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1.    THE POLITICS THAT INFORMS OUR CRIP /  QUEER-LED PRACTICE 

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Central to our training / devising work is the constant element of surprise, the reveal, influenced by burlesquing, storytelling and parody. The dramaturgy of burlesque allows us to seduce, make comedic, perform the absolute taboo in our society  - to hold up the violent acts of constant discrimination that we frame in such a way that teases out and exposes and makes visible the insipid hatred and fear that fuels disablist discrimination. This is held up like a mirror, a reflection forcing the audience is see and feel their implication in this, and indeed brutalness of entitlement that they / we continue.  

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Through auto-ethnographical and emancipatory disability research, I argue that the historical/traditional (binary) pity and medical models of disability, whereby exclusion, blame, stereotyping, scapegoating and ultimately Othering of disabled people still fuels the ongoing ongoing institutional and attitudinal discrimination experienced by disabled people justifying exclusion, dehumanisation, poverty, hate crime and a rising number of deaths.  Disability is still so often depoliticised that it becomes an accepted and justified norm to deny disabled people basic human rights,  ignoring the reality that so often learning disabled and neuro-divergent people are not even safe on the streets and within institutions. They still do not have the  right to higher education,  housing, health, financial support, relationships, adulthood & sexuality and with no right to access the arts and leisure. 

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We are committed to making theatre that is non-apologetic so that disability is seen and experienced as a positive and instead insists that the system of compulsory able-bodiedness is not and should not be the norm and, crucially, it imagines bodies and desires that fit beyond that system (McRuer 2006 p.32). McCruer uses ‘CRIPPING’ rather than disability, reclaiming this negative term and transforming it into a desirable and positive aspect of our culture. Often disabled and neuro-divergent people are mis-represented, silenced, and made invisible and we challenge this.

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What are the social politics of a performance collective and training led by and with performing artists  with learning disabilities and / or who are neuro-divergent, in a society that overtly and implicitly re-enforces disability discrimination and exclusion at its very core? Can we be bold, confident and brave enough to ask, can our CRIP/Queer-led performance-making company actually inform current mainstream professional performing arts practice & the  industry itself, and indeed what structures, policies, training & systems need to be put in place for this to happen.  

 

My Practice as Research (PaR) responds to and interrogates these questions and ultimately asks what can the mainstream performing arts  industry gain from supporting and promoting inclusive disability-led-performing arts. 

 

My Practice as Research offers insight into performing arts training that begins from the above premise, whereby current social structures reject learning disabled and neuro-diverse people based on the binary construction of ‘the norm’. I argue that we need to begin from assertion / protest / in order to challenge this lack of entitlement and basic human rights in a celebratory way that enables strength, celebration of identity, individuality and collaborative,  community resilience, for creating new artistic forms in ways that have been silenced and hidden and disregarded, railroaded. 

 

So often learning disabled people who have historically been silenced,  spoken for and about, made invisible, misrepresented silenced, dumbed down and totally homogenized insists that any workshop / company / training / process for working with learning disabled and neuro-diverse people has to starts with a politics  that needs to sit at the centre of any course, any theatre project. Of course this has to be carefully structured in dialogue with a number of parties with a clear ethos and pedagogy running through it. Equally we believe that any professional training for LD or autistic people cannot happen in isolation but needs to be networked into many agencies which we will explore later on. 

​Initially,  the making of Not F**kin’ Sorry! we worked within the ‘Affirmation Model of Disability (Swain and French 2000) before moving into Kafer’s Political-Relation Model of Disability. The Affirmation Model of Disability was particularly important for us due to the often apologetic & self-critical beliefs that the actors had of themselves. especially at the start of the performance project. This model of disability aims to shift the individual into a position of pride, and to ultimately reclaim agency. However, we moved onto the Political-Relational model to frame our performance and way of working  as it refuses to depoliticise disability and instead insists that we “recognise the politics of engagement of disability in and through relationships, and not in isolation … offer(ing) disability as a ‘site for collective reimagining” (Kafer 2013 p. 8-9). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 In terms of an ethos, rather than just entertaining homogenous audiences whereby existing hierarchical structures and beliefs are re-enforced, we aim to create anarchic, subversive theatre, influenced by ‘outsider art’, performance art,  punk and sits more within Post Dramatic Theatre that manipulates all aspects of popular culture, tv, how disability is experienced through mass media, parodying stereotyped myths surrounding disability that re-enforce the aggressive dehumanisation and infantilization of disabled people. Our in-yer-face theatre that smashes down the fourth wall seduces and implicates audiences in their discrimination, performing perspectives of society that are rarely given a platform.  

