Paddy Masefield: still sending out shock waves and unsettling foundations

It’s been a hectic few months what with Treasured at the Cathedral, the Serbian and Macedonian visit, the business start up work at Liverpool Vision and the myriad of other activities we are musing about, thinking of and trying to lay the foundations for. Paddy’s commemoration means that I can get away for a few days and think about all that fragmentation and stresses and strains in an environment which is a little quieter and offers the opportunity to reassess exactly what it is we want from the world ahead.

This was Paddy’s legacy for me. Working with him both at LIPA and within Aspire during times of organisational growth and stress and challenge meant that you had to step back from the common place, the usual, the humdrum, and completely reassess what we were doing, how we were doing it, and why we doing it at all.

His work with us at LIPA on establishing Solid Foundations sent powerful shock waves through the organisation, challenging established ways of thinking about disability, ability, arts training, arts development and who had a right in the first place to stand on stage and command attention.

His work meant we had to rethink everything about the student experience; how they got into HE, what he meant by accredited prior learning, the integrated curriculum and student progression. This of course had a direct impact on the students who joined solid foundations – but it’s impact and his influence were more wide ranging.

It meant that students on the so called mainstream programmes had to address their own concepts of identity, of ability and what was being asked of them when it came to not only developing and devising new work, but what it meant to rethink traditional ways of acting, of music making, and of dance for example. It meant that staff had to rethink how impairment might inform the student assessment process for example and whether there were other insights that disabled staff could bring to the process that couldn’t be accessed by their nondisabled counterparts. Far from providing solid foundations, Paddy was instrumental in rocking the very foundations which we thought held up conservatoire arts training in the UK.

Paddy’s influence was felt by many students and staff, although many may not have met him in their times at LIPA. Many of them are still working and have gone onto great things, Mark Rowlands, Mandy Redvers Rowe and Jaye Wilson Bowe to name just a few. I’d like to thank you Paddy for giving me that space to rethink, to replay and regalvanise. Your shock waves are still rocking our foundations to this day.

Testimonial for Paddy Masefield, 20 October 2012
Battersea Arts Centre, London

What are the narratives of the Paralympics?

Well, if we were any doubt about some of the underpinning narratives of the Paralympics over the last 2 weeks, the closing ceremony has given us a strong clue about one of them: the military story.  The story which emphasises impairment as a result of military action: the story which emphasises heroism; the story which emphasises the successful melding of  metal and human.  Coe himself draws on the 7/7 story to describe why the Paralympics have been important: as closure on terrorist acts (carried out in the name of god only knows what). And  with the director emphasising that we shouldn’t be looking for narratives, this should make us even more alert to what is being peddled under the banner of disability.

So, is there a correlation between achievement at the Paralympics and levels of militarily or industrial induced  impairment caused by  the countries who are at the top of the medal table?

Practical Text Deconstruction: giving some Shakespeare the once over in Germany

I worked with seven Theater Pedagogik students from the Osnabruck Technische Fachhoch Schule.  My workshop intended to explore how the eight elements of Bojeian story deconstruction might be applied to a piece of Shakespearian text in order to see how and whether that text may be re-presented as a text of inclusion, as opposed to the text of exclusion that Shakespeare texts can be portrayed as.

My session began with a simple name game played in a circle:  I name myself, throw a small pocket size German-English dictionary to a workshop participant and suggest they repeat the exercise.  Before long, all participants have picked up the idea and are beginning to establish the names of the other members of the group.  I develop this game eventually by plucking at random a word out of the dictionary, repeating my name then throwing the dictionary to another participant, again suggesting that participants repeat the exercise.  I encourage participants to pick any word, quickly, whether this be German or English, comprehensible or incomprehensible.  I accelerate the game so that participants eventually build up a chain of six words, five of which are taken from the dictionary, the sixth being their name.

I then request the participants to write the words onto flip charts I have attached to the wall.  I encourage them again to write quickly, with little time to consider of reflect on what they are doing. Once up on the wall, I ask members to construct an imaginary story using the six words of another group member, but using additional words as they see fit.  Eventually, short stories are generated by each of the group members about the other group members.  Given these short stories are based around six random words, the stories themselves display remarkable levels of abstraction, illogic and fantasy.  Nevertheless, members construct stories which are intelligible to varying degrees: the point being made here that human’s abilities to generate meaning is deeply ingrained in our psyche and that our powers of interpretation and meaning-making are perhaps as essential as our ability to breath and digest and reproduce. We focussed on three of the deconstruction techniques that Boje and Dennehy propose, in particular:

Reinterpreting the hierarchy: writing a letter is frequently about trying to present a  story from one point of view: introducing a second point of view which distorts and attempts to force its own control on the emerging narrative means that story writers are constantly reassessing and reinterpreting the hierarchy they are trying to establish.

Establishing rebel voices: the automatic letter writing exercise – especially in larger groups acts to deny the authority of the one voice.

