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Features Opinion Published 6 January 2016

A Place at the Table

Should disability arts aim for the “mainstream”?

Amelia Cavallo

In previous blogs, I have discussed terms such as “trouble” and “crip” which have been appropriated by academia to help describe the subversive and generative nature of disability culture. I’m going to yet again lean on these concepts to “trouble” some of what I discussed last month. In particular, I want to start to unpack a word that I have used multiple times, and that often gets thrown around in conjunction with (or opposition to) disability arts. That word is “mainstream,” and in light of the efforts made by the London Theatre Consortium and regional theatres across the UK with programmes like Ramps on the Moon, this word is popping up everywhere.

Often “mainstream” is used as a binary with regards to disability art, i.e. disability art is something other than mainstream. Within this binary is an assumption that while being “other,” disability arts are striving to be included in the mainstream, and there is truth to this assumption. On the positive end of the spectrum, integration into the mainstream means creating a sense of inclusion which means more opportunities, more exposure in society, more equality, and a place at a table, so to speak. Obviously, this is direly needed in all facets of society, not just the arts. However, I do wonder if there is a potential danger in normalization, and I’m not the only one. Certainly within queer and crip circles, both cultural and scholarly, there is a thought that this table that everyone wants a place at is the problem. An example of this is laden in the Equalities Act and the social model of disability. For example, the law says every building needs a certain amount of ramps, lifts, braille signage, etc. to make a space accessible within “reasonable accommodation” – another problematic term. The crip side would take this further and say that we are stuck in normative senses of architecture and that we need to rethink how we build buildings so that these designs don’t inherently prioritize the ablebodied. I worry about this in conjunction with the arts because as was stated in my last blog, there is a precedent of trying to fit disabled people around “mainstream” buildings, stories, characters, designs, etc. I worry that “mainstream” is so synonymous with “able-bodied” that even as we are included we still will always be a step behind, and in being included we might lose what makes us so exciting in the first place.

Scene from Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at the National Theatre, London. A man kneels on a giant table as if pleading or praying. The table is laden with a great feast. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The interesting and exciting thing about diversity and inclusion is that those that are “other” than the mainstream shake things up and in so doing reshape how we think about art and society. The fact that we are so different is what makes us exciting. So, how do we hang onto that generative “cripness” while being given the equality we are lacking? How do we have a place at the table while helping to rethink what this “table” means and how functional it actually is for those it is trying to include?

These questions have been sitting with me for a while. I have worked with and auditioned for disability-led and inclusive companies that strive for the mainstream, and there is something very exciting about achieving it. Being able to work at the supposed pace and ability of your non-disabled counterparts makes you look slick. For example, I am currently playing Cinderella’s Mother in The Royal Exchange’s production of Into The Woods. This is an aerial role where I spend the majority of my time on a trapeze, doing aerial while singing a notoriously difficult score. I don’t worry too much about appearing non-disabled in this instance as I am doing aerial which automatically means doing something that is deemed “super human,” meaning that most people view aerial as being highly specialized and risky. I doubt that the majority of the conversations I have about this with the average non-aerialist is hugely different than any non-disabled aerialist because what I am doing is so specialized. In fact, people have much less trouble fitting a blind person onto a trapeze than in other aspects of life. They often see blindness as an advantage as I can’t see how high up I am, and after all, I am harnessed to the thing and/or holding on with at least one body part at all times, thus negating the need to see… anything. Conversely, I have about five minutes at the end of Act II where I am on the ground and taking part in fairly complicated promenade style choreography. Those who have seen the show and learn that I am blind compliment me on that section far more than any other part of my performance. It is by far the easiest part of the show for me, but given that people aren’t use to seeing blind people walk down the street, watching me walking around in a circle on a stage with 17 other people is apparently a huge feat. I don’t mind this in itself as people are trying to understand how someone “other” functions, and I expect this to happen as part of the learning process. On a larger scale, what has happened here is I have integrated into the mainstream. People don’t think I look blind, and to them this is a good thing which means I’ve lost my identity to a certain degree. No one would look at the mixed race members of the cast and say, “Wow, you looked so white there that I forgot you were black.” Everyone knows why that is wrong on multiple levels. Telling me I look sighted actually violates many similar identity codes. Audience members also don’t know that choreography for this section had to adapted a few times to make sure it was accessible for me, and that where possible, I am connected to other cast members so as to keep my place in space. I have discussed this in detail with the cast member I walk off stage with at the end of the bows, as she is convinced (so am I) that the audience members have no idea why I take her arm.

There is no easy fix for experiences like this. I think that the moment a disabled person interacts with a “mainstream” space or structure there will be tension both in the individual’s desires and the structure itself, and you don’t learn unless you try which is exactly what the LTC and regional theatres are doing. It is also not far-fetched to say that what I achieve in my promenade choreography (i.e. looking sighted) is exactly what some disabled people strive for. For me, it is more complicated than that. I am proud to be blind and want to be acknowledged for that part of my identity without pretending it doesn’t exist or having to fulfil false stereotypes.

To be clear, The Royal Exchange has been extremely good to me, and are being very active about making their theatre truly diverse on multiple levels. They’re trying and learning which is really all anyone can ask for. However, it is important to raise questions and to point out “troublesome” areas along the way. There are companies like Graeae and Extant that are experts at wading through the tension of holding crip values and identity while finding ways into the mainstream, but they have years of practice and lots of crip clout under their belts. I would love to see the LTC and the rep theatres take this tension on more actively. In fact, I would make that a challenge. Let’s not just have a wheelchair space at the table with a braille sign and some reasonable accommodation. Let’s take a real risk, get rid of the fucking table and see what we can create.

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Amelia Cavallo

Amelia Cavallo is a visually impaired, USA born actor, singer, musician, circus aerialist and aspiring academic. As a performer, Amelia has worked with various companies throughout the UK including Graeae Theatre, The Raven Theatre Company, Extant Theatre, Future Ruins and Natural Diversions. She also worked as a sway pole performer in the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony, and conversely as a burlesque artist for Criptease Unlimited as part of the Southbank’s Unlimited festival. Amelia is currently a Phd candidate at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama researching the potential normative structures in acting processes via disability studies and crip theory.

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