[December 21, 2020]
Happy solstice! They’re the four best friends anyone could have. On the last Crip Times episode of 2020, all three hosts (Kayla, Kristina, Yousef) are joined by Jess Watkin, an artist, activist, academic, dramaturg, and most importantly, friend of the pod.
“It was interdependent magic. Like it really felt like magic.”
We spend some time laughing about how we all became friends through our various crip encounters, access intimacy, and what Jess’ work as an artist and disability dramaturg actually entails. Jess speaks about her upcoming projects, and the legacies of interdependence that brought her to the place she is today. This episode ends with Jess’ dreams for the future of performance, with suggestions we could all bring into our 2021 plans.
We’ll be back with new episodes of Crip Times on January 11 until then, thank you for allowing us to share these episodes with you, they really feel like magic.
[Podcast begins: 00:00:00]
Narrator: You’re listening to a Wheels on the Ground Production.
[Jazz music playing]
Kristina McMullan [KM]: Hi friends. Welcome to the sixth episode of Crip Times. On today’s episode of Crip Times, we have Jess Watkin. Jess is a Blind and Disabled scholar, living in Toronto. She’s a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies. Her research focuses on disabled artists and their creation processes, specifically in Canada. Jess is also an interdisciplinary artist, dramaturg, consultant, and educator. Jess Watkin is the type of person who makes every space she enters better. She is a true gift to her community, and we are excited to share her brilliance with you.
KM: Oh goodness.
Yousef Kadoura [YK]: We’re recording dot dot dot … loading the recording. We’re recording.
Kayla Besse [KB]: Always gotta confirm.
KM: Let’s begin.
YK: Thank you Jess for popping into this. You are, I think we’ve already spoken about this, but we’re currently recording the very first session of Crip Times. Um, yeah, thank you for being here. Um, would you mind taking a moment to share with the audience a little bit about who you are?
Jessica Watkin [JW]: Yeah, so I use many names it seems like. Either Jess or Jessica but today I’ll refer to myself as Jess, because I think Yousef, and everyone knows me as Jess. So I’m Jess Watkin, I use she/her, they/them pronouns but all pronouns that are provided and used with respect and love are open and welcome to me.
I’m a white settler, female-presenting, female identifying human being. I am Blind and Disabled. And I identify as an artist-scholar at this point, because I feel like both of those things inform each other. So I’m currently doing my PhD at the Centre for Drama, Theatre, & Performance Studies at the University of Toronto.
I am starting my fifth year, that probably means nothing to a lot of people, but it means that I’ve been working on it for quite a long time. PhDs take time, especially if you can’t see! [Laughter] Also if you’re an artist on top of everything, so you know, about a year ago – two years ago – I spoke with my supervisor who helps me through my PhD, and I said you know, I had been taking a break from practice in terms as an artist.
[00:02:55] And had only been consulting predominantly and it wasn’t as fulfilling as I wanted it to be, in terms as a theatre and interdisciplinary artist. And so I spoke with my supervisor and was like, It might take me longer to finish, but I think my work will be better if I actually practice art while I do my research. And it has been. It’s so much more enjoyable because I also get to be extremely creative and then also I just found out I get to be creative in my dissertation as well. There’s gonna be a secret creative chapter, which is very exciting. So I’m really loving this balance of research and art right now. I feel like I’ve kind of – not retired – but I’ve taken a little bit of a break from being on stage myself, but I do spend a lot of time backstage and pre- in rehearsals and conversations with folks, particularly disabled folks right now, dramaturging their pieces and working on um, accessibility design. But if I am making art right now, I’m making a lot of tactile textured art. So I’m working a lot with materials, working with yarn, working a lot with like, scents. Um, but yeah, that’s kind of like what I’m working on in terms of art.
With my research, it kind of all informs each other. I’m working on disabled artists in Canada and how they create performance. So a lot about dramaturgy, a lot about disability, and actually a lot about softness. Which is like my newest thing which I’m very excited about, care and softness and how there is strength in softness. And that kind of comes out both literally and metaphorically in my work when it comes to like, my rugs and my textiles. But also in my writing.
Yeah, that’s kind of – that’s me in a nutshell, I think.
YK: That’s really fantastic. I love those new turns that your practice is taking.
