Anyone who has put on a festival can attest to the need for advance planning. In the case of Independence Starts Here!: A Festival of Disability Arts and Culture, the process started over four years ago. While serving on the Mayor's Commission for People with Disability and working with the Theatre Alliance, Mimi Kenney Smith noticed a trend. She’d get calls from people in the cultural community who wanted information about making arts more inclusive and venues more accessible. At the same time, she’d get calls from people the in disability community about how they could get more involved in the arts. In 2003 she decided to bring everyone to the same table and started a group called Independence Starts Here!
Independence Starts Here! met bi-monthly to look at the challenges involved in increased access—from the perspectives of both communities—and to work together to find solutions. The group invited experienced people to come and speak and to work on specific issues, such as accessible websites. Around thirty people continued to meet and explore access more deeply. Getting beyond the obvious audience access issues like ramps, organizations started to look at barriers backstage and onstage.
Last year Smith noticed another trend: several major arts milestones were scheduled for the fall of 2007. A mural would be unveiled; a new accessible space for the Philadelphia Theater Company would open. She thought, why not link these events and celebrate the work of Independence Starts Here! by having a festival? The group was receptive, and as they told their friends, grassroots community support and the list of participants started to grow. Organizations were offered various ways to participate: involving artists with disabilities or showing their work; presenting art that reflects the experience of disability, whether or not the artists are disabled; and offering new or improved accessibility.
As the planners started to look at the reality of a fully accessible event in multiple venues, they realized that the usual ways of getting things done would not be adequate. In each case, they turned the solutions for access to the Festival into the groundwork for long-term access. One challenge emerged when it became clear that the costs of audio description, captioning, etc. would be prohibitive. The solution? Offer training to volunteers from participating cultural organizations. How could Braille programs be created for multiple events with only four proofreaders in the city? Festival planners are working with organizations to get the materials on their computers, so people can download and use their own Braille printers. If it works for the Festival and in Philadelphia, they will look at ways to extend such training and communications strategies to other organizations in Pennsylvania. To accomplish these goals, broad volunteer involvement has been essential.
A common question related to festivals of disabled arts is: do they increase visibility and opportunities for artists with disabilities? Or, do they further isolate artists with disabilities from mainstream cultural life? Do they serve to assuage guilt about not including actors with disabilities in main season plays? In Philadelphia the first seems to be the case. Smith observed that when people see performances, they get ideas about what is possible. Also, when people work together on a festival, they develop relationships that open new doors. Ongoing list sharing will foster continued exchange between the cultural and disability communities, so theatres will have contact information for artists they may want to work with beyond the Festival. The Independence Starts Here! group will continue to meet, and as Smith observes, “When people talk about the issues in an ongoing forum, minds are changed.”
Independence Starts Here! started as a celebration of the past cooperation of the cultural and disabilities communities. It is becoming a springboard for the future, reaching toward new levels of access to the arts in the Greater Philadelphia area.top
Independence Starts Here!: A Festival of Disability Arts and Culture begins on October 18 with an Opening Celebration at the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. The celebration will be introduced by Honorary Co-Chair Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA arts. It will be emceed by Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin and will feature nationally and internationally known artists with disabilities. The Festival will close on November 20 with the dedication of a major new mural on the theme “Independence Starts Here.” The mural will be organized by the internationally-acclaimed Philadelphia Mural Arts Commission and will feature the participation of Philadelphians with disabilities.
In between these two events, the Festival will include performances of theatre, music and dance; readings of poetry, plays and other literary arts; historical, cultural and visual art exhibits; lectures; workshops; films and other art projects produced or presented by cultural and disability organizations in Greater Philadelphia.
The goals of the Festival are:
The Festival is intended to provide a host of benefits for organizational participants during and after its run. They include:
Petra Kuppers is an internationally known authority on disability arts and culture.