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Special Episode: The Alter State Festival 🎭🧑‍🦽🧗‍♂️

The Alter State Festival is a celebration of disability, creativity and culture. Alter State runs 12 September – 9 October 2022.

Co-presented by Arts Centre Melbourne and Arts Access Victoria, Alter State is a major arts and disability event engaging artists and audiences.

For more information see the website here:

This special episode includes two interviews.

The first is with Sue Giles and Ellie Griffiths co-directors of When The World Turns a fantastic sensory accessible performance.

The second interview is with Jo Dunbar and Emma J Hawkins. Jo is the director and Emma is a performer in the production, Momentum. Momentum is an art piece that incorporates acrobatics and dance with all performers identifying as having a disability.

For more information about Momentum

Connect with Peta:

Instagram: @petahooke


Episode transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast. The podcast answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name's Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. You might have seen a few months ago I was at the launch of something called Alter State. The Alter State Festival is happening in Melbourne right now from the 12th of September to the 9th of October 2022. Melbourne is having the celebration of disability, creativity and culture through Alter State Festival. I highly recommend any of you that have the ability to go. Please do. They hold both in-person events here in Melbourne and also online. The links in the description. This episode is very special to me because it really signifies that disability is now being more thought of and people with disabilities are now more often at the forefront designing things for people with disabilities by people with disabilities. There are so many exciting things happening at Alter State, and I wanted to give you a little bit of a taste because after all, this sort of thing is very new and that's hard to know what a disability festival is. I firstly want to flag that. I believe that you don't have to have a disability to enjoy Alter State Festival. It's really all about inclusion and thinking of everybody's access needs to engage with art and culture. First up, we have the amazing Ellie and Sue from When the World Turns Production. And then following that, I have the amazing Jo and Emma talking about women's circus. So without any further ado, let's get into it.

Sue [00:02:11] I'm Sue Giles. I'm the artistic director of Polyglot Theatre, which is a theatre company that makes work for and with children as participants in the work. Hi.

Ellie [00:02:25] My name's Ellie Griffiths. I'm from the UK. I'm the artistic director of a theatre company which makes sensory theatre, particularly for disabled children and young people. Yeah. All cars are really, really excited to be over in Australia and to be collaborating with Polyglot Theatre to make this, this new piece of sensory theatre, and it's specifically for disabled young people and children. The difference from a normalcy to show is that from the very, very beginning, as of when we've been thinking of making the show, we've prioritised children who have the most barriers to access. So this show is really made for families and for school groups to come to where we're bringing everyone in that group into a sensory head space so that the the disabled child is like the guide for everyone into how to just be in that sensory environment. You come in and explore a whole environment that's really immersive and really sensory with lots of sound, lots of smells, lots of light and shadow. But it's really a world of plants and nature and and at certain point, some fairly magical creatures. We hope it will feel like a really inviting and welcoming space that families can come in to together. And no matter how you communicate or how you relate to the world, it's really been designed for you. So we're using 11,000 live plants in the show and they're the basis of our like set, our props of everything and and all of those plants are going to be redistributed and planted afterwards. So nothing is wasted in this show. We're learning a lot about how to work more sustainably and also learning from Polyglot, about having the young people involved in the creative process, but also that they themselves are part of like making the show happen and making the magic happen in the room. So they're really active and involved. The whole family makes the magic happen, not just the performers.

Peta [00:04:52] And tell me, sir, what have you learnt as far as this process and how has Polyglot helped this process come to light?

