Unlimited – UK
Looking back at the partnership between Unlimited and the British Council – a joint venture that brought disability arts to a global stage.
At the heart of the British Council’s work in disability arts is our partnership with Unlimited. Beginning in 2008 in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games and Cultural Olympiad’s, we made a commitment as partners to do for disabled artists what the Paralympics has done for disabled athletes.
The partnership between Unlimited and the British Council emerged within the context of a long history of arts-led activism in the United Kingdom (UK). The Disability Arts Movement in the late 1970s brought together disability activists, artists and creatives of all kinds who campaigned for the civil rights of disabled people and fought against their marginalisation in the arts and culture. The influence of this movement led to the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK in 1995, which banned discrimination of disabled people in connection with employment, the provision of goods, facilities and services. It was replaced in 2010 with the Equality Act.
The inspiration provided by these artists manifests itself in the opportunities afforded to disability artists in the UK today. Unlimited’s contribution to the Paralympics’ Cultural Olympiad resulted in 29 new commissions by disabled artists from across the UK and five international collaborations with artists from Brazil, China, Croatia, Germany, Japan, and South Africa.
Delivered by disability-led Shape Arts and arts-production hub Artsadmin, Unlimited has subsequently developed into the world’s largest commissioning programme for disability arts and remains a major partner for our work.
Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited and member of the defining Disability Arts Movement, reflected on Unlimited and its impact on disability arts:
“All sounds great, doesn’t it? And in the most part it is. However, what’s important is to look at why initiatives such as Unlimited exist, not just what they do.”
Unlimited exists because disabled artists experience multiple and systemic barriers to developing arts skills, gaining funding, negotiating the arts sector, and platforming their work. This is not due to a lack of talent, vision, skill or resilience. This is due to entrenched ableism within the cultural sector – and all sectors of society. It’s due to historic systems excluding rather than reimagining. Access and inclusion are not seen as a priority despite the fact that disabled people make up 15% – 25% of our global population, according to some definitions of disability. Together we aim to change perceptions of disabled people both in the UK and internationally with ground-breaking and high-quality art. Indeed, “Unlimited funds exceptional work.” It supports disability arts and enables it “to cut through the barriers – to become ‘must see’ rather than ‘should see’ and therefore change the perception of disabled artists from one of pity or discomfort to a more rounded one – we are just part of humanity. People often assume there is one type of disabled artist producing one type of work, but artists are artists, and the variety is infinite – of both artform and approach.”
Many of Unlimited commissions have gone on to tour internationally with the British Council’s support, bringing boundary-defying work to new contexts, challenging audiences world-wide, and raising the profile of disabled artists. Cultural leaders across the globe are inspired by Unlimited as a funding model that has the capacity to lead social impact.
Verrent reflects on the reach of their collaborations: “Unlimited [projects] and artists have worked [across] the Americas frequently such as [with] VIVA Carnival developed with Brazil,, Touretteshero, which toured through the USA and Canada, Raquel Meseaguer adapting work with Mexico, and Richard Butchins showing work in Argentina .”
There are many facets to our partnership. British Council Arts specialists sit on Unlimited’s commissioning panels. We provide training and advice for disabled artists regarding international work. We support a placement programme for disabled arts professionals from outside the UK to gain valuable experience working with Unlimited’s team at Shape Arts and Artsadmin. To date we have had placements from Australia, Cambodia, South Africa, Taiwan, and Uganda. In 2016, with Arts Council England Ambition for Excellence funding, we launched a second round of Unlimited International commissions, resulting in collaborations with Brazil, Palestine, Japan, Singapore, and India.
Over the last 10 years we have established an international biennial showcase, the Unlimited Festival, delivered by Southbank Centre, which reflects the growing international demand for the UK’s disability arts. At the first Unlimited Festival in 2012, we hosted 50 international delegates. By 2018, the number of international delegates had grown to 120 from 40 countries. We introduce the delegates to UK disability arts by hosting presentations and talks, networking events and providing opportunities to attend performances by leading UK artists.
