Siege is an ARC Stockton Homemakers commission in partnership with HOME in Manchester, available to watch on the HOME website and can be accessed here.
If a situation or a set of discriminatory life experiences don’t touch a person individually, they have no clue how consistently painful, degrading, dangerous and exhausting that can be on a daily basis. We’re not taught about it in school, in fact we cover it up, and it is certainly not in the interests of those who control the media, history and education, who also coincidentally have a stake in the biggest global brands in the world, to share that information. Discrimination and segregation (physically, literally or in the psyche of a nation) are deliberate acts of division and oppression to protect the interests of a powerful minority. It is not widely highlighted that some citizens have completely unequal and unjust experiences in the few short years we have called ‘a life’ here on this planet other than in sweeping homogenized generalisations, rendering empathy, solidarity and resistance to an apathetic minimum.
The people not affected by brutal injustices, in the name of their society and on their watch, have the luxury of channelling their energies into the living of their lives, and benefitting from the muting and diluting of the brutalities, unquestioningly accepting an assumed inevitability around some people just being ‘second class citizens’, and, if there is a need for human rights movements for groups of ‘others’, they are diminished by being called protestors, pressure groups, rioters and domestic extremists. Activist voices are silenced by the dominant culture with criticism of being ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘snowflakes’, 'lefty luvvies’, ‘moaners’ and ‘virtue signallers’. And it doesn’t take a special kind of person to be an activist, there is no training course – you just have to start by asking questions and standing with others.
A veneer of life continues to bubble along and every now and then when an injustice rises up, something that can no longer be silenced or hidden – a murder, a series of murders, someone taking their own life under pressures from the state, people issued with DNRs by the state, people starving to death due to austerity – will capture the nation’s attention momentarily, and there will be temporary outrage and then ultimately relief when the immediacy of that is over, it becomes old news and everyone moves on.
This blog was due to come out to coincide with the release of Siege Part Two, a short digital performance commission by ARC Stockton and HOME Manchester. An opportunity I didn’t invite but feel really lucky to have had and, as a disabled artist, I have felt seen and valued. The piece, as with all my work, aims to shine a light contemporary, and centuries old, systemic abuse and discrimination of disabled people which has led to our low status as citizens, a situation where our lives are often viewed as both useless and not worth living. The commission of Siege was originally set against the backdrop of global coronavirus pandemic, which has revealed that some lives are more expendable than others, enshrined in the strategies, policies and actions of our Government. In the case of coronavirus, the most expendable lives are those of older people, disabled people and Black and Asian people.
The blog also now comes out a time of the global protests of the Black Lives Matter Movement, brought to a head by the appalling murder of George Floyd in the US, by a serving police officer whilst arresting him. Centuries of oppression through enslavement and apartheid are finally receiving global attention. We are questioning everything, including the history we have been taught and the history which has been hidden. Every single Black Life Matters every single day, and I also draw attention to the lives of Black disabled people to ensure we acknowledge their deaths at the hands of police officers, other murderers and an unjust system, and to the lives lived experiencing injustice and discrimination every day. I want to also acknowledge and value with gratitude the work of many Black disabled artists, their work, their voices and their activism. We must work hard to ensure that Black disabled people are elevated in the Disability Rights Movement and the Disability Arts Sector, and that we develop anti-racist actions in our movement.
I develop my work in the Disability Arts Movement as an activist and artist.
We have had a decade (and beyond - this has been going on for thousands of years) which has seen systematic abuses of the human rights of disabled people in the UK, as reported by disabled peoples’ organisations, the United Nations and Amnesty International, and the estimated deaths of over 100,000 people due to governmental austerity policies, which are set to get much worse. We have seen research statistics from a Ruderman Family Foundation Report in the US estimating that half of all deaths caused by police officers in the US are of disabled people. Why such fear of us? Why such hate? Along with members of the disability rights movement across the world, in all our diverse intersections, those of us who can, must continue to raise our voices, acknowledging those disabled activists on whose shoulders we build, and with responsibility for those in our communities whose voices are not heard.
My activism comes through the theatre I make, an artform I trained in, to challenge our cultural thinking by questioning history and telling stories from those less heard, from disabled people, disabled women. Dominant culture is the site of so much oppression through its mis-telling, its stereotypes and its erasure. I have worked my life long to challenge that.
And my work is about ensuring that the sum total of us is not defined by our oppression – we are not pity parties, we are not tragic but brave victims. We’re bloody gorgeous, complicated, living, breathing, three dimensional human beings full of passion and a commitment to asking questions of the society we live in and share with others.
