By Talleri McRae
Associate Education Director, StageOne Family Theatre
In June of 2013, I was fortunate enough to attend the ASSITEJ International Meeting in Linz, Austria. There, for the first time, attendees gathered in a dedicated strand of sessions and discussion to explore Inclusive Arts—what it means to include individuals with disabilities in Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) around the globe as both artists and audiences.
From L to R: Vicky Ireland~TYA UK Disability/Inclusivity Team (UK), Boris Caksiran~Artistic director Off FRAME FESTIVAL (RS), Diana Tepavac~ASSITEJ Serbia (RS), Nicola Miles-Wildin ~Actress/Director (UK, Talleri McRae, and Martina Kolbinger-Reiner~ Artistic director MEZZANIN Theater (AT).
My experience connecting with people from England to Japan, from Serbia to Austria, served as a reminder that a future of Inclusive Arts will not come to pass in the hands of the timid. In order to bravely weave inclusive arts into the fabric of TYA, I offer a few humble, beginning thoughts:
1) Join the conversation—the words will come later
I could write a separate blog about the language of inclusion. I could share that the word “disability” and how it is not actually a negative word meaning “un-able”. About how the prefix “dis” literally means “separate from” and in some more whimsical interpretations, it has been known to mean “a foot in two worlds.” About the relationship between the language we use to describe disability and the perceptions of disability throughout modern history…. That might satiate the word-nerd that lives inside of me (and perhaps you), but what I know is that sometimes, words hold people back. Often, the linguistics of inclusion adversely effect (and even halt) beginning conversations about inclusion and disability.
One thing I was reminded of in Linz, Austria was don’t let the language stop you. The thing about an international discussion is you can’t dwell on the minutia of language, syntax, and grammar. For example, in the US, the accepted default is “people-first” language to acknowledge that for example, a person with cerebral palsy is a person-first, and their disability is only one trait of many. In the UK, however, the phrases “disabled arts” and “disabled artists,” which put the disability label first, are used quite commonly. Worldwide, many artists with disabilities are proud to state their disability first. In fact, naming the emerging network “Inclusive Arts” took several rounds of back-and-forth international editing—these two words mean many different things in cultures around the globe.
So how did our discussions proceed in the face of so many words?
1) Before we spoke to each other about a disability or an aspect of inclusion, we articulated our goal of being respectful and positive.
2) We invited each other as trusted colleagues to offer and explain alternatives to the words we were using. (We also remembered that individuals with disabilities vary widely on their preferred language—there is no one “right” answer, so we kept listening to each other.)
3) We didn’t let the language weigh us down; we kept pushing forward!
2) Inclusion is, ultimately, a wildly and radically creative act.
Meeting other artists with disabilities and non-disabled artists who work with individuals with disabilities reminded me how inclusion in incredibly creative. In my research as well as my first-hand experience, theatre artists who’ve embraced inclusion as an artistic choice as well as a social one have been rewarded in so many ways.
By working with actors with disabilities, who might do things in a non-traditional way, directors are challenged to approach their own traditional, non-disabled approach storytelling.
a) Hiring an actor who uses a wheelchair may transform a set full of staircases into an intricate series of twisted ramps.
b) Incorporating audio description into a performance to make it accessible for people who are blind may offer another layer of commentary and/or communication to a dramatic structure.
c) Deciding with an actor when he uses his crutches onstage and when he leaves them off is just one more tool to communicate the story to your audience. And directors and producers have found that when used thoughtfully, disability can be a catalyzing aspect of their storytelling toolbox.
3) By committing to inclusion on an international level, I believe professional TYA can change the way an entire generation of citizens understand disability.
I know what you are thinking—this one sounds a little lofty. Yes, it does. Yet I believe one positive choice can create endless ripples. If professional TYA companies around the globe intentionally embraced inclusive arts, where would the impact end?
If every TYA company cast just one actor with a disability each year….
If every TYA company intentionally invited audiences of all abilities to
EXPERIENCE that performer with a disability on stage….
If artists and audiences alike were transformed by inclusive TYA…
Who would be the next generation of artists and audiences? What barriers of today would be forever broken?