Um, that’s cool. It makes me think back to um, when we first met which was what, 2017? At the Republic?
JW: We met in Montreal, man.
YK: Did we?
JW: We met in Montreal …
YK: Oh yeah! We met in my third, in yeah –
JW: In that weird café, which was freezing cold, my phone died it was so cold. But we got to know each other better at the Republic.
YK: Yes. How did that happen again? Was it that I was introduced to you, or you were introduced to me?
JW: In Montreal?
YK: It was because we were disabled theatre people, that was the reason [laughter], but I forget who initiated it.
JW: People tend to do that, right, they’re like, I know someone else who is disabled, maybe you should know them! I think it was because I had two friends at NTS, the National Theatre School, who knew you like they know me. And then when I was coming to Montreal they were like, You should meet up with Yousef, he’s working on that other podcast that you were working on about disabled artists. And I was like, I mean, sounds great. And I think originally we were going to meet with a bunch of people but then someone broke their foot and other people were in like, practice for the shows.
[00:05:52] And so it ended up being you and I at a café and we were like, All right, let’s talk about it! And I think it was three months later, you know, completely differently we were in Ottawa for two weeks together just like … really getting a crash course, literally, in disability arts in Canada.
KB: So if we’re talking about Crip friendship and how this came to be, this is Kayla speaking by the way, Jess and I were Twitter friends I believe before we had ever met in person for quite some time. And I don’t know if it was the first time we met in person, but the instance that stands out, is we were at a workshop with Hannah Thompson in Toronto. Across the table from one another. And we were supposed to be doing um, was it audio description practice? That’s right. And Jess of course is such a firecracker and is like Okay, well I’m actually blind so this is what’s going on. And just knew we would be friends, um, when you said, Well my partner’s a lighting designer which is really funny because I’m like that’s nice honey, but like I don’t care because I can’t see that.
JW: Yeah whenever he talks about sightlines, I’m always like I couldn’t care any less about sightlines. Which I think is actually really a great practice for him of like figuring out what does sightlines mean for people who can’t see? And I think that’s something we actually have a discussion about. But yeah, that was our first time! And then we were like, I was like ugh! You’re behind these Twitter accounts.
I know you.
KB: Yeah, that’s me. That’s me.
JW: Oh Crip friendship, so good.
KM: Now this is Kristina speaking, I feel like I need to tell the story of how Jess and I met. Which is basically that I knew who she was through Yousef and others who had met Jess at the Republic of Inclusion and I was very much intimidated. And then the very first time we had a conversation was at Cripping the Arts, um, when you came up to me and said, Can you please log me into the Wi-Fi? I’m blind, I can’t do it.
And I said yeah – of course – even though I had been told by everyone who worked at Cripping the Arts that I wasn’t allowed to give away the Wi-Fi password to anyone under any circumstances. Um, and then we, about a month after that spoke on a panel together at the Festival of Original Theatre. Um, still very much intimidated by you. And then we co-facilitated a workshop and I think after our first meeting in which I actually had a conversation with you, I told you I loved you.
And now we’ve been best friends since then.
JW: I will say the intimidation was mutual. And I think this happens in Crip friendships where you’re like, because like all of our legacies kind of … you know, supersede us, like you know you hear titters of folks from different sides of the community and then when you meet them in person you’re like oh my God, you’re, you’re Kristina. Like …
[00:08:54] And I feel like we crossed paths at Tangled before, but once we started talking earlier this year or I guess it would have been last year, you know we really clicked in a way that … only access intimacy and like boss-ass bitch types could understand.
JW: Look at all of our Crip friends tendencies, I love it.
KM: I love it so much.
KB: I don’t know if all listeners know what access intimacy is, maybe we could chat about that, but Jess and I have um, in developing our friendship, incredible access intimacy. With Jess being blind, she has amazing sense of direction, um, which I do not. And I have a physical disability and like, I’m very bad at walking down the street, so we have this beautiful symbiotic thing where if we link arms to walk down the street I can see stuff for Jess, she can make sure I don’t fall on my butt and trip over things, so, it’s very beautiful. I don’t know if you want to talk about what access intimacy means to you more broadly for folks who might not know, but that’s one.