So where does Siege Parts 1 & 2 fit into my work and my efforts to disrupt thinking. I am a writer/director because when I started making work in the early 1990s I couldn't find stories that felt relevant to me, or my community, so I knew I had to create my own. And, due to my punk roots, I wanted stories that could be told in edgy, radical, dark and funny ways. I am collaborative and try to be democratic in my process. My audience is usually my first thought and bringing the voices of others into the creative process. I can’t pretend to represent a community, but I can certainly be informed by as wide a perspective of experiences and viewpoints as possible. And as an artist who aims to make gob-smackingly good theatre, it is all the richer for collaboration.
As a result, I knew my commission for HOME and ARC would need to be in two stages – the first would be discussion and the second the creation of a piece of new work. And that's what we have - an incredible series of five short films, featuring an afternoon discussion with the amazing artists Bea Webster, Tammy Reynolds, Melissa Johns and Julie McNamara. I knew that they represented a really rich set of intersections in many and layered ways, in terms of where they work in the arts, how they position their work and the identities they reflect and represent in their work. The perspectives included are mixed race, Romany and traveller, queer, crip, non-binary, drag, TV industry, RSC, live art, contemporary theatre, writing, performing, directing from women with a broad range of conditions under the umbrella known as disability and disabled by society.
Our voices aren’t part of the canon. Our voices aren’t part of national policy discussions. Our voices are not valued enough. Our voices are not really even a part of willing, liberal, diversity initiatives in mainstream theatres around the country. Some members of our community may be given places in these spaces, but when is this actually led by us. How long is it for. A transitory fad. Our voices are silenced.
So the work of Siege is a disruption of that, and gives a platform, through Little Cog, Home and ARC online, for voices to be heard, for our transgression of expectation and our agency to be heard.
The discussion films now come under the collective title The Wrong Woman Discussions, which is a reference to a term Julie McNamara uses in her theatre practice and research. Tammy, JulieMc, Melissa, Bea and myself discussed what we think is expected of disabled women and why that is, and we discussed our experiences of being ‘looked at’ both in public and in our work. We talked about how we transgress traditional assumptions, and we talked about how we have agency, in spite of the challenges presented by a dominant arts world centred around a patriarchal canon, a patriarchal capitalist society and an art world full of inaccessible buildings run by inaccessible people with inaccessible mindsets.
The videos are full of powerful testimonies told in solidarity no matter how many different directions we are all coming from. I am grateful to Bea, JulieMc, Melissa and Tammy for agreeing to put themselves out there. It is not without risk to do so. And I am immensely proud of who they are and the intervention we have created together in theatre and performance thinking.
And this all came from seeds around a piece called Siege, which I planned to make as a national touring show for 2021. Annabel and Dan at ARC, where I am an Associate Artist, had already said they wanted to support the development of the show and I was excited to make a piece exploring disabled women’s experiences of performativity and performance. Mim was to be a character fully fed up of feeling looked at through various lenses and deciding that hostage would become hostage-taker – metaphorically speaking. Or am I?
I spent a couple of weeks working with Tammy Reynolds on my character script, discussing Mim, her crip cabaret credentials, the differences between live art and theatre, and where the character of Mim met and differed from Tammy’s own amazing live art alter ego and trailblazer, Midgitte Bardot. In the end the timing wasn’t right for Tammy to perform Mim (lockdown 2020…jesus christ…so hard) but I am incredibly thankful to her for her insight and time on the piece.
So at the moment, Siege has become a 12 minute character film exploring and introducing Mim, performed by the incredibly talented Philippa Cole. We had a day of rehearsals and a day of filming with her wonderful husband Daniel Griffiths on camera, and me on zoom, behind the camera with him. Fortunately Pippa and I have a kind of shorthand, as we worked together on my national touring show Another England, and so in the most bizarre set of circumstances (lockdown 2020…jesus Christ….so hard) we shot the script. It’s presented as neither a beginning nor an end but just where we are at the moment.
The piece is clearly informed by the conversations we all had, and is also multi-layered and metaphorical in disabled women’s experiences of culture, or the machine of culture. It is Mim being edgy, radical and funny about disabled women’s experiences of being in the middle of the radar, with her shame-free approach to disabled women’s bodies and experiences.
And it will move on and become something else, and hopefully if all is safe, we'll see you on the road in 2021 on a national tour.