Bounce! Festival 2014
Arts and Disability Forum host their annual celebration of accessible art in the Lyric Theatre from August 28 – 31
‘We were showing great work, we’d professionalised the programme, we were getting lots of people coming to our events. But I’d said we won’t do a festival, because I don’t think the sector’s ready for it.’
Chris Ledger is sipping tea in a café, a stone’s throw from the office space of the Arts and Disability Forum in Belfast, where she is chief executive officer.
The ADF exists to facilitate the activities of deaf and disabled artists, and though Ledger herself has vast experience mounting such events, until relatively recently she was reluctant to project the work onto a broader platform.
‘It was 2012, the Paralympics were coming, and suddenly I thought, we can do this,’ Ledger explains. ‘So we decided to take a really big step and run the festival. It was like our version of the Olympics. We showed the very best work available.’
The result was Bounce!, and Ledger doesn’t disguise the fact that initiating Northern Ireland’s first bespoke festival for disabled artists cost her a certain amount of start-up-related anxiety.
‘I was terrified,' she recalls. ‘Because we were doing this in Northern Ireland, where people had not seen any of this work by professional artists who were disabled or deaf. So there tend to be assumptions made.’
The assumptions being that disabled artists produce work only for themselves and other disabled people, as ‘therapy’ or ‘something that’s good for you’, as Ledger puts it. It can’t, therefore, be bona fide artwork of a fully professional standard, worthy of festival status.
That’s a line of argument which Ledger rejects passionately. ‘I think the first year of the festival established that there was real artistic quality there. There are people who still talk about some of the work that they’ve seen during Bounce! as the most emotionally powerful they’ve seen, ever.’
There are, Ledger believes, particular reasons why the perception of the disabled and their art in Northern Ireland historically lagged significantly behind the development of attitudes in England.
‘In England there was a disability protest movement that was about civil rights for disabled people, equal rights – where people chained themselves to buses. Disabled artists were completely at the centre of all that. A culture evolved where disabled people were feeling strength about being together.’
Little of that direct activism spilled over into the Northern Ireland of the period. ‘There were other things going on here,’ reflects Ledger, referring to the Troubles, which, she believes, inevitably relegated some ‘softer’ elements of the social policy agenda to the undergrowth.
The impact of the Troubles on disability issues has not, however, been uniformly negative. ‘There are people who have become disabled through the Troubles, either physically disabled or they have mental health issues’, Ledger comments. ‘And I think there is more of an understanding among the MLAs here about what it’s like to be disabled than in England.’
This year’s version of Bounce! extends over four days in Belfast, from August 28 – 31, and includes a wide variety of genres, including song, dance, drama, storytelling, visual art, circus, poetry and stand-up comedy.
One innovation that Ledger has found invaluable in curating the 2014 festival has been a creative partnership with the Lyric Theatre, where most of the Bounce! events will happen.
‘It’s important to get the support of a theatre that knows what it’s doing. The working relationship with the Lyric in the delivery of the festival has been superb. They’ve helped us a lot. They’ve collaborated, they’ve been willing to take risks.’
Of the many shows on offer, Ledger singles out Let Me Stay as one she is particularly looking forward to seeing. ‘It’s an autobiographical piece by a performer whose mother has got Alzheimer’s disease, and who has got mental health issues herself. It’s about a different way of dealing with Alzheimer’s. Very personal and it hurts, but it’s also funny.’
Ledger is excited too by the visit of award-winning writer-performer Robert Softley, who has cerebral palsy. His solo theatre piece, If These Spasms Could Speak, is built, says Ledger, around ‘information [Softley] has picked up from disabled people about sex, desire, body image. It’s just an incredibly powerful piece of theatre.’
Although the art created by disabled people can be very obviously ‘different’ – in look, outlook and attitude – Ledger is at pains to emphasise the major areas of overlap and commonality that exist with work created by artists from the non-disabled population.
‘If you’re an artist, you’re about the aesthetics of that art form, and generally it takes into account your life experience too in some way,’ she explains. ‘Whether you’re disabled or not, you’re about doing something to the best of your ability.’
Ledger is, though, adamant that the art created by disabled people can, at its best, carry a special charge and message, and that the shows in Bounce! are ‘100%’ accessible for any kind of audience, both those with disabilities and those without them.
‘I think it’s the emotional content. It’s a different kind of voice. It’s not a voice that audiences have heard before. It’s about a different kind of life experience. It’s not about the triumph over tragedy cliché. It's about [how] that person moves in a different way, that person thinks in a different way, and isn’t that interesting?’
Despite the ongoing difficulties of securing adequate public funding and subventions for arts-related activities in Northern Ireland – ‘It’s absolutely horrendous, always on a knife-edge’, Ledger grimaces – it is clear that Bounce!’s creator does not wish the third edition of the festival to be the last one.
‘The first year we invented it, in 2012, I thought that it would probably be a one-off. I think that the response we got from people – including from those who weren’t disabled or deaf – we just knew that we needed to make it a year-on activity.
‘Now it feels like it’s a part of our core activity, though it’s not core-funded. Three years ago we weren’t even on the map. We’re completely on the map with it now, and we’ve become a very desirable place for disabled artists to visit and perform at.’
Bounce! runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from August 28 – 31. Visit the Arts and Disability Forum website for more information.