Sue [00:05:02] I'll start with what we're learning, which is like a lot polyglot, has often and has for a long time created works that are participatory. So in a lot of ways, we've been steering ourselves towards an inclusive practise in a sensory practise because we often deal with stuff we do with materials, we would do with plastic, with cardboard, with paper. And it's very much about that creative process of the child. But what we don't have and what we're really learning at the moment is how to really hone into that and push deeper into that idea that the sensory world needs to be kind of framed and offered in a way that really does create excess. Because we've gone, yes, our work is inclusive, but actually it wasn't. There was many still many barriers to coming being part of our works. So now we're really pushing into that area of learning as much as we can about our audience, about the barriers they have to coming to art, about the different ways that we can in through the future really make work properly, accessible, how we can change our wording. We changed our website. We've changed the way that we present printed material. We've made visual stories for all our works now. So there's an enormous amount of growth that the companies experienced.

Peta [00:06:28] Oh, look, I'm all up for it. I think it's a fabulous idea. So the more children that can experience this, I say all the better. Ellie, I would love to know, given your expertise in sensory arts, how is this place accessible to all people with disabilities?

Ellie [00:06:48] The main thing for this show and for any show to just be really, really fully accessible is that it just has to be really, really flexible and really, really adaptable. There's no other blanket rule, as you know, that you can put on a whole community and population of people that have, you know, really different interests and preferences and ways of interacting. And so throughout the show, because we are using lots of sound and sound vibration and then we use lots of light and shadow, and in another part we might use smell or water that's very tactile. It means that no matter what your barriers to access are, there's, there's at least some way in for you. So yeah, our performers are really, really great at improvising and, and coming up with stuff on the spot and adapting and adapting so that. They're really making sure that the show communicates with whoever is in the room. It's really interactive, so it feels a bit more like a conversation than it than it does like. So it's a show where the performer is just doing their thing and you just sort of sit and enjoy it. I enjoy these shows because it feels extra, extra life. Like you never know what's going to happen. One person might need to just wander around throughout the whole show and never really settle in one place and actually not focus on the performer at all. And another person might need everything extremely close up. And so to make things accessible, I think it's really about having that flexibility where it's you don't worry about the way your show should be. You have to be really not precious about it. It's like whatever the audience, whatever makes sense for them, in that moment.

Peta [00:08:48] So tell me, when can people come and see your show? Is it just it out of state?

Sue [00:08:54] At the moment. Yes, it is. It will also have its premiere in the UK in Oliycarts land. We're looking at a model where we don't travel, where we don't freight anything, where the set is found locally. We're also really aware, and this is part of our learning curve that I was talking about, of how difficult it is for people to get to the theatre. So this big theatre show, which is so spectacular and beautiful and it's going to be just amazing, but it also needs to this show needs to exist in other forms. It needs to be able to go to where people are. So this work starts with a package that arrives at your home and a sound journey that the whole family listens to that starts off their adventure. So again, that sense of flexibility, if we want real access, then we really have to make many different shapes to what we create. We can't be the wanky artist sitting there, go near. I must have 11,000 plants every single day. It can't work like that because that's not serving our audience and it's not making the point that we want this show to be able to make to the broadest possible reach of people.

Peta [00:10:15] Final question for you both. I'd love to hear your perspectives on where you hope art will go as far as accessibility in the future.

Ellie [00:10:26] So at the movement. And. Sensory practise, sensory theatre, where art is seen as very, very niche and it's seen as only relevant. So people who have what you might call profound disabilities or that you relate to the world differently to the majority. I think I'd really love love love to see happening. Is that. We reach a point where it's happening across the world and like in all different types of ways and. It's not seen as specialist or niche. It's just that, like people who are disabled are always part of the conversation and they're always considered. So it's not like it's it's not necessarily some specialist thing that happens like once every two years or five years. And only when there's a really big budget or new and, you know, this extra funding available. I just think it would be great if these sensory theatre is a universal language, if theatre making just started to be....

Sue [00:11:32] Recognised as that as well. Yeah, because that's and so for me it feels like and this is for me like the argument also can be about other marginalisations as well. What we want is for access to be recognised as a way of really improving, expanding, exploring what theatre can be because the theatre that we all grew up with is a very limited construct. And so what we're talking about here is like a mind blowing opportunity for artists and makers and theatre makers to just, just explore and challenge their own practise. And this is like for an artist, that's got to be the most stimulating thing that ever comes along in your career.