JW: Yeah I mean that’s a great example of it, is kind of access intimacy, interdependence, and what Kristine Kelly calls friend-tendents. All merging together. Access intimacy is where Mia Mingus, an amazing BIPOC, Crip scholar and just visionary, um, from the States, she has a blog called Leaving Evidence and she defines access intimacy as that feeling of a quality when you meet somebody of them just getting what you might need and what they might need at the same time. And that you don’t necessarily need to explain every little detail, but they’ll just kind of get what you need in terms of access but also in terms of like complaining about Crip Stuff, which you know, the four of us all have been there and done that in terms of access and in terms of policy, and in terms of the arts. And so I feel like there’s this knowledge, this instantaneous knowledge of like not just like, What I need but that I might need something and that it’s totally cool and that we can figure it out together.
And I think that’s how I see friend-tendent as well, it’s like we develop a relationship based on this really interesting intimacy that we can have that’s rooted in our own needs and our own accessibilities but also our own thoughts and opinions and loves and dislikes and how it all kind of, it’s not a very – it’s a very soft, learning the term soft as I mentioned earlier – a very soft meaning. It’s not a very…you can’t point to something and be like, Well this is access intimacy and this isn’t!
[00:11:50] It’s soft. It means the edges are a little bit less defined, and I think that’s a really cool part about being in Crip friendship, is this idea that you can just sit down with somebody and you don’t have to then go and explain why you’re angry. They can just be like Oh, yeah. And I felt that with Yousef and Kristina as well in terms of moving forward as young folks in Canada trying to navigate being disabled, and like finding jobs and navigating the winter, and all kinds of different stuff. So I think it’s been, it’s been a really interesting crash course of lived experience with all of this.
YK: That’s really beautiful. I also think it, or rather I wonder um, how does that access intimacy for you play over into your role as a dramaturg in trying to um, you know, bring accessible dramaturgy into the mainstream? Um, for our listeners who don’t know or who may not be connected to the theatre world so much, a dramaturg is someone who either does historical research on a piece of theatre or um in Canada it’s more often related to um, the structure of theatre piece and someone who acts as that outside eye for it. No pun intended.
JW: Oh pun intended; pun intended!
YK: But how does that access intimacy for you spill over into what accessible dramaturgy is then?
JW: I think that … [sighs] dramaturgy is so, it’s similarly soft in the way that access intimacy is, right? There’s no clear edge where dramaturgy begins and ends. I feel like I was in my Masters in 2015, and we had a full cohort of people who were like Hi, can we have someone come in and define dramaturgy for us? And they had like, multiple people come in from different countries and different perspectives and all of them had different definitions of what dramaturgy is. And so thinking through exactly what you said, Yousef, thinking about in Canada the way we conceptualize dramaturgy is yeah, it’s like um, the person, one of the people in the room who is constantly thinking about the structure, the puzzle pieces, and how the whole piece fits together.
And so, I mean … when it comes to working with disability and dramaturgy, I think access intimacy is actually the perfect intervention into how – I’m putting air quotes around normative – “normative” dramaturgy works, so people who are non-disabled dramaturging. Because y’know, I’ve dramaturged before where I just get a script and I go through the script and I ask questions. That seems to be my normative way of moving through dramaturgy with folks who are possibly non-disabled.
[00:14:48] And you know I ask questions like, What do you mean here? or I don’t understand what this moment is or Is this moment meant to be this or this? Whereas like my experiences of disability dramaturgy or accessible dramaturgy has been a lot of…I sit down with the artist, they send me a script and I sit down with the artist and I ask questions that are not just about the script, but are about Okay, you as performer—what do you feel comfortable with here?
Like one of the first examples I can think of here, is Ophira Calof culminated our friendship—not our friendship, our relationship—moving through disability dramaturgy with the Next Stage Festival that happened earlier this year in 2020. And we started the dramaturgy in August of 2019, and we sat down – and I remember the first thing that she asked me was, How long should I say the play is? And I was like, how – what is the maximum amount of time that you can say?
And she said an hour.
