FEATURE: Cultural Shift @ Arc, Stockton | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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A couple of months ago, Stockton’s ARC was one of only four organisations to gain a massive £250,000 grant from the Spirit of Achievement Challenge Fund to help increase disabled people’s participation in arts and cultural activities. The result is Cultural Shift, a comprehensive three year dynamic programme that aims to involve disabled people every step of the way. Working with disability-led organisation Little Cog, the organisation are hoping to help instil a real change in thought surrounding disability in the arts, which will hopefully see greater access for those with physical and mental disabilities into the field.

With the programme currently being finalised and plans for Cultural Shift well underway, I talked to the ARC’s Chief Executive Annabel Turpin about how the funding will help to provide access to theatre for disabled people, the arts centre’s plans for the funding and more.

In what ways has ARC been committed to including disabled people prior to now, and how significant is this recent grant in helping to improve upon that commitment?

ARC has worked with a range of disabled-led groups as well as individual artists, including Full Circle, a performance group of adults with learning disabilities based at ARC, TIN Arts, Hartlepool Special Needs Group and artists including Pauline Heath and Alison Carr. We have also begun to make some of our work more accessible, by including BSL interpreted performances and English subtitled films.

Although we have made positive steps towards making ARC a fully inclusive and immersive venue, there is still much more to do. The Spirit of 2012 grant will enable longer term sustainable delivery which will embed the practices of the project, not only into ARC’s offer but also share and disseminate that more widely with other mainstream partner’s, making ARC a hub for disabled people and driving a positive shift in the community’s attitude to disability.

How did you arrive at what projects would be best to spend this grant money on? Whom did you consult with and why?

Our initial consultations have been with Little Cog, Full Circle, TIN Arts, STEPS at Stockton Borough Council, Creative Case NORTH members, our cultural partners across various North East and national networks, and our own disabled participants on a number of our community learning activities. All of these discussions have been disabled-led, and focussed and informed how the programme has been designed.

The varied networks and members of those organisations above have also informed the programme of activity. Little Cog and STEPS have connections with over 800 disabled people and their families/supporters across the Tees Valley and North East of England, including beneficiaries of adult services, mental health services, disabled artists, disabled members of disability social and community groups run by MENCAP, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, such as Independent Voices and the Grenfell Club, Stockton Borough Council and Middlesbrough Council.

Disabled people will continue to inform the development of the project as it progresses through our Champions Panel and our evaluation process.

Legislation has a huge impact on prejudice surrounding disability. What particular pieces of legislation would you like to see improved / created to help disabled people – with regards to their participation with ARC, and also theatre and art in general?

We support any legislation which challenges the discrimination of disabled people in all areas of life. Our project is an artistic project championing the cultural equality of disabled people – and therefore the status of disabled people in our culture – the right to participate, create, manage and lead artistic and cultural activity. We are developing a model of practice to inform the practice of others and potentially influence policy development in the longer term. We are focussing on shifts in cultural practice to ensure that disabled people are leading, involved in, and included in all ways, at all levels.

It is great to see an investment in night-time activities, as this is often a time of day where support is more limited for people with certain disabilities. Can you give further details on the night-club events and the connections you are formulating with local clubs?

In Year One of the Cultural Shift project we are working on two disabled-led pilot club-nights at ARC in our Point venue with Little Cog, ‘Our Version of Events’ (who first approached us about developing a club night together two years ago), STEPS adult community services, 45 Days group and Full Circle. All will form a Planning and Steering Group to name the club nights, decide on a theme, agree a menu, select DJs, VJs, and take part in club night workshops to develop the night. This forms part of the learning of the project and will develop at the rate the Steering Group decides, with a view to further developing the nights over the following two years.

Will some of these productions include both able and disabled people participating in similar ways or are these projects all exclusively for disabled people?

It is important to us that the project is genuinely disabled-led and therefore some of the spaces and platforms are aimed at creating opportunities in the arts for disabled people. We are after all addressing the inequalities and barriers currently experienced by disabled people. However, the research we conducted with disabled people also highlighted the desire to be involved in inclusive work with both disabled and non-disabled people. Examples of this are the Inclusive Youth Theatre project we are developing which will be a mixed group developing performing and creative arts skills together, and the club nights which are aimed at families and friends of disabled people too. It is envisaged that the professional and community productions will be a combination of disabled people, and disabled and non-disabled people. We are recording the development of our work as it progresses and are keen to share what we learn along the way.

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“It is important to us that the project is genuinely disabled-led and therefore some of the spaces and platforms are aimed at creating opportunities in the arts for disabled people”

Art has always been a great tool for social change and societal growth. What piece of theatre or art have you most recently witnessed that has inspired you to think in a more detailed way about how you approach disability, or a specific disability? 

The most recent piece of work I saw was a work-in-progress performance at ARC of Pauline Heath’s show Never-Neverland, which was a satirical look at life since the welfare cuts have happened. Pauline is a disabled performer and writer, and she performed the piece as a one woman show. She told the story in a fairy tale style, referencing the stereotypes about disability we commonly receive from childhood stories and books. The piece was supported by a series of projected illustrations which added to the humour. It made me realise we can present politically urgent material in accessible, funny and contemporary ways. Pauline is more offended to be accused of having a Yorkshire accent (she’s from Lancashire) than she is about her speech impairment. I loved the way she removed some of the awkwardness for her audience by directly addressing this with humour and moving on to more important material. The work challenged how disabled artists deal with political material and also challenged aesthetic conventions, which was very refreshing.

What excites you most about having Vici (Wreford-Sinnott) working with ARC on these projects?

I feel very lucky to be working with Vici, who brings a huge range of skills and knowledge around disability and arts practice. Over the past few months we have developed a strong and open relationship, which allows me, and others, to ask questions without feeling awkward that really can help us better understand disability. Vici’s experience of working as an artist, a director, a facilitator and as a senior manager means that she is able to relate to and work across the whole organisation.

What can the local and wider community do to help support the theatre with these new projects?

People can really help us by spreading the word, talking to others about the project, coming to see performances, taking part in activities and encouraging others to do so.

What are your personal hopes for the sustained effects from this work after these three years?

I hope that over the next three years we will develop a body of work, a model of practice for the Tees Valley and beyond that really makes a difference to disabled peoples’ experiences of arts activity on a number of levels. We want to ensure the voices of disabled people are heard, telling the stories they want to tell in the way they want to tell them, in either professional or community based/participatory ways, issue based or otherwise, developing both new disabled-led and inclusive aesthetics which engage and entertain. We envisage that as a result of their experience on the project, disabled people will go further in their artistic participation. They may seek out further activity, they may create new opportunities and set up new projects, they may apply for grants to sustain their own work, and we hope more disabled people will be engaged with activity at ARC. Our independent evaluation throughout the project will help us monitor our progress against the aims and aspirations of the project and of those involved. The Agent of Change role aims to become a key influencer and we will share our learning, and our model through existing networks and to new and existing partners.

Keep up to date with what’s happening with the Cultural Shift scheme on Arc’s website.

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