As the government sets about launching their new National Disability Strategy, Michelle Temperley discusses the concept of inclusivity in the arts and how it can be achieved.
Here at National Youth Theatre (NYT) we have been on a journey over the last few years to explore how we as a charity and how the wider arts industry respond to this question.
In all our work we have always sought to celebrate the ways that we are different and create an environment where everyone can thrive and do their best work. This is a given for most arts organisations; A culture of acceptance, openness, collaboration and experimentation is vital for them to succeed. So why has it been such a struggle for our sector to develop and attract young disabled and neurodiverse talent? Why do many people feel the arts are still inaccessible and far from inclusive?
Often when thinking about addressing inequality the arts industry starts at the top. We recognise how under-represented groups lack visibility. We highlight and try to tackle the lack of public role models and mainstream recognition and appetite for their output. These are laudable responses but as we all instinctively know, change has to be underpinned by something more, something deeper; an infrastructure that will support and sustain these desired cultural shifts.
The Arts Council’s current ten year strategy, ‘Let’s Create’, recognises this too. It cites as two of its three key outcomes the need to support the development of ‘Creative people – opportunities for everyone to develop and express themselves creatively’ and ‘Cultural communities – villages, towns and cities that thrive through a collaborative approach to culture’. Together we must work to create inclusive cultural communities which offer scope for disabled and neurodiverse young people to experience and shape their cultural worlds.
But where to begin? It’s tempting to start by looking inwards. To look at your organisation’s culture, policies and offers and try and correct them and realign them, in the hope that by doing so you create greater accessibility and inclusion as the result. But an inclusive cultural community must be organic and outward facing. It needs space and time to grow.
Since 2018 at NYT we have worked alongside two non- mainstream schools in London – Highshore School in Southwark and Samuel Rhodes school in Islington – to explore how we can embed drama provision into the very fabric of a school and understand what impact this has on students’ cultural and personal development.
This has been a shared, iterative and reflective process and we have seen students develop greater confidence and observed how their communication skills have been enhanced, which in turn has impacted on all aspects of their academic and personal life. But more than this, by creating an opportunity for creative expression, we have started a conversation around how that creativity can be supported, harnessed and shared. Learning from each other throughout the process, together we have explored how we can engage young people beyond the classroom and connect them to cultural opportunities in their locality so they are not just recipients of culture but consumers and creators.
This work has informed how we recruit, audition and support our young members at the NYT, enabling us to facilitate students to take up places on the creative opportunities and pathways that we offer that were previously less visible and accessible. It has helped us create new work experience and creative work skills offers, designed with our school partners and aligned with the work we are already delivering with them. It has also allowed us to better understand how to make our productions more accessible and informed our approach to relaxed performances which we now offer across all our work.
Most importantly this work, and partnerships with industry leaders and critical friends like Jess Thom and the team at Touretteshero, David Bellwood Access Manager at The Globe and the team at Diverse City, has influenced how we talk and think about inclusivity. Ongoing active learning and reflection enable us to continually adapt our inclusive training, which is embedded into all our staff and Associate Artists continuing professional development and all our young members courses, training and leadership opportunities incorporate this too. Inclusivity has become a mindset not an add on or adjunct.
In the spring of this year we embarked upon the next part of this journey as we launched a new Inclusive Practice Collective. The Inclusive Practice Collective is a movement which aims to build on our previous work and seeks to not only embed drama provision and foster cultural connectivity in non-mainstream schools but also train a new generation of young inclusive practitioners. Funded by the Government’s Kickstart scheme we have partnered with non-mainstream schools and colleges in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and continue our relationships in London, and we will be training up to 60 young Inclusion Facilitators providing them with a paid six-month job placement to deliver drama provision across this academic year. These young people, some of whom identify as disabled and/or neurodiverse themselves will become inclusive cultural community ambassadors, sharing their learning in their own communities and shaping the next chapter of inclusive practice.
Despite outstanding leadership from individuals and organisations mentioned above and others like Graeae Theatre Company and Blink Dance, as a sector our understanding of inclusive practice is still in its infancy and we have a long way to go. It is vital that young disabled and neurodiverse people see themselves reflected in the stories our sector tells on stage and screen, for it is these narratives that help validate and shape our understanding of ourselves. At NYT we will continue to develop and commission these stories and work with disabled and/or neurodiverse artists, writers, directors and actors but we will also underpin this with our wider inclusivity work, our efforts to create opportunities for young disabled and/or neurodiverse people to enjoy creative experiences and engage in and influence their own inclusive cultural communities. We hope this work will create pathways for future generations of role models who will continue to shape our industry and its output ensuring it truly represents everyone.