Peta [00:12:20] An Explosion of creativity.

Ellie [00:12:24] Absolutely.

Sue [00:12:25] Yeah. Come on.

Peta [00:12:26] Thank you so much for talking to me today. It's been an absolute pleasure.

Sue [00:12:30] Thanks, Peta. That's really wonderful.

Ellie [00:12:32] Thank you for having us

Peta [00:12:34] I had the privilege to go and say when the world turns. After speaking to Sue and Ellie and my expectations of the show were pretty high, but I'm pleased to say it exceeded those high expectations. It was truly mindblowing. The level of creativity intertwined in the show. The illustration of how accessible the show is and how much the disabled child is thought of throughout the show. I'm engaged all my five senses and it really transported me to another world. When I was younger, I would have absolutely adored the show. But I have to say, even as an adult, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Go and say it. Momentum by the women circus is a fantastic art piece that I have never seen anything like before. It is full of acrobatics, circus tricks, and all done by people who identify as having a disability. The show is such a great form of representation and visibility for people with disabilities to show that we can and do create art and we can be pretty good at it for at least women. Circus a particularly good at it. I'm not sure I could say the same about myself, but it is truly amazing. So if you are driving past the art centre and you see some people sailing on the side of the art centre, that's women's circus.

Jo [00:14:18] Hi. My name is Jo Dunbar. I am a Deaf choreographer and co-director of Momentum.

Emma [00:14:27] My name's Emma J Hawkins. I am a short statured person, and I am a performer with momentum. And I'm also the finance manager of Woman*s Circus.

Peta [00:14:38] So I know this might sound like a bit of a silly question, but I never want to assume. So, Joe, I'll ask you first, do you identify yourself as having a disability?

Jo [00:14:50] Absolutely. But I'm also a proud Deaf woman member of the Deaf community, and I actually consider myself to be disabled by society rather than actually having a disability myself. So I definitely days where. I think, Oh yeah, being Deaf is disabling. Because, you know, I can't make a call quickly or I'm having to justify my existence and hold my value or something like that because I'm Deaf ahead of who I actually am, which is a. human being a creative, artistic person.

Peta [00:15:31] And Emma?

Emma [00:15:31] I do identify as one disability. As I said before, I'm a short stature person. I've just never made it to also my disability. You know, it's a physical one as well. So I have to navigate the world in a different way, as you probably appreciate. Peta. The women's circus. It was founded in 1991, and it was to support survivors of gender based violence. But since then, over the last three decades, to expand, to support people from all marginalised genders, to discover new skills, community and creativity through circus.

Peta [00:16:08] So, Jo, you are the co-director of Momentum. Can you explain what the performance is.

Jo [00:16:15] It's a group of amazing ensemble of diverse performers. Momentum, is a show that's come about really from an idea of how we are all connected. Circus/dance/ theatre you know um, / poetry almost piece. All of our ensemble members identify one way or another of being disabled. You know, whether it's mental health issues or physical. I think we really bought that to the table in the creative process. So it's a fairly unique way of making work We recognise everybody has different needs in the space, according to that.

Emma [00:16:32] I used to hide the fact that I used to get so tired because honestly, if you think about it, you know, I'm running around a lot to keep up with the average sized person. So yeah, it could be quite a good time. So it's been lovely to have time to develop and everyone's got such different needs and such different skills and things that they bring to the project and everyone's just embraced that and it's been good that you don't have to get pigeonholed into this certain way of working. So it's been a really lovely experience.

Peta [00:17:42] And I've seen photos of your colleague, Dr. Melinda Smith, hanging from the ceiling in her wheelchair. Can you tell me a little bit about that? It looks amazing.