 

The politics of making work. Devising processes as a transparent system for also teaching-making -performance, so that as a  company we develop professional skills through the work.  At the core of the practice is about neurodiversity, celebration of difference at its core – different bodies, different ways we move, different ways of understanding, communicating and being in this world, and that’s ok to have all this in the one room. Each person with different strengths and all of us challenging current ideas around devising – for example one actor often blocks the flow to being in and take the cast somewhere completely different, and that is fabulous. There is a constant revealing, constant unexpected happenings, constant reframing of the everyday and smashing theatrical conventions . 

 

‘parataxis, simultaneity, play with the density of signs, musicalization, visual dramaturgy, physicality, irruption of the real, situation/event.’ 3 Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre [Postdramatisches Theater, 1999], trans. by Karen Jürs-Munby (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), p. 134.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s also important to question,  what brought us together? It’s not about the impairments,  it’s about the constant discrimination experienced – whether that is to do with abuse and discrimination that exists and continues within class, culture, gender, religion, the family, educational and medical institutions, on the streets, in the work place, in the creative industries, it never ends. 

 

Finding a hook to ‘catch’ the audience is critical – so that we  utilise and find a score / a frame / a common language  - whether that is through popular-media-culture (as an example) celebrity, sex….  Whereby rules about disabled people are permeated and continued . WE break those rules and re-imagine and story-tell within these recognisable narratives. It’s about being taken seriously.  It’s about finding a narrative / symbols / signs that the audience can develop an empathy – it’s about re-humanising learning disabled and neurodivergent people, and holding up a mirror to expose the brutal reality of our society being riddled with such deadly discrimination. 

 

 

The beginning question I always  ask to the actor/devisers  is what do we want to say / how do we want to use performance to make a statement to the public – what do we want to implicate the public in? This already makes the work subversive. It’s about understanding what it means to put bodies on stage that are usually ignored and dehumanised.  For agency, and to make work, we need to be aware of our histories, and Learning Disabled history is very painful, as we know it continues.  We spent a lot of time on this, sharing experiences, and finding out about what happened to LD people before us, and what continues. This led us onto (Kafer’s) Political-Relational Model of disability/ trust relationships – not re-enforcing the power-imbalance, the lack of agency  - for if we do, then we are guilty of just continuing and re-forcing the discrimination. 

 

In terms of the process, we will look at how we began with autobiography but then importantly moved onto roles as Researchers  -  as a way distance the actors emotively from the material, so that we had to come back to ‘how do we use this to confront / seduce / teach / politicise  audiences etc. We were not interested in gaining pity (Pity Porn (Katharine Araniello).  This  meant that the actors became storytellers in a variety of forms – taking on numerous roles throughout the piece (often transforming in front of the audience).  We have developed very specific ways of devising,  researching and performance processes that the Political-Relational model of disability (Kafer) and which also challenges the notion of ‘Neutral’ – with  reference to Sandhal’s Tyranny of Neutral. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We all need Creative Enablers / Support Worker – I need them too. 

 

 There needs to be an understanding and articulation of the ‘rules’ of the room, and how we approach this if they are broken. What does it mean when this happens? We need to keep revisiting them. We need to all take responsibility for them, and that our roles and skills are shared between us – to give each other ‘a leg up’ constantly. 

 

 What type of space needs to be created in order to make work / learn the trade. We need to explore the  politics of inclusion, agency, understanding the role of the deviser, performer, director - all as Researcher – so that we make sure that we build in transparent spaces, moments of reflection of interrogation, so that we constantly come back to ‘ why are we doing this?’ what do we have so far? What do we need? We need to position ourselves first otherwise we are re-enforcing the same inequalities that exists in the industry. 

 

 

Individual-‘care’plan – including the director. Venue’s commitment to making sure that their space is welcoming and safe. 

Whatsapp group and individual relationships with the director and the creative enablers.  The directors relationship with the creative crew.