Working closely with Unlimited and Unlimited commissioned artists, our disability arts programme spans 46 countries and includes tours and exhibitions, disability conferences, and symposia, disability awareness and access training, skills development for disabled artists and practitioners and consultancy to cultural organisations and governments. We have also developed tools that can be used by anyone such as our short, animated video that explains the social model of disability, and our Disability Arts International website promoting increased access to the arts for disabled artists and audiences around the globe. In 2021, we provided micro-awards to artists to collaborate remotely. A few examples of these collaborations from the Americas include Hannah Aria (England: South East) and Estela Lapponi (Brazil); Gina Biggs/SheWolf (Wales), Javier Hernando Peralta Gonzalez (Colombia), and Anthar Kharana (Colombia); Poet Ekiwah Adler-Belendez (Mexico) and multimedia artist Juan delGado (England: London) and Chris Tally Evans (Wales) to work with Fernanda Amaral (Brazil).
Our partnership places UK disabled artists and cultural leaders firmly at the centre of an international disability arts movement which is a catalyst for social change. The Unlimited/British Council partnership leaves a legacy that is far-reaching and transformational. From the establishment of the first integrated theatre and dance companies in Bangladesh and Armenia respectively, to the first Minister for Disability in Korea, the work we initiate and support has a profound impact in arts and culture. In the Americas, this legacy is taking shape in ways that amplify the work done by arts and activist groups in the cultural sector. Our programmes create spaces for cultural exchange and raising awareness, like with Cripping the Arts in Toronto (2016, 2019), Trazando Possibilidades in Guadalajara (2019) and the inclusive programme for the FIBA in Buenos Aires (2020); It supports and showcases UK and local talents, like the collaboration between Natalia Mallo and Marc Brew in Brazil, and influences and builds capacity for accessibility and inclusion through the Relaxed Performance project in Canada. All these initiatives, realized on the ground with key partners, further create an enabling environment for arts and culture for all.
Elements of this text are from an article by curator and writer Linda Rocco, originally published on the Unlimited website and as part of her associate role with Unlimited and The Art House. She interviews Tony Heaton OBE, David Hevey and Jo Verrent, members of the Disability Arts Movement, for their thoughts on the legacy of disabled people’s art and activism in the UK.
Following the first round of Unlimited during the 2012 London Cultural Olympiad, the British Council team in Brazil developed Unlimited: Arte sem Limites together with 8 UK and 20 Brazilian cultural organisations. This programme was part of Transform, a programme that aimed to connect British and Brazilian cultural organisations and artists around programmes that focused on social change.
Unlimited in Brazil was an extensive programme that aimed to increase access to culture and encourage artists with disabilities to produce work. It was a unique umbrella programme focused on disability arts with a special focus on showcasing high-quality work produced by disabled artists. The programme had four major strands of work, from access auditing and policymaking, capacity-building and training for showcasing to collaborations and co-productions. A total of 16 projects took place between 2012-2016 in Brazil and in the UK.
In its final year, Unlimited held its biggest projects and events culminating with activities within the Paralympic celebrations Rio 2016.
Amongst others, Natalia Mallo, producer and artist, was supported to develop MayBe, a dance piece co-created by the Brazilian artist Gisele Calazans and the Scottish artist Marc Brew, which subsequently toured both in Brazil and the UK. Graeae Theatre presented The Garden – a large-scale open-air performance, as part of the British Council’s Cultural Olympiad programme during the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. This was the largest project ever produced as part of Unlimited in Brazil and it was a recreation of the original piece, with Brazilian artists in the cast. Finally, in partnership with Biblioteca Parque, Rio 2016 and Rio’s Secretary of Culture, the Fórum Unlimited de acessibilidade na cultura was a 3-day forum on accessibility where Shape Arts delivered a training course for 20 people who cascaded their learnings in their institutions and networks.
