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Living the legacy
Date posted: 01 November 2018
Hannah Barker, Creative Producer at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry explains how and why 11 Million Reasons to Dance supported the process of welcoming an Agent for Change into the theatre and its local community
Hannah Barker

The thought of creating a legacy can be intimidating. It is essential if you really want to elicit long-term change – many would say it is as, or more, important than the project itself! Yet by the time the energy and fervour of delivering something has dissipated and you are knee-deep in the next venture, it can so easily lose momentum. 

Arriving into a new role at the Belgrade, however, just as the 11 Million Reasons to Dance exhibition was drawing to a close, the legacy was a challenge all of its own, and the perfect excuse to explore talent development and participation from a different angle. The question was: How does the building approach working with artists and audiences with physical disabilities?

I knew the Belgrade was looking to be more proactive in its approach to working with D/deaf and disabled artists and audiences. In 2016/17, the theatre had partnered with Graeae as part of the Write to Play scheme, hosting workshops and supporting writers to deliver a sharing of their work. This and the subsequent programming of Reasons to be Cheerful, was a very positive experience but identified areas of learning for staff not often used to working with artists with physical disability and posed some important questions about approach and process moving forward. It suggested we needed something to capture these conclusions and effect long term change.

This became further confirmed in early discussions, in particular with Vanessa Oxspring at People Dancing and Yael Owen-McKenna, of Coventry Performing Arts. Offering an artist residency was not going to be enough to significantly grow and embed a sustainable legacy, even if it did offer that individual some practical resources; such as space to R&D new projects; a new and different network of artists/collaborators; and additional paid workshop opportunities, to name a few. The residency also had the potential to make disability more ‘visible’ in the theatre, as well as encourage the theatre to think about its dance provision – an area for which the Belgrade is not known. And, importantly, by working more directly with disabled artists, the residency could prompt us to think about whether the way we currently support visiting artists is sufficiently flexible and open to a variety of different needs and processes. 

However, we needed a means of capturing some of the discoveries we made while the resident dance artist was with us at the Belgrade, and this came in the form of an Agent for Change. We purposely didn’t make the role too prescriptive before recruiting, allowing space for that artist to bring something personal and specific to the post, just as they would with their role as Artist in Residence. We did, however, identify some key objectives for the Belgrade – inspired by issues thrown up during 11 Million Reasons to Dance and Write to Play. We discussed what the legacy might look like in other venues across the country, not to copy but to complement and share.

It was during an eventful interview process that the role began to really crystallise. Meeting artists with a range of needs highlighted how much we had to learn about accessibility in the building; this was illustrated perfectly in our unfortunate seating of the BSL interpreter in an area of the room that forced the artist to crane back and forth between her and the interviewers before we finally clocked our mistake and moved the interpreter to sit between us.

The interviews also raised another interesting question around invisible disabilities – which brought in further issues around access requirements previously not considered. But where does invisible disability stand in our attempt to make those with disabilities from across Coventry see themselves reflected in their civic theatre?

It encouraged us to further test what we felt this residency should be doing for the Belgrade and the Coventry community more widely. There was the Arts Council’s Creative Case for Diversity and our developing Equalities Action Plan to think about, but it was more than that. The progress made in our main focuses of socio-economic and BAME over the life of the previous plan provided a strong foundation for growing a broader approach to diversity, with a particular drive to work with more D/deaf & disabled artists. And with Coventry City of Culture 2021 now on the horizon, we wanted to make sure we were genuinely reaching out to all corners of the city, and to do that we needed to review what we were not doing and be honest about what we didn’t know.  

And here is where Dan Daw came in. A dancer originating from Australia, now based in Worcestershire, he told us about a show he was making that looked at what he called “inspiration porn”. In other words, the tendency for people to call him (maybe even rely on him to be) an ‘inspiration’ for them, not because of the quality of the work he makes but simply through the act of making work as a disabled artist. As well as being an interesting premise for a show, it was a perfect example of what happens when people’s misunderstandings and fears around disability are not appropriately discussed and articulated – the very reason an Agent for Change was necessary at the Belgrade.

Since Dan joined us, we have tried to anchor his presence, experience, insights and openness into the heart of the organisation. Working towards his ambitions for the role and our shared objectives, he has curated workshops with staff in departments including production, communications, front of house, events, artistic direction and community and education, provoking honest discussion on access across the building. His approach has allowed staff to share fears and misunderstandings without feeling judged or disloyal, turning those worries into questions we are now striving to answer and ultimately address.
Work continues on how we respond to what we have found. At this stage, we know we have more work to do to address the issues that have been raised. We know we need to keep consulting on our fears and misunderstandings as new ones emerge. We know, too, that this pilot model has peaked interest among other venues across the Midlands and at the Arts Council.
We have not yet arrived at where we want to be but arguably that’s the point of a legacy isn’t it? Its success relies on its ongoing impact.

Hannah Barker
Creative Producer – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry


Banner image shows: A Belgrade Theatre, Coventry/Graeae performance of Reasons to be Cheerful. Photo by Patrick Baldwin

Portrait image shows: Hannah Barker, Creative Producer, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry