Essay by David Woods
Art is not in and of itself automatically a good thing. It can be offensive, exploitative, domineering, colonial, irrelevant, meaningless, indulgent, egotistical and wasteful. It still gets called art. For me, if art is to have any value, it can be enlightening or inspiring, beautiful or meaningful, loving or provocative or all those things and more; but, the impulse behind it must be good, and have a higher purpose worthy of the effort involved in staging it. A purpose that seeks to contribute to the greater good, that cares, inspires and generates positive possibilities. Its articulation has to be carefully considered and delivered to succeed and this articulation has to surpass or at least equal the production values, aesthetic rigour, craft and conceptual commitment of the bad work so that the badness may be laid bare, so that it is undismissible.
In the disability realm, you don’t have to look far to find an offensive consensus that living with a disability is monstrous and worthless, to count a stream of Oscar winning able-bods cashing in their ableist impersonations of impairments for a gong while the enablers keep the gates locked and the ceilings opaque.
Having some experience of collaboration with marginalised groups before the DSP project I became interested in a deeper level of discrimination where work superficially appears to redress this othering and appropriation but instead indulges a fetishization. A fetishization that pushes the disadvantaged further away from a place of inclusion.
This, amongst the more visible abuses, was clearly articulated by the Disability Slapstick Plan members throughout our work together from multiple perspectives and while it was tempting to dwell on the obvious but still necessary articulations of neglect around access, it was this more subtle level of entrenchment in otherness that we sought to examine and solve.
Our approach aspired to reflect the complexity of the issues. There is a simple solution to access issues – “build a ramp” as the late great Stella Young articulated but tackling what she labelled “inspiration porn” is less clear. My role was to hold the space open to have this complexity unpacked and to see it through to completion.
After a number of major shifts between verbatim truth, anonymization and constructed fictions we settled on a distortion of real exchanges, a sequence of moments that had happened to us, or we imagined could happen to us and portrayed them as if they were happening to us in real time. The ensemble used their real names but re-purposed our long-form improvisatory exchanges to conjure clear steps forward for a willingly progressive population. Steps that might lure a less-willing cohort to follow, that were funny and accessible, and at the right moment confronting and irreversible.
This linear pathway was then structured in reverse so that we could end with the present state of disadvantage and inequality having already demonstrated a rough journey out of it. Our playful portrait of possibility and the past was informed by a faith in the power of collectively imagined constructions. I think fiction gives audiences a way into a set of circumstances, particular when it is co-conjured in a live performance, that is unencumbered by the shame of acknowledgement. Where factual workplaces something very tangibly in the real world and allows a viewer to distance themselves from it after consumption, as if the presentation is locked off from possibility, a play performed to a live audience demands an imaginative effort to exist. That effort becomes a lived experience which can be applied constructively in their own life. The act of imagining and realising something rehearses real-world enaction. Factual work is merely consumed. The viewer is always on the outside. You come in and you go out as strangers, but when you go to a theatre and witness good work, you become a community.
That happens because you spend a significant period of time in collective endeavour, imagining, contributing and living. You work something out as a collective. So, it’s much easier then to actually go and apply it in the real world because you’ve done it as a group. You’ve got peer support, let’s say. You’ve also maybe got an opportunity to immediately interact with people living with disabilities in the audience and you can start building your supportive exchange right there just by saying, “Hello,” and, “How was that show for you?” I use the term “live-ness” for the on-stage part of this, it’s a form of participation. And by that I don’t mean people being roped in and humiliated but responding together as a group. Being together, creating together. In such a realm, anything is possible.
Which brings us to the imagined future of A Normal Child. We raise the idea that anybody can play anything after having already answered it by demonstrating it. Betty is a teenage girl, Jess is an able-bodied white male, Eva is a snake, Trevor is an apple tree. The DSP made A Normal Child as an example of how things could be. The sector is a long way off adopting progressive models for representation and we will need to go through a phase of acknowledgement, reconciliation and atonement involving positive discrimination for silenced and marginalised groups before we get to it. A Normal Child attempted to demonstrate that pathway. Alongside it I attempted to model the retreat of the able-bodied-white-cis-male-hetero-hero-cliché. I was successful enough to now feel oddly redundant and unsure of how to maintain and disseminate the knowledge we made. This web site is a start.