“We are more important,” laughs the non-disabled woman who was allowed off the bus before the wheelchair user patiently waiting for access. By “we” she means those of us who are lucky enough to walk about freely without prejudice against being disabled. It’s because of fly away comments like this that make the work achieved at the Graeae theatre so important; to integrate disabled people into the arts on the same scale as non-disabled people so the stigma against them and what they can or can’t achieve diminishes.
Terri Donovan and Ewa Lamond both performed in Hurricane Protest Songs at the Rich Mix theatre in Shoreditch on Wednesday 25th July. Catching up with the two young talents after the show to ask them where they stood on issues regarding accessibility in the arts, left them with a lot to say and left me with hope that things can and will get better.
Tell us a bit about your show and how you came to be involved?
Lamond: Hurricane Protest Songs uses different mediums - spoken word, poetry, movement etc, that explore our role in society and asks questions about the future. We all started in January as, like, a molar ensemble group and we learnt about theatre; not just acting but stage, lighting- all of it.
What have you most enjoyed about it?
Lamond: Just working with everyone. We didn’t know each other before it started and then suddenly we just clicked and started rolling. We had a great director that kept questioning us and that really helped us open our minds.
What did you find most challenging?
Lamond: It was a challenge to work with different disabilities to be honest. I come from a background of working in a non-disabled school, so coming to work with different disabilities was a challenge, but it was eye opening and really nice.
How did you adapt?
Donovan: I think you just learn what people’s access needs are. One of the people can’t read or write so we sent voice messages, but another member is D/deaf, so voice messages weren’t going to work, so we had to do both to be fully accessible.
What do you think are the benefits of using art to raise awareness and why is it more effective than other forms of protest?
Donovan: It’s so visual. By putting anybody on the stage, it’s seen, you’re giving it a voice for you to showcase what the issue is. Even if the story doesn’t involve a person’s disability, it automatically becomes a disabled story because they are disabled. Other forms of protest aren’t always accessible, whereas theatre can be and Graeae has proved that.
Lamond: And we proved it today.
The argument about accessibility in the arts is ongoing, how far do you think they’ve come?
Donovan: It’s starting, ‘The Elephant Man’ at Bristol Old Vic for example, but it’s not enough: disability is often regarded as the ugly cousin of diversity. We are talking about diversity, but we are forgetting about disabled people who continue to struggle because it’s hard.
Lamond: I feel guilty to say that I don’t see much theatre, but having a disabled role played by a non-disabled person is the frustrating part. We can do it so why not put us in. It is hard to see casting directors know exactly what they want because we have the challenge of saying, no look I’m here too. But, then again, why should we have to push that?
How important is it for young people to pave the way for this kind of activism?
Donovan: It’s a privilege to say you’re not political. As a woman - as a disabled person - walking out into the street is a political act in itself. People will look at you and judge you and for you to be like I’m not interested… you have to be, or it will go back to the stone age. You have to be interested.
What advice would you give to someone looking to create an art project that gets their voice heard?
Donovan: A good mentor is so important. It’s about finding those people who will mentor you and then those who you will then mentor.
Lamond: If you have an idea, find those people who will help you develop it. You can do stuff on your own but it’s nice to get other people’s feedback and ideas to make it even better.
To get involved in the Graeae Ensemble:
To donate: www.graeae.org/your-support