Reflections on allyship at Arts House
Written by Jonathan Craig
In celebration of launching our Disability Inclusion Action Plan 2023-2028, we have commissioned writer, policy advisor and Access Advisory member Jonathan Craig to share his insight into performances and work-in-progress showings at Arts House over the last year – Running Machine as part of BLEED, More Than Words Can Say and I Am (Not) This Body as part of The Warehouse Residency.
The evening air, cooled by recent rain, feels charged with anticipation as the audience walks the street. At the head of our procession, volunteers hold aloft the frame of a wheelchair. The royal we carry is a mannequin, crowned by a GoPro. We speak in hushed tones, some of us almost reverent, others giggling nervously. From a tinny speaker somewhere in the crowd, the Blue Danube Waltz plays us on.
Japanese performance artist Kazuhiko Hiwa glides in and out of our group, like Loki on a skateboard. Well known for using his wheelchairs as props, he’s clearly the mastermind behind this ceremony, and he knows what he wants to see. Gesturing in my direction, he ushers me forward. I get a firm grip on one of the bars, and my wife pushes me onward, my wheels rattling over the heritage cobblestones.
What is the meaning of this tableau? Who is meant to be sublime, and who ridiculous? The equation is left unresolved as we file through the accessible entrance, into the foyer of Arts House.
Centuries on, questions remain about Hamlet’s motives and how to understand his actions. But Richard III, embittered by his disfigurement, plainly told us he was evil. Whether we’re good, bad, wise, tragic, or inspiring, too often, we have been puppet ambassadors of flat, moralistic messages aimed at the able community.
This strange and surprising prologue to tonight’s performance will remain in our minds long afterwards, refusing to be clarified or simplified. This is what happens when we’re allowed to tell our own stories.
The snap of scissors punctuates the static of intrusive thought. She cuts away at clothes far too big for her, methodically at first, then with increasing desperation. The blades come closer and closer to her skin, threatening to draw blood. The cacophony swells, relentless, merciless. From behind the fourth wall, we watch, transfixed and fearful.
Even this brief rehearsal, a glimpse into a larger work, leaves me jangled, super aware, like waking from a nightmare. The feelings Leisa Prowd is interpreting are all too familiar. Like her, I live in a body the world tells me is wrong. Like her, there have been times when I would have done anything to stop that noise.
But as the lights come up, and we collectively let out our breath, I start to suspect I’m not the only one who felt confronted. It’s easy to imagine that it’s impossible to translate our feelings. But to accept that is a kind of surrender. If we pretend you could never understand, we don’t have to talk, and you don’t have to listen. Harder, braver, to think the way Prowd does, to believe in the power of art to create empathy.
This is the first time I’ve sat in the space which gave its name to the Warehouse Residency. I’ve been in conversation for months with Arts House staff and other advisors, considering the practical barriers disabled artists face, exploring what it would take to create a unique platform where we can feel safe, supported, and inspired. But passionately as I’ve pursued the idea, endless lockdowns and disruptions have made the reality feel distant and out of reach, a thought experiment for a perfect world.
Here and now, I finally start to believe it’s really happening. And I recognise the persistence and patience of the staff who’ve helped us deliver these ideas. This is real listening. This is what allyship can be. And its proof that, tempting as it can be to give up, it’s worth it to keep talking, to keep hoping.
There’s a good crowd in the foyer. Usually, I’d have to raise my voice over the eager pre-show chatter. Tonight though, it’s nearly silent. Occasionally, I’ll hear a loud chuckle, answering a bawdy joke.
More Than Words Can Say is the work of Sam Martin and Catherine Dunn, recipients of one of the 1st Warehouse residencies. It’s a small story about a party at a share house, and a girl who’s still finding her feet in a new world. It’s a reflection on the richness of Deaf culture, and the way Auslan, rather than a straight translation of English speech, has become a deep and complex language. Most importantly, it’s hilarious.
I don’t know most of this yet. I have no idea what I’m about to see. But I’m proud of the small part I’ve played welcoming a new audience into Arts House. It’s thrilling to be a minority in a different way.
It’s tempting to see this is an ending. It’s the culmination of a project we all spent a lot of time working towards. And The Warehouse Residency will be the capstone on five years of work within Arts House, much of which preceded my involvement.
Instead, my head is full of possibilities. If we could achieve what we have in such complex times, what else can we do? How can we build on these foundations? What if, rather than an ending, this were the beginning of something even more ambitious?
I set these thoughts aside for another time. Somehow, I’m certain they’ll get their moment. But what little talk there is in here has died away, and everyone is suddenly still. Usually, that means the lights have just gone out. I settle in to enjoy the show.
Jonathan Craig is a writer, policy advisor, audio producer and accessibility consultant. From 2018 to 2021 he was Editor of the quarterly magazine from Blind Citizens Australia, where he was credited with transforming the publication. He has also been a member of the Program Advisory Committee for Emerging Writers Festival, and has been a consultant on several Arts House projects, including co-devising The Warehouse Residency program for Deaf and Disabled artists. A lifelong science fiction fan, he’s interested in exploring the consequences of post-humanism and the future of disability.
Banner image: Running Machine by Yuiko Masukawa, Sam Mcgilp, Harrison Hall, Makoto Uemura & Kazuhiko Hiwa, Commissioned by Arts House for BLEED 2022, Photo credit: Tiffany Garvie
Image description: A group of people work together to build a tall structure from cardboard boxes. On the left, performer Kazuhiko Hiwa sits on the floor and works on the bottom of the structure. In the middle, consultant Jonathan Craig, adds a box to the middle of the structure whilst using a wheelchair and wearing headphones. Behind them, audio describer Rachel Edwards holds the handles at the back of Jonathan’s wheelchair and leans in toward the structure. On the right, someone stands, reaching above their head to place the highest box.
Gallery image 1: Same as banner image
Gallery image 2: I Am (Not) This Body by Leisa Prowd, Commissioned by Arts House through The Warehouse Residency and Co-Presented by Melbourne Fringe 2023, Image credit: Tom Noble
Image description: Leisa, a white woman of short stature stands in a beige leotard with her hand on her hip and her knee turned out. She looks out toward the audience with a strong gaze. To her left is a nude white sculpture with legs slightly bent and hands resting at the hip. A white cloth has fallen on the floor resting between their feet. Beyond them are more white sculptures and unknown objects hidden by white cloths tied in rope.
Gallery image 3: More Than Words Can Say by Sam Martin and Catherine Dunn, Commissioned by Arts House through The Warehouse Residency 2022, Photo credit: Jacinta Oaten
Image description: Five people sit at a long dining room table, a feeling of warmth and friendship between them. The person in the middle of the group has their arms outstretched touching the shoulders of the smiling people sitting either side of them. On the outer right, a woman sits and signs in Auslan. On the outer left, a smiling woman sits cupping her face in her hand.