With activities happening in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Recife, Edinburgh and London, Unlimited: Arte sem Limites engaged with more than 500 d/Deaf and disabled artists and allies, and a total of 89,000 audience attended Unlimited events across the four years of the programme. In the Americas region, this programme has led the way in developing a model of cultural relations focused on disability and based on nurtured international exchanges and collaborations.
British Council – Mexico
Our Arts and Disability programme has accompanied the development of a new movement in Mexico.
The pandemic arrived into everyone’s home like an uninvited friend. It settled on the couch for months and, as I write this, it’s still around. There has been a pause in several of our programmes, including Arts and Disability, our flagship project that since 2018 has been supporting British and Mexican disabled artist reach new audiences. For the past four years, the programme has witnessed the development of a growing community and movement, which we’ve supported through:
– International showcasing: giving practitioners access to international platforms/audiences, as well as works. In Mexico we launched Trazando Posibilidades, a festival held in 2019 in Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. The festival gathered several artists and welcomed delegates from across the Americas, from Argentina, Canada and the UK. In the UK, we continued to work closely with Unlimited, sending delegates from Mexico in 2018 and 2020.
– Capacity building: development of technical skills through a series of workshops.
– Research: developing resources to help the sector improve its accessibility in spaces (through A Puertas Abiertas, a manual on how to create accessible cultural spaces) and through the implementation of Relaxed Performances (Relaxed Performances, an Accessibility Protocol in Spanish).
– New art: providing ongoing support for the co-production of new work in theatre, dance, audio-visual, and new media.
As a result of these collective efforts, the British Council in Mexico has been able, in the past four years, to collaborate with more than 200 artists and 50 organizations and carry out 67 major activities reaching an audience of over 45,000 people.
The arrival of COVID-19 brought limitations to the programme but at the same time allowed us to explore new opportunities. Working with partners, we create a new space for collaboration, creation, and reflection through the Seminar From Inclusion to Interpellation: Scene, Disability and Politics, that explored the need of the arts and culture sectors to work on inclusion in new creative ways, particularly through digital means. Over the course of four months, Cultura UNAM;17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos;Take me somewhere (an advisory committee of artists with disabilities) and the British Council in Mexico brought together institutions from over 12 countries, 50 participants and 18,200 spectators to share our visions for change.
Mariana Gándara, Executive Coordinator of the Ingmar Bergman Extraordinary Chair (cinema and theatre) at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) and member of the seminar planning committee, reflects on the experience: “Months ago, at a meeting to plan the seminar, I heard for the first time the use of the term interpellation, as part of the passionate defence of accessibility made by both Benjamin Mayer and Beatriz Miranda from 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos. Both argued against the current institutional opposition to work towards inclusion. Benjamín and Beatriz, curators of the seminar, were emphatic about the political and ethical needs to use interpellation as the axis of their work. The argument was simple, but powerful: inclusion is an invitation to participate in normality; interpellation the possibility of dismantling it.”
“Normality: Who does it belong to?”, asks Gándara when assessing the impact of the seminar on her understanding of accessibility issues in the cultural sector. “What systems of oppression sustain its practices? Although institutions may be well-intentioned, these conversations have instigated a parallel form of learning, clearly showing the gap between diverse communities and the public policies that control our daily lives.” She concludes that “without asking for permission, interpellation has filtered into daily lives. Where subtitles and Mexican sign language did not previously exist, they are now essential. The advisory board, comprising disabled artists, defines and steers the seminar. It feels like a watershed moment.”
The seminar allowed to identify key new voices in the sector. COVID’s arrival has forced us to revisit standard practises, which means there’s a renewed opportunity to support wider systemic change where these diverse voices find a space.
British Council – Canada
Exploring accessibility in the Canadian theatre landscape through the implementation of the Relaxed Performances framework.
As part of Progress, the international festival of performance and ideas, the Theatre Centre in Toronto hosted a one-day event called the Republic of Inclusion in February 2015. Curated by Alex Bulmer and Sarah Garton Stanley, the event called for “a rigorous and provocative discussion about the state of inclusion in our theatre community. A conversation for theatre makers, audiences, leaders, funders, all those in the performance world, and those who are being left out.”
