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A question of life and death raised by the Art and the End of Life Symposium held as part of Brighton Fringe Festival / 23 May 2014

Over the last few years, especially since the failure of the amendment to legislation around the issue of assisted suicide in 2012, there has been a flurry of theatre work taking a positive stance on assisted suicide. 

This year Brighton Fringe Festival hosted Sparkle and Dark’s Killing Roger - a well-executed, if predictable polemical theatre piece about the failures of the care system and the decision of an elderly man to inspire help in having reached a conclusion that he’d lived long enough and wanted to bring his life to an end.

In conjunction the company held a symposium to talk about the issues of the right of an artist to tackle challenging biomedical issues and the ethics of performance exploring issues of life and death.

There was no doubt in my mind that all present would be sold on the idea that there is an important conversation to be had about a human right to choose one’s destiny when it comes to life and death. I don’t doubt the sincerity and authenticity of the writers and companies that produce these worthy pieces of theatre. 

However, I went because I wanted to ask why disability arts practitioners - and their perspective on these debates - are so often excluded? Rarely do we hear the viewpoint of the disability lobby. (A rare exception being Liz Carr’s eloquent and passionate stance on a Newsnight debate chaired by Jeremy Paxman in 2011: aired following the screening on the BBC of Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. 

So I went specifically to talk about work that won’t be programmed for the Brighton Fringe (typically the venue for Killing Roger was inaccessible).

Citing the example of Katherine Araniello’s performance piece ‘Assisted Passage’ made with Aaron Williamson in 2007 I explained how the performance consisted of protest on a university campus petitioning people to sign a request to an airline to allow Katherine to fly to Zurich in order to go to the death clinic. It was one of a series of performances by Katherine highlighting how people see her and disabled people like her, as an object of pity and would not question her wanting to die; illustrating an inherent assumption within society that disabled peoples’ lives are not worth living.

There was a cry of disbelief from theatre practitioners on the panel. I was told categorically that the general public’s impulse would always be to support the sanctity of life and to question an individuals request to be allowed to die - even given that the subject be a wheelchair-user with restricted mobility. 

There would have been a credible challenge in that the issue I was raising in regard to Araniello’s Assisted Passage is separate to the issues raised by Killing Roger: these are opposing takes on the assisted suicide debate; both of which have validity and both of which are in urgent need of consideration, given that death and dying have become both more remote and more prescient in equal terms.

But from this panel there was no conception of the work I was trying to describe. Just a blatant dismissal! And it occurred to me that these people have never embraced disability arts; have probably never encountered a disabled artist like Araniello.

And so it occurred to me that Disability Arts in one very practical sense is about we, as disabled people, fighting for our lives. There is an unacknowledged, quiet euthanasia going on in the background. The austerity measures in operation are majorly reducing disabled peoples’ life expectancy. Atos have been proven to be wilfully and strategically cutting disabled people off from support in order that we will die.

The question remains as to how quietly we are prepared to go?


Katherine Araniello

28 May 2014

Thank you Colin for raising these points and for highlighting the fact that there are artists out there like myself who make work that challenges pro assisted suicide. It is evident that programme organisers play safe and are willing to commission work that is supportive of assisted suicide as this will pull in the punters and plays on people’s emotional well-being. Killing Roger uses a life-size pitiful puppet that plays Roger, the old man wanting to die. The audience will be taken on a journey of the usual sentimentality that plays towards the popular notion that assisted suicide is the right decision. The work that I make requires another school of thought and refuses to pander towards a growing audience that is in favour of assisted suicide.

The point of a fringe festival is to represent alternative work that is not mainstream. Brighton Fringe Festival has opted to commission work that is safe and this exposes the organisers for their poor research on assisted suicide.

Deborah Caulfield

26 May 2014

We need a strategy for not going quietly.

Clearly, it's hard to challenge the loud pro-assisted dying lobby, even when, as here, blatantly ignorant and in denial of their partial, powerful and priveleged view.

While we are so few (it seems) and so fragmented.

However, I do think that living can be a form of protest; survival is achievement etc.

Yet there will be those whose voices will never be heard, silenced by impairment or other people.