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Enabling art

Lalita McHenry

Lalita McHenry is a Brisbane-based doctoral student at the University of Queensland. Her current project explores disability in the arts as an intervention and challenge to theories of the body and notions of disability.

Marcia Ferguson, Darren Riches, Mark Deans, Nicki Holland, Sonia Teuben, Rita Halabarec, Jim Russell, Soft, Back to Back Theatr Marcia Ferguson, Darren Riches, Mark Deans, Nicki Holland, Sonia Teuben, Rita Halabarec, Jim Russell, Soft, Back to Back Theatr
photo Jeff Busby
The number of artists with disabilities who are working professionally is noticeably on the increase, with individuals and companies playing not only in their home cities but also touring nationally and internationally. They participate in international festivals specifically focused on and celebrating the achievements of artists with disabilities. And now they are appearing in more broadly based international arts festivals. Such a company is Back to Back Theatre who enjoyed critical and popular acclaim for their recent Melbourne Festival production, Soft. In her survey of artists, companies, support networks and disability in the arts issues, Lalita McHenry begins with Back to Back Theatre, discerning in their work and aims some of the key concerns in the field.

Back to Back Theatre

Geelong-based Back to Back Theatre’s latest work, Soft, performed at the Melbourne Festival, tackles the practices of genetic engineering and the ideologies that fuel the motivation to correct differences, deemed anomalies, in human beings.

While most of Back to Back’s work hasn’t directly commented on disability, Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin says, “This play is really trying to analyse what it means to be human in the year 2002 and not what it was like to be human when Shakespeare wrote his plays. I feel like it’s a quest for new stories and new narratives and I think that what is happening to people with disabilities in regard to genetic technology is really pertinent for the rest of us as a community.”

Back to Back’s exploration takes place in a stage space shared by audience and actors for most of the performance—a delicate, tissue-like enclosure, a giant white bubble that comes alive (through sophisticated multimedia technologies) with colourful imagery of mutating cells and energy. We see and hear, however, from the inside out as if we, the audience, are not yet formed, not yet human. Wearing headphones that deliver exceptional sound quality provides an interesting dimension of temporality and layering to the complex existential realities of the drama.

The narrative interweaves contemporary and futuristic scenes that stage the quest for embodied perfection—a canine competition; a couple’s purchase of the ultimate motor vehicle; the tender and angst-ridden contemplations of the same couple over whether or not to abort a foetus with Down’s syndrome, all the while attended by medical practitioners who themselves embody (both actors and characters) the same genetic condition. This is a bold casting move that only works because these actors are well established in their craft and the company has numerous successful works behind it. The final scene involves the interrogation but eventual friendship between a forensic geneticist (presumably with police powers to eradicate the imperfect) and the last surviving human with Down’s. I found the ending clichéd in its over embellishment of the humanistic qualities of people with Down’s syndrome. Delivered with playful candour, it does nevertheless sustain the elements of a fine piece of art that evokes, rather than simply describes.

Back to Back, now in its 15th year, has a diverse repertoire of original work including Mental, Dog Farm, Back Scratch and Porn Star, which was made into a short film. The company has a full-time ensemble of 5 actors who, as its promotional material suggests, are people perceived as having an intellectual disability. The term “perceived” indicates the power relations involved in constructing the category of intellectual disability.

Gladwin says the deployment of the term ‘disability’ for the performers, “...serves as an effective marketing strategy as much as it hangs like a weight around their neck...maybe one day we won’t have to identify ourselves as a company with disabilities. But at the moment we probably get more mileage from it in terms of how the media read us, which is our access to the general population.”

For merit or pity?

Performances by Indigenous Choir and Elizabeth Navratil, a local stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy, opened the 5th National Performance Conference in Brisbane. American critic, theatre director and playwright Robert Brustein followed, delivering the Richard Wherrett Memorial Address. His argument focused on the familiar distinction between high art and popular culture. The former, he claimed, was suffering a serious demise in American society because of confusion between art and politics. The arts are called upon more and more to do the work of politics: “cultural institutions are being asked to validate themselves not through their creative contributions but on the basis of their community services.

“The most significant advance for solving America’s more urgent social needs has been to increase the cultural representation of minority groups. This kind of democratic representation often occurs without regard for quality, a policy that threatens to sacrifice hard won achievements for the sake of evangelical gestures.”

These controversial issues are particularly complex when applied to the area of disability in the arts. DADAA (Disability in the Arts, Disadvantage in the Arts, Australia), funded by the Australia Council, is the national peak arts and disability networking and advocacy body. Its member organisations include Access Arts (Queensland), Accessible Arts (New South Wales), Arts Access (Victoria), Arts in Action (South Australia), DADAA WA, Arts R Access (Launceston) and DADA ACT. All operate with a strong commitment to people with disabilities and those disadvantaged by their social conditions.

These organisations are committed to increasing access to the arts and facilitating art practice. They reflect a passionate belief that difference makes for an enriched and more vibrant community. Navratil, who has performed in numerous plays and tours regularly (most recently in Caca Courage, part of the 2002 High Beam Festival, hosted by Arts in Action) tells the conference that if not for Access Arts’ support, she would not be a performer today. It seems that art can only be apolitical when it does not need to struggle for cultural space. It’s timely to remember Cultural Studies theorist Stuart Hall’s dictum that popular culture is not about the ‘low’ stratum of aesthetic practice, but is rather “a social zone of contestation.”