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It’s not working in a bubble. The way we worked as a professional company was also like a teaching-course as well – a sort of Apprenticeship – whereby venues and creatives all need to buy into this as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We reject the pity and medical model of disability  and instead we make theatre through the Political-Relational Model of disability (Kafer 2014) which has more political and activist aspirations of disability whereby “participants are involved in a process designed specifically to heighten political awareness and to lead to radical social change” (Walmsley & Johnson, 2003, p28).

 

We are interested in the gap between them and the audience – that is potent to us. We will also explain how the idea of Juxtaposition was pivotal to the piece in the over-arching narrative but also we used this as a constant frame within the micro-aspects of the piece. In addition, we framed a lot of the show  around Parodying Popular Culture (through music, TV Game Shows, Parodying of Children In Need, Sex terminologies, Stand-up Comedians which became a-bridge-to-reach-and jolt-the-audience – to create a ‘local’ language – to get rid of the ‘them and us’.  We take the audience on a journey of seduction then metaphorically slap their faces (gently) . We play with adult clowning, drag, parody, performing ultimate taboos around sexualities – but then move into extremely horrific but minimalist moments whereby one actor reads out about 30 names of learning disabled people who have been killed due to disability hate crime – through a post dramatic frame.

We will also talk about agency of the actor and their power that they holding the performance over the audience. During the R&D we engaged in a research stage on the etymology of disablist words and looked a lot into the history of learning-disabled oppression (incl the Holocaust leading up to today’s many examples of hate crime) – we created a parody of the TV game show Countdown as a way into this. This led to a process for the actors as they then at one point took on the role of discriminatory disablist comedians in the show.

 

We will also look at sexual and gender agency of the learning disabled and neurodivergent actor through particular moments in the performance – playing with the blurry line between reality and fantasy – and constantly finding ways to shake-up, provoke, challenge and implicate the audience. We also play with audience participation and get rid of the 4th wall – and make promises to the audience that are always broken – something experienced by the performers on a daily basis – within our disablist society.   There is also a through-line whereby the actors constantly break the rules throughout the performance – from beginning to end – again as a way of challenge the status quo in terms of the position of learning-disabled and autistic people in society – and how everyone is implicated in this. 

We will discuss the devising process to reveal the ethical way of working that challenges traditional hierarchies often present in theatre teaching and directing – to one that is transparent and  co-collaborative – where the actors are also consultant and specialists in the subject matter.

 

There are a number of outputs as a result of our production - for the theatre industry, for disabled and neuro-divergent actors in term of their own agency as arts practitioners (and mine too as a neuro-diverse director), also the aesthetics of the piece and how the professional theatre industry hugely welcomed the production with outstanding reviews and for us to return to Soho Theatre and beyond.  I will also refer to some of the audience and industry feedback including:  ‘Not F**kin' Sorry evoked in me that same sense of witnessing something truly transgressive and courageous’ (audience member 30.11.19). For a list of re-iterations of NFS and some the impact of our work – please see ‘Chronology’ section.

 

This model  of making and touring a production  e.g. to allow actors to make mistakes in a safe space  - always will need some sort of support. See Kaber's documentation.  

We generated so much material – and often used just key moments of these, layered in our final narrative. We made so many ‘mistakes’ and so much material was made inside these messy ‘mistakes’.   We even returned to material that we made 3 years previously and pulled out the key aspects (eg e.g. I wanna make love to you song and dance). 

 

Steph,  opens the show with her ‘sassy rule-breaking behaviours, drinking, smoking and swearing. The Matrix of Ceremonies, Emma announces her quirky Autism, and welcomes the audience to their ‘Adult, Sexy, Dirtier and Raunchier version of Children In Need’. Adam performs with such incredible confidence, campness, musicality, physical agility performs his heightened beautiful sexuality throughout the show, he has the audience eating from his hands…. Literally ;-) as he proudly shares his outrageous sexual desires. DJ in so many ways gained confidence in his voice during the public run of the show at Soho theatre (as he – and the other actors – improvised away from the script sometimes which would cause racious applause from the audience). Dj is first a dancer and he performs being beaten up and left to die – until Adam lifts him up, saves him and stands by him. This is something that all of the actors have experienced, often on a daily basis. Dj’s dance of hate-crime to Queen’s Another one bites the dust’ whilst the other actors turn their backs to represent how society turns it’s back and takes no blame- until Adam comes to Dj, picks him up, and stands by him. This is performed  to the voice over of (Esther McVey, MP) who is in an interviewed by someone who is asking her to comment onn the rise of suicides by disabled people due to these cuts. 

