Live streamed performance offers a unique opportunity for disabled artists and audiences. So why isn’t it being picked up?
Last week, disabled actor and theatre maker Kate Hood, blind writer and critic Olivia Muscat and able-bodied writer Emilie Collyer met via Zoom for a conversation about disability, the arts sector and opportunity in the era of live streaming.
EC: Thanks both for making the time for this conversation. As you know, it’s come about as a result of a conversation Kate and I had in light of the Playwriting Australia initiative Dear Australia, where 25 theatre companies asked two playwrights each to write a monologue. When I saw the list I was struck by the great intersectionality in terms of race and age. But I was equally struck by the lack of disabled writers and actors in the mix. I got in touch with Kate who replied via email:
KH: “It seems that when the word “diversity” is mentioned, disability is completely ignored – as ever! I’m so exhausted by this! But I agree, COVID makes this the perfect time to be raising this as an issue, and the idea of collaborating with our non-disabled champions is great. Having your voice in the mix is great. Builds a bridge so I think that is the way forward. I would LOVE to talk about this with you. Shall we Zoom?”
And so we did, and were thrilled to be joined by Olivia Muscat. We must note that we do not know all of the artists involved personally and there may be disabled artists among them, and of course, disability is not always visible. Having said that …
OM: Yes, from the bits and pieces I’ve read in the media, the way PWA is framing the discourse around this initiative indicates that they haven’t taken disability into account.
KH: If people have the option to turn their eyes away from disability they will. But we can’t focus on one aspect of diversity to the exclusion of others. Approaches must have what I call “horizontality” – so that all experiences, such as that of trans people, of ageing, of disability, are taken into account along with those of culture, race and – importantly in Australia – Indigeneity.
EC: As expressed to Kate, I feel a bit self-conscious being part of this discussion. It’s something I noticed and that made me angry. But it’s not my story.
KH: I think we need to stop a siloed kind of thinking when it comes to disability advocacy and change. We need to include able-bodied people in the conversation. Emilie, as a champion, you are welcome in this space.
OM: I agree. If only disabled people talk about disability then non-disabled people won’t have a reason to care. Yes, disabled voices should be loudest but we need all voices and perspectives.
KH: For me this relates to the different models of disability. There is the charity model – where what is required of able-bodied people is to pity disabled people, look after us and give us an award now and then. Then there is the social model – where able-bodied people will include disabled people as a matter of course, in every aspect of life and in all decisions and will provide access to disabled people on all fronts.
How I would love an industry where I go for an audition for any character – a grandmother, a singer, a prisoner, anything – and am judged for my acting, along with my able-bodied colleagues. This should be normal! I hate that in fact, what we see is one “disability play” each year – maybe one in Sydney AND one in Melbourne if we’re lucky – and we all applaud and say: Aren’t they great! I just want my work to be critiqued.
OM: Yes. Just as an artist.
KH: I think one of the key problems is the conversations that do – or don’t – happen in arts organisations because there are no disabled people employed. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure nobody who works at PWA has a disability. I don’t want to shame anybody but I do want to put my hand up and say that it’s not okay. We have a growing pool of outstanding performers, writers, dramaturgs and film makers – and we export them. Daniel Monks is now living in the UK and is smashing it. I saw him on Silent Witness playing a lawyer. Not a “disabled lawyer” – just a lawyer. Australia is well behind when it comes to casting disabled actors in roles that are not “disabled”.
EC: Olivia, I’m interested in how the experience is for you. You’re not an actor or creative who is making theatre but you work as a critic and writer. What is your experience working as a freelancer in that role?
OM: Well I was lucky. Actually I shouldn’t have to view it as luck. I knew someone who knew Alison Croggon and she was seeking a critic to review audio described theatre, so I was introduced to her. To be honest, the pool of audio described theatre is very small. I mean, I’m okay to see work that isn’t audio described – I have to be. I really love theatre, film and television. If I only saw work that was fully accessible I’d hardly see anything.
KH: And what’s your background Olivia? How did you come to be a critic and writer?
OM: When I was younger, in my early twenties, all I wanted to do was act. But I learned quickly there are no blind characters in most works. And nobody will choose a blind actor to play a sighted character – or character designated as sighted – when there are so many sighted actors. So I stopped. It was just too hard. Nobody was talking about it. Nobody wanted to talk about it. So I stepped away and turned to writing instead.
