Artist Q & A: Caroline Bowditch

Caroline Bowditch is a performer, dancer, writer, educator and disability arts advocate, based in the UK. She returns this month to her home country of Australia to appear as a panellist at Accessible Arts' Arts Activated conference in Sydney on 28-29 October 2014. She spoke to the British Council about her work andher experience of accessible arts in the UK...

As an Australian, you moved to the UK several years ago to develop your work as a self-named ‘performance artist, choreographer and provocateur.’ What prompted that move, and why the UK?
I fell in love and I moved to the UK in 2002 to get married. The man I was moving to marry was based in Newcastle and he had two teenage children, so it was easier for me to move to him than him to move here. I didn't move with the intention of developing my work as an artist, but as none of my qualifications, primary teaching or genetic counselling, were possible for me in the UK, I reverted back to what I loved, which is the arts. I coordinated a community arts project for my first two years in the UK and then I got to a point where I didn't want to facilitate other people's artistic experiences anymore -  I wanted to be having my own! Throughout these two years, though, I'd been starting to ask questions about what the dance opportunities were in Newcastle.  I finally, thanks to my husband at the time, met with the Artistic Director of Dance City, the North East's Dance Development Agency, and just said, "I want to dance, what are you going to do about it?" Luckily for me, she offered me residency with three dancers from Candoco Dance Company; this bought other interested people to me and as a result we formed a company called FATHoM.

What have some of the highlights been so far?
Oh there have been so many! Performing with FATHoM at Sadler's Wells, working as Dance Agent for Change with Scottish Dance Theatre for four years, including performing in China, receiving my Unlimited commission in 2010 and having my work seen by more than 5,500 people, the success of Falling in Love With Frida and being awarded a Herald Angel at Edinburgh Festival, travelling, performing and teaching all over the UK and Europe. I think the biggest highlight, always in whatever I do, is the extraordinary people I get to work with.

Would you call yourself an Australian Scot now you’re settled in Glasgow?
No, I'll always very definitely be Australian! I just choose to live in Scotland. It's one of my dad's biggest fears, that I'll forget I'm Australian. I reassure him that will never happen 'cause I just need to open my mouth and EVERYONE knows where I'm from.

You’ve toured internationally and recently completed two sell-out seasons at the Edinburgh Festival, and at Unlimited at the Southbank Centre...
International touring is always a brilliant opportunity to get first-hand insight into other cultures. I also find it a great reminder of just how accessible the UK is and acknowledge how well supported and privileged disabled people are in the UK.  Coming back from China, I've never been so grateful for some many things - space, my motorised wheelchair, a society that does say "No", democracy, freedom of speech, expression and movement and so many other things.

Falling in Love With Frida has taken 18 months to make and has, so far, exceeded all of my expectations. Building an incredible, talented artistic team to work with me on this piece has been essential. We were lucky enough to have six preview performances before we premiered the piece, which I would highly recommend to anyone making new work. As part of these previews, we have also actively sought feedback from the audiences, which has really helped to shape the piece. We don't ask, "What did you like?", but "What seven words would you use to describe what you saw, what will you take away?".

The work explores your love affair with Frida Kahlo. Without giving the game away, why Frida?
Frida Kahlo is probably one of the most famous female artists in the world, whose work sells for millions of dollars and Frida also lived with disability for most of her life, but rarely is she considered of remembered for being a disabled artist. This is a bit of a reclaiming of her from a disability perspective.

For audiences outside of the UK, including a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreter as part of the performance, might seem a foreign choice. Was this always the plan, and how did it come to be? 
This is the the first time I have incorporated a sign language interpreter into my work but it will be the way I work from now on. I think it's important that artists make work as accessible to as wide an audience as is possible. It is very unsatisfying experience for Deaf audiences to see work when the interpreter is just placed at the side of the stage. I think there are huge creative opportunities to make work accessible that are being really under utilised by artists.

What have been the most challenging and also liberating parts of exploring your sexuality as a disabled artist on stage? Any standout reactions?
Frida was so explicit, passionate and open about love and her sexuality that it felt important to bring that into the piece. I think the issue of disability and sexuality is something that is regularly avoided and I think it's something we should be talking about more so that we can dispel myths and assumptions. I've had audience feedback that said they were leaving the performance thinking differently about disability and sexuality which I think is a great outcome. 

Where do you notice most difference and progression in the Australian disability arts sector each time you reconnect with Australia?
I tend to connect with my family and friends more the arts industry when I'm home. It's great to have a talented disabled woman, Emma, heading up Arts Access Australia. I think the recent changes to the funding structures and commitments at Australia Council for the Arts can only be a good thing. I think there's still A LOT of work to do but things seem to be moving in the right direction but significant change takes time and long term investment to see outcomes with impact. 

We’re so pleased to have you on our opening panel of the Arts Activated conference in October, to discuss your own experiences on the international stage and the challenges facing various cultural contexts internationally in disability arts. What do you hope will come of those conversations?
I think there are some great international models that Australia could be learning from and it will be great to share some of these. I hope that there are decision-makers, with open and receptive minds, in the room that will engage in the conversation.

You’re back in Albury for a few months, enjoying some family time and some room to think. What’s next for you, and what are you hoping to get out of your country time at home?
I'm trying to take a little break and recharge creatively as I've had 18 months of making, teaching and influencing and I'm allowing myself to do one work thing a month but mostly I'm just spending time with my family and friends. 

I am, however, keen to make a piece, at some point, about my connection to the land I grew up on, around Dookie and in the Kiewa Valley, where we still have a family farm. I want to connect with artists and Indigenous people here to develop the piece.

And finally, your advice for disabled Australian artists trying to carve out a niche as a performer or arts worker?
Be clear in what you want to say with the work and be able to talk about it. Build an artistic team that supports you and bring skills that you don't have. The most important thing is be ambitious and create high quality work - it will then speak for itself and bring audiences.