 

 

 

 

NFS is about uncovering the disability discrimination that is still happening everywhere – on the streets, in residential care homes, behind closed doors,.  We still live in a culture whereby it is still accepted for Celebrity Comedians to make fun out of learning-disabled people with audiences applauding. I managed to find recordings of this which the actors lip-synced to, whilst Steph, pushes these comedians off the stage, and announces to them, ‘They don’t want to see that! They want to see this!’ and she then performs a beautiful, celebratory, confidence and cheeky dance. 

The final moment of the show, Emma says: 

 

We have no more games to play & infact everything you witnessed tonight was real. You see the final reveal of the evening  is WE…ARE… EVERYWHERE,  we are often hidden, but WE ARE EVERYWHERE, just look around you. We are done with being in the shadows, and we  say to those who would rather we kept quiet and compliant like good little circus dogs. We Are Everywhere, We’re right here, and we are not going away, and no, (1,2,3)  We Are Not Fuckin’ Sorry!

The very opening of the final production of Not F..ckin’ Sorry began with Emma (as Mistress of Ceremonies) opening with a (self-written) declaration. She repeats this at the end, with the 5 other actors taking up positions in a ‘chorus line’ of confrontational rebellion:

So, just what is it that you fuckers want?​

You keep calling us broken.​

You don’t know the cracks that every single one of you has given us.​

The mental scars, the physical scars.​

We are sick and tired of being your circus dogs.​

This is our time now. We Are Not Going Away.​

And No, We Are Not Fuckin’ Sorry! 

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6.  NFS AT SOHO THEATRE

Not F**kin’ Sorry! by Not Your Circus Dog Collective  exposes and challenges issues of disability discrimination, hate crime and stereotyping experienced by neuro-diverse and learning-disabled people which was performed to public audiences for one week in Oct/Nov 2019 with full houses and standing ovations each night. We use autobiographical ethno-research, musical-theatre, DIY, cabaret, Parody, autobiography, steeped in popular culture that is highly visual, physical and ensemble  theatre. We use forms of participative theatre as well to gently, comedically, and seductively implicate and challenge the audience in terms of how they perceive disability in society, disability discrimination, hate crime and the dangers of stereotyping, depoliticising, and scapegoating learning disabled and neuro-divergent people.

3. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TEACHER / STUDENT OR DIRECTOR / ACTOR

 It’s vital to question and critique the relationship and roles of the director and actor / teacher and students, as these roles and relationships are so potent and again dangerous.  I believe that I have a responsibility to bring down and smash these power-dynamics . The director has to make themselves vulnerable with the actors, so that it becomes ok to ‘make mistakes over and over again – as it’s within the act-of-failing that we can see those beautiful key moments that we want to keep – that tell the story for us. We celebrate failure, of tripping of confusion, but equally we need structure, we need rituals, we need confirmation, we need to make sure we all understand or understand in different ways. We need to know our roles, all of them. 

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2. TYPE OF PERFORMANCE-OUTSIDER / PERFORMANCE ART

/ POST DRAMATIC THEATER 

PROCESS

4. PROFESSIONALISM IN THE INDUSTRY: CARE, MENTAL HEALTH WELL-BEING, PHYSICAL WELL-BEING. BEING SAFE.

5.   EXTENDING THE BUBBLE. 

THE POLITICAL AND RELATIONAL MODEL OF DISABILITY (Kaefer 2013) 

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Within rehearsals we initially worked within Swain and French’s (2000) ‘Affirmation Model of Disability’ before moving into Kafer’s Political-Relation model. The Affirmation Model of Disability was particularly important for us due to the articulated and performed apologetic, self-critical and low status selves presented by most, if not all, of the participants especially at the start of the research performance project. This model of disability aims to shift the individual into a position of pride, and to ultimately reclaim agency. However, we found that this model of disability had limitations, and so we utilised it purely as a process towards an end product – but not the end product in itself. Matt Hargraves (2015) articulates his concern about the limits of the Affirmative Model when he critiques identity politics in disability arts stating that it is, “lacking in the means to theorise collaborative theatre of increasing aesthetic complexity”, Hargraves (2014 p.31).