Denying the plot: these writing exercises are designed to confound plot at all stages of its possible grip.

Tracing what is between the lines: constructing words from six random words encourages participants to trace and generate what is not said by filling in the blanks and imagining possibilities, however ludicrous or far-fetched.

After these warm up exercises, I then present participants with two pages taken from Steve Gooch’s Cut Shakespeare version of The Winters Tale. Apart from the Gooch technique of presenting his cut version of the play in a mix of bold and ordinary type face in the document, I provided no other contextual or explanatory information about the play.  Participants claimed not to know anything about the play at all and a number of them professed difficulties with understanding the language. This prompted a discussion about the status that Shakespeare has within the traditional literature canon and how this compares with the place of Goethe in Germany.  Students’ alienation from the text thus provided a metaphor of disability within the group: in one sense students could be seen, if viewed through a medical lens, as having a deficit in that they had a lack of intelligence to grasp a text presented to them: in another sense, if viewed through a social lens, the text had the effect of disabling them as there were no immediately apparent mechanisms open to them which would assist them in accessing the text.

However, participants were open to attempting to read the piece and began by identifying particular phrases – whether in bold or in ordinary type – which caught their attention. These phrases were discussed and possible meanings established.  I confirmed for participants that there was no right or wrong answers in this process.  After some initial caution in the process which I interpreted as participants wanting to know whether they were giving me the right answer or not, they continued to work on the pieces in two groups: one group of three men participants, and one group of four women participants.  The two groups then developed their own interpretation of the texts which they presented back to an invited audience of other students after about 15 minutes preparation.

The men’s group presented a non-verbal presentation in which the ‘king’ – identifiable by his posture and mimed cape – issued control of his kingdom and subjects through the use of visible computer remote control which he wielded at random both at imaginary characters in the play and to the audience in an apparent attempt to control their words and actions.  This control was in vain though: as he continued his attempts at control, the two other actors – who take on the role of off-stage, stage managers, steadily removed parts of the set and his costume whilst he was apparently oblivious to their actions.  Eventually his set and key costume elements – wooden blocks and scarf – were taken away from him and he was left with nothing apart from the ability to curl up, foetus like, on the stage floor.  The presentation ends in silence and finally, on applause, the actor acknowledges the audience and the presence of the two stage managers within it.

The performance was touching and regarded sombrely by the audience. We were left with a picture of a dying, reducing king whose influence and power was steadily declining.  We were encouraged to feel pity for him: a far cry from the usual portrayal of Leontes, the king in the ur-text, who is portrayed as a man who suffers from extreme jealousy which leads him to lock up his wife (and thus brings about her eventual ’death’) cast his new born daughter into the wilderness and lose his son into the bargain.  In this scenario, the text has been decentred from a  performance intended for two actors playing within Shakespearian conventions, to a performance for one solitary actor performing to an unseen multitude of other characters off stage as well as two actors playing the roles of two stage managers.

The women’s group however produced a piece which was far more pantomimic in character.  They produced a script which was performed in a graphic, comic style.  A narrator announces characters who gesture or offer a few words at particular moments to reinforce the words of the narrator.  They played with theatre conventions of the stage curtain (by using the black out curtains of the rehearsal room in a mock theatrical manner) and stage lighting (by switching the overhead neon lights of the room off abruptly at the end of the presentation).  They bow together, as a company at the end of the performance with tongues firmly in cheeks. The script they produced is as follows.

Schauspielerin: Es gab einmal einen König.  Dieser König hatte eine sehr gute Königin.  Doch die Königin gehörte einer feministishcen Bewegung an. Immer wieder schrie sie: Erhängt alle Ehemänner!  Und ihr Mann, der König sagte: Du bist ein Teil vom Nest voller verräterinnen.  Er wart ihr sogar vor, der sahn sie ein Bastard, und nicht von ihm selber.  Als eh ihr eines morgens den Hals umdrehte, schrie er: Nimm den Bastard! Der Sohn reif verstört: Ich bin nichts, bei diesem guten Licht!

Licht aus.

Alle: Besser!

In summary, both groups managed to significantly rewrite the Shakespeare text presented to them using the elements of story deconstruction described previously.  The text work particularly offered participants to use the eighth element described: resituation: i.e the ability to find a new perspective, one that resituates the story beyond its dualisms, excluded voices of singular viewpoint.  Participants reauthored the story so that the hierarchy was resituated and new balance of views was attained.  They re-storied the text so as to re-present dualities and margins and thus scripted new actions.

Whilst this process took place over only a few hours on a Friday afternoon, it offers a number of possibilities that can be used in further text workshop exercises, particularly with groups of participants who may have felt traditionally excluded from participating in an integrated interpretation of a Shakespeare text.

