Inclusion in the Theater

Keynote speech by Ben Evans

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About the Keynote speech

Ben Evans gave this keynote speech during the public panel discussion "How inclusive can theatre be?" at the Münchner Kammerspiele on 13 January 2024. The Federal Cultural Foundation organised the panel discussion as part of the pik Akademie #1 and the "All Abled Arts" festival at the Münchner Kammerspiele.

Keynote speech by Ben Evans

Hello, my name is Ben Evans. I work for the British Council (external link, opens in a new window), as the Head of Arts & Disability in Europe. I am a tall, white man in my mid-40s. I have short brown hair and a short ginger beard. I identify as disabled, though I don’t have a visible disability. Today I will be talking in English, and I will use British terminology around disability. 

The question I was asked to consider is “How inclusive can theatre be?” The short answer to this question is easy. Theatre can be very inclusive.

We have seen that here so far in the festival, but also in the work of the Münchner Kammerspiele (external link, opens in a new window), one of the great ensemble institutions of Germany, where disabled and non-disabled actors work alongside each other not only in works framed withing Disability Arts - such as those here at the festival but across the season [Ben Evans is referring here to the "All Abled Arts" festival at the Münchner Kammerspiele, which took place from 11 to 14 January 2024]. 

So, theatre can be accessible. It is a matter of choice and imagination. 

Thank you Münchner Kammerspiele for making the choice and having the imagination.

I contrast the work here at Münchner Kammerspiele with a conversation I was part of in another great city theatre in Germany two years ago. I won’t mention where. To our panel a question was asked  - not a discussion not about inclusive ensembles and the nuance of how to explore a great classic in easy language, as we experienced last night [Ben Evans reminds us here of „Anti•gone“, a production of the Münchner Kammerspiele in easy language]. No, a simple question was asked of the Intendant. Might he be able to offer Audio Description and Captioning for every production in his season. His answer, as he smiled to the city councillor for culture next to him, was only if extra subsidy could be provided. That was what he said. What I heard was: this is not a priority, and I don’t have the imagination. 

But returning to the question, how inclusive can theatre be?

I think in answering the question together we need to check whether we all have the same understanding of why theatre should be accessible. I am sure everyone here agrees that the arts are a positive social and human force, that they have inherent value for everyone. And I am also sure that we all agree that, morally, it is right that disabled people have access to the arts, as audiences, but also as artists.

But although this moral case for inclusion is important, I think the inclusion of disabled people in theatre, in dance and across culture is important because of the radical contribution to the arts made by disabled artists. Disabled artists who are challenging cultural forms and disrupting our cultural institutions. I believe that some of the most innovative, radical, and, frankly interesting works in the performing arts in Europe are being made by Deaf and disabled artists.

  • Artists with unique experiences of and perspectives on the world make new and unique art.
  • The history of radical art is a history of artists on the periphery developing outside of mainstream institutions and structures, and slowly forcing their way in.
  • Explorations of difference or ‘the other’ help us all understand the society in which we live.

I believe this is the case in Contemporary Dance. Dancers with non-normative bodies bringing different movement vocabularies to the stage, and exploring in new ways the relationship between the body and questions of space and time. Chiara Bersani (external link, opens in a new window) is an Italian Dancemaker who talks about her experience of having a bone condition that means she has learnt, from childhood, to move in slow and focused way. When she brings this unique quality of movement to the stage, not only as dancer, but also as choreographer, she contributes to pushing contemporary dance vocabulary.

I believe it is the case when I see Deaf artists develop a new theatrical language which is not sign language, is not mime, and is not choreography – but somehow is all of these things. It has become known as Visual Vernacular.

I believe this is the case when Learning Disabled artists, like those of Theatre Hora (external link, opens in a new window) in Switzerland, Per.Art (external link, opens in a new window) in Serbia, Meine Damen und Herren (external link, opens in a new window) in Hamburg, Theatre de L’Oiseau Mouche (external link, opens in a new window) in Roubaix, here at the Münchner Kammerspiele, challenge the audience’s comfortable perceptions about the relationship between the actor and the role she is playing.

It is the case in Performance Art, when an artist such as Noëmi Lakmaier (external link, opens in a new window), a psychotherapist and disabled live artist, suspends her immobile body in the air with 40,000 helium balloons in Sydney Opera House or in Hebbel Am Ufer.

It is the case in Visual arts, when an artist like the British neurodivergent artist, Aiden Moseby (external link, opens in a new window), makes complex works about the climate crisis – drawing parallels between his own tempestuous mental weather and the weather extremes more and more experienced across the world.

Yinka Shonibare (external link, opens in a new window), the disabled British-Nigerian Visual Artist states that Disability Arts is the last Avant-Garde. And I love that description – not only because it is provocative and memorable, but because it can cause us to think about what is truly disruptive in our current cultural scene.

