter Drama Department shares some reflections on the Alternative Dramaturgies Symposium
My notes on the day begin very conscientiously, but rapidly deteriorate as the opportunities for conversations opened up. The account of the symposium therefore loses its clarity as it develops into questions and observations, which reflects my experience of the day.
The day was designed to examine the multiple possibilities that are offered by the rich and diverse work of disabled artists within the Disability Arts movement. Due to constraints of time, and in recognition of the scope of other recent conferences, the symposium was restricted to a discussion of the work of people with physical or sensory impairments. Future symposia and conferences will need to bring together this work with the work of people with learning disabilities.
The morning session was given to two presentations, one by Community Arts practitioner and academic Petra Kuppers and another by the Performance artist Aaron Williamson.
Kuppers focussed strongly on the work of disabled community artists, including some of her own international community arts practices. She drew from each example some important examples of the ways in which the practice of disability performance can innovate and challenge. She said that there is something about our (disabled) bodies that signals, whatever we do.
The meanings of the cultural mainstream are there, but we don't have to accept them, even when they form a part of the work's reception. As artists we can renegotiate cultural meanings. Disability dramaturgy involves playing with the possible meanings of disability. Kuppers gave examples of several pieces of disability performance work, including her current project , an exploration and retelling of the lives of slaves who were subjected to horrendous medical experimentation. The work is funded by the Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical School, a rare example of Kuppers receiving funding from a medical association. This exception is made on the grounds that the Institute requires Kuppers to make no therapeutic use of her work, and because Kuppers sees a need to bear witness to the lives of disabled people whose voices had been erased from history. Kuppers is creating a performance response to this hidden history, and is investigating questions about how to speak about and share experiences of pain.
Aaron Williamson is another AHRC Creative Fellow. He showed documentation of a wide range of his performance art projects. He argued that performance art is a sustainable structure for disability art. Williamson practices a form of performance tourism. He provokes the population of a given international city with a performance based on the paucity of his encounter with the place he is. Performances include eating his own suit in Umbria, parading the streets of a Spanish city in the guise of a urinating globe, performing a Starbucks coffee ritual and taking cab rides to the back of the taxi queue in Japan. He offered three examples of his own work being informed by deafness and disability. A piece where he appeared as Victor, the wild boy from Truffeau's L'enfant Sauvage in a psychedelic durational installation, a piece where he examined acoustic perception, lying naked on a piano, wearing only a watch, in a tribute to John Cage.
Each presentation offered a different perspective on the connection between disability and performance. Neither presenter uses conventional theatre spaces, and each seems to find interest in an oppositional relationship with a mainstream. In Kuppers' work ideas of professional theatre contrast with ideas of participatory performance and expressivity. Williamson's work is figured in his presentation as a necessary aesthetic irritant that is informed by his deafness - either from his own authorial perspective or from the perspective of the audience who might read from their knowledge of Williamson some meanings that occur at the confluence of disability and impairment. Williamson refers to traditions - traditions of disability culture and traditions of avant garde performance art works. There's a wish in both presentations to institute some sorts of alternative traditions. Both Kuppers and Williamson relied on some kind of proto-disability, a claiming as disabled of people with impairments who lived before disability existed as a concept. How important is the process of constructing disability genealogies?
Pause for questions:
- Is disability merely another way of claiming difference or oppositional status? About ten years ago I heard a disabled artist refer to the mainstream fringe and it made me laugh because I liked the idea of all the different warring fringes, each luxuriating in their own marginal status. Shouldn't all artists be disabled?
- Where does disability come from? Is disability part of a social reading of bodies? Is disability a product of representation? Is disability performative (is it constituted in performance?) Do the audience bring disability (as a concept, as a fear, as an experience) to the performance?
- Methodologically, both Kuppers and Williamson are revolutionary artists. Are there parts of disability arts and culture where these exciting possibilities are avoided? Is there a mainstream of disability? How far is the funding structure in the UK informed by this debate? This idea was an undercurrent for the entire day. Even when we tried not to discuss it it came to the centre, again and again. Is this a trap that is laid by the idea of alternatives?
Sharing questions raised by the Alternative Dramaturgies Symposium
The Fingersmiths' presentation of the open rehearsal provoked questions about translation and the process of perceiving difference. For me, this presentation foregrounded the process of understanding. The spatial and gestural languages of BSL and SSE, along with the development of expressive work in the visual vernacular forced me to work at understanding. The notion of interpreting was offered as a process with substance, as a communication through textures and movements, instead of offering a seamless and transparent device. The idea of the illusionary world behind or beyond our communication is banished and we look at the rich and corporeal moments of communication as the point of moment. There are several points that I want to analyse here, all of them evolve around the question what's in it for the spectator. The discussion will plunge me into philosophical aesthetics and structuralist semiotics, but I will avoid this area now and will wait to work through these ideas with the help of In Praise of Fallen Women.
Pause for questions
- What is in it for the audience?
- In a less vernacular way, what are the aesthetic experiences offered in this piece?
- Why do I find this way of working so arresting and so pleasingly complex?
The panel presentations
I didn't manage to take notes on these because I was participating. There is a methodological problem of reflecting on practice within a panel discussion. I wanted to respond to Alison Jones' work and to Denise Armstrong's work, but I found it so rich and dense that the process of breaking it down so as to find connections was too difficult to do on the spot. Alicia Grace offered some extremely closely argued work that also deserves more of my attention and my thoughts. I argued that Disabled bodies are exemplary bodies in performance, exploring the limits of autonomy.
Pause for sweeping assertions
There is something different about these conversations and about these art works. It is not merely about social justice, at least, not in the way that we are used to thinking about social justice (the haves giving to the have nots). There's an intuitive sense that there is something important in all of this, and it is to do with our senses and our bodies and it is related to our interactions with other human beings.
The undercurrent of thought that keeps returning to the centre of the audience discussion is: alternative to what? mainstream to what? How do we get in? Why will they not let us in? Against this backdrop there's a fairly diverse panel of people all demonstrating the need to shift the rather tired mainstream. We don't want to get in. All the door opening, access-into, inclusivity stuff is not the direction that any of the speakers are headed. We want to escape the rather dreary realist aesthetics and the gloss of Drama school style that pervades theatre and that robs it of its radical possibilities. If you change the people who make theatre and the people who make it, and you change the way it is watched and the way that it is made can you truly claim that you are talking about the same theatre? Is this what is meant by alternative dramaturgies?