prefigurative politics and creating radically accessible performance spaces: building the world to come.
(I've been working on this for a while, but these are expanded notes for the talk I gave at Proof.So.Gay: Pecha Kucha Night, a series of 6 minute talks Syrus Marcus Ware asked me to speak at yesterday, at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto.)
“If, as the African revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral described it, culture is the ‘collective personality of a people,’ then the arts are its collective dreamlife. In the absence of coercive control, the arts, like dreams, are naturally drawn to the deepest hopes, fears, and truths that are suppressed in daily life...art becomes conscious dream-telling, responsible creation with the potential to affect the life of our people.”
- Ricardo Levins Morales (with thanks to Patricia Berne for sharing these words with me.)
Pre figurative politics is a fancy phrase for the idea of imagining and building the world we want to see now. It's waking up and acting as if the revolution has happened. It's, for example, building a sliding scale community acupuncture clinic that is affordable and centers disabled and working class/poor and black, indigenous, people of color, instead of writing reports about how the medical industrial complex is fucked up. (though that can be important too.) I think of it as being focused on the Allied Media Conference principles of "we spend more time building than attacking" and "we focus on our power, not our powerlessness."
As a performer and writer, I know that in the higher education programs that I attended to study writing and performance, I learned basically zero about creating accessibility in making performance art and theater and spoken word. The focus was almost always on creating the work of Art, in a vacuum- almost no attention was paid to the audience, the performance space, the container and community for the art as being as important as the art itself, and not separatable from the art. Practical skills- from how to make a flyer or a budget, let alone how to do successful ASL and make a fragrance free space or a performance whose pace was accessible to non hyper able bodied performers- were neglected in those ivory towers. I think that if anyone had asked about how to create accessible spaces, for performers or attendees, they would have been, gently or not so gently, dissed. That stuff, that's about community based art, or art therapy- not real, professional, capital A art.
As a performer, producer and director, I believe that how you do it and who is there to see it is as important as what is on the stage. My favorite performance spaces are spaces that become temporary, two hour communities that are autonomous zones that feel like freedom. Being in them, we can smell and taste and feel things we have always wanted but rarely witnessed- both in what we see on stage, and how we interact and participate as an audience that is a community of witnesses. Having an accessible space for performers and attendees and workers, where disability is not marginalized, tokenized, or simply not present, is very different than having a performance space that is full of mostly able bodied, young, non parenting people who can afford to spend the money to attend and get there.
As oppressed people, we don't control a lot of things. But one thing we can sometimes control is the stage. The stage can be prefigurative politics.
I remember this time that I asked Patty Berne, the genius co-founder and Artistic Director of Sins Invalid, the disability justice performance incubator I have been deeply inspired by and have participated in as a performer, why she started Sins with Leroy Moore. She said something like, (and I know I'm paraphrasing, but this has stuck with me) "You know, I could lecture people of color doing movement work about why they should care about ableism. Or I could create a performance that shows them the inside of their dreams and nightmares and fucks their shit up and shakes them inside out and transforms them."
As a (queer, disabled, femme, cis, of color) performer, writer, curator, producer/director and performance artist, i can attest to the fact that disability, access and accessibility are rarely thought about in performance. As in most ableist and able bodied centered spaces, when access is thought of, it is thought of as a guilt ridden afterthought. It is usually only thought of when disabled, sick, Deaf and/or Crazy people ask (in an email, on a Facebook event, in a phone call, like we do) for a curator or director to post the access info. This request is usually responded to with guilt, with defensiveness, with surprise, with bad or nonexistent or last minute scrambles for access. Because, as Qwo-Li Driskill says, one way ableism works is that disabled people "don't even exist in the able bodied imagination."
Further, in ableist, mainstream performance spaces, access is mostly only considered only when audience members are concerned. It is beyond the scope of most theater managers to even imagine that performers, directors, light and sound techs, stage managers and volunteers could be disabled. Writing this, I can remember clearly the pause on the other end of the phone as I asked my contact at a performance space whether the stage was accessible, after he had said, "Oh yeah, there's a ramp at the door" three times, and I'd said, "Yes, but is there a ramp for the stage?" He couldn't imagine that one of the performers was a wheelchair user. When he got it, he said without hesitation, "Well, I guess she'll just have to perform on the floor"- without thinking for a second about the second class place implied by that state- able bodied and walkie crips get the stage; you get the floor.
We are not supposed to be healers, because we are obviously 'unhealed' and broken, according to the ablest imagination. And we are not supposed to be performers except in a "clap for the brave cripples, but don't expect them to be a) good b) have some shocking shit to say that you didn't expect" kind of way. The charity model infects even how crip art can be thought of, or if it can be thought of at all.
