The Generation Gap

Justin Sight performs a magic trick with some playing cards on an audience member.
Magician Justin Sight at Southbank Centre's Unlimited Festival 2016. Image for Unlimited by Rachel Cherry.

As part of Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival in September 2016, Unlimited programme trainees Simon Overington-Hickford and Emily Crowe curated The Generation Gap, a public platform for emerging disabled artists making their own waves and trajectories in developing their artistic careers. Speakers Kate Lovell, Justin Sight and Unlimited Impact artists John R. Wilkinson, Laura Dajao, Tom Wentworth and Kim Simpson shared how their different experiences and approaches might inform a new set of considerations for artists breaking into the arts, and sometimes, breaking the mould.

“There is such an enormous value to being at an early stage in your career. I used to think of it as naiveté, but it’s freshness. You’re not polluted with the old ways of doing things.” Kim Simpson

Kate Lovell, Agent for Change at Theatre Royal Stratford East, suggested whatever the improvements in opportunities for emerging disabled artists have been, the definition of young can be problematic for many disabled artists, where current potentially career boosting opportunities are aimed at people who are 26 years or under.

The time it takes to negotiate the complexity of diagnoses, impairment and barriers might mean disabled artists are going to be late bloomers, ready at a later age, thinks Kate. This needs to be understood and accommodated across the sectors to create a level playing field.

“I think initiatives need to be aimed at those who are not necessarily under a certain particular numeric number, though they might be. People might well be young and getting going early on, which is fantastic, but also let’s include people who are just at an early stage of their career,” said Kate.

Common to all those speaking was the determination needed to move ahead, irrespective of pervading physical and attitudinal barriers in pursuit of the best practice opportunities. When the world had pigeon-holed Justin Sight into a dwindling dead-end job, he took to the streets, busking his way to success and a slot on the Saturday Night Show, doing something that had come naturally from the age of seven. Magic! “I guess it was important for me, as an artist, to get myself out there and to take those steps which are often frightening steps for many people,” said Justin.

How difficult can it be, when you don’t have the experience or confidence to ask for what you need and what you may be legally entitled to? A full-time position in the often-accepted norm of a 40 hour week might preclude many disabled artists pursuing opportunities. “There’s nothing wrong with having a job share on an assistant directorship scheme or simply stating that disabled applicants can apply and that reasonable adjustments will be made,” added Kate.

Theatre Director John R. Wilkinson spoke of the importance of self-entitlement, defying any preconceived notion that you can’t or shouldn’t approach people with what you want, or need, including your creative ideas or your philosophical take. Important, too, to be honest about what you know, and what you don’t know, and owning that: “it’s just about making clear these buildings and these people aren’t monoliths and monsters, and you can go and talk to people, regardless,” suggested John.

The nature of ambition was talked about, and how the shifting nature of impairment and lived experience might mean getting up in the morning just to do the day is ambition enough. So sorting out additional issues and access requirements were an essential part of developing ambition. “I think people can only work well if they feel safe and feel comfortable in what they are doing,” said John.

The panel acknowledged the importance of projects such as Ramps on the Moon and companies like Graeae and Stopgap in providing exceptional opportunities in the industry, through which emerging disabled artists can develop and progress. They also drew attention to the need for smaller more bespoke opportunities for disabled artists right at the beginning of their journeys, as well as these larger initiatives.

Dance artist and teacher Laura Dajao spoke passionately about the importance of disabled artists being able to choose and define their own practice and themselves. “I’d like to hope that we can just all be seen as artists, that we can be recognised for our art, rather than how and if we ‘box up’,” said Laura.

Defining yourself as disabled, or not, was a particular theme that arose through the panel and the discussion that followed and was perhaps the most memorable theme of The Generation Gap. Tom Wentworth acknowledged ticking ‘the disabled box’ was the only way to get the right adjustments and level playing field at interview so that you could be seen and heard on merit. “Once we’re in the room, then I think that’s where we come into our own because we can talk on exactly the same level as anyone else,” said Tom.

This idea of definition is quite prevalent and something about which Unlimited as a programme is mindful. It’s an essential pre-requisite to define as a disabled person to receive Unlimited investment but there are choices too; of course, you can work within any role and make work that has nothing to do with that, or any other impairment experience. “It’s interesting because Unlimited Impact are trying to facilitate more disabled producers, which I think has… well, it immediately opens up another way of thinking by disabled artists when you have people in those roles,” said Kim Simpson.

From the voices evident on the panel, Unlimited Impact has made some great inroads into meeting the development needs, lived experience and situations of younger and emerging disabled artists, supporting them to do what they want to do, in the way they want to do it. And given the responses of those in the audience, it’s something the whole of the cultural sector should be taking on board.

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