Alejandrina D’Elia – Argentina, Chile & Peru
Alejandrina D’Elia explores past and present accessibility initiatives by various theatres, projects and cultural centres located in Argentina, Chile, and Peru.
Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) describes the rights of disabled people to participate in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport. Signatories such as Argentina, Chile and Peru have assembled government agencies and ministries to protect these rights. However, disabled people continue to face the most discrimination within society, a problem exacerbated when combined with other factors such as gender, race, ethnic background, geographical location and income level. Private-sector and civil-society actors are therefore advocating for disability issues to be placed on the public agenda, and for action to be taken.
The following initiatives in these three South American countries are leading the way both domestically and in the wider region, thanks to the high quality of their productions created with the participation of disabled people, and supported by the British Council as a partner.
Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM), located in a historic building in central Santiago, is a cultural centre with 10 rooms for theatre, dance, circus performances, classical and popular music, folk art and conferences. Since 2013, GAM has provided a venue for training courses and participative activities, residencies and the design of accessible content for people with different disabilities. In 2018, the centre began offering “relaxed performances” to give people with cognitive disabilities access to the performing arts through technically and spatially adapted plays. The general public as well as those with physical, learning, communication disabilities, as well as those on the autism spectrum, can participate and take training courses.
Fundación Corpgroup Centro Cultural, situated in central Santiago, is equipped with exhibition spaces, an auditorium, a sculpture garden, and offers a cultural programme (music, theatre, dance, visual arts and film) for adults and children. It hosts local and international events on its premises and around the country. In 2019 it staged a participative production of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney: To See and Not See in a multisensory performance accessible for people with visual disabilities. The Compañía de Teatro de Ciegos LUNA [Blind Theatre Company LUNA] trained the cast, gave advice on the staging, produced all of the accessible devices, and in addition to interpreting the voice-overs in the montage. The Orquesta Nacional de Ciegos de Chile [National Orchestra of the Blind of Chile] performed the original score, and an integrated disabled and non-disabled crew worked on various aspects including the play’s production and audio-description design, Braille texts and QR codes. This experience paved the way for other initiatives for groups with different disabilities.
Teatro La Plaza, located in Lima, was set up in 2003 to stage public performances of challenging plays. In 2019 it produced the first free version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet performed by a cast with Down Syndrome. Theatre director Chela Ferrari wrote and directed the play as a collaborative process that took several months and helped break down prejudices; this was Ferrari’s first experience of working with disabled people. The project led to explorations of other techniques such as the Rationale Method.
Mundana is a dance company established in 2017 by dancer and acrobat Inés Coronado who, after developing a disability in one of her legs, embarked on an artistic project that questions the limits of the body while aiming to develop an inclusive society.
Kinesfera is a contemporary dance company whose dancers have a physical disability.
Both companies have participated in local and international festivals; they are also activists and form part of the Latin American dance and inclusion network.
Teatro Nacional Cervantes is attached to Argentina’s Ministry of Culture (Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación), and was inaugurated in Buenos Aires in 1921. It is the first public theatre to offer accessible performances as part of its programme. In 2018, the theatre’s audience development department designed a new programme for disabled people, in conjunction with the accessibility team of the Argentinean government’s Office for Cultural Innovation (Dirección Nacional de Innovación Cultural). The group proposed a physical, sensory and intellectual approach based on three pillars: strategic planning, strengthened technical and human resources, and communication. They designed accessible resources for various groups of disabled people using the social model of disability; specialists from the United Kingdom such as Kirsty Hoyle from Include Arts provided support. In 2018, the play The Extraordinary Life by Argentinean director Mariano Tenconi Blanco, a pilot production, incorporated accessible resources such as audio description, a hearing loop, and sign-language interpretation. Leading civil society organizations working in accessibility helped perform checks every step of the way. In 2019, all of the additional plays included in the programming incorporated accessible performances on a permanent basis. Other additions included theatre programmes using QR codes with and without embossed dots, drinking bowls for guide dogs, tactile visits, pictograms on the webpage, and invitations in Argentinean Sign Language (LSA) with subtitles and audio. The whole process was documented, including interviews with members of the audience exiting the theatre: 61% of those with a hearing disability and 35% of those with a visual impairment answered in the affirmative when asked whether this was the first time they had seen a play at a theatre. These figures still apply in most cultural spaces, laying down a challenge for public policies and cultural promoters when designing cultural projects.
Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires (FIBA) is a well-established cultural event in the region for both local and international visitors. The event brings together a network of independent and official theatres in the city of Buenos Aires. In the summer of 2020, the programme had four themes: gender and diversity, environment, integration, and technology. It marked the first time that integration and cultural accessibility were a core part of the Festival. The British Council designed the strategy, together with the participation of Scottish dancer and choreographer, Claire Cunningham.
An assessment was made of theatres’ accessibility and a circuit was designed with a selection of venues, including accessible resources such as hearing loops in the theatres, sign language interpretation, tactile visits, and audio description. Communication was a vital aspect of the work on printed and online materials. The festival team from the producers to the director received training in cultural accessibility. The British Council inaugurated a videotheque with interviews, including one with Claire Cunningham, in order to generate reference materials. This was the first time that such a festival catered to disabled audiences, setting a benchmark for future editions of the event, and creating a momentum for future programmes on the independent circuit.
Some proposals have been implemented and now form an inherent part of the institutions’ programming. Others continue to be one-off initiatives that are important but hard to keep going. It is essential to have accessible resources for productions and to prepare audiences that have been historically excluded from cultural events. Our countries need to address the issues of disability and art in two ways: from the perspective of audiences, offering accessible resources for the disabled to enjoy cultural programmes and from the standpoint of creators, offering training, grants and production subsidies. Public policies must be permanent and sustainable.
• Raising awareness about the issue in the public and private sector, and among civil society.
• Reminding those in charge of public policies of their duty to protect disability rights and mobilise resources in order to create accessible cultural content.
• Decentralising activities by promoting knowledge transfer to other theatres/bodies around the country and the region.
• Working with disabled people and with interdisciplinary teams on project design, production and implementation.
• Creating a record of information and best practices; sharing local and regional experiences.
• Identifying and locating disabled artists across the country.
• Promoting and continuing training courses for local and foreign specialists.