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Centre Gabriela Mistral – Chile

Art as a vehicle for social transformation

As one of the largest cultural centres in Chile, GAM is influencing public policy by making artistic initiatives its vehicle.

A child in a red hoodie smiles at a puppet on the right side of the image. The puppet is facing the child and wearing a small pink knitted hat. The hands of the puppeteer are just visible behind the puppet, disappearing out of the right side of the image.

Relaxed Performance of “Pescador”, GAM, Chile. Photo by Jorge Sánchez.

With Incluye, we seek to contribute towards inclusion of all people with disabilities and highlight artistic initiatives that serve as vehicles for social transformation.”

Located in Santiago, Centro Gabriela Mistral (GAM) opened in 2010 as a cultural centre with numerous spaces for theatre, dance, circus performances, classical and popular music, crafts, and visual arts quickly establishing itself as one of Chile’s major arts venues.

Due to its importance on the cultural landscape of the capital, GAM has always led in terms of accessibility and inclusive programming. In 2013, it began organising a variety of training courses and seminars for artists and cultural agents to develop new ways of working with a broader spectrum of creators and audiences in mind. One of those initiatives, the Incluye Seminar, is an annual week-long programme of workshops, masterclasses, relaxed performances, films, and lectures on inclusive arts. 

The Incluye Seminar began as a response to making the cultural centre more inclusive to audiences that were visiting the space, but had a limited interaction with it due to a disability. It began by creating guided tours of the space for blind and visually-impaired visitors, led by blind and vision-impaired guides, called HAPTO. 

GAM Executive Director Felipe Mella underlines the importance of this initiative, “With Incluye, we seek to contribute towards inclusion of all people with disabilities and highlight artistic initiatives that serve as vehicles for social transformation.” 

Thanks to a long- standing collaboration with the British Council, Pamela López, Head of Programming and Audiences at GAM, took part in various editions of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Made in Scotland Programme and Unlimited Festival where she saw inclusive arts at its best. 

In 2018 she brought UK actor and comedian Jess Thom to Chile as part of Incluye’s programme. Her book, “Welcome to Biscuit Land,” her play “Backstage in Biscuit Land,” and her documentary “Me, My Mouth and I” explore her lived experience with Tourette Syndrome. By including all of this work in Incluye’s programme, López emphasizes that “it was a rare opportunity to see inclusive arts as a whole.”

GAM’s commitment to inclusive arts has had many highpoints over the years. The documentary “Lección de música” (The Music Lesson) shared the story of a young autistic woman who learned to conduct a music ensemble using sign language. After the film premiered at GAM, there was a live concert by the ensemble and its conductor. The play “Punto ciego” (Blind Spot) about a witch hunt in the island of Chiloe (south of Chile) in the 1880s, pioneered audio description throughout the performance without using earphones, and the HAPTO project has blind guides lead groups of blindfolded visitors through the permanent collection of the cultural centre, providing a different experience of the heritage art pieces in the collection and of the building itself.

In 2018, GAM introduced relaxed performances to its yearly programme base. By adapting artistic work to better suit the needs of adults and children with learning difficulties, autism, or sensory communication disorders GAM created a more friendly environment at the theatre for these patrons

López stipulates that these programmes do not yet reflect the full breadth of commitment GAM has for inclusive arts.  “Our vision is still 180 degrees in scope. For it to be 360 degrees, we need to make every production and commission in an accessible format. We must incorporate artists with disabilities in every single process, aspect and phase, and generate radical actions to influence public policy in this area.”

A crowd of people stand outside a tall building at night. They are dressed entirely in black, and are grinning and shaking their open hands over their heads. One woman with lowered arms stands in front of the others, backlit slightly from a distant lamppost.

Seminar “Incluye”. ©GAM

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Alejandrina D’Elia – Argentina, Chile & Peru

Ecologies of accessibility

Alejandrina D’Elia explores past and present accessibility initiatives by various theatres, projects and cultural centres located in Argentina, Chile, and Peru.  

A still image from Hamlet. Two performers lay tenderly facing each other in the middle of a blue-and-purple lit black stage. They are both wearing white t-shirts and dark pants, with each performer resting one hand intimately on the other’s waist. At the back of the stage is a large screen showing a close up of the performers from above. Their eyes are closed with their noses pressed together and their lips about to touch.

Hamlet, Teatro La Plaza. Courtesy of Teatro La Plaza.

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.

 

Chile

 

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.

A photo of four dancers seated in a huddle on the floor of a bare studio with a wooden floor. They rest their heads and arms on each other, with eyes closed and bodies entwined. A wheelchair sits empty behind them.

Rehearsal from Mundana, Peru.

Photo by Lucía Alfaro

Peru

 

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.

Interview with Alejandrina D’Elia on cultural accessibility. This interview was done during the International Festival of Buenos Aires in 2020 which included the participation of British choreographer Claire Cunningham. 

 

Argentina

 

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.

 

Opportunities for Policy Change

 

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.

This requires:

• 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.

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