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IETM conference in Hull: ‘UK theatre is far ahead on inclusion – but you also have issues yet to be worked on’

Attendees at the IETM plenary meeting in Hull. Photo: T Arran

The UK is regarded as a world leader on inclusivity, and this was recognised as performing arts professionals from around the world gathered at the recent International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts plenary meeting in Hull to examine how different countries approach inclusion. Eleanor Turney reports

Jess Thom, aka Tourettes Hero, was on fine form at the recent International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts (IETM) plenary meeting in Hull. “Fuck a goat!, she said. “Actually, don’t. We’re relaxed, but we’re not that relaxed.” The theme of the event was inclusion and Thom’s Tourette’s syndrome means that she has involuntary physical and verbal tics – the most common of which are “biscuit” and “hedgehog”. And, on the morning of the plenary, “fuck a goat”.

Touretteshero’s Jess Thom: ‘Disabled people need to be written in, not written out’ [1]

For some of the performing arts professionals visiting the UK, seeing Thom on stage, in her wheelchair, was unusual, as was the concept of a relaxed performance itself. The UK is a world leader in disability arts, and the artistic programme at the plenary included Candoco Dance [2] and Jackie Hagan [3], alongside Middle Child [4] and Scottee [5].

Reactions from the international delegates varied, but many commented that the UK was more advanced when it came to inclusivity than their own industries.

The artistic programme at the IETM event included performances from Middle Child. Photo: T Arran

Simone Inguanez, diversity and communities associate at Arts Council Malta, said: “The more we’re hearing and watching here, the more we come to the conclusion that we need to develop. We’re starting from a place of randomness; we need to work to become somewhat structured.”

They also observed that inclusion covered a broad range of issues, and meant different things in different countries.

“It’s about making society as open as possible for as many groups of people as possible,” said Gabi Sabo, of Meta Theater, Germany. “Integration acknowledges the fact that there are groups who have different cultural backgrounds and want to keep them, and asks them to assimilate and join the country they are living in. Inclusion allows them into society as they are.”

‘Diversity is inviting people to the party; inclusion is asking them to dance’ – Sade Brown, Sour Lemons

Will McRostie, from Australia, said: “There are the practical aspects about how accessible a piece of work is to a diverse range of people, but there’s also an ethos about who should be in a space. If there are people not in the space, then you can either say, ‘It’s on them to get in here’, or you can say, ‘I occupy a position of privilege being in this place (which I think all artists do) and it’s my responsibility to reach out and do what I can to bring people in’.”

“In Australia, we do not have a definition of what inclusivity means that spans the arts sector. We’re still on awareness and access. The big thing for us is to shift from ‘Oh, here is the pristine art, and how do we let people come and absorb it?’ to ‘How do we ensure that people’s experiences are reflected on stage, backstage, everywhere?’.”


5 things you need to know about IETM

1. IETM has more than 450 performing arts organisations and individual members, spanning theatre, dance, circus, performance, interdisciplinary live
art forms and new media. These include festivals, companies, producers, theatres and universities.

2. It was the first European culture network, founded by professionals for professionals, designed to reinforce and strengthen international collaboration
in the independent performing arts sector.

3. IETM stands for Informal European Theatre Meeting, but since 2005 the organisation has gone by International Network for Contemporary Performing
Arts while maintaining the original acronym.

4. The organisation’s board and advisory committee members represent Norway, the UK, Slovenia, France, Poland, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Bulgaria and Latvia. 

5. Alongside the plenary meetings, IETM commissions and publishes articles. Recent pieces have looked at criticism, community engagement, funding, post-colonialism, theatre made by disabled people, and women in leadership. There are also ‘mappings’ of funding opportunities and provision in different countries or areas.

In her keynote speech, Sade Brown, from UK-based Sour Lemons, observed that for change to be significant, it needed to be systematic. “So many schemes and diversity interventions focus on the individual – ‘We’ll give you a bursary to show up, we’ll do a tiny thing’ – but we won’t adapt anything else, we won’t think about the systems we’ve put in place that benefit people who look like us.”

The UK is as guilty of this approach as anywhere.

Christiaan Mooij, from Theatre Babel Rotterdam in the Netherlands, agreed that there was still progress to be made. “For me, inclusion means that for everybody in society, there’s a place for them in the arts scene: on stage, as an audience, or working in the arts. We have a lot of stuff going on about diversity. We’re working very hard, but there’s lots to do.”