While several interventions were led by Canadian disabled practitioners, British theatre-maker Jess Thom, known for her project Touretteshero, was invited to speak on her confounding experience in a theatre in London. In this anecdote, she recounted specific ways in which theatres were inaccessible because of their attachment to institutional traditions. Frustrated by her continued marginalization as both an artist and audience member, she began advocating for proactive change in mainstream theatre spaces. During her monologue at Progress, she often referred to Relaxed Performance (RP) as a necessary shift in theatre. Relaxed Performance is a practice that aims to rethink theatre conventions and make performances more accessible to both artists and audiences. Thom’s presentation ignited a stimulating conversation amongst participants at the Republic of Inclusion and anchored several relationships that shaped British Council’s commitment to building capacity for cultural workers around access and inclusion in the arts.
We learned from British Council and Bodies in Translation’s 2019 report, Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility in the Canadian Theatre Landscape that “interest in curating accessible experiences is growing among many in the Canadian arts scene. The question of what this means is driving conversations about how this might be accomplished, concretely: What is an accessible arts experience? How does it look different in different segments of the arts landscape? What are the policy implications of accessibility? How does accessibility in the arts relate to larger debates about accessibility in disability studies? What is access, and what is inclusion?”
“Access is about more than simply installing a removable access ramp; it is about more than checking boxes that guarantee compliance with governmental accessibility requirements; it is about more than stating that you welcome a variety of needs in your space. The question of how to ensure that arts patrons can be themselves in arts spaces—and how to open up arts spaces to those who have never considered themselves “arts patrons”—is a critical question for our time.”
Originating in the United Kingdom in the 1990’s, Relaxed Performance (RP) aims “to open up the theatre space to welcome differences. Rather than needing to stay seated and listen silently, these performances invite attendees to move, speak, leave and return, eat, and more. Other modifications to the theatre environment are also often present in RP spaces: for instance, the house lights are often left partially on and sound levels reduced; strobing lights and flashes are reduced or removed; a “chill out space” for people to visit if they wish to take a moment out of the main theatre audience space is provided; actors come forward at the beginning or back at the end of the performance as themselves rather than their characters; and audience members are told what to expect both through the provision of a “visual story” describing the space and performance and through guidance at the beginning of the show. Ticket prices are also often reduced, to provide financial access. These measures are put in place to build a space where people can feel more at home in a theatre and go above and beyond standardized accessibility practices, such as providing accessible washrooms and ramps. In all, these practices remind those in the theatre field and prospective audiences that access is about much more than physical space modifications.”
“RP’s have begun to migrate to the Canadian theatre sector over the past five years. Originally, these performances were geared toward those with sensory differences (e.g., Autism) and were often referred to as “sensory-friendly.” They have since been imagined as providing access to anyone who may feel excluded from “typical” theatre contexts, including people with learning disabilities, Tourette’s syndrome, people bringing children to the theatre, people living with chronic conditions, people unfamiliar with the culture of contemporary theatre, and more. With the growth in interest in RP, there has been a push for more training around how to provide RP to diverse audiences.”
From 2015 to 2020, British Council developed the Relaxed Performance programme, a multi-year initiative actively advocating for access in the arts through RP research, training, and resource sharing.
The many facets of this programme were inspired by the advancement in policy changes and actions towards disability arts in the UK. British Council and its collaborators in Canada initiated the programme to support and strengthen the arts sector to become more proactive and engage in the global discussion on arts, disability, and human rights.
