Over the past decade the work of disabled performers in theatre and dance has received an increasingly high profile, wider audiences and presentation in established venues and festivals. At the same time there has been little sustained investigation into how audiences – both with and without disabilities – engage with, interpret and respond to this work.
Performances of disability raise particular questions in relation to spectatorship: including relating to the nature of the gaze, empathy across difference, social constructions of disability, the politics of programming, and assessments of quality. Culturally, disability at once attracts and disturbs the gaze, invoking anxiety about staring and stigmatisation. Yet the conversations that might make sense of this gaze, placing it within critical, political and aesthetic discourses, are often absent or else inchoate.
Since 2017, I have been developing research in this area, particularly focusing on aiming to uncover and analyse audience responses to and understandings of disabled performances. Audiences in this context includes: ‘mainstream audiences’, invested spectators (for example disability arts activists) and industry spectators (media, funding bodies, advocacy bodies).
A chapter exploring this research is due out in 2019:
‘Ways of Watching: Five aesthetics of learning disability theatre’ In Routledge Handbook of Disability Arts, Culture and Media. Ed. Bree Hadley and Donna McDonald. Routledge.
This research was conducted in collaboration with Mind the Gap Theatre Company and this partnership is continuing with research and evaluation into their current artist development programmes ‘Staging Changing’ and ‘Engage’. In October 2018, Lauren Hall will join us as a PhD student on this research.