It’s nearly that time of year when Edinburgh swells like a giant pregnant frog, its medieval belly teeming with thousands of frogspawn-like punter globules, gestating in the comfort of (almost) 24-hour entertainment and revelry. But of these cultured temporary migrants, how many will be disabled? And of the record breaking total of 3300 performances (a figure proudly thrust in every direction around like a child showing off their first wobbly tooth) how many feature disabled performers? Well, even though government estimates suggest about a fifth of the working age population are disabled, it is – not unsurprisingly – less than (can you do the maths in your head?…) the proportional 660.
However, despite reeling somewhat from Gideon’s devastating cuts to the Independent Living Fund and Access to Work schemes, 2015 has shown glints of positivity towards disability arts. Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris admitted he had a “shit record when it comes to disabled casting” and Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England was compelled to comment that, “you don’t get creative industries unless you draw on all the talents and we haven’t been doing that in many parts. People from relatively deprived backgrounds of whatever colour, creed or physical ability, if they don’t have the bank of mum and dad, they can’t go into casualised industries.” So if these two behemoths of the British arts industry have recognised the importance of including disabled people in the arts, how does this manifest itself in what bills itself as “the greatest show on earth”?
Probably the UK’s most significant theatre company for disabled performers, Graeae Theatre Company, have teamed up with Theatre Royal Plymouth to produce the world premiere of The Solid Life of Sugar Water, a compassionate new drama exploring love and the emotional ripples that follow in its wake. Written by Jack Thorne (Skins, Shameless) all performances have audio description and captioning integrated into them. Another piece of new writing to look out for is Access All Areas and Cian Binchy’s The Misfit Analysis (in which Binchy stars), which looks at life through an autistic lens and considers where disability fits into the modern world. (For any budding performers with learning difficulties please research Access All Areas’ excellent partnership with Royal Central School of Speech and Drama – Performance Making Diploma for Adults with Learning Disabilities). Part of the Made in Scotland Showcase and funded by the Unlimited commissioning body, Johnny McKnight’s raunchy comedy Wendy Hoose, presented by Random Accomplice and Birds of Paradise, follows two young Scots who just want to get it “aff” (see The Wee Review review here). Johnathan Chase’s The Marvellous Mechanical Mesmerist sees trained hypnotist Paul Henshall lead a cast that includes some audience members, in a steampunk improv comedy play about a Victorian scamp who wants to Mr Burns it – i.e. get rich without working.
The British Council Edinburgh Showcase has a pleasingly high number of disabled artists, with many of them Scottish residents. Ramesh Meyyappan’s exquisite Butterfly (also part of Made in Scotland), is a beguiling reimagining of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, retold without any text and using bespoke puppets to imbibe the story with mesmerising visuals (see The Wee Review review here). Claire Cunningham and Caroline Bowditch both present dance pieces influenced by visual artists. Cunningham’s Give Me A Reason to Live (also part of Made in Scotland) is a dark, brooding solo performance inspired by Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch, exploring religious iconography and perceptions of body image. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Bowditch finds her muse in Mexican surrealist Frida Kahlo (herself disabled). Falling in Love with Frida combines monologues, where Bowditch draws parallels between the artist and herself, with song and simple, but evocative, choreography.
Also part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase is Edmund the Learned Pig presented by Fittings Multimedia Arts, Krazy Kat Theatre and The Royal Exchange. A slice of children’s theatre with a macabre edge, it promises to please both piglets and their accompanying boars/sows in a tall tale set in a carnival style circus of dismal debutants, featuring a porkier puppet than Miss Piggy eating a bacon roll. Returning to Edinburgh after a successful 2014 run, Touretteshero’s (AKA Jess Thom) anarchic Backstage in Biscuit Land is both hilarious and poignant as she deconstructs the swear-word stereotype about Tourette’s and gives insight into how living with her constant “biscuit” tic (amongst others) effects her daily routine (see The Wee Review review here).
Stopgap Dance Company bring a melange of disabled performances (Touretteshero amongst them) to Auld Reekie under the banner of iF Platform (Integrated Fringe). Performance artist Jo Bannon’s Alba uses Bannon’s own experience of albinism to explore self perceptions through stories we tell about ourselves, Marc Brew’s For Now, I Am… is an intense solo piece that ponders how the ballet dancer’s body has changed since his car accident and Rowan James’ Easy for You to Say combines spoken word with beatboxer Marv Radio, questioning people’s obsession with needing to fit in. As well as hosting this array of talent, Stopgap present Artificial Things in which a quintet of dancers, though connected to each other through their proximity on stage, strive for their own individualism to a rambunctious rock’n’roll racket.
Veering into the world of stand-up, Romina Puma speaks about the funnier side of having muscular dystrophy in Not Disabled…Enough, while Lost Voice Guy (Lee Ridley) uses a voice synthesiser to do much the same in Disability for Dunces. Now in their tenth year, Abnormally Funny People will be hosted by a different comedian for each night of their run, while star of Channel 4’s The Last Leg Adam Hills presents a new hour of giggles called Clown Heart. Author Fran Macilvly will appear in the aptly named Fran Macilvly at the Fringe reading extracts from her book Trapped: My Life with Cerebral Palsy as well as taking questions from the audience.
Although of course there will be more Fringe shows featuring disabled performers, there sadly isn’t a handy little booklet identifying them all and, as mentioned above, there’s an awful lot in this year’s guide. I hope this serves as a hit list of some of the good ones. One last point to make is about the fantastic Euan’s Guide, who are for the first time sponsoring an award for the most disabled friendly performance or venue. So if you do make it along to any of the shows mentioned above, or to one that isn’t, please keep their prize in mind.