(Extract from The Puppet Question revisited: movements, models and manipulations; reflections on cultural leadership)

Consequences of the medical model of disability on performers and audiences

The Medical Model of Disability identifies disability as being a individualised medical problem based on impairment, deficit and dysfunction.  This model depoliticises disability and extracts it from wider socio-economic, political and cultural contexts.  In this extraction from context the medical model means that performance environments, artistic content, performer identities are all at  odds with the specificities of disabled artists.

Theatres continue to exclude by virtue of their physical and sometimes geographical inaccessibility. Curricula of artists training courses promote standards that some with (or without) impairments will never reach.  Curricula content say nothings of the history of exclusion experienced by disabled people.  Artists are assessed in ways that celebrate achievement over contribution and  difference. And at the most ordinary level, disabled performers continue to be singled out for the specialised attention of specialness, are segregated from non-disabled peers through the presence of non-disabled adult supporters and remain unrepresented in images of schooling and educational attainment. There are three further consequences of the Medical Model on the involvement of disabled people in the performing arts.

Firstly, it generates a culture of dependency in which relationships between disabled and non-disabled people are often seen as a kind of master – servant relationship in which the masters – non-disabled people – may sometimes masquerade as servants and vica versa: in short, relationships which are not only defined by an imbalance of power and control but relationships where the locus of power is neither easily identifiable nor controllable.

In some examples we’ve seen, the ‘master’ is not necessarily the simultaneous presence of another human being on stage: it can be the disembodied presence of a plaintiff voice in a song or the digital imperative of a 4:4 rhythm generated by a computer programme: the performer becoming what you might call becoming, thanks to that old Grace Jones track, a slave to the rhythm.  The masters of the action on stage come in all shapes, sizes, sounds, pictures and media.

Secondly, the Medical Model generates the notion of a Hierarchy of Disability.  In this Hierarchy, disabled  people with hidden impairments such as dyslexia may be disinclined either to see themselves as disabled or, more dramatically, see themselves higher up a scale of social value due to their perceived lower degree of impairment.  It also leads to conversations which  uses the assessment of the degree of impairment as a means to assess the aesthetic quality of the work in question.  Here, we say things like ‘Wasn’t that work fantastic bearing in mind they are . . .’ where  the dot dot dots of the punctuation can be joined up by using such terms such as learning difficulty or deaf or blind.

The hierarchy of disability also leads to the possibility that the value of a piece of work can plunge rapidly – much like the share values on stock exchanges across the world at the moment –  if we learn that rather then being performed by a group of disabled people, it was performed by some people who weren’t disabled at all.  Hierarchy of disability means we are constantly assessing the degree of impairment: not the meaning of the work presented before us.

A third consequence of the power of the medical model can be detected in how audiences are encouraged to respond to the work before them.  The medical model leads to the phenomena of disabled people as being described as tragic but brave;  as having suffered with a particular physical or mental impairments;  and as people to be either pitied, patronised or demonised. The ‘ahhhh’ moment is a frequent manifestation of audiences and can be brought about by the falling cadence of a solitary accordion, the slow fading light of a follow spot or the isolation, centre stage, of a character who’s been presented with an external hostile world of attendant characters and impossible plot demands.

The techniques of isolation and segregation here are critical in establishing this kind of response from audiences who might find themselves whispering to their partner, There but for the Grace of God reflecting perhaps a sense that there is more at stake emotionally for certain audience members in this moment of performance by disabled people than there is in  performances by non-disabled people.  Perhaps the histories of conflict with the medical authorities, with the social services and with the wider, dominant  expressions of normality that disabled people and their families share means that the expression of audience responses to disabled performers is always likely to carry additional significance.

The medical model highlights the manipulative, emotional power of theatre and art, perhaps to the disservice of both performers and audience.

(Extract from The Puppet Question revisited: movements, models and manipulations – reflections on cultural leadership)

Who in this performance could be replaced by puppets?

Integration of disabled people into the performing arts continues to be a hot topic these days. It’s like a badge of courage we might have won at school, something our mothers proudly stitched onto our jackets, wearing it over our hearts to show an organisational’s professional and political credentials.

Many arts projects view the prospect of complete integration up as a kind of holy grail of achievement, distinguishing them from other projects using the language of segregation, inclusion, participation and joining in. In this next series of posts, I want to consider those assertions closely and to see whether the badge of courage we think is stitched onto our jackets is more like those temporary children’s tattoos which wash off in the rain.

I want to look at the differences between integrated performance and assimilated performance. And I want to ask whether our desire to get people to join us and join in to our artistic endeavours is getting in the way of the more radical desire to join up a disability arts aesthetics to a wider critical pedagogy discourse. A discourse which relocates and nurtures the power of production in the hearts of those who are more frequently on the receiving end of the powers of cultural producers (artists and educators) who have their own artistic vision and agendas to promote: however benign and well intended those visions might be.

This will involve revisiting the puppet question, a proposal I developed in 2000 and 2008 and which asks of performances, performers and audiences:

Who in this performance could be replaced by puppets?

(Extract from works on Cultural Leadership)