INCLUSIVITY IN THE ARTS
The Need To Meet On Equal Grounds
Actors Karolina Karanen (DuvTeatern) and Sophia Heikkilä (Svenska Teatern)
Photographer Cata Portin
– Janne Schnipper
“The focus shouldn’t be on their disabilities, but on the art they are making - the good stage craft and the experience for the audience. That’s where we need to get to”
In the Nordic region, there are some really inspiring theatre companies sharing their knowledge and experience of working inclusively for artists with and without disabilities and creating shows that are accessible both on stage and for the audience. There seems to be a lot of support from the theatres and a will to change, but how can mainstream theatres begin to open their doors to connect with these artists? Building an audience and collaborating with these theatres seems to be one of the main struggles. In this article, we discuss how we can focus on the artists’ craft when it comes to representation of people with disabilities on stage.
Here at Cut the Cord, we wanted to shine a light on some of the inspiring companies and artists from the Nordic countries who are working hard to make theatre more inclusive. As part of our new series focusing on underrepresented voices in the Nordic countries, we have been talking to Artistic Director Mikaela Hasán and Managing Director Sanna Huldén from DuvTeatern in Finland, and Artistic Director Lars Werner Thomsen and PR & Communication manager Janne Schnipper from Glad Teater in Denmark. We wanted to know more about their work, the progress being made in Nordic theatre, and the changes that still need to happen.
Tell us a bit about your work - what would you say your company focuses on?
SANNA: We focus on creating theatre performances that reach out to as large an audience as possible. That's our main focus: to create performances. And we do this with a diverse ensemble, which means that within the ensemble, there are always actors with and without disabilities. We have an ensemble of 11 actors with learning disabilities.
MIKAELA: Our aim is to create projects that are interesting for all of us who are taking part in the process as well as for the audience. And that can raise interesting questions artistically and socially.
SANNA: We always do the performances in collaboration with others, including artists coming from outside of our ensemble: from other theatres, different kinds of art institutions or independent artists - we like it when people get together to share knowledge and artistic points of view, as well as their different ways of working. So we work across fields in an interdisciplinary way. We do not just work with actors; there often are musicians or dancers etc taking part in the projects. Through these collaborations, and through other kinds of outreach work, we also try to share our working methods in order to share knowledge on how to create performances with a diverse ensemble.
LARS: Everyone in our ensemble at Glad Teater has some kind of disability – either physical or learning difficulties. Our focus is on what our actors can contribute and how we can use their individuality, so that they shine and tell a dramatic story. We also focus on how they can give the audience an experience that they can’t get anywhere else. It’s always about telling a good story that is relevant and can make a difference.
In our productions we always invite people in from the outside and try to collaborate with performers without disabilities, because something always happens in that meeting. We normally also perform to a diverse audience. We want to make theatre for everyone! That’s also why we don’t have our own venue, because then we fear that we’d become our own isolated theatre for people with disabilities. We want to perform in the mainstream theatres with everyone else.
JANNE: For us, it’s the artistic focus that’s important, but of course the political aspect is always there. We are in dialogue with politicians both locally and in the parliament, but that’s not the main focus. The main focus is that Glad Teater makes sublime performing art.
How would you describe the work towards inclusivity and the representation of people with disabilities within theatre in your country?
SANNA: In Helsinki, there is a group called Teatteri Totti that work with deaf actors, and there are a few other groups that include actors with learning disabilities. There are some dance groups as well. But it's difficult to talk about what the field as a whole looks like, because there’s a lack of contact between the working professional groups.
LARS: We are the only ones in Denmark who have a constant focus on this and have built up a theatre, where it’s our foundation to have this approach to working with performing arts. So sometimes we are a bit alone in it. Back when we started, we used to spend a lot of time looking at what was happening in the world around us. Our experience was that the UK and other Nordic countries were further ahead than we were in Denmark – and still are in terms of recognising disability and including it in mainstream theatre and in society. It’s through our product that we must show our worth. Therefore, we have a lot of focus on our product being good, because we are getting measured much more than everyone else. But we are moving forward all the time and we have a lot of new and exciting projects coming up.