And I said okay, say that. And she was like but I don’t think the piece is going to be an hour, but I was like neither do I but because Ophira is disabled and uses a massive power wheelchair and it will be winter when we perform and she has chronic migraines and chronic pain, I was like why don’t we just book it into – embed it literally into the whole like, what the Next Stage will think about our play is that you will be there for an hour, and we will take up an hour worth of time. So that means if the play is only half an hour long, and you need to start late because your wheels are wet which is reality for wheelchair users, the day we did our tech run actually in the theatre space she had to have a wheelchair technician come in and replace a wheel on stage during the show. So like, we’re glad that we built in that lateness, or that, you know, time flexibility.
And it’s down to those – and like it came in there, that was the very beginning of the process. Once we were—normally I don’t see a rehearsal, or I don’t see many rehearsals as a dramaturg. But for disability dramaturgy I’m there for most. And I was there in the rehearsal going, Okay, where is your break, how do you feel in this moment? So it wasn’t necessarily, it was textual, and it is narrative driven, but I find like for me as disability dramaturg my job, my role as an advocate to remind her that, remind the performer and creator that you are also human. And I think there’s something about … something about theatre [repeating in British accent] in the normative sense that’s like, You need to shed your needs and shed your human fluctuations for the show must go on, you know? That mentality of, of um, if you’re sick like how many times have I in high school for example gone on stage with chloraseptic spray sprayed into my throat because I couldn’t, it was in the winter? Or I was very sick.
But because the show must go on, I still go out there.
[00:17:46] My role as a disability dramaturg is to go, if you’re sick maybe we shouldn’t go on. Or if you’re sick, maybe you only do half the show and we build in with the director in rehearsal plan A, B, C, and D.
And uh, we have a narrative that works for this for 20 minutes. We have a narrative that works for 45 minutes, and it’s hard, it’s hard work and it takes a lot of time. But it’s my, it’s my role as a disability dramaturg to make sure that not only am I the outside eye for the audience but I’m the inside eye for the performers, and I have learned this from disability, like from my research actually, you know, researching Boys in Chairs for example, the Boys in Chairs Collective. They do very short runs because they’re three wheelchair-using men who can’t perform a full seven show run week or whatever with one day off. Like, that doesn’t make sense. And when we were doing Next Stage with Ophira, it was really thinking through Okay like, we want to get you on stage as much as possible, but we don’t want you to blow a fuse.
So how can we build the show to actually respond to those needs of not blowing a fuse? And so that is the best example I can have in terms of … and why I was able, I guess going back to access intimacy, is why I’m able to know those things is that you know, I am trained in the performance. And I am, I’ve been on stage for seven show runs and I have done the research and done all of this work and also Ophira and I are quite close. And I think there is a part of that, you know, I do disability dramaturg with folks who aren’t close friends, but it’s that access intimacy of people knowing that I will…I don’t want to say take care of them, because hair flip I’m so good, but it’s more about – but also that too, but it’s moreso about they can focus on the work and I can focus on the structures and support structures around them so that they can do the work to the best of their ability at that time.
And I think that was a really unique and beautiful relationship that Ophira and I had, and you know I’d been doing it for a couple other artists since then, and I think that like, I don’t know, I was talking to a couple of different disabled artists friends in Canada and I don’t know if there is anybody necessarily doing this from an informed space right now. And so it’s kind of fun to be creating something kind of cool and new, and a new role, but I also just like … I don’t know … I think that’s another part of the access intimacy for me, the friend bit, the Crip friendship, which is like, I don’t want anybody to have to burn out.
JW: In the same way I did in theatre school or in academia. I have that lived experience, that lived knowledge of what it feels like to burn out because I’ve gone past my capacity.
[00:20:44] YK: That’s awesome. And it’s cool how um, it seems like it’s a, it’s an even deeper dive into like the core concept of dramaturgy and you’re actually taking apart like the traditional or colonial structures that um, Western theatre exists and um, which is you know, no matter how much I as an actor can love, uh, you know … being on stage, I can still admit that the actual structure of theatre, of theatres is often um, an oppressive environment with how much they make you work and what’s expected in terms of time isn’t necessarily healthy, so that breaking down is … brilliant.
JW: Yeah, and even – more so from like the structure of like performing also down to the building – right? You know, part of my advocacy is making sure that not just Ophira who is the disabled performer, main performer, not the main creator, but also like I can’t see, I’m blind so I need to have a space in the audience that’s close enough to Ophira so she can feel safe and comforted, but I can see, but I’m not taking up space…It’s a constant negotiation. And renegotiation. And I think it’s radical because people are really set in their ways when it comes to art practice. Um, you know. An art gallery is an art gallery, and like I was in a gallery last March, and I, you know, asked if my piece could be put at wheelchair height.
