Jake Bartle reports on how Coventry UK City of Culture 2021 is shining a spotlight on disabled artists.
As they put the finishing touches to their immersive extravaganza, Pirates of the Canal Basin (premiering in Coventry in Spring 2022), Coventry-based Ego Performance Company are already planning their next step. Supported with funding from Coventry City of Culture Trust they have ambitions to tour and create a talent agency.
80% of the Ego participants who are in the cast of Pirates of the Canal Basin have physical disabilities, are neuro-diverse, have learning difficulties or a mental illness. Their plans are bordering on radical.
“We are waiting for the world to catch up with us, not the other way round”, says Co-Artistic Director and Co-Founder Georgina Egan.
Working within the mainstream
Ego are collaborating with circus troupe No Fit State for their Coventry UK City of Culture showcase. Georgina is quick to point out this is not a one-way process. The take-home for the acrobats is as great as it is for the Ego crew. The professional company is learning how to work alongside a diverse group of performers.
“We don’t want to be pushed into the margins”, Egan explains. “We want to work with mainstream companies, be seen within the mainstream. There is lots we can pass on about working with artists with disabilities.”
“I learn something all the time about how I need to change my practice. About questioning yourself within your own limitations. The way I have been taught is not always the way it works.”
The norm not the exception
The community members who are part of Ego want to champion the work of disabled performers and artists and create more opportunities for them to shine. They also want artists, directors and creatives from other cities to visit, and experience the innovation that is happening in Coventry.
“This can’t just be about what is happening here, we need to make sure what we are learning about working with disabled artists is driven out across the country to as many cities as possible” says Egan. “We want to have a future where our diverse artists can work comfortably anywhere. What we are practising here should be the norm not the exception.”
Exploring new ways of working and making events inclusive is integral to Coventry UK City of Culture Trust. Our Disability Inclusion Manager supports everyone in the organisation, from our producers to marketing team, recruitment colleagues and trustees.
Leveraging the response of the community
Coventry City of Culture Trust, together with some of our partner organisations, including Grapevine, Positive Youth Foundation, Coventry Extended Learning Centre and Coventry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre have come together to support those considered vulnerable and those most impacted by Covid-19, including people with disabilities, to challenge the idea of getting back to ‘normal’.
One project, Reform the Norm, intends to reach out to those who have been most impacted by the pandemic. A Crash Course in Cloudspotting, led by artist Raquel Meseguer Zafe, who lives with chronic pain, will be exploring the ‘practice’ of public rest for those who need to navigate the world differently.
To create her piece, which will be presented in Coventry in October, Raquel has been collecting stories from Coventry residents who also live with chronic pain, have an invisible disability or are neuro-diverse. The work will invite audiences to think about the way our cities are designed for movement, rather than rest, and the way we view one another’s behavior in public.
Throughout recorded history, moments of social disruption, such as pandemics, have often been a catalyst for social and economic change. We can perhaps only guess the extent to which Covid will restyle the way we live and view our society. However, Coventry City of Culture is certainly perfectly timed to highlight the way the arts can push for change as we emerge from a sequence of crises and lockdowns into an unclear world.
From this autumn, Reform The Norm artists and participants will playfully, and intentionally, disrupt live and digital spaces, in order to be seen. Shifting power to the people and calling audiences to action.
Its purpose? To move towards a society that is better for all, not just some.
Jake Bartle is a Delegate Manager at Coventry City of Culture 2021
This article, sponsored and contributed by Coventry City of Culture 2021, is part of a series inviting professionals from across the arts and the creative industries to experience the cultural programme as Delegates.