While artistic practice can be politically concerned with ‘access,’ ‘social justice’ and ‘developing community’, artists with disabilities in the arts also want to produce work that has ‘artistic merit’. This is not to reinscribe the weary binaries of art/politics and high/popular culture, nor to suggest that political concerns are without artistic merit. At the level of funding, however, the distinctions between social justice and artistic merit derive from different motivations.

Performing more than disability

The 3 full-time ensembles, Back to Back Theatre (Geelong), Restless Dance Company (South Australia) and the Australian Theatre of the Deaf (NSW) want to be funded on the basis of the artistic merit and not out of considerations of social justice or equity with regard to disability. Restless is one of Australia’s leading youth dance companies, involving people with and without disability. Their most recent work In the Blood was performed at the High Beam Festival. Australian Theatre of the Deaf is the only professional company of deaf artists in Australia and is bilingual, offering a visual style accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences.

Scholar and performing artist Petra Kuppers writes that when people with disabilities perform they are often primarily seen not as performers but as disabled people (“Deconstructing Images: Performing Disability” Contemporary Theatre Review, 11, 2001). To avoid such reductive readings, many performers and companies believe that to be taken seriously as professional artists their work needs to be separated from disability issues, or at least, from the often didactic ways in which issues are represented.

Elizabeth Navratil says that forging a career as a professional actor outside the context of disability is an ongoing struggle. In an interview in another context, she said, “I can’t go on stage or appear in a movie where my disability is not seen.” Nevertheless she is adamant that she comes to the stage playing a character, “not a disabled person trying to portray particular truths about disability.”

These issues recurred throughout the National Performance Conference session “Performing Outside the Square”, with Tony Strachan (Artistic Director, Australian Theatre of the Deaf NSW), Sonia Teuben (Back to Back Theatre, Victoria), Sofya Gollan (film director, performer, NSW), Michael Russell (Access Arts Brisbane) and Kiersten Fishburn (Accessible Arts, NSW). Strachan declared that the Australian Theatre of the Deaf made strategic decisions to do ‘mainstream’ work in order to be taken seriously. While debate exists about how the language should be delivered in performance, Strachan says, “it is primarily gestural and visual,[but] they are not ‘deaf stories’.” He described how the company moved from being a theatre for the deaf to a theatre of the deaf, a shift that culminated in 1979 with the company becoming a professional entity.

Sofya Gollan, the first student with a hearing disability to be accepted into NIDA, spent 10 years with the Australian Theatre of the Deaf before turning to filmmaking. Gollan spoke about gaining entry into NIDA not as a result of fulfilling the ‘marginalised quota’ but on artistic merit. She grew up in a hearing family and early in her career positioned herself as an artist who wasn’t going to be pigeonholed as a deaf person performing issues about deafness.


Disability in the performing arts cuts across mainstream and community arts contexts, encompassing solo performers, disability arts festivals and theatre and dance companies. Australia has a number of disability festivals including the High Beam festival in Adelaide, hosted by Arts in Action; Rewind in Perth, hosted by DADAA (WA), its 6th biennial festival to be held in November 2003; and the 2002 Paralympics arts festival (RT40 p11). Next year Access Arts hosts the 7th Asia Pacific Wataboshi Music Festival at the Brisbane Powerhouse.

Several Australian artists have recently returned from international festivals. Back to Back were the first Australian company to be invited to the International Festival of Artists with Disabilities in Almagro, Spain, during which Mark Deans performed his solo production Cow. Brisbane-based dancer and co-director of Igneous Inc, James Cunningham, recently undertook a residency at Dance 4 in Nottingham and performed Body in Question at Visions 2002, the biennial festival of visual performance in Brighton UK. Dealing with Cunningham’s experiences in India where he retreated after paralysing his arm in a motorcycle accident, Body in Question explores how perceptions of the body differ from culture to culture. His experience made him realise “that the body and disability are not fixed but rather malleable and changeable.” Igneous is Cunningham’s multi-media performance group, whose other works, unrelated to disability, include Hands Project and Thanatonauts.

Jane Muras from Adelaide performed Bananas at the Paralympics arts festival (RT 40 p11), the Kickstart Festival in Canada last year and toured Sydney and Adelaide this year. Another notable performer, dancer-choreographer Marc Brew from Melbourne, worked with Infinity Dance Theatre in New York. His most recent works include Focus 4 (Lalita McHenry, RT 49 online, and Take a Seat With Me an autobiographical solo dance theatre performance.


The diversity of solo and company work in dance and performance, the engagement with new media, the latest in sound and often radical design, and the proven quality of works that often tour, all suggest a wealth of talent and commitment and a strong sense of continuity in the disability arts arena. The sheer popularity of a show like Soft in the Melbourne Festival confirms that there is an audience for work that often takes audiences outside the usual range of their experiences. Work that tackles pertinent issues through a cultural imaginary more concerned with the production of new stories and actualities, and less with pinning down the ‘truth’ of disability, suggests a maturing of artistic vision and practice.

Soft, Back to Back Theatre, director Bruce Gladwin, devised and performed by Mark Deans, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Darren Riches, Sonia Teuben, Jim Russell, Marcia Ferguson, sound Hugh Covill, lighting Efterpi Soropos, animation Rhian Hinkley, set Chris Price, Dave Morison, costumes Shio Otani, dramaturgy Melissa Reeves, puppeteer Mark Cuthbertson; Melbourne Festival, Docklands, Oct 19-26.

Expanding Horizons, 5th National Performance Conference, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, Sept 20-22.

Lalita McHenry is a Brisbane-based doctoral student at the University of Queensland. Her current project explores disability in the arts as an intervention and challenge to theories of the body and notions of disability.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 33-

© Lalita McHenry; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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