I am interested in the concept of questions as a form of research methodology. What I mean when I say this is that I like the idea of doing a bit of research to discover a question, which may mean starting with something that seems fairly concrete. This might seem a bit backwards, but is particularly useful when suspected answers end up being subjective, fluid and/or highly changeable. I have realized that my entire life has been based in finding questions and releasing them out into the world around me. People who don’t know me often read me as a question. They ask how capable I am or whether or not I need help. I get asked about once a week how much I can see or how best to interact with me so as not to be offensive or inappropriate. Every single one of these questions is subjective, fluid, highly changeable depending on where I am, what I am doing and who is asking. Regardless, they feel like they start out of something that seems concrete. They start from me. I might be constantly changing, like everyone else, but I am here and that (usually) feels pretty stable.
In my own research, I am beginning to find myself questioning what may seem like somewhat concrete concepts in society. These concepts often appear as definitive statements. Two that I have been hearing a lot recently are “diversity” and “inclusivity”. They are being thrown around in politics, at theatre shows, music gigs, in higher learning institutions, conferences, pubs, restaurants, clubs … and everyone acts like they know exactly what they mean. I find myself drawn to words like this. I love the idea of being diverse and inclusive. Much of my writing is based on these very concepts … but what do they actually mean? I will give two examples of how this question arose.
A few weeks ago a friend and I were invited to attend a networking event for the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW). I wont lie, I went with a healthy bit of skepticism about what the event would bring, and left pleasantly surprised. I learned quite a bit, met some lovely people and exchanged a few numbers, while hearing some pretty frustrating (though not surprising) statistics about just how under represented women still are in the theatre world. Despite all of this, I could not help but notice that other than a few exceptions, the room was mainly full of older, (probably) non-disabled (heterosexual??) white women. The talk of the night was about diversifying theatre to be inclusive of more women … but there was almost no diversity or inclusion in the room. Moreover, when I told most of the women there that I was a blind actor, I was met with both skeptical and patronizing conversation. One director even told me a “hilarious” story about how she had been working with an actress who was losing her hearing. Apparently this actress had kept that fact quiet, but was found out on a movie set when one of the scenes was to be filmed in a car. She could not lip read her fellow actor’s lines and was therefore struggling to do the scene … so of course they replaced her! Hilarious … Now, that particular director aside, I am not meaning to “diss” the LPTW as they are doing difficult and important work. However, it is clear that my concept of “diversity” and “inclusion” is different then theirs.
Of course, my blindness was there. They had a lot of questions and uncertainties (how much can you see? How capable are you? Do you need help?) as they had never worked with a blindy before, but they just … got on with it. This included embracing and incorporating my access needs into rehearsals (such as being line fed as opposed to holding a script) and performances (such as choreographing dances so that I was physically connected to my fellow actors). Our cast was also a good representation of ethnic and cultural diversity. It felt pretty inclusive to me … but was it? Did they leave someone out? Probably, though it’s not for lack of trying.Example two happened over the holiday period. For the first time in my life, I was hired by a mainstream theatre company to do a mainstream show, I believe, simply because they liked me and thought I was good at what I do. This show was Beauty and the Beast at Theatre Royal Stratford East. For once, blindness had nothing to do with why they hired me. I did not make them more attractive to the Arts Council thus giving them more funding. They’re not a disability led company, scraping and clawing for inclusion in the arts. They just wanted to do a fun Christmas panto with an energetic aerialist who could sing, and I happened to fit the bill.
In queer, crip and feminist culture and theory, talk about diversity and inclusion can be presented with a sense of utopian equality for everyone. This utopia is sometimes praised, sometimes shunned and sometimes left open as a question … or at least a subjective, fluid and highly changeable answer. I think in their ideal forms, diversity and inclusion are about making a space at the table for everyone and anyone. But when we live in a world that is so full of patriarchal, heteronormative and ablest barriers that this never “really” gets achieved. When you’re constantly taught that disability is “bad”, that women are “weak” and that homosexuality is “wrong”, it is very hard not to embed this rhetoric in some of your own thinking … no matter how much you fight against those very constructs.
So, if we can’t have utopia, maybe these words are about trying to do new things with new people that are unknown and unseen. Or maybe it’s just about continuing to ask questions … What do these words actually mean in this subjective, fluid, highly changeable moment? How do we diversify? Are we truly inclusive? How can we do better?
Photo: Robert Day.