REPUBLIC OF INCLUSION
February 15th, 2015
The Theatre Centre, Toronto
On the coldest day of the year, well over a hundred people walked, rolled, and negotiated public transit and WheelTrans to The Theatre Centre in Toronto to participate in a conversation around inclusive theatre practices in the Republic of Inclusion, an event capping off Progress: An International Festival of Performance and Ideas (February 4-15th, 2015). We were hosted by the event’s co-curators Sarah Garton Stanley (National Arts Centre) and Alex Bulmer (Invisible Flash) and welcomed into an accessibility dream. The workshops in phase one help to prepare for this phase as the group is able to develop confidence in expressing and exploring their ideas, making new artwork and making connections with fellow participants.
At the front entrance, people made braille maps of the building; attendants took folks up in the elevator and directed people up the stairs; on the second floor there was a generous spread of food; attendants showed you to the washroom and asked you if you needed a hand; the entire event was beautifully visually described by an animator and presenters described themselves and their visual materials, ASL interpreters interpreted the keynote and the (at times unwieldy) discussion; a stenographer captured everything that was being said and projected it onto a large screen; their was a ‘creative wall’ that allowed people to express their thoughts; there was a supportive listener, a person not involved in the event who could talk to you about how you were experiencing the event. I had never experienced anything like it—and there was more. On top of being in this incredibly inclusive space, we were all asked, collectively, to think through and create a way for the discussion on inclusivity and accessibility in theatre to be inclusive and accessible to ourselves and each other as we performed a “long table.”
Stanley explained that a “long table,” a concept developed by Lois Weaver (Split Britches) is a, “dinner party structured by etiquette, where conversation is the only course. The project ingeniously combines theatricality and models for public engagement. It is at once a stylised appropriation and an open-ended, non-hierarchical format for participation. Both of these elements – theatrical craft and political commitment – are mutually supporting in this widely and internationally toured work. The (often-feminised) domestic realm here becomes a stage for public thought” (http://publicaddresssystems.org/projects/long-table/).
The “long table” allowed us to have a non-hierarchal and open discussion, staging an improvisational conversation as we did. But, in order to occupy this table, we first needed to collectively think about how this table and conversation could be accessible and inclusive to everyone in the room. As Jan Derbyshire (In Kind), the Exhibition Designer for this part of the event, pointed out at the beginning of this collective exercise, when it comes to disability and theatre, the conversation usually begins with who —what kinds of minds and bodies—are invited to ‘sit at the table.’ Aptly, we began this conversation with thinking through how this long table and the discussion it would host could be made invitational to everyone who wanted to participate in this conversation. Derbyshire set up this activity by articulating the concept of “ableism” (the belief that there is a bodily standard (non-disabled bodies) and the naming of the discrimination against bodies that do not measure up to this standard (disabled bodies), which, in the context of our discussion, quickly evolved into “tableism,” a turn of phrase that captured our collective re-design of the long table.
We recognized that although the concept of the long table held invaluable possibility for enabling open and productive conversations, its traditional structure may not work for ‘us.’ Skilfully led by Derbyshire, we, the ‘users,’ (playing on Inclusive Design language) participated in the design of our long table, structuring it in a way that worked for us (a practice of involving disabled people in the design of something they will use, a practice that designers might consider taking up!). As Derbyshire also pointed out, when a design works for us, we should not necessarily be satisfied with it but instead think about the privilege of being included and what kinds of minds and bodies it may exclude. So, for example, if the concept of a long table, in which each participant can walk up to a person, tap them on the shoulder, take their seat, and enter into the conversation (verbally and without aid) seems like a democratic, non-hierarchical way to have a conversation, then this may be an indication that we need to dig a little deeper to think about how we might, collectively, dismantle practices which prioritize non-disabled minds and bodies.
