Nick Wesson explains how working with a disabled-led theatre company helped ARC Stockton achieve long-term sustainable change.

Photo of two actors, one sitting on a swing

In 2015 ARC Stockton, the multi-artform venue in Stockton-On-Tees, strengthened its partnership with Little Cog, a disabled-led theatre company, by creating a highly ambitious three-year programme called Cultural Shift. Together we aimed to challenge commonly held perceptions of disabled people, improve and increase opportunities for disabled people in the arts at every level, ensure the voices of disabled people are heard and embed equality practice in an arts venue.

Our programme began to show work which helped profile the quality and breadth of work being made by disabled artists

Backed by a £250,000 grant from the Spirit of 2012 Trust, Cultural Shift has delivered a range of work across a number of artistic and strategic strands. While Annabel Turpin, Chief Executive of ARC, and Vici Wreford-Sinnott, Artistic Director of Little Cog, acknowledge that the programme has been fortunate enough to be well funded, the original partnership started small in 2013 and grew organically, setting modest milestones of ambition around disability equality.

Annabel points out: “Funding helped us to accelerate our initial ambitions, but I don’t believe you need large pots of funding to begin to make change happen.”

A positive partnership

We have a strong reputation for our work supporting and developing artists. Annabel shares her thoughts on why the beginnings of the partnership were so positive: “I believe it grew out of our willingness to open our doors to artists. Vici approached us in 2013 as a locally based artist looking for support for her own work. It became obvious that she had huge experience to offer in terms of supporting us to better consider disability in the context of our work, and the partnership started there.”

Vici agrees and notes: “With the artistic heart of our partnership and subsequent Cultural Shift programme, I believe that it’s the art that matters most. The voices, the stories, the quality and innovation all go together to give a more complete picture culturally. The picture is incomplete if disabled people are invisible, if stories are missing or if disabled people are misrepresented. ARC took time to get to know Little Cog through our work, supported us and we them.”

Disabled-led practice

As an experienced equality strategist and professional disabled playwright and theatre director, Vici was appointed as Creative Lead for the project. This was a senior management team role, which gave her access to decision-makers and policy development. Her expertise helped to ensure that our work in this area was always disabled-led and was informed by a disabled-led ethos and practice. Cultural Shift brought new audiences to ARC and new innovative work to its audiences, resulting in an enrichment of everyone’s cultural experience.

Vici also had an artistic role and was commissioned to create three new professional pieces of work for each year of the project, so that the voices of other disabled people were included. This work has added to the ongoing conversation across the organisation, and with its audiences, about disability.

From their combined experience, Vici and Annabel knew that it wasn’t enough to have one short-term, single-strand project to understand and achieve improvements in equality. Vici explains: “Because we wanted to challenge the inequalities experienced by disabled people at all levels in the arts, on a parallel with wider society, we had to plan carefully and factor in a number of considerations such as cultural acknowledgement, communication, identity, access and outreach.”

The strategy covered creative practice, programming and participation, organisational development and dissemination of learning. Each strand was interdependent on the other strands to ensure the success of the overall programme.

One of the first things to be undertaken was to develop an artistic policy for disabled-led work that sat within our overall artistic policy. This was an important statement of intent and ensured all programming decisions were meaningful and not just token examples. Our programme began to show work which helped profile the quality and breadth of work being made by disabled artists. Other artists benefitted from our residencies, and their work has begun to populate the programme, ensuring we maintain a strong relationship with all the work we present.

Long-term changes

Long-term sustainable change has been achieved in many ways – artistic policy and programming, how disabled artists and audiences are reached, a more accessible building and the confidence of the whole organisation to support and engage with disability in its broadest context. There is also now a pool of disabled artists who are professionally supported to make new work, and a warm welcome for disabled audiences and participants who are included in the dialogue around disability. Disability equality has – and will continue to be – considered in all our policies and practices.

Cultural Shift is now set to become a strategic and artistic platform in its own right. Full Circle, a company of learning-disabled actors who have made three productions during the project, are to be supported towards independence by Arts Council England with the development of a performing arts academy for learning disabled people.

Arctic Piranha Club Nights continue as a popular fixture in the social scene and all our staff are fully trained in disability equality, and front-of-house staff have BSL and Touch Tour training.

The legacy of Cultural Shift’s accomplishment will see the programme continue to develop and pioneer new initiatives, with a commitment to sharing our learning with the arts and culture sector.

Nick Wesson is Marketing and Press Officer at ARC Stockton.

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