KH: I’m so interested in your experience around that because it’s not okay. Not having your access needs met meant you couldn’t have the career you wanted to have, you couldn’t pursue what you wanted to pursue.
OM: Yes that’s true. I had to change my goals and my career.
KH: If every acting and theatre course in Australia took a percentage of deaf and disabled students, then you would graduate and you’d have a cohort of colleagues with an intimate experience of what life is like for you. Because you’d had the chance to make networks, people going on to become writers and directors and producers, then you’d get work.
For my part, I was a jobbing actor until I was in my late 30s. I started using a stick and then eventually moved to using a wheelchair. Every door shut in my face. Every opportunity was gone.
Olivia, you are cheerful about what you are doing now, and the decisions you made, but you shouldn’t have to be. If people don’t make access a priority, we are the ones who have to make compromises and we do that with a smile on our face that looks like acceptance. But it is actually just the only option.
There are so many facets to this. I’m on the Green Room panel for Independent Theatre and I am not able to see – and therefore judge – quite a bit of work. I can’t see work at venues such as the Butterfly Club and it’s completely unacceptable.
How do you find access when you are reviewing theatre?
OM: If I had my complete way, if I were reviewing a play at MTC I’d go alone. If I am with someone I get distracted and I’d just rather not do it that way.
And it is possible to do things like get to the theatre alone, but it’s such an effort that I usually do end up going with someone. This might seem like a tiny thing but it’s really significant. It limits the way I can do my job.
KH: Can you talk us through the whole process, what it takes to get there and how that is for you?
OM: Oh yes, well actually getting there of course is another thing. Getting on public transport takes energy and effort and I’ll most likely have to deal with some nonsense on a tram. Then when I get to the theatre, someone will have to help me. What if the person I spoke to isn’t there? What if the ushers don’t notice me and I don’t know how to find my seat? So, you can see, it’s possible to do it alone but it takes way more planning, time and mental energy. I say to myself: “Oh people are mostly nice, they’ll help me.”
KH: But help is not access! For me, wheelchair access means I can be independent.
OM: Well that’s right. It should be someone’s job to ensure I have access.
KH: Why would MTC not have someone falling over themselves to help you – you’re reviewing the show!
EC: So this Zoom session is about to run out. It feels like we still have plenty to talk about. Are you both happy for me to start another meeting?
About a thirty second interval ensues. Then we are back on Zoom and finding our way back into the conversation.
EC: Where shall we start?
KH: How long is a piece of string? There is so much that’s important to talk about.
OM: Isn’t there. I wrote something the other day about living with a disability and what it means to be getting out of lockdown. I had a strict word limit. I had so much to say. I’m sure some people would have read it and wondered why I didn’t mention a whole lot of things.
KH: I wonder if our audience is non-disabled people? Because yes we can never say enough to satisfy all disabled people. It feels like this is a real moment for that potential to reach non-disabled people. I was watching the Platform Live online festival this weekend. I tuned into the session with artists who are bedridden and there was a sense of: “Welcome to my world. I’ve been figuring out how to live in isolation and still be part of a community for years!”
EC: Yes I’ve been reading a few articles about how so many access adjustments and requirements that disabled people have been calling and advocating for are now coming into their own because of COVID. That was also one of the missed opportunities I thought about with the PWA initiative. What a perfect time to give work to disabled actors who have trouble getting to auditions (or being invited to audition). If everyone is filming from home, then the access playing field is a bit more “even”.
KH: Absolutely. Online has transformed into a major form of access. I’m having conversations now with Arts Centre Melbourne about a project for my company Raspberry Ripple and we are developing components to go on stage and also online. This has happened because of COVID but why shouldn’t it be the norm? Work can be available online to people who want to see a show but can’t get to the theatre.
OM: I think there are concerns that if it’s available online people won’t pay to go live events. That’s a bit of a vibe I’m hearing. Whereas surely keeping access online as well as live makes sense.
KH: That would have to be thought through. The price for online experience versus live. And of course there is the sensibility of going to the theatre and it being a live and lived experience that can’t be replicated online.
OM: This is where there could be roles for disabled people to help as COVID keeps impacting us and the sector tries to work out these issues and complexities around online and live. Disabled people have been thinking about access for so long. We are incredible problem solvers.