So this brings me to the work of setting up performances and the idea that making access happen
You've heard the idea perhaps that the audience makes the performance? Aa performer of color, I know that performing to an all QTPOC audience is very different than performing to one that is majority white- or when white people have grabbed all the seats right at the front, for example.
The audience at a Sins show is as important as a show. Is part of the show. Because it is a portrait of cross disabled, deeply accessible space that is also Black, Brown and economically accessible.
When I went to Sins for the first time and ran smack into crip culture- a line of chair and scooter users right at the front, a line of Deaf, Hard of Hearing and signing folks at the front right in front of the ' terps, short folks, cane users, folks with PCAs, folks in pain, dressed up, dressed all in white, popping pills, flirting, spraying active enzymes under their tongues to withstand chemicals they were surrounded by, sitting by audio describers, Black Brown and white, no one turned away for lack of funds - it fucked me up in the best way and changed my life. This was the audience. I was a part of the audience. A brown, sick part. We were not translating and we were not trying to pass as disabled or fighting to just get in the door or to see five seconds of ourselves on stage and the world was the world to be. and we were not "sorry, the space is inaccessible, but you can watch it on the livestream!" (Note: I am all in favor of livestreaming as being a way to make performance accessible to folks who are unable to make it to the show because of money, sickness, fatigue, etc, but livestreaming an inaccessible space is not an ok fix for an inaccessible venue- sick, disabled, Deaf and crazy folks would like to be part of the community gathering to witness performance, too.) We were not an afterthought. Able bodied people could come, but they weren't doing us any favors.
Over the next few years, as I grew in disability consciousness and identity, and took part in hanging out, talking, thinking and building DJ culture with other sick and disabled folks, I started thinking a lot more, and trying to put into practice, accessible booking and producing. I learned a lot from others doing this work.
It took a long time before i realized that the work I was automatically doing as a disabled producer- buying the fragrance free soap, booking ASL and doing Deaf promo and making sure that everyone got their scripts in to the terps two weeks in advance, taping off lanes 36 inches wide, figuring out where interpreters, Deaf and HOH folks could sit near each other and still have clear sight lines to the performance, doing pre show education about fragrance free, recruiting childcare workers, calling venues multiple times to punch through their "Oh yeah, it's accessible" to finding out what that really meant, co-creating an accessible venues google document- was both a specific skillset of accessible performance skills, its own job that no one should be doing *and* doing directing, performing, etc. And that It was also an invisibilized labour because it is feminized, disabled cultural labour. And it is never taught in a theatrical or performance MFA. And mostly, when it happens, it happens because sick and disabled and Deaf and crazy folks make it happen, because we are the ones who a) care b) have the sick/disabled/crazy/Deaf science and skills to make it happen.
Five years after I attended that first Sins show, when I was working on booking the Mangos with Chili toronto show, I listened to myself as I explained that the culture in Toronto had shifted- not at all fully, and not automatically, but through years and decades of cross-disability and Deaf cultural activism in Toronto, and it was no longer just acceptable business as usual all the time to have queer performance in inaccessible spaces. People who did could expect resistance and a community raising our voices in anger. (I say this with hesitation, knowing that there are still so many inaccessible spaces, and that this is an ongoing work in progress- and also wanting to mark that accessibility awareness in Toronto QTPOC and activist performance spaces does feel broader than in many cities that I have visited. And that that happened through the labour of many, many disabled, chronically ill, crazy and Deaf folks and allies, and deserves to be celebrated.)
And I was rewarded. At the show, there was a line of signing folks right up front, parents who were able to attend and watch burlesque because there was childcare, chair users with nice wide rows and clear beginning and end times marked on the invite so WheelTrans bookings could happen, frag free seating, folks who left halfway through because they got too tired, youth and elders.
That crowd was the show.
And more than that: that crowd was the movement and community i want to live in and make art for and with. It was the opposite of an inaccessible performance space filled with able bodied, non parenting, young queers. It was a cross-disability, parenting and mixed class community for three hours where I felt like all my parts could come home. I didn't feel like I was pushing myself to be in a space that was inaccessible, and where the fact of disabled people wasn't even present. I wasn't at home, staying home from an inaccessible and alienating space, worried that I would fade from people's memory or become a "whatever happened to her?" because I had just stopped going to inaccessible spaces. Where I was not isolated from other disabled, deaf, chronically ill and/or Crazy folks because of the walls the ableism enacts to separate us from each other and forcibly isolate us. That show and crowd, it was the world to come. It was, and is, the world and the performance space that I want.
(PS: I am working on a guidebook for creating accessible events- watch this space for where it will be available for download.)
all work is shared under a Creative Commons license- credit if you share, no commercial use allowed.
This work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.