And dig we did. Before we participated in the long table discussion, Derbyshire had us articulate the moves that would make this table more inclusive while ASL interpreters signed them and note-takers copied them onto a big board. We thought hard about what would make the table and the conversation is would hold more inclusive and, in so doing, thought carefully about the multiplicity of ways that we can be in our minds and bodies and how they effect how we come to the table. After each suggested move towards inclusivity was spoken, signed, or spelled out, Derbyshire would divide them into implementable design and utopian design (emphasizing that both doable and utopian suggestions were equally as important and both would be considered when designing our long table.) Some of us in the room had our own chairs and so it was suggested that some of the chairs be removed to make room for people to roll up. One of us suggested that a long table engendered a patriarchal structure and a roundtable might be more conducive to a non-hierarchal conversation. Another suggested that, consistent with the disability rights adage, ‘nothing about us without us,’ we should have at least one disabled person at the table at all times. From this suggestion, we debated how we know who is disabled and who is not and how we might take this suggestion while also being inclusive to non-noticeably (a.k.a non-visibly) people, particularly those who didn’t want to out themselves as disabled for any number of personal and/or political reasons. A number of us questioned, why a table anyway? Should we remove the table altogether and instead sit in a circle in the chairs we bring with us? Should we upend the table and use it as a writing and drawing surface? We questioned normative expectations of participating, or even approaching, a conversation and how intimating this can be. To remove this potential intimidation, one of us suggested that we have something on the table, like a pitcher of water, that would give people a reason to approach it other than participating in the conversation. Another asked if people were expected to participate in the conversation if they were at the table—was listening/reading signs (or just being) a legitimate kind of participation. We recognized that we did not all communicate in the same way. We knew that our conversation must not only accommodate, but welcome the different speeds and tempos of our speech, speech to text, bliss boards, and signing and interpretation. We also knew that we had to refrain from ‘cross talk’ (talking over each other) as much as possible because this was difficult for the interpreters to interpret. We thought about making more inclusive the practice of tapping someone on the shoulder as a way to signify that we wanted to take their seat. Could people approaching make a sound before touching people as not to startle those unable to see them? Could we collectively commit to sensing whether the person we are about to touch is comfortable with being touched? Utopian suggestions included having a table with an adjustable height in recognition that because of our different bodies which disrupt normative design principles, “one size fits one” (Derbyshire), having wheels on the table to allow it to be rolled around, having rounded edges on the table, or cover the sharp edges with florescent tape, to prevent people from bumping and hurting themselves, and not having legs on the table inviting us all to sit on the floor around the top of the table.
We also discussed the rules of engagement that we wanted implemented in our long table conversation. We threw out ideas such as: move an object around to signify a speaking order, wait to speak until the last speaker is finished, and to recognize that to be comfortable at the table, some of us may need to move around; the normative convention of sitting still at a table doesn’t work for everyone. Ultimately, we concluded on two main rules of engagement: we would commit to taking care of ourselves and each other while seated at the table and we would be as present as possible and engage in deep listening (paying attention) while seated at the table. If we felt our attention waver, we should probably give up our seat at the table. An interesting and, perhaps, pedagogical moment occurred when, after many rules of engagement where put on the table, one of us said that, for her, rules and terms were exclusionary; the fear of failing that a rule-filled space created was petrifying. This moment may have engendered the crux, the delight and the challenge, of inclusive practice. As a dynamic community, we have different, sometimes competing needs. And so, creating a fully inclusive space, even one directed and designed by the users of the space, like this one, is impossible; failure is inevitable. But this does not mean that inclusivity absolutely must be persuaded.
After all suggestions had been offered, as in any republic, we voted on which suggestions we wanted implemented. We then submitted questions that would prompt the long table discussion. Questions included: How do we make theatre more accessible?; How to make art more accessible?; Who is missing from the conversation about theatre and inclusivity and why?; What would happen if you were talking with food in your mouth?; How do people work together?; Should non-disabled people play disabled people?; How do we foster the unexpected?; What is the economic of inclusivity?; How to we build a conversation with many different people?
During the break, a team of ready and willing volunteers re-designed the long table in a way reflective of both the implementable and utopian design suggestions in accordance to the collective will. When we arrived back in the room, the long table had been moved out into the centre of the stage. There were five chairs placed around it, another five empty spaces, and chairs placed off to the side that you could grab and pull up (or ask someone to do it for you) if you needed one. The paper tablecloth had been lengthened into a wide skirt that could be placed on one’s lap or one’s own table, extending the long table to people assistive devices, welcoming them in. On the table were mics and coloured pens with their caps off, and the menu with the rules of engagement. There was a smaller table similarly set up in the room outside of the theatre where people could participate in a similar conversation without the performative element. We had agreed that people did not need to out themselves as disabled but we would trust that there would always be a disabled person around the table; this would be our collective responsibility. Bulmer selected a question from the fish bowl atop the table which held all of the questions that were voiced before the break and it was decided that our question would be: ‘How do we give power to people to be included?’ With this, Stanley invited people to the long table to begin the conversation.