KH: Every single day we make creative adjustments. We are often isolated. People who spend all day alone know how to do the online stuff. People who have always had to be careful with germs and contact with others. A lot of exploring could happen with people in this space. Disabled people have so much wisdom to offer theatre companies about how to manage these new challenges. Make use of us! We’re here and we are ready. COVID has potentially given the industry some advantages, should we choose to take them up. My greatest fear is that we go back to “normal” and changes won’t be implemented. It would be a huge shame.
OM: Yes it just becomes a bubble of this particular time.
KH: Olivia, can I ask, do you call yourself blind?
OM: I do. I am totally blind. I have no vision.
KH: Right, so the fact that you are blind and I am a wheelchair user means we are experts in those things. We need to be talking about the expertise that each person with each disability has as it relates to theatre. Olivia can talk expertly about being blind and attending the theatre. I can talk expertly about being a wheelchair user and attending theatre and also working in theatre.
OM: Yes there are so many different kinds of disability. I can’t talk for everyone.
EC: Olivia, do you have blind and low vision peers who don’t go to theatre because it’s too hard?
OM: Yes, for sure. Some people would like to go but don’t go because of access. And some people don’t go because it’s not interesting to them. They don’t know what’s going on and it’s too hard so why would they spend their time there?
KH: The way venues think about access is very limited. People often think about wheelchair access first when it comes to access.
OM: Yes, “access” can mean not much.
EC: A ramp to get into the building.
KH: But no disabled toilets. When I worked at Malthouse I had to go outside to a service toilet because the backstage toilets were not wheelchair accessible and I didn’t want to go out into the foyer to use the public ones. Why should I do that when the able-bodied actors and team didn’t have to?
OM: And if there is an accessible bathroom it’s assumed it is accessible to everyone. But a wheelchair accessible bathroom is not the same as one accessible to a blind person. The space can be too big.
KH: It is solvable.
OM: Yes it is. In the larger spaces of accessible bathroom they could put a tactile path between the toilet and sink. It can be done. But if one disability area is ticked off then it’s assumed all are taken care of.
KH: Attitudinal barriers lead to all other barriers. The right attitudes can solve everything but also stop everything getting solved. Every theatre needs to have a disability action plan with all staff involved. Give people the tools they need to make change.
OM: Yes, people don’t know what they don’t know. I try to remind myself. It’s irritating people have these attitudes but they just don’t know. I mean I don’t things about so many things. But in this situation, there are people who can explain things and are not given opportunity. There is so much stigma.
KH: And a lot of people are not curious.
OM: It’s out of sight – a taboo.
KH: People also need to know it’s fine to fail in this space. We know when intentions are good and when people are just not interested.
OM: Absolutely, if someone makes an effort to give it a shot I will take the time to explain and engage.
KH: This is not our problem – disabled people. It’s made our problem, but in fact the problem lies with the institutions. They need to fix it. Things need to be re-framed. If we understand the social model – and we don’t in Australia I would maintain – that would be a big step. For example, a few key arts organisations and funding bodies talk on their websites about supporting a social model of disability. I’ve applied twice to be a mentor to a non-disabled arts graduate and have been knocked back both times. It’s like the assessors couldn’t see the benefit of it. Surely as a disabled person I’m the one who needs mentoring! So if peer assessors can’t get their head around a simple idea like me mentoring non-disabled people, what does that say about the culture and understanding of disability?
EC: I think a lot about the pressure of being the one disabled person in the room – where you feel like you have to constantly advocate and bring these issues up. Given that’s how it is at the moment, if you were asked, say, to be on the Malthouse Board specifically because you are a disabled artist, would you take it up?
KH: Yes. Until the ideal world exists, yes I would. Absolutely. By which I mean, in an ideal world there is a genuine mix of disabled and non-disabled people at every level, in every organisation. Another good example of this is the question of “cripping up”. The notion that a non-disabled actor cannot play a disabled role is absolutely right for now. Again, in an ideal world, where I get to play any role that a non-disabled actor can play, then in that world, sure, non-disabled actors could crip up.
OM: Right. But if there is only one opportunity available, for a disabled role, then it must go to a disabled actor.
KH: It’s about lack of opportunity across the board. We can’t get in the door, we can’t get into the room. And we can’t even get to the toilet once we are in there.
This dry observation ended the conversation with laughter, and with the agreement that there’s much more to be talked about, more often, in more spaces, by more people. Thanks to Witness for being one of those places.