We have been to Wales multiple times touring with our shows. And we have been doing an exchange with Teater Manu in Norway, who have a completely different budget than us and many years of experience. It helps us, that we can say “Look, this is what’s happening in other countries”. We can use that politically to help each other across borders where it’s most needed. That’s also why I’m a part of multiple international boards and organisations - ASSITEJ and IIAN (International Inclusive Art Network) which focuses both on how we can share knowledge about what we do across borders, so that we don’t stand alone, and on how we can help each other organisationally. So it’s on both a creative and a practical level.
What changes have you seen over the last few years and what work is still to be done to make Nordic theatre more inclusive?
SANNA: Our position has definitely changed over the years, we started in the margins, but it feels like we are now considered a self-evident part of the theatre field in Helsinki. We have also had an increasing audience which we are very happy about. But there is a lot of work still to be done when it comes to diversity on many of the mainstream stages.
MIKAELA: We are part of a network where we are trying to get to know the other groups that exist in Finland and the other projects that make this kind of work. It's a network that started only about a year ago, so it's still very new. The idea of the network is to get to know each other and to share more, and to spread experiences and knowledge about inclusive ways of working within the arts.
LARS: The positive thing is that there’s big support from the theatre environment, and a will to do it, because it would have been an impossible battle to fight if there hadn’t been. The difficult thing is to build an audience, and unfortunately – and it’s really difficult for me to say – you need to have some actors in the show who are visible in the media. Or you yourself need to get the media to give you more visibility. What’s difficult right now is that we only know what our funding is like for a very limited time in advance. If we knew our funding situation 3 or 4 or 5 years ahead, that would create some kind of security in terms of planning. Especially when collaborating internationally, because that happens over a long period of time. So that’s quite difficult.
JANNE: What we would like to see change, is the “acceptance”. The difference between the focus being on “It’s a blind girl on stage” to “It’s a brilliant show with a talented actor (who happens to be blind, but that’s not the point)”. That shift. The focus shouldn’t be on their disabilities, but on the art they are making – the good stage craft and the experience for the audience. That’s where we need to get to.
What does your company do to ensure your work is inclusive and accessible to all, and how do you work towards reaching a more diverse audience?
SANNA: We do try to make it accessible to as many as possible. We have developed ways of working to make sure that everyone in our group can create and be part of the process. For the audience we do sign interpretation of our performances and audio caption. Of course, our performances are made and created by our actors with and without learning disabilities, which already opens up for a diverse audience. And we also do pre-show workshops, where we open up the storyline, the characters and the worlds of the performance to make it possible for instance for people that don't speak Swedish to follow.
MIKAELA: We also do audience education workshops, for example when we are asked to come to schools and gymnasiums to talk about our work. In these workshops, which are facilitated by artists with and without disabilities, the aim is to give the students an insight into the story and the kind of work we are doing. We try to reach out to different ages, languages and impairments as well.
SANNA: We also invite different groups to our performances. For instance, to the last performance we invited doctors and medical students.
MIKAELA: And we reached out to people with political influence. We do this with the intention and hope that this experience possibly can change the way they see the world, or to become aware of the possibilities that a person with learning disabilities has in becoming an artist. This kind of outreach work, that we aim to do in connection to every project, is part of the audience education.
LARS: One example is our festival we did last year. We went to a children’s cultural centre where there was a large potential audience that usually wouldn’t show up to an inclusive theatre performance.
JANNE: That’s the difficult part – to get people to come the first time. But when they come to see a show once, they normally come again.
There was a lot of value in the PR effect of people just coming to play in the playground and suddenly discovering that the place was full of actors in big costumes and that there were lots of free shows for all age groups everywhere. That really told the story of Glad Teater. It’s something that people will remember.
LARS: Another example is that we in general try to reach out to a mixed audience by sign and shadow interpretation on stage and right now we’re in a project where we investigate the possibility of doing audio description for our upcoming physical performance.
