Collaborating Across Abilities and Cultures

About 350 participants from 12 countries attended the Arts & Disability International Conference 2018 to share developments in the area of arts and disability.

“In Singapore it’s not just about learning about inclusiveness but also putting it into practice through initiatives like the Enabling Village. The argument for multi-disciplinary approaches to the arts and health has not only been made in Singapore but you’re also thinking about how you can enhance it.” – Reena Clare, Arts Psychotherapist, Malaysia, reflecting on her experience at the Arts & Disability International Conference

The Arts & Disability International Conference (ADIC) 2018 was co-organised by the National Arts Council and Very Special Arts (VSA) and supported by principal partners the Singapore International Foundation and British Council. It was the culmination of learnings at the past two years of Arts & Disability Forums. Participants at the Conference built on their earlier discussions, sharing best practices and innovations in inclusive arts and multi-sectorial partnerships.

The Conference speakers included Epic Arts, an inclusive arts organisation in Cambodia, who not only shared about their arts education projects, but allowed the conference delegates to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of their work through a dance showcase by a wheelchair performer.

“We can talk a lot about what impact the arts have, but you need to see it. You need to experience it, otherwise you can’t understand it,” shared Alirio Zavarce, the Artistic Director of No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability (NSA), a theatre company in Australia which is recognised for its methodology and community-building for artistic excellence in arts, disability and theatre.

Speaking at ADIC 2018, held between 22 and 25 March, Alirio shared his methodology and approaches for inclusion to enable effective community engagement through theatre. Using videos featuring in-depth interviews with performers of different abilities, Alirio demonstrated how personal narratives are essential to his theatrical projects. Through a collaborative process, the arts can be harnessed to develop understanding and change mindsets.

Building an Arts For Good Community

To help grow networks and capabilities in the arts and disability sector, the SIF supported 13 Southeast Asian participants and their caregivers, involved in this sector to attend ADIC 2018.

Comprising artists, art administrators, educators and social welfare programmers, the participants also attended a post-conference networking lunch with SIF alumni and partners at Soul Food at Enabling Village, and a learning journey at National Gallery Singapore.

“I believe strongly Singapore is indeed a role model for us all especially in ASEAN to emulate and do more for the Arts among its disabled communities. The Enabling Village should be a standard model for us especially in Malaysia to do likewise.”

- Stevens Chan, Founder and CEO, DID MY Academy Sdn Bhd, Malaysia

Co-creating across cultures

Along with a series of training workshops, Alirio Zavarce, Artistic Director of No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability, and R Chandran, Director of Very Special Theatrics Singapore worked with performers in co-creating material for their collaborative showcase “My Home is Not a Shell.”

Besides the Conference, the SIF and VSA brought together NSA and Very Special Theatrics Singapore (VST) to exchange perspectives and collaborate on a creative production. VST, which began in 2017, is a semi-professional performing arts company that aims to give opportunities to people with special needs to find a vocation in the arts.
Alirio, VST Director R Chandran and actors from VST developed the play’s concept and script during workshops in February 2018. Combining script, light projections, video clips and props, the production explored new approaches to theatre, explored personal struggles as well as broader societal issues. 
“I asked a lot of questions.” Alirio explained. “What do you want to do? What characters do you want to play? What do you want to say? What do you want the audience to feel and experience? We go through a lot of different experimental processes in order to discover what the ensemble wants to create.”  From these conversations and explorations, “My Home is not a Shell” was born.
The play centres on a crab that has lost its home, and its quest to find a new one. Along the way, the crab faces questions of belonging and rejection. The story can be seen as a reflection of Singapore: how it is looking to build a sense of home for its citizens, in the midst of rapid change and development.
For VST, this collaboration was an opportunity to introduce new ways of working. “We want to inspire them to think more, and work better as a team,” said Chandran. “This way, everyone can be a star together.” 
“My Home is not a Shell” was the sole theatre component of the True Colours Festival, the first Asia Pacific festival featuring artistes with disabilities. The work-in-progress was performed to a full house on 24 and 25 March 2018. It was billed side-by-side with the world premiere of NSA’s latest work “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, which focused on the subject of memory. The actors explored questions such as: What is memory? What happens when we lose our memories? How does it affect our identity?

Advancing Arts and Disability

“As Helen Keller said, ‘Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.’ ‘My Home is not a Shell’ could not have happened without the belief and commitment of SIF, NSA, VSA-VST and The Nippon Foundation’s support for the True Colours Festival. The collaboration has given greater insights into what VST actors can do.” – Maureen Goh, Executive Director, Very Special Arts Singapore, on the collaboration that leveraged the potential of arts for social good.

Alirio and Chandran hope that this collaboration is the first small step towards developing something bigger for the actors at both theatre companies and at the same time contributing to the development of the arts and disability landscape and inclusiveness in both countries.

“Singapore is such a beautiful place and its cultural diversity fascinates me. Here you have all these amazing cultures working together regardless of difference. But diversity is more than colour, culture and religion, it includes ability, sexual orientation and gender. Imagine if Singapore could add all notions of diversity and continue to work together in harmony? I think Singapore has the potential of becoming a real example of harmony to the world.”

- Alirio Zavarce, Artistic Director, No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability

“It’s about providing opportunities for people with disabilities, rather than hindrances. Once given a chance to perform, they blossom. In Singapore, the environment is very positive. There’s a lot of support from people here. I think mindsets towards disability are slowly changing.”

- R Chandran, Director, Very Special Theatrics Singapore

“There's a lot of opportunity for disabled arts to advance. The best way is to cut across individuals and organisations and just do it.” said Andrew Liew, Chairman of VSA. "Just talking about it, getting together and doing it is already one big step."

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