By Laura Meaton
What do you do when your practise is movement and the world tells you to stay still?
I was in the middle of movement directing for several drama school showcases and had just wrapped on a production when I suddenly found myself confined to my room. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of dance tutorials and online exercise programmes (thanks Joe Wicks) to keep me busy but there wasn’t anything that resembled a creative practise. I also realised that for a lot of people these videos were completely inaccessible.
I had met my friend Athena Stevens in 2018 working on a production at The Other Place in Stratford upon Avon. We came to the joint realisation that current ‘ensemble’ practises ignored a reality that every-‘body’ has a valued place in society; not just those that are easy to choreograph. While individuals with unique bodies have been ghettoised into companies specifically offered as a concession for performers with disabilities, this was no longer good enough and restricted our imagination.
Suddenly finding ourselves with the time to do this properly, Athena and I began a long term training programme to try and find what a physical ensemble of the two of us would look like. In reality Athena never had access to basic movement and dance courses as a child, she simply wasn’t allowed to participate. That was a privilege that marked my entire youth through to my professional debut and I was able to adapt those previous practises and methods into something accessible. Athena, with her years of early morning physio and discipline to ‘simply’ learn to stand up-right, had a deep underlying faith in the miraculous power of neuroplasticity and she would often say to me “Give me three weeks and I’ll get it” and she did, often in two.
During the initial lockdown, where I was able to write up my plans, I realised I had little to no idea what I was doing. After all, I am an actor and a movement artist not a physiotherapist.
So I made several plans. And then I ended up throwing a lot of pages into the bin.
Once we were able to meet in person we trained for around an hour a day four days a week through the summer months. If that seems like a lot, it was. For the first time in our lives we had the time and the studio space which was otherwise vacant. I was working a full time shop job and Athena was still recovering from long COVID so whereas I would run off to work Athena could rest and process what we had done that morning. We went right down to basics and examined what the foundations were in most trainings. For Athena lying on the floor and lifting each limb in a straight line was enough of challenge, every body part had to learn to work in isolation as cerebral palsy throws multiple neurological impulses at a movement hoping that one of them is roughly right.
By the time we had to take our training online we had built a strong enough foundation to keep working safely. Athena bought an exercise bike to increase her heart and lung capacity and, alongside her strength, balance and co-ordination training we were doing, became a lot more confident in her movement.
So what do we do next? As theatre rightly starts to diversify how do we tackle the physical barriers that many performers face? As an industry getting back to work we are still demanding everybody to come packaged with one training sticker stuck on their label. This discriminatory expectation keeps doors closed to amazing creatives and our productions are weaker for it. The reality is f you have over 5 people on stage and none of them identify as disabled then you have not created art but a statistical anomaly. We are not saying this as a chastisement, it is something we believe theatre makers need to be aware of when looking at each production.
Too often practicalities mask discrimination. Sia refused to have an autistic actor playing the lead in her film about a young person with autism, because she said that the production schedule would be too tough. Why can’t we adapt the schedule? Why can’t we adapt the training? And why do we only ever have this conversation about a role characterised as someone with a disability? Athena dropped out of the Royal Scottish Conservatoire when a teacher refused to give her any sort of foundation and yet demanded that she would ‘eventually learn to juggle if she just tried hard enough’. Not being able to access physical trainings has had no impact on her ability to become an Olivier nominated actor and playwright but it has prevented her from joining an ensemble thus far.
We are still working, we are still training and we believe as a team that if you do the work you will be ready when the opportunities come. And they will come, and we will be cast side by side in a production. Our only question is, who has the creative fortitude, coming out of this year when so many people have been physically and neurologically affected by a tiny strand of RNA, to take us and others like us up on the offer?
By Laura Meaton with contributions as always from Athena Stevens.