Written by Tamara LaPlante
In her 2017 book, “Theatre & Disability,” Petra Kuppers begins by recounting the moment she says goodbye to her wheelchair in the foyer of a theatre, before making her way to her seat. To secure wheelchair seating, Kuppers would’ve had to book her ticket far in advance, but she acknowledges her small advantage of being a walking chair user. She hooks readers with a comparison of the “concept of disability” to “disability as a lived category,” and how the former has existed as a symbol to story’s plot in the history of theatre. Kuppers writes about common experiences of what it means to be a performer with a disability; how audience members living with disabilities experience theatre; and how theatre, accessibility, and everyday society influence each other, all of which can be explored within Ottawa’s own theatre community.
Artists and performers who live with disabilities are trying to induce change in the industry, and are reshaping the narrative of disability for able-bodied audiences. Ottawa’s own Propeller Dance Company is an example of a trailblazing group in the Ottawa community. They create, present and teach integrated dance and disability arts. The company consists of two co-artistic directors, seven performers and a recreational program that offers classes for children, youth and adults who live with various disabilities. Propeller also serves in outreach and education by bringing their live performances to children in schools across the city.
The company hasn’t limited their work to the confines of a standard theatre stage, however. While they currently hold residency at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), Propeller Dance has also participated in events on a grand scale. These performances include the opening ceremonies of the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto and the Canada 150 celebrations in Ottawa.
“Those [performances] are our part of being Canadian, our part of the of the big celebrations,” Liz Winkelaar said in an interview. Winkelaar is one of the company dancers who has been working with Propeller for over 11 years.
Living the Desirable Life was the name of Propeller’s performance at the Canada 150 celebration and was directed and choreographed by Renata Soutter in collaboration with the artists. Soutter also acts as one of the company’s co-artistic directors. Living the Desirable Life was the company’s first hour-long performance that blended elements of dance and theatre together.
Winkelaar said 2017 was a great challenge for the company. On top of preparing for the nation-wide celebration on July 1, they also developed a production of The Wild Life, an outdoor performance piece that took place a few months later in the outdoor environment of the Canadensis Garden within the Experimental Farm.
“I love doing something like [an] outdoor project because then people unexpectedly see us, not just our fans that buy a ticket,” said Winkelaar. The performance of The Wild Life was attended by approximately 200 people, according to Winkelaar, and was a mix of long-time followers of Propeller and first-time audience members.
Soutter described The Wild Life as a reconnection with the land. There was excitement in bringing the performance to a space that appeared to be inaccessible and creating new possibilities, she said.
“[It was] a whole new exploration of the environment, and accessibility, and the lack thereof,” said Soutter, who directed the production and choreographed the piece in collaboration with the other artists. Soutter’s inspiration for The Wild Life developed from the desire to be outdoors after 15 years of creating works for a studio setting. She spent a year researching various site-specific settings in the city and the company partnered with Marc Walter, an environmental sculptor, on the project. Walter has a sculpture on display at the Canadensis garden, which became the location Propeller’s performance; he also created new portable sculptures for the dancers to incorporate into their choreography.
Soutter wanted to instill a sense of journey in the production, which happened quite literally as choreography took place at four different sculptures throughout the garden, culminating at Walter’s sculpture. While transitioning between locations, audience members had a chance to converse with each other and enjoy the environment around them, according to Soutter. The overarching story was tied together by a narrator, a character referred to as “The Green Man” or “The Wild Man.”
The final product was a success, but it didn’t come without its tribulations. Earlier in the year, Propeller was meant to do an outdoor workshop performance of The Wild Life outside at the Shenkman Centre that got rained out. “We had the theatre rented and we ended up just doing it on the stage,” Soutter said. “That was maybe less successful because it didn’t have the natural environment. That proved our hypothesis that site-specific work is really site-specific.”
The garden itself posed a new set of challenges. During rehearsals in the garden, some of the dancers performing in wheelchairs got stuck in the mud, one of the performers was stung by a bee, and being outside meant rehearsal was weather dependent. One rehearsal took place under the awning of the barn in the garden as the performers waited out a heavy thunderstorm. “There were adventures that happened and little hardships that sort of added up to making it that much more exciting,” Winkelaar said about the process.
The question of accessibility within the Canadensis garden came up throughout the process. “We kind of pushed the limit on that a little bit to be in discovery mode and draw attention to spaces that are visited or aren’t visited by people with mobility aids,” Soutter said. They had discussed the idea of bringing plywood boards to create a more accessible pathway, she said. All of these challenges helped influence the final choreography and story of The Wild Life.
A long-term goal for Propeller Dance is to have a fully accessible home for the organization, but there is a possibility that the company may pursue more site-specific work, according to Soutter. She also hopes to see “a continued curiosity from audience goers, and society at large, around non-ableist aesthetics in art making.”
Propeller’s desire to challenge their performers and the audience to think outside the confines of black box studios doesn’t mean that traditional theatre has answered all the questions in regards to accessibility.
Referring back to Theatre and Disability, Kuppers describes in detail how traditional theatre resembles a “machine”. She examines the plethora of barriers that people living with disabilities may encounter within the physical space of the theatre. She analyzes how details as seemingly minute as seat size and house lighting to more broad ones such as economics and race can (and often do) affect how much and how effectively these patrons and artists can engage with live performance. Kuppers uses these examples to highlight how these factors need to be considered by both able-bodied patrons and practitioners alike within every venue when it comes to creating accessible theatre spaces.
