Unlimited, led by Shape and ArtsAdmin, returns this September for another festival showcase at London’s Southbank Centre. Bella Todd talks to Wendy Martin, Head of Performance and Dance about her expectations for presenting the work of Deaf and disabled artists at the largest arts venue in Europe
In 2012 the Southbank Centre was invited by the Arts Council to present the Unlimited Festival, the result of 29 commissions made as part of the Cultural Olympiad to highlight the work of Deaf and disabled artists. With a large wad of ACE money in their back pocket, the Centre presented 11-days of performances, exhibitions, screenings, workshops, debates and club nights. It attracted 18,000 visitors, exposing them to the work of around 200 Deaf and disabled artists. Basking, too, in a refracted media spotlight from the unprecedented public interest in the Paralympics, it was the world’s biggest ever showcase of disability arts.
The question now facing Southbank’s Wendy Martin, is: how on earth do you follow that? Unlimited is now a three-year programme, and the Southbank Centre have again been invited to present the commissions, with festivals in 2014 and 2016. But this time around, the invitation didn’t come with financial support for the Southbank. Unlimited 2014, a festival of 18 new works built around nine Unlimited commissions and staged across the Centre's three Thames-side venues in September, will be presented on a budget a quarter the size of 2012’s.
"I was terrified I was going to feel apologetic," says Martin. "But I just feel proud. We understand that this festival is already very precious to a lot of people. You want to deliver to those people who have a sense of ownership. But you also want to make sure there is something new, and surprising. This year’s programme is incredibly rich."
In any case, saying ‘no’ never felt like an option. Unlimited 2012 was one of the first tasks Martin was assigned when she arrived in London in 2011, direct from Sydney Opera House. Having never worked with Deaf or disabled artists before, she approached it in the same way she had approached organising a festival of aboriginal culture back home in Australia. She built relationships with artists and activists, and sought out mentors who could help her understand some of the history and politics of disability arts. "And I have to say, now I’ve been here just over three years," she says, "that this has been the great privilege of my time in London and at Southbank – to feel I’ve become part of this community."
This time around, Unlimited is an established brand. And with that comes a level of expectation. "I think what Unlimited came to mean in 2012 is 'quality'", says Martin. "That this isn’t just wonderful work because it’s saying something; it’s just wonderful work."
Many of the nine 2014 commissions, including the sex comedy Wendy Hoose and family show Edmund the Learned Pig, have already picked up great national reviews on tour. And the quality should be sustained through Martin’s own supplementary programming, which includes Claire Cunningham's Guide Gods, a co-commission between the Southbank Centre and the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queens. Her 2012 Unlimited show Ménage à Trois was such a revelation to Martin that she went on to include it in the 2013 Women of the World festival.
Sexuality is one emerging theme. Another programme thread involves artists who have acquired their disability, and whose work incorporates, as Martin puts it, “a reassessment – a coming to terms with the changes in yourself, but also with how society treats you”. Michelle Ryan, one of Australia’s leading contemporary dancers who was diagnosed with MS at 30, will present Intimacy, a piece provoked by Belgian choreographer Alain Patel asking why she had ever stopped dancing. Owen Lowery, whose career as a Judo champion was ended by spinal injury, will read from his acclaimed poetry collection Otherwise Unchanged. Susan Austin, last screened travelling in her underwater wheelchair, will return to the festival with her sights now set on the skies.
But the quality of the work is only half the story. Access was a key element in the planning for 2012, and will be again.
"There’s a legacy of the knowledge that we gathered in 2012,"says Martin. "We did a lot of work, and it will happen again this time, around making the venues, signage and marketing as accessible as possible. We brought in consultants to advise us on everything from backstage access to an accessible online presence. We’ll also be repeating the training we provided for all front of house, production, event, marketing and PR staff in working with disabled artists and audiences.
“That’s knowledge that’s now proudly embedded in the Southbank in a wider way,” she continues, “especially with family shows in holidays when we will always have a relaxed performance. There’s no point in just doing it once every two years. Southbank is committed in an ongoing way to both presenting the work of disabled artists and making our venues accessible to disabled audiences.”
Unfortunately plans to renovate the Hayward, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and East Wing "came to a halt". These would have brought the outdated access of Southbank’s 1960s buildings into line with current legislature, and drawn on lessons learnt from Unlimited 2012. A new, downscaled renovation plan is now under consideration. In the meantime, the QEH will this year be used as a black box theatre, with everyone entering via the fully accessible artists entrance. “It means everybody will have the same experience as the wheelchair users. Everybody will be on the same ground.”
The three year nature of the new Unlimited project, with a third festival to follow in 2016, will give Southbank an interesting opportunity to survey changes in the disabled and mainstream arts worlds – and to gauge its own impact. What developments would Martin like to see come 2016?
“One of the exciting challenges for disabled artists that will hopefully translate into the broader community is the idea of building accessibility into the work so it doesn’t look like an add-on,” she says. “Productions like Edmund the Learned Pig and Wendy Hoose take accessibility as a creative starting point. That’s a really important way in which Unlimited artists can lead the way.”
Martin is also excited about what might come out of Katherine Araniello’s piece, The Dinner Party Revisited:
“Because of her impairment, Katherine has trouble touring, so she has come up with a way of staging the piece simultaneously in two different venues using screens and links. Katherine is using Unlimited 2014 to develop a way for her work to go out into the world – and it would be wonderful if there were pieces in Unlimited 2016 that had come into existence because of that experiment.”
And what of longer-term goals and hazier dreams? Can she foresee a time when Unlimited, like the festival she has come across in Switzerland, would simply present the work of disabled and non-disabled artists together?
“I completely respect the fact that some artists don’t want to be put in a box,” she says. “But I think one of the things a festival does is create a conversation. It also provides a density of work that makes it worthwhile for international delegates to come – this year’s invitations are out now, and the British Council have been getting a great response.
“Everywhere you look this summer there are festivals in practically every town in Europe. A festival with disabled and non-disabled artists performing together is what every one of those festivals should be. If that were to happen then there would be no need for a separate festival. So, in a way, the ideal outcome for Unlimited would be that there would be no need for Unlimited.”
Spurred on by the success of the 2012 festival to make something as wonderful, Unlimited 2014 will apparently, bear no cap on its ambitions: from digital touring experiments and creative innovations in access to the ultimate self-negating legacy.