Dadafest International Scotland showcases work by deaf and disabled practitioners
The changing attitudes towards deaf and disabled arts companies
As DaDaFest International unleashes a showcase of work in Scotland, artistic director Garry Robson talks to Allan Radcliffe about changing attitudes towards deaf and disabled arts companies and performers
Disability is perhaps the last remaining taboo when it comes to positive representation in the arts, and it’s only in recent years that disability and deaf arts practitioners have been recognised for the rich contribution they make to the UK’s cultural landscape.
Much of the success for bringing high-quality work to mainstream audiences as well as deaf and disabled communities is down to companies such as Lung Ha’s, which this year won the Critics Association for Theatre in Scotland award for Best Ensemble for the site-specific Huxley’s Lab. Meanwhile, Liverpool-based organisation DaDaFest International, founded in 2001, has programmed its first mini-festival of performances, exhibitions, workshops and talks in Scotland.
‘The original idea behind DadaFest International was to have a platform to showcase emerging deaf and disabled artists,’ says artistic director Garry Robson. ‘In 2008, Liverpool was appointed City of Culture and invested some money, allowing the organisation to go international and bring in an outside director – that was me.’
Robson, who has been based in Edinburgh for many years, felt there was scope for an event celebrating excellence in disability and deaf arts north of the border. ‘There’s lots of great work going on in Scotland, but sometimes it can feel a bit scattered. The companies we spoke to were very supportive of the idea of a showcase. This is just a beginning really – a small selection but a good spread of Scottish and international work. My aim is to go back to Creative Scotland and say, “Well, this worked – can we have more money to do this on a bigger scale?”’
The showcase includes a beautiful Gothic fairytale told through old-world marionettes and sign language by Austrian performer Asphxyia; the first UK appearance from Swedish theatre company Moonsteatern and a brand new show called The Freak and the Showgirl created by well-known actor, performance artist and musician Mat Fraser with Julie Atlas Muz. The theme, ‘Objects of curiosity and desire’, came from a poem by a disabled writer that features the line “Only me and Marilyn Monroe get looked at every time we walk into a room”. ‘We are still objects of curiosity that get pointed at and discussed – as well as objects of beauty,’ says Robson. ‘It’s an evocative theme, and hopefully provocative too.’
Programming the festival has been a fascinating process for Robson, particularly in discovering how deaf and disabled arts are represented in foreign cultures. In South Africa, for instance, deaf theatre is classified as ‘visual theatre’ and links in with the country’s rich mask tradition.
‘I try to see the work, either through DVDs or the internet or I go in person,’ says Robson. ‘We’ve established long-term links with South Africa and we’re starting to bring in companies from emerging nations such as India and Uganda. It’s fascinating: in the West the debate around deaf and disabled arts is framed a lot around terminology and how to refer to disabled people, whereas some people in developing countries are simply struggling to stay alive.’
Dadafest International Scotland, various venues, Glasgow and Edinburgh, until Thu 25 Nov.