TAITMAIL Disabled performers, out of the margins and Unlimited

The Unlimited Festival is back at the Southbank on September 7, its first proper outing for four years. “It’s like a celebration” says Nickie Miles-Wildin. “It’s great to be able to feel part of the arts community again.” 

There is also news this week from the Royal Ballet which is to stage a performance of a piece in the forthcoming Greenwich and Docklands Festival specially written for Joe Powell-Main, a 24-year-old Royal Ballet trained dancer who, following a road accident and defying prognosis, performs using a wheelchair and crutches and describes himself as “differently abled”.
The Unlimited Festival is a biennial five day showcase of the performance work of disabled artists - including disabled, deaf, neurodivergent, those with mental health conditions or experiencing chronic illness and more - organised by the Southbank in partnership with the commissioning agent Unlimited (which earlier this year became fully independent). It’s been going since 2012, but when it had to be cancelled in 2020 there were fears it would never happen again, until a late virtual manifestation was put on in January 2021.
But although it’s back with a bewildering array of events crammed into its five days, the disabled arts, warns Unlimited’s director Jo Verrent, are on a knife-edge beset by old and new perils.
Unlimited is what it says it is, an opportunity for disabled artists to throw off the inhibition that shadows many disabled people and be creative in front of an audience. Often the offerings are oblique but at the same time incisive explorations of current issues, and this year’s programme has a socially distanced cabaret, Touretteshero’s Masked Ball created by the comedian Jess Thom who has Tourette’s syndrome and makes a comic feature of protective facemasks; Ray Young’s performance installation Bodies exploring our physical relationship with water; Heart n Soul from Deptford’s Albany which works with those with learning disabilities, with its Do Your Own Thing Daytime Disco; the Belfast-based Japanese artist Shiro Masuyama bringing his piece Brexit Sausages about the perversities of evolving trade practices. 
Miles-Wildin is the co-director of Mind the Gap’s Unlimited commission Leave the Light on For Me (pictured here by Tom Woollard) which confronts responses to climate change. Mind the Gap, founded in 1988 and based in Bradford, has evolved so that now it works with individual performers with learning difficulties and eases them into ensembles to create productions. Leave the Light on For Me was created by Miles-Wildin and Mind the Gap artistic director Joyce Lee with the cast of five who each had their input. The story concerns two sisters who try hard to comply with the rules of recycling but are confused by contradictory regulations and are consequently punished by the Planet Police. The point about the dark comedy, she says, is that disabled people feel that they are too often left out of the conversation, and she acknowledges that many non-disabled people feel the same way in the climate change debate. But it’s this group, not a conventional drama company, that is articulating it: “It’s about people wanting to be in control of our carbon footprint but actually being manipulated by big business” she says. The two performances will take place in the open, which signifies an ongoing challenge for disabled performers. 
No-one seems to know how many disabled performers there are, it is such a fluid group dependent on health support, grants, community structures and organisations such as Unlimited and Mind the Gap.
“The whole cultural sector is trying to behave ‘as normal’ while things are far from whatever normal was” says Jo Verrent. “Touring is proving hard with both covid and the cost of living impacting on audiences, and most of the English cultural sector holding its collective breath to see what the results of the ACE NPO funding round bring. Will it be ‘same old same old’ or will the oft promised commitment to the cultural strategy ‘Let’s Create’ result in a shake-up not just of names and investment but also in the way we all do business?”
While the rest of us are content to accept what the government and media tell us, that the covid crisis is over, disabled artists are still vulnerable and the reluctance of many venues to re-impose covid measures, mask wearing and social distancing is an issue. At the Southbank Centre, however, covid restrictions will still be in place to protect vulnerable artists and audience members, one reason why Leave the Light on For Me will be performed outdoors. Despite still being vulnerable, Verrent says, “artists feel that they have no choice but to return to work/touring, but then become covid+ and have to self-fund through sick leave and run the increased risk of long covid. They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t”.
With most of them unable to earn more than the living wage the cost of living crisis will hit then hard, many having to revert to care homes due to cuts in community care and because they will not be able to afford to live independently any longer.
Julia Skelton has been executive director of Mind the Gap for 25 years and so has seen much of the development of disabled artistic performance. The big lurch forward came with the Cultural Olympiad in 2012 when disabled performers were given centre stage at the opening and closing ceremonies - Nickie Miles-Wildin performed in her wheelchair - and it was the catalyst for the Southbank Unlimited Festival. The Arts Council, she says, has been unfailingly supportive as far as it has been able to be, and her company has grown and developed, surviving the last three years thanks to the Cultural Rescue Fund, ACE’s emergency funding and the furlough scheme without which it would have gone under. Despite the new prominence of digital access, touring is vital for these performers, but accommodation is harder to find now and the cost of simply feeding a touring ensemble is already becoming prohibitive. 
“Funding is always short-term, project-based, under-funded and dependent on the benefits system working” Skelton says. “We need a new future-based strategy that is focussed long-term, a more flexible way that is not just week by week as it is now.
“For the performers there is an increased sense of risk which affects their confidence if they want to pursue a career. It’s become like stepping off a precipice just to accept a job contract.”
Nevertheless, the Unlimited Festival is here again to provide the international showcase for disabled performers, giving rare opportunities for collaboration and valuable note-swapping. 
Despite the size of the challenges, there is a future for this still marginalised but increasingly popular kind of entertainment. Mind the Gap is to be an integral part of Bradford’s year as City of Culture in 2025 with a big new commission coming, and the newly independent Unlimited continues to commission and has plans. It is currently advertising for a new £500,000 awards scheme for disabled artists and a shortlist will be announced in December with awards in March. 
“We’re so happy to be here” says Miles-Wildin. “The Unlimited Festival is so important giving us a platform in the mainstream with general audiences that are engaging with us. 
“We’re here and we’re together.”
The Unlimited Festival is at the Southbank Centre 7 - 11 September.


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