 

This can be applied to Not F..ckin’ Sorry as the Affirmative Model does not describe or offer a means of articulating the multi-layered performance aesthetic and political intention of the production in relation to the audience. Instead, Kafer’s Political-Relational model formed a crucial framing for our EDR as it refuses to depoliticise disability and instead insists that we “recognise the politics of engagement of disability in and through relationships, and not in isolation … offer(ing) disability as a ‘site for collective reimagining” (Kafer 2013 p. 8-9). This ‘collective reimagining’ was the central focus for our research performance project, as the co researchers fiercely performed their own rules. Through the Political-Relational Model of Disability, the LD and neuro-divergent participants/co researchers shifted into a place of political activism that involved an exploration of how we would create a crip queer performance to radically challenge audience members into action.

EMANCIPATORY DISABILITY RESEARCH

The emancipatory research-model formed the basis of an ongoing reflexive and evaluative strategy that occurred alongside the course. The emancipatory model is an approach in which the ‘participants are involved in a process designed specifically to heighten political awareness and to lead to radical social change’ (Walmsley and Johnson 2003: 28).

 

 

 

 

 

In the vein of emancipatory research, the students, positioned as co-researchers and as co-facilitators, identified a number of questions as a way into interrogating and scrutinizing the trajectory of the course, the tutor’s pedagogical approaches in terms of relevancy and inclusivity, and the institution where the course is situated. A core group of seven learning-disabled students were co-opted to take on the dual role of co-researcher / facilitators as well as continuing as performing arts students on the course. Their role was to establish key questions for critiquing, evaluating and articulating the experiences, outcomes and politics of the course and so shifting the often assumed passive position of the student with learning-disabilities to one as expert and decision-maker. It will be argued that an emancipatory research approach offers an opportunity for the power dynamic of the tutor-student relationship to shift and become more fluid. Data has taken the form of interviews, video recordings and workshop analysis in partnership with the students and tutors on the course.

 

Kafer (2013) explains how prejudice is expressed through feelings of benevolence with Schweik (2009) saying that Disability-based discrimination and prejudice are often condemned not as markers of structural inequality but of cruelty or insensitivity. This kind of rhetoric ‘sidesteps the reality of social injustice, reducing it to a question of compassion and charitable feelings’ (Schweik quoted in Kafer: 2013: 10).The inevitable impact of on institutionalized  depoliticalization of learning disability on ‘grounds of compassion and charitable feelings’, as articulated by Schweik is dangerously simplistic as it returns to structuralist binaries of able / disabled and normal / subnormal. This chapter will therefore argue that a performing arts course for students with learning disabilities situated within HE needs to embed reflexive, critically facilitative and emancipatory research into its working structures in order to shift and ultimately transform the politics and power dynamics surrounding learning disability.

 

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CRIPPING AND QUEERING

To take a “critically queer” position is to work within the idea of always failing to conform to a fixed identity, indeed to the very notion of a ‘norm’ itself (Butler (1993), Halberstam (2011).  Both crip and queer theory actively work against the existing oppressive systems that adhere to the constructed norm, pushing towards a political and activist reimagining of society instead. Cripping insists that the system of compulsory able-bodiedness is not and should not be the norm and, crucially, it imagines bodies and desires that fit beyond that system (McRuer 2006 p.32). In this way, crip may be thought of as inherently queer in a way that queer theory is not, perhaps, inherently crip though it should be[1].

 

 

 

In the 3rd year of the course running, we devised a freak crip queer cabaret called Not F..ckin’ Sorry (NFS) and we came to this through the cripping and queering of EDR as described ithe previous section[2].

We feel that this performance offers an insight into the aesthetics of the course in terms of ensuring that it is student-led and rightly political in its trajectory.

NFS reappropriated the Freak Show as a means of both exposing the enduring discriminatory and voyeuristic experiences of learning disabled[3] (LD) and neurodivergent people[4], and rejecting the objectified positioning inherent to a medical model of disability (WHO, 2001). The performance research project enabled the participants/co researchers to ‘come out’ as crip through a series of devising tasks which functioned, here, as research methods. These included a crip queer revisitation of ‘stimming’ (a socially taboo behaviour of self-stimulation often associated with neurodivergent people); the use of masks as an improvisation task to challenge  the ‘stigma management’[5] often performed daily by LD and neuro-divergent people and, crucially, the cripping and queering of the autobiographical stories reflecting the continued marginalisation experienced by disabled people.

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