Jo [00:17:54] You know, I think that comes from the fact that a lot of wheelchair users see the wheelchair as a part of them. So it's kind of like, well, why can't they be able to? Something I will say about this particular ensemble. Have different ensembles in the past. There's something special about it.

Peta [00:18:18] Jo, what do you hope the audience will get out of the performance? Do you think about the audience's journey through engaging with this piece?

Jo [00:18:30] I do. I hope that they come away. Maybe the. Their feelings change somehow a little bit about flexibility in life. You know, I hope that they are touched, by the honesty of the piece, I think I think was trying to pull out some really nice moments about being a human being.

Peta [00:18:54] So I hope people listening here today and thinking, Oh, this sounds really interesting. I might be the right sort of person to get involved in the women's circus. Would you recommend it and how do they go about it?

Emma [00:19:11] We run circus workshops throughout the year. You could book yourself for a second class. You can come and see our shows. You could always help the organisation by donating money if you feel so inclined. You can hire out space. You can book a workshop or birthday party. So there's lots of lovely ways that you can be part of the women circus or become a member.

Peta [00:19:35] What do you love about having a disability?

Emma [00:19:39] Being Deaf I feel I don't. I mean, there could be a certain part of who I am also. You know, I apply to observe the world in a more visable way and in a more tactile way. And I think that's really informed. My work with the choreographer and director and performer. And so it might not otherwise have done.

Peta [00:20:05] What about you, Emma?

Emma [00:20:07] I think it's made me a really great problem solver because I'm fairly independent and I, along with my parents, they help me navigate the world by myself. So yes, I would learn to problem solve pretty early on in it. When I was young, I think and also I think it gave me body confidence early in life because I think I just had to get to terms with who I am and what I look like and that I could never look like a Kardashian. That was never going to happen, right? So I learnt to love myself and who I was in my own body. So I'm thankful that that happened. Yeah, I think because I was never going to fit the mould. It kind of let me break out and just be who I needed to be.

Jo [00:20:50] As a creative person. I always want to go in and say, I'm a choreographer, I'm with director and that's who I am. And then there's this other add on bit that I'm Deaf. When I was training as a dancer, I used to work hard. To keep up. The lip reading and then follow the rhythm and follow the classes. You know. But then there was this attitude about, oh, so you can't be that good at dancing if you're Deaf right? After a while, it burnt me out. And I think with the Alter state festival being disability lead and that that there was a movement. Caroline Bowditch is really stamping in that course, speaking up. Everything needs to be disability lead If you are working with disabled people.

Emma [00:21:46] I think also Australia in general has a lot of performing arts happening. It got taken a lot longer to kind of get our little share of the pie happening. It's definitely becoming more interesting out there and hopefully you'll see us all over the place. It'll be great, like on your screen and TV. I would have loved that growing up because it just shows young people that it's possible. If you don't see yourself on stage with screen or TV, you just go, Oh, I can't do that. I guess so. But you know who might see momentum and go, Oh, this circus performance, I might be able to do that. Yeah, it just I think it just does little to switches in people's heads.

Jo [00:22:27] There was a time when I was an actor for a while and I had a role on the BBC. I was playing a deaf person and when I wanted to go for other roles, but they are hearing roles. I can't go for those roles because I'm Deaf and the part isn't written for me. Nowadays I do we are coming out. Well, I said we, but we all really are. But other people, mainstream people are. Starting to come around to well let's just write them in. You know the more visible we become the younger people who are watching or seeing or experiencing, and then to go, Oh, well, I can do that too, you know?

Peta [00:23:09] Through speaking and learning from you today. I really do feel there's even more hope and progression in this industry. So congratulations.

Jo [00:23:21] Awe thank you.

Emma [00:23:22] Thank you.

Peta [00:23:24] Thank you for listening to this week's podcast. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, can you please leave a rating and review on whatever platform you're listening on or please follow the show. It all helps more people find the podcast. So until next week. Have a good one guys bye.


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