How does this compare to what you see in theatre in other Nordic countries? In the rest of the world?
SANNA: In Sweden, there are several well-known groups. One is called Moomsteatern, another is Teater Blanca. The UK and Sweden are inspiring because there are so many different kinds of groups. And I think that's an important thing to have to make things grow. There’s not that many of us here, but we really look to others to get inspired.
LARS: If you look at Moomsteatern in Sweden – who also work with people with learning disabilities – they have their own venue and can therefore do a lot of things more freely.
Politically it’s a battle for us to be recognised and acknowledged on equal level. In the UK, Norway, Sweden and Finland they have for 30 years – before we even began – had funding levels that we know we will never even get close to. In the UK, the National Theatre and BBC have created policies where they have to include all actors in the work they produce. We are miles from that. But that’s also why it’s important with the networks between the countries.
What hopes do you have for the future?
MIKAELA: We hope to continue with different kinds of collaborations and co-productions, to meet new people and take part in more festivals.
SANNA: I hope that there will be more actors with disabilities represented on more stages. And it’s not just work that should be done by others. It's also work that needs to be done by us.
LARS: Our hope is to get some long-term funding, so we can do the projects we want to do. Our dream is – and we have already started working on it – to create bigger collective processes and to have a bigger ensemble, a mixed ensemble of actors with and without disabilities. Our primary ensemble will then become an artist collective with a large mix of performing artists.
How can others learn from your work, both within your country and internationally?
MIKAELA: We have knowledge now from twenty years of experience. We were just talking about how important it is for us to share and to try and find new collaborations. Obviously, education is crucial, but also experience. We hope that something is changing through these collaborations. So that the next time the possibility for collaboration arises, people will say: “Oh yeah, this is possible. We know this. We are not afraid of integrating new kinds of artists in our work.”
LARS: I really think it’s important to meet the person in front of you as an equal, and take what they can bring super seriously. To not be afraid of disability and worry you don’t have the right understanding or way to approach it. Do it for the sake of the art. And work with a human insight and use it and transform it to some creative and artistic product. And then all the other stuff will come too, but have that focus and don’t be afraid of it.
Our new In Focus series highlights important voices and movements happening in the Nordic countries from artists and companies creating positive examples for change. We hope this article has inspired you to research their work and look for more diverse stories in theatre. If you have similar work, companies and artists you’d like to share with us, let us know, we’d love to keep learning.
Glad Teater is a Danish ensemble theatre. For nearly 15 years, they have been challenging the state of performing arts by creating performances with actors with disabilities. With the unique actors and their distinctive interpretations, Glad Teater tells vibrant and important stories on stage. In order to broaden perspectives, Glad Teater often enter into co-productions with other theatres. Through the years, they have built up close co-operations and made exchanges with theatres and cultural institutions in both Denmark and abroad. Glad Teater tours both nationally and internationally.
Glad Teater’s performances range from experiences in the experimental performance universe to retelling classical stories in new ways. The ideas for the performances are based on a wide variety of sources of inspiration and have a special strength in the art of physical and visual expression. For Glad Teater, the direct communication between actor and audience is vital and the performances often involve the audience as a key contributor. Glad Teater is part of the Glad Foundation – a large Danish social economic company. Glad Teater sets high professional standards for their actors and take them seriously. This creates a good basis not only for them to function well in Glad Teater productions, but it also helps them in their jobs through Glad Casting Agency by achieving a higher standard of communication and understanding of the work as a professional actor.
DuvTeatern is a company of actors and theatre workers with different abilities and with a mission to create artistically challenging performances for the stage. Over the years DuvTeatern has produced a range of work including radical interpretations of well-known classics, opera, children’s theatre, performance art, shows based on poetry, improvisation, music and dance. DuvTeatern has been operating continuously in Helsinki since its foundation in 1999. The company’s artistic production is always grounded in the ensemble’s own experiences, ideas and interests, co-developed with other theatre groups, institutions and guest artists. In addition to the performances created by the ensemble the company also provides drama activities for children, youth and adults with learning disabilities.