In October 2015, in collaboration with Harbourfront Centre, British Council invited Include Arts (UK) to Toronto to offer a pilot RP training session to 30 arts professionals. Following this pilot, British Council in partnership with Include Arts and Tangled Art + Disability (Canada) designed an RP “train the trainer” programme for 5 facilitators called Access Activators. Access Activators learned to deliver RP trainings to arts-centres and organizations. With the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council, Access Activators delivered RP trainings to 25 arts and cultural venues across eight Canadian cities between 2016 and 2018. Designed for cross-organizational appeal, the trainings includes learning for front-of-house staff through to executive and artistic directors. Approximately 200 Canadian arts and culture workers received British Council’s RP training and many of those trained have begun to deliver RPs. In February of 2020, 20 d/Deaf, disabled, and allied arts and cultural workers from across Canada attended a four-day Access Activator training programme at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, expanding the cohort of Access Activators in Canada. We are seeing a wave of engagement with RP principles and practices across the Canadian arts and culture sector through British Council’s RP trainings and the Access Activator programme.
In 2019, British Council in collaboration with Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology and Access to Life (a disability arts and culture partnership project at Re•Vision: The Centre for Art and Social Justice at the University of Guelph), released their report, Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility In The Canadian Theatre Landscape. The Relaxed Performance report summarizes the first research on Relaxed Performance in Canada and outlines findings from research on British Council’s 2016-2018 RP trainings. The report engages the experiences and impacts of RPs from the perspectives of those working on, attending, and writing about them, and offers recommendations for training, research and theory, community building, and policy. The summary booklet Report Highlights: Exploring Accessibility in the Canadian Theatre Landscape was produced in 2020 to highlight findings from the 2019 report.
Moving into 2020 and at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, British Council, Tangled Art + Disability, Bodies in Translation, and Canada Council for the Arts, came together to create the Access Activator videos series: 3 short, informational videos that engage arts practitioners from the UK and Canada to explore the principles and practices of RP, its relationship to digital media, and the effects of RP in a broader social context. Each video is available in multiple formats and languages for increased access.
In an effort to extend the reach of RP trainings, the British Council and Bodies in Translation partnered with three universities in Ontario in 2019-2020 to launch the RP Curriculum Pilot. This pilot introduced RP training modules into existing university curriculum in theatre, fashion, and music (choir). Up to 240 students at Ryerson University, York University, and University of Guelph learned to incorporate RP principles into their mid-term and final projects, which were open to the public.
To draw from a more specific example, in a fashion course through the Faculty of Communication & Design at Ryerson University, undergraduate students designed and produced an accessible fashion show called Beauty to be Recognized. Grounded in the principles of RP, crip theory, and disability justice, the show underscored the students’ mission to challenge stereotypes about disability and express disability as desirable in both fashion and the world. During the planning and development phases, students learned from experts not only about incorporating RP frameworks into a fashion show, but also how to apply critical disability and crip theory. Through the learning and execution of the show, the students transformed traditional conventions of fashion and created an experience that honoured the embodied differences of all involved.
During the course of the RP Curriculum Pilot, British Council and Bodies in Translation conducted further research and produced the 2021 report, Relaxed Performance: Exploring University-based Training Across Fashion, Theatre and Choir, which chronicles findings from the pilot. The 2021 curriculum report has also spurred the Relaxed Performance Pedagogical Tool (scheduled for release in 2021). The RP Pedagogical Tool is an easy-step-guide that outlines the vital practice of RP implementation in higher education classrooms. The tool pulls highlights from the pilot findings and recommendations, and includes tools around teaching, praxis, and policy that are grounded within a disability justice framework.
The Relaxed Performance programme presents a landscape of RP in Canada, one that is rapidly growing and transforming. As a starting point for broader and more nuanced conversations around access and inclusion in the arts, RP remains a vital practice which recognizes the value of context and welcomes evolution.
The overall success of the RP programme in Canada has motivated the development of RP programmes throughout the Americas: programmes in Argentina, Chile, and Mexico bring more cultural specificities to this rich model and drive accessibility in the arts and culture into action on an international scale.
Relaxed Performance: Exploring Accessibility In The Canadian Theatre Landscape by Andrea LaMarre, Carla Rice, and Kayla Besse summarizes the first research on Relaxed Performance in Canada. Commissioned by British Council in collaboration with Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology, and Access to Life , a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Grant at the University of Guelph, Relaxed Performance presents findings from research on RP training across Canada.