Patrons with disabilities wish to be aware of what barriers they may encounter at a venue before purchasing their ticket. As progress is slowly being made towards a more accessible society, many theatre venues will disclose this information for their patrons before they must take the initiative to ask. Of the major theatre venues in Ottawa, four companies have a dedicated space on their websites detailing their individual accessibility policies: GCTC, Ottawa Little Theatre, Centrepointe Theatre and the National Arts Centre (NAC).
The GCTC has an accessibility page that opens with a mission statement that they “strive to provide an inclusive environment that is welcoming and accessible to all – physically, emotionally, and creatively.” After listing the various policies and services they have in place, the company also includes a feedback form. GCTC opens the dialogue and encourages people to suggest what the company can do improve their accessibility policies and services.
Those wishing to see a show at the Ottawa Little Theatre will find almost every aspect of the theatre-going experience – from the moment patrons arrive at their step-free entrance on Besserer Street, until the curtain closes, and the Front of House manager has ensured all patrons have found a safe way home – outlined for them, including details of accessibility services for patrons who require them.
Under their “FAQ and Policies” page, Centrepointe Theatre lists their services relating to service animals, companion tickets, hearing assistance, seat relocation, and wheelchairs, to just name a few. They even include a tidbit directed towards patrons living with short-term disabilities, which they call “Temporary Disabilities” on the Centrepointe website. Centrepointe also shares an external resource, linking to the City of Ottawa’s accessibility policy.
Similar to Centrepointe Theatre, the NAC’s accessibility policies are not labeled on their main page, instead, “Accessibility” is a subheading under the “Visit” page. However, the policy is thorough in detailing the various accommodations and services offered by the NAC for its patrons.
Another event that brings out record attendance numbers is the annual Ottawa Fringe Festival which runs for 10 straight days in June. Anyone who is familiar with a Fringe festival knows that a set number of productions are selected via lottery that takes places earlier on in the season. However, there is an option for artists not selected in the lottery to participate through a “bring your own venue” (BYOV) application process. This approach also creates a way for site-specific performances to be included in the Fringe festival.
The Fringe Festival made an amendment to the application for the 2019 festival, which required all venues submitted as a BYOV to be “physically accessible”, according to the Fringe’s website. Guidelines for BYOV applications states that “venues that do not meet the Fringe’s accessibility standards will not be accepted.”
[Editor’s Note: This year the Ottawa Fringe Festival has done an enormous job of making their website more accessible, specifically for Patrons who live with visual impairments, you can now find all images with accompanying text descriptions. Furthermore, they have access to Sensory Backpacks and “Chill Out” spaces for any individuals needing to escape the din of the Courtyard spaces. ]
That being said, the creation of accessible and engaging artistic environments isn’t the exclusive responsibility of individual venues. Kuppers explores in her book the way society views disability at large, as she writes “the term ‘disabled people’ emerges out of a political understanding of disability as social oppression.” She poses the example of a society that values using staircases to create aesthetically pleasing architecture, however, this excludes those with limited mobility from participating in that society.
“As long as a society’s aesthetics, that is, ways of thinking of things as beautiful, allow for difference, no disability exists,” Kuppers writes. She elaborates and explains that disability extends beyond physical barriers, and in a society that values fast action and efficiency, which isolates “people who live with pain, fatigue, or different cognitive patterns.”
ArtsBuild Ontario is an organization dedicated to developing solutions for sustainable art facilities. They have streamlined “The Learning Series” which is a collection of online seminars sharing the goal of helping arts organizers realize the potential for their creative spaces.
One of ArtsBuild Ontario’s seminars that took place in January was “Let’s Talk About Disability and Creative Spaces,” with many similar topics in queue on their calendar. “Let’s Talk About Disability” featured presenters Thea Kurdi, the vice president of DesignABLE Environments, and Sage Lovell, the founder of Deaf Spectrum.
During her presentation, Kurdi explains how accessibility and design complement each other. “If we currently don’t have a disability, we are all an illness, accident, or aging away from developing one,” she said. “It’s better design[sic] to be thinking about this from that kind of perspective.”
She expands on the concept of universal design, and how it is better to move forward designing spaces that are accessible to any individual from the onset.
Kurdi mentions how it is only a mere six years from the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act’s projected goal of having a fully accessible Ontario by 2025. There is still much work to be done, but progress is happening to create a society that ideally barrier-free.
Right now, we can look to artists such as the community at Propeller Dance who are changing the conventions imposed by traditional theatre forms. We can support their work as they bring theatre to new environments and as they challenge the preconceived notions and structures of able-bodied theatre performance. We can engage with literature like Kuppers’ to expand our knowledge on the topic, and gain insight on what a fully accessible society looks like. Accessibility is not the work of an individual or a sole organization, it is the responsibility of all the members of society to work towards.
Propeller Dance Company is showcasing their new work FRAME OF MIND from June 19th-21st at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. June 19th is a relaxed (and non-ticketed) event, see the company’s webpage for more details.
[Editor’s Note: the pictures selected for this article represent a selection of performances by Propeller Dance Company whose work we are highlighting]
Edited by Caitlin Gowans and Brie McFarlane