THE BLOG

Disability - No Longer at the Fringe of the Fringe

24/08/2014 21:51 BST | Updated 24/10/2014 10:59 BST

I'm writing this as I return from my annual trip to Edinburgh's Fringe Festival. I tend to head up for a couple of days each year to catch shows, catch up with colleagues (and this year catch a cold too). Every year, I look to see where disabled artists are in the mix - and this year the spread is impressive.

Over the 20 years I've worked in disability and the arts, there's been a huge shift in the visibility of disabled artists at the Fringe. The venues they perform in are now much more mainstream - in some ways they have to be so many of the others are inaccessible - the pieces are growing in size, scale and ambition and co-productions are really upping the game for many companies and artists.

I managed to catch Theatre Ad Infinitum's Light - not a 'disability' show, just a great piece of physical theatre with intense darkness, innovative use of torches and a stunning soundscape. The involvement of deaf actor Matty Gurney pushed the work to find new ways of storytelling that both match its internal aesthetic and met the needs of the actors - groundbreaking.

Then I saw Unlimited's Backstage in Biscuit Land by Touretteshero aka Jess Thom - a 'must see' experience where tics become surrealism and the audience howl with both laughter and increased understanding (then eat free biscuits) and Moments of Instant Regret (Assembly) - 'sit down' comedy at its best from Laurence Clark who just gets more and more assured in his delivery each year.

I couldn't see everything that was on - I had to miss the Vacuum Cleaner's show Mental (which takes place in a bedroom) and a host of other mental health-related shows and I also missed Caroline Bowditch's Falling for Frida and Claire Cunningham's Give Me a Reason to Live.

So, the artists and the work are shifting the cultural scales in our favour at last - but will the trajectory last long enough to complete the job?

JessThom, the focus of Backstage in Biscuit Land, explains that her show is made possible not only by her natural talent and tics, but also by the National Health Service, the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and Access to Work.

With ILF closing and many artists battling to keep Access to Work support (read about the impact on Graeae, Candoco and Unlimited) the future for disabled artists looks bleaker than it has done for years, despite the increased exposure - and at the very moment when we should finally be riding our wave.

Only last week Access to Work turned down one of our Unlimited artists for support, stating that he is not currently 'economically viable' as an artist - he is lucky, we can pick up the stack for him on this commission but if he were working with another commissioner, could they?

Just as the audience finally wants the work, it's likely that the artists can't make it. ILF doesn't pay for luxuries - just the basic needs that keep severely disabled people independent and able to choose what they do with their time rather than fit into care home provided timetabled options. Access to Work isn't for extras - it covers the real additional costs that having an impairment creates and that no employer could afford long term. When these have gone, so will most of the disabled artists. And then what will I see at the Fringe?

Jo Verrent, is the senior producer for Unlimited, a £2.4 million, three-year initiative to fund disabled artists. This autumn, nine of the fund's commissions will be part of Southbank Centre's Unlimited Festival from 2 to 7 September.