And it was funny how much the accessibility built into my pieces were much more interesting to people than like the narrative behind those pieces. And I’m just like I feel like because it’s such a disruption into this normal space that we have these expectations set up that people get really either excited or confused. And that’s happened a lot, especially when I disability dramaturg pieces where we do something extremely disruptive either on the stage or in a gallery or in a performance space. In a…in an education space, the amount of times I’ve done teaching and I stand up—I’m looking at Kayla right now—being like when I stand up and train for Relaxed Performance and I’m like I’m not going to visually engage with you, so I don’t care if you look at me in a lecture hall at York University. [KB: Yes, yes]. Like, I can’t see people’s reactions, but I wonder. You know? What they think.
And I do that in every classroom I’m in.
So you know, I also find that being disabled in these normative spaces is a disruption in itself. Especially when we don’t conform to the ways in which other people expect us to be, um, and being proud of that and confident is very difficult and I think that’s why as a disability dramaturg that’s also my role. Is when Ophira, when the creator, is second-guessing the accessible choices we’re making I’m there to go, no, I will fight for this. You focus on being the performer, I will make sure this happens.
[00:23:50] I will give them the receipts, the research. I will fight for this because, because that’s you know, it’s a part of being radical is being confident and that’s hard when it’s so brand new and you get a lot of pushback. So I find it very exciting, personally.
KB: Yeah, that’s exactly right, that sort of shocked or confused reaction to the disruption comes through in Relaxed Performance as well. Um, which I think, there’s a lot of misconception that Relaxed Performance is only for disability-identified folk. And then, if you’ve never encountered those disruptions before in those spaces people are like…what, what are you, what do you mean the houselights are going to stay up a bit? Or what do you mean this person who can’t see me is the one telling me how this is going to go, or this you know, person limping into the room is the one who is going to navigate this way of doing performance? It’s … um, it’s powerful to watch when the shift happens because I’ve, I’ve seen that um, and you’ve been there too Jess in those spaces where we’ve facilitated Relaxed Performance sessions before where initially people can be so um, resistant and thinking that implementing access will take something away from the magic of theatre or whatever it might be and then sometimes there’s a lightbulb moment where they see what it actually opens up and it’s just like, yes!
JW: I also think and something along those lines is that, you know, these are not new practices, keeping the houselights up, people being able to eat in the theatre. People have been doing this for hundreds of years in different cultures, different places in the world for different reasons. But I think what’s exciting about calling it disability aesthetic or accessibility aesthetic or accessibility design is that, okay, you’re taking a thing that maybe already exists. We’re not reinventing the wheel here, right, all of the things when it comes to Relaxed Performance or dramaturgy or creating an accessible performance, it’s not really brand new. We’re putting a ramp on a stage; it would be really great if we were creating brand new things and I’m very here for that. But right now it seems like in North America we’re not quite ready to revolutionize the theatre entirely.
KB: We will cheer when there is a ramp at the Oscars or the Tonys.
JW: Precisely! Or that there isn’t a raised stage at all, that’s even what I mean in terms of radical. I don’t mean a ramp, I mean the space is designed by a Crip, a Crip person. But I think where we’re at is where, um, is where calling it accessibility design and calling it accessibility aesthetic is where we’re getting into disability justice; is where we’re getting into disability politics; is where we’re getting into the political framing and so it’s not just Oh, isn’t it cool that the house lights are up?
[00:26:47] It’s, the house lights are up for this reason. And I think that’s something that I want to see more, actually, in art spaces. Is I want to see more transparency and like obviousness to your – and I think Tangled does this quite well – and I think other galleries and theatres do this well, where they’re like, We’re doing ASL interpretation? Look at these ASL interpreters, that means Deaf people are here. And we’re doing audio description – I mean, it never happens, trust me, the amount of times I’ve consulted for audio description and I get dirty looks for wearing a headset in the theatre space because no one said to the other people in the room that audio description is happening. I’m ready for people to be like, There are disabled people here! And they are engaging with the performance as well!