Folks rolled and walked up, spoken, signed, typed into bliss boards, read from other people’s bliss boards, and shared attendants. Together, the rotating guest of the long table tackled this question from all angles: Some pointed to how simple this can be, offering suggestions such as, ‘invite them’ and ‘caring that people are there.’ Others followed up these suggestions by offering the practical proposal of approaching and doing outreach with different arts organizations. By pointing to the simplicity with which inclusion of disabled people in theatre could be achieved, particularly within a room full of people that did not need to be convinced that including disabled people in theatre was a good thing, suggested that the current state of exclusion had less to do with not knowing how to be invitational and more to do with people’s and institutions’ desire to include (or lack thereof). This was particular clear to me given that, as we had all just demonstrated, once the invitation was extended to participate in a conversation about how to be inclusive, disabled people are very good at articulating what we need in order for a place or a practice to be inclusive to us. Others commented on the concept of power, asking important questions about who has power (one participant aptly noting that the people in power are never disabled), how we disseminate power, what are we asking for when we demand that people in power give up their power, and where is the line between empowering disabled people and cultivating and supporting spaces and opportunities that are disability-led. The table also talked about the difficulties of inclusion as one participant shared that although the conversation was about inclusion, they did to not feel included. To me, this comment indicated that there may be more to inclusion that only disability/accessibility concerns. This was followed up by the provocative question: what does inclusion feel like? It came as no surprise that different opinions emerged within this conversation, as one participant said that in order to have conversations like this one, we must ‘leave our politics at the door’ while another said that, for her, this is political. One of the final comments made at the table still has me thinking. Turning the question of inclusivity on its head, one participant suggested that being exclusive may not necessarily be the worst thing; indeed, we may need to be strategically exclusive at times. The participant suggested that producing theatre may need to be exclusive but at the same time we must ensure that everyone has access to the work. In this contemporary moment, where disability-led arts and theatre is emerging so rapidly and becoming increasingly supported by arts councils , institutions, and audiences, in may be a time when disability-led and even disability-only spaces need to be protected to dismantle historically ableist practices and shift the power to disability artists. My own position as the Artistic Director at Tangled Art + Disability, positioning this arts organization as disability-led, is an example of this momentum towards change. In doing so, new ways of practicing and new aesthetic shifts may emerge. In the context of supporting disability-led work, recognizing disabled people as producers of arts and theatre rather than its subjects included only as flat tropes, inclusion, at this point, may only be important when thinking about the audience and ensuring wide dissemination of disability-led theatre, as this radical comment suggests. The long table discussion prompted many questions and did not end with many answers or solutions. And although this discussion on inclusive theatre practices felt resolved at the end of this event, it also seemed like the beginning of a wider conversation.
The conversation at the long table, lasting just over 15 minutes, certainty was not as long as it could have been. Indeed, the majority of our time at Republic of Inclusion was spent on the design of our long table, as it should have been. Cleverly and artfully, the co-curators of the Republic of Inclusion demonstrated that when it comes to inclusivity in theatre practice, the collective work of getting to the table was just as (or more) important and productive as the discussion that would occur at the table. The ‘thinking’ was in the ‘doing.’
In sum, the space that the co-curators created demonstrated many standard, creative, and revolutionary ways to build an inclusive space and I left this event with a far greater understanding of the practices and supported needed to create an inclusive arts event. I did not, however, leave feeling like I knew how to create a fully inclusive space. I did, however, leave with a greater understanding of how to lead a group in articulating how the space could be more usable to them and implementing the generated ideas in order to create a more inclusive space for that particular group. The Republic of Inclusion demonstrated that there is not only one way to make theatre practices and spaces universally inclusive, as legislation might have us believe. One size really does fit one. The rest, I think, is left up to desire. The accessibility and the attitudes in the room at this event, skilfully enacted by the event’s co-curators and designer created a feeling that disability was desired. And for all of the incredible foresight put into creating an inclusive space, the organizers recognized that this was not enough. They needed to hear from us, the ‘users’ of the space, about how to make it more inclusive and accessible. By simply expecting that disabled people will show up, and hoping that they do, motivates us to create a space that imagines a multiplicity of bodies, minds, abilities, needs, and wants. In short, enacting inclusive practices requires a desire for the disruption that disability and difference makes. If including disability changes conventional theatre practices (and it will), then we must desire this disruption, recognizing that the shifts in practices that including disability necessitates may make theatre practice more open and usable to all… and even if it doesn’t, we still must be inclusive! As the Republic of Inclusion demonstrated, we must let this desire effect how we structure a space and the practices it holds and we must let this desire motivate us to listen to the group in order to further shape and change these spaces and practices in accordance to their individual and collective desires, wants and needs. What is produced out of this rigours dedication to be open remains to be seen, but it will, without a doubt, move theatre practices and theatre pieces forward in exciting, dynamic directions.
Tangled Art + Disability
The School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University
February 22, 2015