two people are sat next to each other on some steps and they are wearing a yellow dress and red shoes. They both have a neutral expression on their faces.

Testing Ground

By Jamie Beddard, Agent for Change, New Wolsey Theatre.

Featured photo: Sean Burn’s Joey – A Testing Ground 3 Commission.

Since 2017, The New Wolsey Theatre/Pulse has run Testing Ground, a development programme aimed at D/deaf and disabled artists and the work they seek to produce.  These seed commissions were designed to support and showcase new work and ideas and ensure that the aesthetics of access are embedded in the creative process, both in the making and presenting. 

This year Testing Ground 4 has a particular urgency, as the barriers and lack of opportunities faced by these artists are magnified during the pandemic, gains around access and inclusion are at the stake and the need to connect freelancers with venues, for the benefit of both, has never been greater. 

Freelancers are the endangered bedrock of our Arts ecology, with many slipping through the gaps, unsure if, and when, work will return and having to re-assess life and career choices.

Becoming and sustaining yourself as a disabled artist was hard enough pre-pandemic, even on the back of the small victories around access, diversity and equality, but now the precariousness has been laid bare, with those who have fought long and hard for recognition in danger of being lost to the Industry. 

Whilst uncertainty exists around when and how the Arts will emerge, what the  future might look like and the extent to which inclusion will remain on agendas, we must continue investing in the ‘big’ creative ideas and aspirations.  Without the Art our purpose is lost, there is little point in continuing and nothing to look forward to.

Over the last four years, twenty-two projects have been supported through Testing Ground, ranging from small seed funding to fuller commissions, fourteen of which have been presented in some form at Pulse Festival.  Each artist has been given bespoke financial and in-kind support, dependent on the needs of the project.

The first three years, an Esmee Fairburn grant has enabled us to distribute £10k/year to our artists, and this year we had a very welcome contribution from the Ramps on the Moon Project Fund to the tune of £6k, to which we have added £5k from The New Wolsey.  The in-kind support we have been able to provide includes rehearsal space; marketing, production and access support; dramaturgical and creative feedback; connecting too and growing networks; business development; and help with further applications.

This year we are supporting eights pieces of work, with the three main commissions being Kate Lovell’s ‘Zero’, Rowan James’ ‘A Room Full of Elephant’ and Natasha Sutton William’s ‘Lesbian Pirates!’. ‘Zero’ is a two-woman play, with creatively integrated audio description, which explores the hidden world of zero hours contracts, and life-altering decisions that offer escape from the monotony of the invisible worker.  ‘A Room Full Of Elephant’ is a production examining the many models of disability, what they say and reflect about disabled people and whether they are, in fact, ‘fit for purpose’.  By way of contrast, ‘Lesbian Pirates!’ is a musical telling the true story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, with ‘bawdy pirate fun’ providing the backdrop to ‘addressing contemporary issues surrounding queerness, disability, mental health, social welfare and democratic ideals’.  Our additional commissions are rich and varied, and include themes such as the Polish experience in Brexit Britain; the interface between puppetry and physical disability; an exploration through circus of ‘the realisation that each passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own’; the highs, lows and flights of fancy with an ‘autistic commune’; and the troubling and traumatic decisions brought about through pregnancy. 

So a broad cross-section of artists, art-forms and themes, all of which in turn have a number of different partnerships alongside Testing Ground, and are testimony to the creativity and aspirations of the legions of freelance, disabled artists we must keep in our midst. 

We did manage to get all the artists together on Zoom, and in the words of Nicky Werenowska: “this was important for my psychological creative wellbeing –  to be in a space with other disabled artists all challenged in different ways by lockdown but all committed to pursuing their artistic goals was inspiring”

Find out more about Jamie Beddard here.

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