KB: This Blind girl is not on a business call during the show!
JW: There is a theatre in the city that I will not name, that I have seen an audio described performance that had me hold headphones – over the ear headphones – heavy, big, tech headphones. And I was like I can’t even hear the other audience members let alone the play. And also it’s very obvious there are two Blind girls sitting in the front wearing these big headphones, who are having a different experience. That’s cool, I’m into that, but I’m more into the transparency about it to be like, This theatre supports disabled people so much that we’re gonna talk about it obviously. And I think Theatre Passe Muraille does that a little bit, Andy McKinn started that, the artistic director who just left, and I had a lot of conversations with him about Relaxed Performance in particular and post-show discussions. And moving forward with Marjorie Chan, I think she’s definitely understanding of that transparency we are looking for, because disability doesn’t need to be covered up in the arts.
And when I say disability, I also mean accessibility. You don’t need to hide the accessibility and the accessible things that you’re doing away. It actually – it’s a part of disability justice to be very obvious about it. That’s the big thing about anybody who ever asks me about being accessible and having accessible events: how do I make it accessible? I’m like I don’t know, just say what you do and don’t have. Put that on the Facebook event, you know?
KM: Yeah, exactly.
JW: So there’s my rant about that. I got really into that, thanks guys!
YK: It was a good one.
KB: It’s good, it’s good.
Speaking of disruption, I see a book behind you on your shelf, I see it – place of pride – Jess is pointing to this book, Jess would you like to tell our listeners why I’m gesturing to this book?
JW: You’re gesturing to a book behind me and I think you’re gesturing to it because I, I’m currently coming out with lots of publications. You can find my stuff everywhere, just Google me – no I’m just kidding [Yousef laughs]. I said this to my brother recently, this is totally an anecdote, who’s 19 years old. And he Googled me, and he was like oh my Gosh, Jess, you have so many publications!
[00:29:50] I was like yeah; I don’t tell you about everything. Also because he’s 19, like is he gonna care about…? So this book is called Women and Pop Culture in Canada, it’s edited by Laine Zisman Newman, who’s a good colleague and friend of mine. And it’s essentially a ton of critiques of different pop culture in Canada in terms of feminism and queerness. And my chapter is about a podcast, it’s—actually, I don’t think I talked about this to you…oh, I have talked to all of you, but it’s kind of funny I’m on a podcast—talking about good podcasting politics, especially when interviewing disabled women in this group, in this book.
So I’m really loving, I’m really loving writing accessibly in terms of my scholarship. I think being an artist and interested in disability politics has really helped that. But also I’m usually the only Crip in any book anthology. Now that’s not super true when it comes to writing about all of disabled things, but you know in an anthology like this, Women and Pop Culture in Canada, I am probably – I haven’t read through all of them – but, uh, they, I – looking at the table of contents it looks like I’m the disabled representation there, which is extremely valuable and exciting. And I do have a book project on the go right now, called Interdependent Magic: Disability Performances in Canada. Um, which is gonna be the first anthology of disability plays in Canada.
There are a couple in North America, and they do in like the United States, they do talk a little bit about Canadian plays but it’s like, Creeps by David Freeman which we may or may not know is like 50 years old [laughter]. And maybe has some problems in itself. So this book I’m working on, um, is all contemporary artists, all scripts that are going to be created like specifically for this anthology. They’re all shows that I’ve seen for the most part, we have representation of – uh – a swatch of disabilities. You know, trying to curate and I’m sure curators understand this but like trying to curate, air quotes, “diversely,” like meaning to curate without a checklist but to still hit as many you know, different disabilities and different ethnicities, different cultures, different places in this country because Canada’s so flipping big, trying to find you know, representation not just from Toronto but also from Indigenous cultures, and also from folks who are neurodivergent. Like it’s been, it’s been a journey to get there. And uh, I’m super excited with how it’s turning out right now.
It’s going to be coming out next October 2021 with Playwrights Canada Press. But it has been such an honour to do this kind of curation and editing, and Yousef is going to be writing an introduction for one of the plays. And I’m just, I’m so excited about it! I’m still trying to figure out how to describe interdependence for the book right now. It’s um, you know, little sneak peek.
