Staged to Engage
This year’s Arts & Disability International Conference shone a spotlight on the power of collaboration, as well as equal opportunity within arts organisations.
BY CLAIRE TURRELL
s the old adage goes, teamwork makes the dream work. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the inaugural Arts & Disability International Conference, which was held at Singapore’s Sands Expo and Convention Centre at Marina Bay Sands from March 22 to 23.
Jointly organised by the National Arts Council (NAC) and Very Special Arts Singapore (VSA), in partnership with the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) and British Council, the conference was the culmination of three years of forums. It was launched as part of True Colours Festival, which showcased performing talents with disabilities.
Featuring international and local guest speakers, and arts groups from Japan, the UK, Cambodia, Australia and Singapore – many of whom are leaders in the field of inclusive arts – the conference welcomed more than 400 participants.
One of the key topics discussed at the conference is the transformative nature of the arts. “I believe passionately that the arts can lead in creating social change. To me, their function is to subvert clichéd ways of thinking and to challenge the accepted ways of seeing the world,” says Kate Hood, the artistic director of Australian theatre company Raspberry Ripple Productions.
Her fledgling theatre company is already leading the way by bringing together able-bodied and disabled actors – led by a disabled art director – to perform works by the likes of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Another Australian theatre company that is making huge steps in advancing inclusion in the arts is No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability (NSA). With disabled actors who are paid professionals, it operates as a business instead of a charity, applying for grants as any other theatre company would.
According to NSA’s artistic director, Alirio Zavarce, inclusion starts with education. “There is something about the arts which is very elitist in terms of who has got access to education. You see kids going to a private school who have a wealth of opportunities in terms of the arts.
We just need to bridge those gaps and bring those opportunities to every level,” he says. Zavarce’s vision of equal opportunity is shared by Kris Yoshie, director of non-profit arts organisation Slow Label Japan. The company’s team of disabled performers starred at the closing ceremony of the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. “The arts is a great level playing field because you don’t always have to communicate with words,” she says.
To ensure that everyone in Slow Label Japan is set on an equal footing, the organisation avoids calling their able-bodied members volunteers, so that they wouldn’t be viewed as carers.
Beyond using the appropriate nomenclature within arts organisations, leadership was also discussed during the conference. Hood stresses that any activity that focuses on disabled people needs to include them in the decision-making.
In response to that, Soh Lai Yee, head of cultural exchange for SIF, says that’s exactly why VSA was leading this year’s conference: “The true spirit and impact of the partnership with NAC and BC is to foster an arts for good ecosystem, where leaders from diverse sectors connect and contribute, and leadership is nurtured from within the disability sector.”
“ Cross-cultural collaborations help us create a better world through art, and opens up a dialogue of understanding and acceptance, not only across performers and companies but also across their families, organisations and the general public.”
Alirio Zavarce, artistic director, No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability (NSA)
ARTS WITHOUT BORDERS
As the sphere of arts for those with special needs continues to evolve, something that seems increasingly prevalent is cross-cultural creative partnership, one of the conference’s main themes. For instance, the VSA team has raised the bar for its own theatre company, Very Special Theatrics (VST), which was launched in 2017. VST – which performed a live-action version of Peter & The Wolf for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s VCH Organ series last June – also collaborated with NSA on a production for this year’s vibrant True Colours Festival. Entitled My Home is Not a Shell, it featured talented artists from both Australia and Singapore.
Zavarce explains that the creative process involved coming up with a concept and improvising along the way. “The work comes from the perspective of the actors. In My Home is Not a Shell, the actors wanted to talk about bullying, home and Singapore,” he says.
Describing the collaboration as a meeting point between two companies as well as two nations, Zavarce shares: “It was fascinating to hear the perspective of the VST actors and how they wanted to relate sea animals to the origin of Singapore. So we came up with the metaphor of the crab looking for a shell.” At the end of the project, one of Zavarce ’s takeaways is an understanding that the things uniting us as artists and human beings overpower our perceived differences.
“Cross-cultural collaborations help us create a better world through art, and opens up a dialogue of understanding and acceptance, not only across performers and companies but also across their families, organisations and the general public,” he adds.
The artistic director is looking forward to the next stage of this collaboration, which could, for instance, involve bringing the play to festivals in Australia.
Equally keen to maintain these creative pathways is Andrew Liew, chairman of VSA. “The buzz we have created can be sustainable if we keep the network alive,” he says. His main hope? That word of the two companies’ success will filter into the rest of society and eventually help to remove discrimination.
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