Unlimited UK: Our Top 8 Picks From the 2014 Festival

In September 2014, the second Unlimited Festival took over London’s iconic Southbank Centre for a week of performances, panel discussions, workshops and exhibitions, showcasing the work of disabled artists.

British Council Australia Projects Manager Lisa Burns attended Unlimited, along with four Australian delegates from Arts Access Australia, Australia Council for the Arts, Access 2 Arts (SA) and Restless Dance.  

The Unlimited commissions celebrate the work of disabled artists on an unprecedented scale. In 2013, Shape and Artsadmin were awarded funding by Arts Council England, Creative Scotland and Spirit of 2012 to deliver a new three-year programme with key partners including, Southbank Centre, British Council, Disability Arts Online and DaDaFest.

Unlimited Festival was a showing of some of these works, as well as a range of others including performances by Australia’s own Michelle Ryan, Marc Brew and Caroline Bowditch.

Here are Lisa's top 8 takeaways: 

1.     ARTISTIC EXCELLENCE The work showcased at Unlimited was phenomenal. It is rare to go to a festival and love every show you see, rating it on quality, access and international market appeal. British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters are as performative as the actors, as they are often embedded in the performances – the inclusion of accessibility is not an impediment to the artistic quality of the work, but something that enhances it. I have no doubt that many of these incredible works will tour, and I hope we’re fortunate enough to see some of them reach Australian shores. 

2.  INTERNATIONAL DELEGATION

The British Council convened a delegation from across the world, comprising more than 100 people from a hugely diverse range of organisations such as, the Ministry for Special Education in Pakistan, Singapore National Arts Council and Arts & Disability Ireland. To bring people from diverse cultural backgrounds and contexts together and to be involved in innovative discussions about the way forward was an admirable feat. The unique perspectives from these delegates were eye opening –attitudes to disability arts vary greatly, from Qatar to France and Sri Lanka to New Zealand. There were opportunities to share what was working and what wasn’t, and to pull relevant stories from the UK leadership we were experiencing to fuel our own sectors and contexts. The British Council and Shape Arts also hosted Disability Equality Training for us as staff, which was incredibly useful.

3. SENSE OF COMMUNITY AND NEW OPPORTUNITIES As with any festival venue, the Southbank Centre became a hub of activity for the week and created an environment of openness, honesty and enthusiasm. There was such a rich feeling of celebration, optimism and pride that moved through the spaces, and I was overwhelmed by the international delegates’ satisfaction with their Unlimited experience. It felt like a place where anything was possible, on stage and in conversation, and it proved another crucial milestone in the development of disabled artists, their work and the sectors that need to support them.

4. DIVERSITY OF AGE The 2014 Unlimited commissions which were shared in the R&D session presented by the British Council were astounding in their diversity of age. I fell in love with Tim Barlow, a hearing-impaired 78-year-old British actor, who is the lead in a film titled ‘Him’ – an exceptionally candid exploration of age, love, and self.  There were children involved in programmes throughout the days, using the arts as a mechanism for breaking down attitudes to disability or access to enjoyment and even the international delegation featured many age groups from across the globe. There was a real sense of learning and longevity, which was very powerful.

5. TALKING ABOUT THE REAL STUFF Jess Thom’s show Backstage in Biscuitland was a walk through her life with Tourette syndrome. It taught us everything from what should be done in an emergency, through to how she came to deal with the initial diagnosis. It was candid, hilarious and punctuated by uncontrollable references to biscuits, hedgehogs and explicit body parts but so heart-wrenchingly honest that I couldn’t help but think it was an experience every person needed to have to understand disability and impairment and the way it can humorously (and not so humorously) affect someone’s life. It was one of the most original pieces of work I had seen, and one of many pieces during the festival that completely changed my perception and understanding of living with a disability.

6. EXPERIENCING ACCESS The Southbank Centre is an absolute benchmark of accessibility best practice; from a lift that sings notes based on the level it’s at, to staff knowledge of access routes and the provision of accessible means of seeing performances. I experienced several shows from the perspective of various disabilities; and in one case chose to review the audio description in the absence of a visually impaired colleague. It completely changed my experience and my needs. Each day following, I have been so aware of how certain people can and can’t access elements of our society and I feel very grateful for that.  

7. CURIOSITY AND WILLINGNESS TO SHARE From adults and children alike, the overwhelming feeling was that of a true curiosity. I watched one staff member’s child with Down syndrome enthusiastically explore an Australian dancer’s wheelchair and walking stick, innocently amused by the potential of these two contraptions. I talked at length to Chisato Minamimura, a deaf Japanese (now UK-based) choreographer who was working with artists who had never danced with a deaf choreographer before and were performing as part of an Unlimited double-bill, alongside Australian dancer Marc Brew. She was so excited to share her experience and to hear how it had made me feel.

8.  THE POWER OF THE ARTS Unlimited created undeniable opportunity for both artists and delegates to tour and receive work in exciting new ways and places. Conversations turned into promises, and experiences evolved into meaningful epiphanies. But most notable was the power of the arts and culture to allow people to make those connections, and to move past cultural, physical or mental impairments that may have once prevented such relationships from developing or ideas forming. 

Between 2014 and 2016, the Unlimited programme will once again support disabled artists creating extraordinary work. Visit unlimited.southbankcentre.co.uk.

To further our work in inclusivity arts, British Council Australia will co-present the International stream as part of Arts Activated 2014, in Sydney from October 28-29. Jo Verrent, Unlimited Senior Producer will present the keynote address and also sit on a panel with British Council panelists including Caroline Bowditch (UK), Lisette Wesseling (NZ), Sawang Srisom (Thailand) and Sunethra Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka).