Notes on Body Language: A workshop exploring expressions for the disabled performer

Marye Barton links arms and pulls Spirit Synott, leaning back in her wheelchair. Toronto 1999.

I wrote this article in 1999 on the cusp of a new era of disability arts programming designed by me, then Cross Cultural Director, at the Toronto Theatre Alliance [now TAPA]. It is remarkable to revisit this unaltered document today. What has changed since 1999? What remains the same? How does your experience intersect with this cultural phenomenon? Where do we find ourselves in 2016? At time of writing we were using the term ‘able-bodied’ but now use the more acceptable term ‘non-disabled’.

Monday January 25th

The pressure of eight months’ preparation melt before the palpable excitement of this remarkable group – all gifted performers, creators, educators. Disabled and non-disabled artists will share in the week’s work – core artists Meiko Ando, Marye Barton, Mark Brose, Alex Bulmer, John Burgess, Liz Dixon, Joe Duffy, Kathleen Rockhill, Spirit Synott, Kazumi Tsuruoka; collaborating artists Shawn Campbell, Rachel Gorman, Randall Lanthier, Viv Moore. Miriam Rother, our movement specialist, has just arrived from Budapest and jetlag not withstanding she is virtually humming with anticipation. Fides Krucker will be here by 4:00 to lead a voice session. I have finally parked all the cars in the icy back lot of Can Stage! Time to get down to work.

Is there a whole new language to be discovered here that communicates in an entirely different way? Able-bodied people always refer to ‘body language’ – what they mean is “able-bodied language”. Can we turn this around artistically and professionally? Can the performers in this group make statements about what it feels like to be disabled, about aspirations, hidden thoughts, things they never want to hear again? Can these statements be physicalized? This is an opportunity to focus on a specific aspect of both disability and theatre – movement. The workshop is a chance to get into space and bring our findings back to the professional arena.

Wednesday January 27th

The rehearsal hall is an incubator, a laboratory, a sanctuary. Today it’s been transformed into a swaying, gliding, undulating space accompanied by breathing and syncopated sounds. Miriam’s introduction to the process has been clear. Over the week we are creating a working lexicon, at first based solely on physical directions which are gradually being extended to create physical tableaux, then more complex phrases, choreographies. Physical directions help externalize the internal, so that messages from the body can then be fused with imaginative and text-based imagery to begin the journey towards individual expression. We are exploring anything and everything the body or a particular body can do. We’ll discover a range of movements that is both within and outside our specific experience – surely the primary goal of every trained performer. Contrasts, extremes, line, the bases of the body, alignment, direction are all being incorporated. Improvisation helps us access our utmost possibilities.

Fides says that everyone in this world “holds their breath”; withholds breath and therefore blocks energy. We talk about our relationships to our own voices. Touch, massage is used to make the breath visible, to accompany its journey throughout the body. Imagination and body share in moving breath, and everyone is lying on the floor by now, Kazumi has a gorgeous sound, he’s howling like a wolf. An opera of sighs, moans, deliberate and random voicings makes this feel like a birthing room. Spirit says she feels more sensation in her legs, Randall says he experienced a growing body heat; having arrived tired he now feels energized.

Friday January 29th

Earlier in the week we moved through imagined honey, water, small, round, angular spaces. Now we’re working a lot in pairs. Working with the body’s bases is heavy and earthbound compared to the other exercises – gravitational. People have overcome their exhaustion to work. Today we focus on the bases using the image of trees. Extraordinary paired pieces have emerged and suddenly we’re making art.

Yesterday, some anger erupted over the abrupt entrance of a group of videographers who had requested to shoot our session. Their approach felt so intrusive we asked them to leave. Right on! This workshop is about empowerment among other things and the process must remain in the hands of the participants.

Conversation during our daily wrap has been extremely vital, honest, radical. The workshop has been an opportunity for the artists to create from their own well of social as well as physical experience, their anger, passion and wisdom. Today we finalize the components of tomorrow’s presentation to take place before an invited audience of theatre associates, artistic directors, peers, friends. It will combine a transparent view of our working process with more formal pieces I think it’s going to blow the audience out of the water.

Saturday, January 30th

The rehearsal hall is uncluttered and naturally lit with seats ringing the periphery of the space. There is plenty of room for those performers in wheelchairs to move expansively and for audience members to view the work from different angles. I am a little nervous because I am participating in the presentation but I feel focused and very lucky. As I tell the audience during my brief introduction, this has been one of the most interesting and precious weeks of my life. Everything I believed true and possible has been confirmed – the creative strength and potential in those performers who move differently, the abundant evidence that different physical abilities can and do enrich the artistic impact and significance of a theatrical work, the obvious and fundamental right and ability of the disabled performer to participate fully in professional theatre enterprise.

As expected, our audience was riveted by what they saw. One choreographer exclaimed that he had not witnessed such exciting dance exploration in years. There was an edge and urgency to the work, an artistic honestly fuelled by imagination, drive and courage. By having something powerful to say. The collaborative potential within this ensemble is enormous as evidenced by partnerships that have already developed during the workshop.

But what of the theatre community as a whole? One audience member put it simply in her question: “The work done here was tremendous. It’s ripe with possibility. So…what next?”

I replied “I thought you’d never ask!” For me the answer is quite obvious. The links we at the TTA have forged with disabled artists are integral to our mandate and we intend to expand and continue services to the best of our ability. But we are not a producing company. Our strength lies in reaching out, developing connections and creating opportunities for formal relationships between disabled artists and members of the theatre producing network to occur. Disabled performers, writers, directors want and need access to work within the community. Work with this constituency ultimately falls within the artistic programming of the theatres themselves. And in turn requires artistic directors, producers and managers of theatres to educate themselves, to embrace the challenges if only for the rewards they will yield, and to accommodate, to the best of their abilities, the particular needs of disabled artists with some commitment of resources.


Originally published in January 1999.


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