Guest Blog: Gathering Place 2.0 – a vision of a dirty disabled future

Lately, I’ve not been sleeping well.  Every night at around 4.44am I am being visited by the leering ghoul of Mark Zuckerberg welding the Arts Council’s “Let’s Create” strategy.  It’s deeply unpleasant.  I wish Mark would do one.  But he’s being very insistent.  It’s almost as if he was trying to break into reality.

In the daytime, since January, my job has been to steer the artistic work of disabled-led theatre company Vital Xposure through the dark waters of 2021.  A thankless task if ever there was, but I am fortunate in that I have never known any different.  Let me explain. Prior to this year, I was one of the poor precariats who the sector now claim to care about; a freelance theatre maker.  To further compound the problem, I was a disabled freelance theatre maker.  I was caught in a very abusive relationship with a sector that muttered the mantras of concern and the importance of the disabled voice, whilst simultaneously withering hope through an absence of investment and tick box “Do ‘em and dump ‘em” schemes. An important statistic here; 19% of the working-age population in the UK are disabled.  Are 19% of our casts disabled? 19% of our drama schools? Writers, directors, producers?  Audiences?  No, I thought not.  For disabled artists, not being able to perform in our cultural institutions is the old, current and new normal. 

In truth, to find the root of this exclusion we have to go all the way back into ancient history and the birth of theatre.  Out in the gathering place in the towns and villages across the ancient world, the citizenry came together to do work; the ritualistic work that appeased the gods, gave good harvests, moved the sun across the sky etc. And it was in this sun-baked space that theatre began to be born.  Certain people doing the work began to be more interesting than others.  Other people stopped what they were doing and watched.  The interesting people swelled with pride and started to think how they could be more interesting. 

Rehearsals were called.  Nice frocks were sewn.  They probably started to agonise about ‘audiences’.  However, in this moment of the birth of interesting, something else was born.  The idea of being too interesting.  An ‘interesting’ that might distract from the story and usurp the natural order. Well, that would never do so the theatres were built and those chiselled male hero types with RADA bone structure got the gig.  That African who was amazing at making the sun go through the sky or the cripple who brought in that bumper harvest?  Well, the crowds moved away to the ‘comfy’ seats of the new-fangled theatres, where people could be told what they already knew in the new-fangled catharsis ritual called ‘drama’.  Worse still. the Temples were built and they had arcane codes, secret knowledge and even better frocks. The African was enslaved and the cripple became a beggar.  And the women weren’t even allowed in, so we can see which way that cookie crumbled.

This is why the progress of ‘Diversity’ is such a profound shift.  It’s not just about being fair.  It’s the creation of the Gathering Place 2.0, where all are called on to do the cultural work and all voices are valued.  And why are we creating it?  Well, if the last 20 or so months have taught us anything, it’s that work needs to be done.  The business-as-usual heroes are not only losing their ‘interesting’, but the harvests are beginning to wither in the fields and perhaps the sun might never come back.  Everyone but everyone is needed in the gathering place now.

Aside from looming National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) and business plan submission deadlines, it is perhaps this shift that is keeping me awake in the early hours.  For my own community, I am seeing a chance to profoundly change the narrative, but it’s fragile.  Let’s start with “Let’s Create”.  That’s focussed the mind, hasn’t it?  It’s fascinating that inclusivity and relevance have been sewn together.  For me, ‘relevance’ is by far the bigger totem.  ‘Inclusivity’ is a bit of a dirty word in the disabled community as I am sure it is in others.  We don’t want to be included in those games, as we have better ones.  We want the money and the keys to the building. However, “Let’s Create” sings the song of a deeper cultural force towards the democratisation of artistic expression.  This has been evident in our social media spaces for years, but “Let’s Create” is a very clear provocation to move from preaching from the gods of your expertise and get down into the creative enabling game.  People need to be equipped for the Gathering Place.

At Vital Xposure, we are getting ready to do just that.  A gathering hosted by disabled people, creating a space that places our political and social relations at its centre. A space that would make Brecht proud; of debate, confronting power and telling stories.  Furthermore, a place where disabled people can escape the inclusivity brand, which historically has created the agenda of “Look at us.  We can do it too”, which sort of buys into the idea of an implicit deficit in being disabled, whereas when viewed intersectionally, under the Social Model of Disability, the notion of being deficient was nonsense to start with.   In the Vital Xposure gathering, we explore the vital issues of our time: social justice, the vacuums in our leadership, the equity in climate change etc.  Here we can change the narrative can change to “Yes, you are looking at disabled people.  Well done.  Now look at THIS story.  It’s far more important.”. With our first Wellspring artists due to present their work in Spring 2022, we are on our way to developing the infrastructure of change.  Watch our space.

This brings me to Mark Zuckerberg and his ghoulish leer.  A few weeks back we all laughed at his botched rebranding that fooled no one.  However, when you look at the technology of the metaverse ( it might at first seem like another step back to the ancient gathering place. A digital gathering with billions of dollars behind it; and one it seems where you can escape your own identity through an infinity of avatars.  But not so fast, Space Cadet.  The fact that Facebook and its billions are getting there first suggests this is less about human connection and more about corporate power steamrolling reality. They are creating a gathering place curated by their own agenda, in much the same way as the ancient elites built the walls of their theatres and temples and told the stories they were prepared to listen to. Mark Zuckerberg welding a Let’s Create document is a herald of dystopia. A plastic surgeon, genetically modified dystopia where the reality of who we are will not help Mr Zuckerberg’s balance sheet and can be erased by a click of his mouse.  A dystopia leaving us angry, desperate and chasing visions of unobtainable perfection. Far better to engage with our communities in our real free unmediated spaces, where we as our true selves are celebrated, unprotected by digital avatars or ableism or all the other lies Western culture has told us for millennia. Far better to hang out with us Disableds, doing the real and necessary work of getting the sun across the sky.  It’s a dirty job, but everybody’s gotta do it.

By Simon Startin, Artistic Director of Vital Xposure Theatre