Perspectives: Disability and Art

Perspectives: Disability and Art

cl07 and Reality Productions Pas - image Alex Hansen - ouo-maan - 2001
cl07 and Reality Productions Pas - image Alex Hansen - ouo-maan - 2001
Date Published: 19 December 2017

by Deborah Williams*, to mark UK Theatre to mark Disability History Month’s 2017 focus on Disability & Art.

Let's be clear, when I started making theatre with my own company as a solo producer, performer and writer there was no one else out there doing it. Graeae had only just become an RFO - and were the only disability arts organisation in that group. There was no internet. No Instagram, Facebook or Twitter and most of all there was no interest from 'mainstream' everything that is now taken for granted and as read did not exist.

Back then the act of putting a pen to paper as a disabled person was a political one, was something that was likely to get you banished. Seen as just an ungrateful noise maker. We were not seen as talented or able to do anything.

But I did not see it like that. For me it was an act of self, an act of me. If I was not making theatre, writing and performing then what would I do? How would I travel through the rest of my life?  I had done three years on freelance contracts with Graeae getting to open the new accessible Lillian Baylis theatre with Soft Vengence. Used the forum theatre techniques across schools in the UK supporting disabled children and their peers create accessible accepting worlds that they could all live in together. Ending with Sympathy for the Devil; the last piece created with a predominantly black cast and creative team.

That's when I felt confident enough to apply for a small grant from Jacksons Lane to participate in their new disability arts festival. I got it. Once it was all over I had identified a few gaps in my skill base so went on fast track run by the ITC and was placed with shared experience. To be the best you go to the best, Rachel, Nancy, Polly and Jane are to blame for the beast that came out of that process. Capable, confident and career minded.

With support from Diorama Arts Centre and a technical theatre skills exchange for use of the old theatre space during evenings and weekends, I devised/wrote directed my first solo show. That was in the winter of 2000. It went on to play in New York - off Broadway. At the same time I started performing with a company in New York/Maine developing the first musical theatre disability ensemble and was approached by an old college friend to help her get a show on in London. That's how Reality Productions was born.

I built it on my credit cards! Pulling in favours and working as a consultant, you see by that time wider industry had cottoned on to the fact that disability arts was here and not going away. So they started to very slowly and tentatively let in some artists. The jury is still out as to whose terms it was on.

Eventually Arts Council England opened up its arms and said ‘come on in.’ So I did. I applied for, and got an international R&D package that help me build my reputation in the states, across Europe and into Australia. I surveyed the land and came back with an idea. There were no black disabled people on my travels. People would talk, but there was no action, no one out there doing it, creating work, leading the agenda, driving the diversity within diversity. In fact, aside from Ray Harrison Graham and Maria Oshodi in the UK impairment focussed quality work, but not for me, for me, there was nothing. I created three shows over four years all interconnected and exploring life and experiences of black disabled women in the world. Perspectives played at Degenerate the disability festival within the fringe at Edinburgh over 6 years, they were a calling card for me as a writer and producer, they were unique - at least that is what I have been told. They were my foundation to the policy work I am doing now, the inclusion of disability within the mainstream and everything else that has come with it.

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Disability History Month 2017 runs from 22 November - 22 December. Find out more about #UKDHM 2017 Disability and Art.

If you've enjoyed reading this you might like to read Opportunities: Disability and Art a blog by Hannah Treadaway. 

*Deborah Williams served on the UK Theatre Board in 2017/2018.

Deborah’s career started in the mid-1980s with her first theatre company. She moved to The Pleasance in Edinburgh and became the first manager at Pleasance Islington. She was an actor with Graeae Theatre Company, worked with the London disability arts forum, and taught stage management at the Webber Douglas Drama School.

In 1999 she started Reality Productions and in 2008 went to Rich Mix where she was responsible for the one day arts and activism event 6 Billon Ways. 

Deborah has worked with Arts Council England, leading on equality analysis and the introduction of the Creative Case for Diversity, and at the British Film Institute, leading on diversity and creating the BFI Diversity Standards.

She has been an advisor to the Swedish Film Institute and Arts Council, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, the Danish Film Institute, Cannes Film Festival and the European Disability Forum. Deborah is now developing a social enterprise specialising in diversity within the arts and cultural industries.

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