Different countries have made different levels of progress in different areas. IETM secretary general Asa Richardsdottir said that Iceland, where she’s from, was “quite advanced” in terms of rights for disabled people, and “extremely advanced” when it came to gender parity and LGBT+ rights (she said that if the Muslim parent protests against LGBT education in the UK had happened in Iceland, “there would be a revolution”).

Richardsdottir’s background is in international relations and politics. “I’m not an artist,” she said. However, she added: “I love the challenge of the new, when you are given carte blanche. I took over a women’s cultural centre in downtown Reykjavik when my first child was three months old, and then I started a ‘coffee theatre’ [a restaurant/cafe and bar with theatre performances happening in the dining space].

“The performances were often happening in the lap of the guests. We did a lot of alternative events, and it became a little but important melting pot. It became known as the poor man’s theatre in Iceland, because we kept the ticket price very low.

“People felt welcome. And that sense of inclusion has followed me for my whole career.”

Candoco Dance Company also performed at the IETM plenary meeting in Hull

Speaking of her work with IETM, Richardsdottir added: “IETM has been pioneering in taking the ideas of inclusion, and initiating and adopting a strategy of inclusion [in Porto in 2018]. A lot of other organisations are now following suit, and putting inclusion on the agenda.”

“There is a different viewpoint between the UK and many other countries. This meeting in Hull is a huge learning curve for many of our non-UK-based members. The UK is far ahead of many other countries in its inclusion strategy; you have had great achievements, but you also have issues yet to be worked on.”

That is not to say that everything is perfect in the UK. Thom and Brown drew attention to some of the UK’s issues, often as the result of austerity and the racism stirred up by Brexit, the extreme right wing and white nationalism. Brown spoke about looking around a theatre the first time she attended and seeing that “everyone there was white”, and how she came to feel that she could occupy space in the performing arts.

McRostie picked up on this theme: “Learning how to get out of the way is also really important, and not a conversation we have enough. I set up the organisation that I run, and I derive my living working for a marginalised group that I’m not a member of – by definition as an audio describer, I’m not Deaf. I’m thinking a lot about when I should step aside, so somebody else can take that leadership position.”

Mooij observed that the Netherlands was also facing a rise of white nationalism. “There are some bad things going on. We’ve just had elections and people don’t see the urgency – politicians are saying things that translate as ‘we want the white Christian community, that should be all Holland’. It’s disturbing.”

Jackie Hagan on performing her work overseas: ‘People get really emotional about the show’ [3]

Fatiha Schlicht, from Theatre de Nimes in France, wondered whether there was a more basic problem around the language used when discussing this type of work. “This word ‘inclusion’, it means nothing to me,” she said. “I don’t know what would be a better word, but there is a problem with the language. It shuts people out when they don’t understand. It’s distancing. It’s a paradox – people who are excluded, who are outside the arts, don’t understand that word.

“In France, it’s difficult for people to start going to the theatre. We say, culture is for all, theatres are open to all, but it’s not true. I have friends who never go to the theatre because they think it’s only for people who have fancy clothes. The thing that works is outdoor theatre and festivals – it’s possible for people to go because it’s right there.

“The building is a barrier. People don’t feel happy to push open the door. Lots of theatres in France are putting in simple, not expensive restaurants, because then people come in for a meal, a drink, and then they are in. To be inclusive, we must go outside. We must go where the people are, not wait for them to come in.”

Brown wrapped up her speech with the quote: “Diversity is inviting people to the party; inclusion is asking them to dance.” But Mooij suggested that we needed an extra line: “True inclusion is when anyone can host their own party.”

The IETM plenary meeting in Hull, which was produced by the UK’s Absolutely Cultured, took place on March 28-31, 2019

IETM profile

Founded: 1981, at the Polverigi Festival, Italy
Based: Brussels
Organisations founded or co-founded: Roberto Cimetta Fund (arts mobility in the Mediterranean); On the Move (mobility web portal); Balkan Express (platform for collaboration in and with the Balkans); International Coalition for Arts, Human Rights and Social Justice
European Alliance for Culture and the Arts members: More than 450 from more than 50 countries
Geographical distribution: A total of 88% of the membership is based on the European continent
Annual turnover managed directly through Brussels office: Approximately 500,000
Annual expenditure for the network: At least 1 million, adding in partners and co-organisers’ budgets
Contact: ietm@ietm.org
Website: ietm.org

Candoco Dance Company: ‘We’re interested in work that shifts the perception of ability’ [2]