September 2009 - November 2009: Issue 32

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Perspectives: Eyes on Australia

Introduction to Arts and Disability in Australia

By Jacqui O’Reilly and Gareth Wreford

For artists with disability, Australia is a geographically large country with a small population. Developing a critical mass of people and practice can be difficult and costly but not impossible. Artists like Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, producers such as Back to Back Theatre and community arts projects like the Mixed Abilities Ensemble are great examples of what is being achieved.

These achievements mark important progress being made in overcoming barriers that exist for artists with disability. The success of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, at the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Music Awards in 2008 demonstrates attitudinal barriers towards disability are not sustained in the face of excellence. Gurrumul won Best World Music Album and Best Independent Release.

A lack of career pathways from school to professional arts practice for people with disability can be overcome, as shown by Back to Back Theatre, a company which has won prestigious awards for their productions in Australia and overseas. The company operates as an employment service and has created professional employment conditions for actors with disabilities.

The Sydney Opera House, with access placed in its business plan, is demonstrating that National and World Heritage listed arts spaces can be made accessible. The Opera House access plan includes back-of-house and, once implemented, will set a new standard in Australia for arts spaces to improve accessibility.

Australia’s Cultural Ministers Council, a forum for federal, state and territory government arts ministers, is developing a National Arts and Disability Strategy expected to launch in October 2009. This is part of an overall federal approach to social inclusion that includes the development of additional strategies on Disability, Mental Health and Employment. The Arts and Disability strategy will support the aspirations of individual artists with a disability and groups like the Mixed Abilities Ensemble and WEAVE Movement Theatre to become an established part of Australian cultural life.

About the writers:
Jacqui O’Reilly is the Communications Coordinator at Accessible Arts, the peak arts and disability organization across New South Wales in Australia. Accessible Arts promotes full inclusion, access and cultural opportunities in the arts for people with disability through advocacy, education and information.

Gareth Wreford is the Executive Director of Arts Access Australia, the national advocacy organization for arts and disability. Arts Access Australia works across the arts, disability, mental health, ageing, education, employment and training to increase the cultural participation of the one in five Australians with disability.

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Sydney Opera House Access Strategic Plan

By Jenny Spinak, Program Manager Accessibility, Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House is one of the busiest performing arts centres in the world, providing over 1,600 performances each year. As one of the most popular visitor attractions in Australia, it has more than seven million people visiting the site each year. Some 1.2 million people attend performances and over 329,000 people take a guided tour to explore the inside of one of the most recognized buildings in the world. It is State, National and World Heritage listed.

Recent artists with disability who have performed at Sydney Opera House include award winning singer songwriter Geoffrey Gurrumal Yunupingu and Back to Back Theatre, a unique ensemble of actors with disabilities, who performed Food Court with the Australian cult band the Necks as part of the Luminous Festival curated by Brian Eno.

The recently adopted Sydney Opera House Access Strategic Plan 2009-2011 includes strategies for improving access to back-of-house areas for performers with disabilities, as well as strategies for increasing employment opportunities and workplace support for potential and existing staff with disabilities.

There are many structural constraints and therefore challenges involved in upgrading access to existing back-of-house areas of Sydney Opera House.

A back-of-house access audit was recently conducted to investigate design solutions for improving access onto auditorium stages, dressing and rehearsal rooms, as well as access to staff facilities and other ancillary areas. These design solutions will be documented in the Sydney Opera House Access Masterplan, and will be implemented as part of future building upgrades.

Other strategies in the Access Strategic Plan include:

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Mixed Abilities Ensemble: Hard Daze

Powerhouse Youth Theatre is a leading youth theatre creating new, innovative and inclusive performing arts opportunities in Sydney, Australia. In 2008, they developed a partnership with Accessible Arts NSW to present a unique training program for 18 to 35 year olds of varying abilities called the Mixed Abilities Ensemble.

An equal space for creativity and passion was shared by 11 unique individuals to create a cross-cultural, cross-language and cross art form training ground. The Mixed Abilities Ensemble met for 15 weeks to learn new skills in movement, voice, acting and theatre making. A performance piece was devised by the Ensemble and presented to family and friends at the end of the program.

Working together under the guidance of a new artistic team for the next 12 months, the Mixed Abilities Ensemble developed the skills to devise the successful group theatre performance, Hard Daze. This production dealt with issues around exploitation and inequitable conditions faced by young people with and without disabilities in the workplace. It was presented to well-attended audiences in a gritty industrial setting.

Many of the Mixed Abilities Ensemble members continue to work and participate in the arts, including acting in films, producing music or being mentored in script writing and comedy. One participant is now being mentored by Powerhouse Youth Theatre to produce a one-woman show in 2010 about her story of living with a disability.

There is much to be said for what can be achieved by a unique bunch of people in an unlikely setting, where passion, creativity and abilities are shared openly, honestly and equally.

Eleanor Winkler, General Manager, Powerhouse Youth Theatre
Alison Richardson, Creative Programs Coordinator, Accessible Arts NSW

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Frankston Arts Centre (FAC) Access Initiatives

Opened in 1995, the Frankston Arts Centre (FAC) is a large regional arts venue just at the edge of metropolitan Melbourne in Victoria incorporating and 800 seat theatre, visual art gallery, function centre and training facilities.

FAC has a culture of access and inclusion, not guided by legislation but by a guiding principle that the whole community should have access to the arts. This is demonstrated by the fact that FAC has a dedicated Arts Access Officer, Tim Dakin. Tim is passionate about the arts, community, mental health and wellbeing.

FAC provides the following: Ticket Subsidy Scheme; AUSLAN Signed & Live Captioned Theatre performances; communication boards for front of house; recharge points for electric wheelchairs and scooters; hearing loops; staff awareness training.

FAC runs successful specialized programs such as working with disadvantaged parents and their children or parents who have a child with a disability, the homeless, adults with complex care needs, adults with mental illness, early school leavers, and adults with dementia.

Some recent events include, Unspeakable 09, a physical comedy show aimed at the Deaf community and MIMOSA Fest a night to showcase the mental "sk'illness"* of people living with a mental illness.

As far as employment goes, FAC includes mentoring for volunteers with mental illness or who have a disability or and involving them in our day-to-day work, providing new skills, social connection and a feeling of future. A tangible achievement was the creation of a position for a young woman who has cerebral palsy, is legally blind and has been living with depression. She began with volunteering with the Centre and has now accepted a position as an Arts Administration Trainee.

Tim Dakin coordinates the Access Program at Frankston Arts Centre. Tim himself has the experience of mental illness and manages his ongoing depression with assistance from his manager and other staff at the FAC.

"With the ongoing support and encouragement I am able to commit to the role and offer the most I can for our community, and doing so impacts so positively on my life and thoughts. Access and Inclusion is about how can we do it and in the arts we can be as creative as we like, to find ways to involve all"

*Phrase invented by Heidi Everett (Artist, musician and mental health consumer)

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