I say “disruptive” because that is what I think the artists I have already mentioned are doing artistically within institutions.

Sometimes this challenge to form, this innovation comes from unique social perspectives, and sometimes from political activism. I would say that at least some of the unique cultural practice has developed simply because disabled artists are largely refused entry to cultural education – for a range of reasons. Artists have had to self-curate their cultural education – not taught in the same conservatoires, theatre schools and dance academies – but finding inspiration, expertise and knowledge in places not sought by your average dance, theatre of visual arts student.

This aesthetic disruption, this avant-gardism is especially prevalent when disabled artists lead creative processes, as playwrights, directors, choreographers and dramaturgs.

But in addition to disrupting from within our established institutions, disabled artists are also disrupting the status quo outside of our institutions – both artistically and politically.

Here I think of work of choreographer Caroline Bowditch (external link, opens in a new window), who has made a number of works for outdoor spaces. Caroline states that disabled people are looked at all the time in public space – that we are always on show. For her, it is a radical act to take her dance works out of the dance venue and into the streets. Caroline reclaims the act of being on public view. Unexpected bodies in unexpected places.

I think, too about Silke Schönfleisch-Backhoffen, reclaiming Crip Sexuality in her work Bondage Dual, or the work of the Münchner Kammerspiele guests today, Teatr 21 (external link, opens in a new window) from Warsaw, leading the cultural fight against both political censorship, but also, as we will see tonight, challenging in the most direct of ways, society’s deep-rooted discrimination towards, and patronisation of, disabled people in Poland – but also everywhere [The production "Libido Romantico" by Teatr 21 was shown as part of the "All Abled Arts" festival]

Or I think about funny, irreverent but deeply political production, “Assisted Suicide – The Musical”, by the actor and disability right campaigner Liz Carr (external link, opens in a new window). A production which choses to explore one of the most complex issues faced by the disability rights movement in the UK.

Or most disruptively, I think about the Greek Movement for Artists with Disabilities, which today continues to squat a central-Athens theatre – demanding justice for disabled people, and equal access to cultural life.

So, in a European cultural scene, a European theatre scene, that claims to embrace the radical, the innovative and the disruptive, it would be an artistic failure for an Intendant not to ask how to be more inclusive. The question that really interests me is: Do we want to be included?

Here I’d like to challenge the question a little. For the Theatre institutions and the cultural ecosystem to “include” disabled people reveals a power relationship. “We are choosing to include you now, on our terms.” It suggests to me that disabled people are guests, sometimes honoured guests, but guests nevertheless. Our invitation can be rescinded. Perhaps if we get too argumentative, or because the fashion changes.

Also, so frequently, the invitation to be included does not come as Director, Dramaturg, Playwright or Choreographer. It comes as actor, as dancer, as guest appearance. And, in doing so, perhaps that radical contribution the arts can be lost.

And, I hope you don’t mind saying this as an outsider, I think here in Germany you have a particular problem. The majority of your cultural funding is directed to the mainstream institutions – to the big ensembles of City and State. Be aware, Münchner Kammerspiele is unique.

It is my experience that the most radical work, and the innovative work led by disabled artists around Europe, is developing where independent artists have access to funding and processes outside of mainstream institutions. They are supported to make work on their own terms – finding the home for the work that suits. It gives them power and autonomy.

For Germany, I think here lies a major challenge – to truly become a theatre sector where disabled artists can flourish and innovate, we need to talk not just about content, programmes and who is supported on stages, but about the whole funding ecosystem in its entirety. Daunting yes, but perhaps also exciting.

So, perhaps we should change the question being asked. 

  • First let’s assume that theatre can be very inclusive.
  • Secondly, let’s be conscious that by including others into their processes, cultural institutions can assimilate them and reduce what makes them unique.
  • Third, let’s understand the need for work outside of the big institutions.

So, instead of “How Inclusive can theatre be?”, let’s ask a different question , or series of questions: How can disabled artists benefit from being part of mainstream cultural sector, without being assimilated?

Or, if we must think of the question from the point of view of mainstream cultural institutions: How can mainstream institutions give space for disabled artists, without assimilating the disruptive innovation, and without taking away their control?

And, finally: Instead of worrying how to include those on the periphery of the mainstream, maybe we ask ourselves how we can resource the periphery better.

Author: Ben Evans

About Ben Evans

Ben Evans is responsible for "Arts & Disability in Europe" at the British Council and is also programme director of "Europe Beyond Access", a network of 10 cultural institutions across Europe that has been strengthening the European disability arts scene since 2018. Before joining the British Council in 2011, Evans worked for many years as a theatre director and cultural manager in the UK and around the world.