[00:32:50] The first opening of the introduction that I’m writing has a poem that I’m writing myself about interdependence because there was no other way to describe – it’s so hard – again, a soft concept of being like, Where does interdependence start and end? But I figured with the varying disability communities, disability arts communities in this country trying to capture that is, is an interdependent process in itself. So I’m super excited about it and I really just wanted a book that you know, I went through theatre school. I went through my undergrad in a BA department with theatre and English as my majors, and I was asked what could you do for theatre as a blind disabled person?
YK: Ah yeah.
JW: And I kept asking for disabled plays, and no one could hand me anything other than Creeps by David Freeman. Right? So I am super excited because you know, I started this academic journey hoping to make change for my communities, specifically disabled people in the arts and I think this book is the first kind of tangible step that I can be like, well, now there’s no theatre educators who can go, I don’t know – there’s a book here now. Chalk full of interviews and actual plays that you can study in a classroom of disabled experience voices, everything. And so there’s lots of intersections in there, I’m really excited about the different, uh, you know – Chris Dodds’ play Deafy is going to be in there which is super exciting, and Alex Bulmer’s first play Smudge is going to be in there. You know, it’s just one of those things that I’m like, I get to be with a bunch of my friends which sounds like nepotism, but it isn’t, because for the most part it’s not a huge community, disability arts in Canada. I think it’s going to be one of those things that I can look at and be like ok, I feel like I’ve actually left something for this community that feels real and will – and that people can’t ignore us anymore. I’m thinking theatre institutions that are doing education.
Um, I mean I guess theatre creators as well, but I think I’m more thinking about education just because that’s where we need the most advocacy right now. Um, but yeah I’m super excited!
KB: We’re excited too! I’m gonna – like and subscribe – by which I mean preorder, uh, whenever I can.
JW: Yeah, I’ll let y’all know.
YK: Yeah, and I’ll definitely say like I think I’ve seen most of the plays that are going to be published in it, and it’s such a great range of work and especially you know as you’re saying about the diversity you know, I always come back to like the Crip community. We can’t help but be diverse because you know, it’s not like you know, one group is going to be more Crip than the others. It’s, it’s a really, it’s like a random selection of people from all these different backgrounds and you being able to take that and acknowledge that there’s such a massive range of voices out there.
[00:36:02] Within the community and including that, I think it’s going to be a really really special book. And I’m not just saying because I’m writing an introduction.
JW: But I also think, the other thing I’m excited about is there is this idea that um, that there is representation. So I, I won’t go into too much into it, but I have an interview that will hopefully be in the book, we still have to figure things out, that’s about Indigenous disability and Indigenous disabled folks and how the disability arts culture and communities in Canada aren’t as diverse as we think they are. Because of colonization and because of um different racist, uh, barriers to – especially to Indigenous folks – to get into training institutions and have those opportunities. And so I’m really hoping to build some relationship there as well with some guidance from the Indigenous folks who are in the book because I feel like it’s such a priority for me as a white settler to, to do this reconciliation within publication even, you know? I spoke with one of the artists about publishing a play and he was like, I don’t feel comfortable having it published in this anthology in terms of like, Indigenous ownership and governance.
And I was like I hear that. Like I agree. And you know we had this similar discussion with Deafy, with Chris Dodd especially about printing in English and publishing in English because it’s predominantly in ASL and so I’m right now really thinking through about images and how we can maybe take a living language, like ASL and move it into a publication.
So it’s also brought up these really interesting discussions about ownership and publications and “Canada,” air quotes Canada, what we now know as Canada, and how to reconcile between all these different things. So it’s actually been – such a pun intended – eye opening experience, single eye because I only have one [laughter]– but eye-opening experience because I’m, because I’m literally getting a crash course in, in these ethics and protocols and, and trying to navigate with a you know, publisher and being like ok, well it’s gonna take…Crip time! Like it takes time to do all this stuff and, and so it’s been, you know, Playwrights Canada Press has been so welcoming and we’re talking about accessible formats as well and publishing in accessible formats from the get-go. It’s just been a really great experience, um, now with the deadline it’s September 1st, so maybe in a month I’ll be like I don’t know! Because I get so nervous.
I also have this thing where I’m like Oh no, if I publish something I can never change it again. Like what if my thoughts change, and what if things change?
So I’m also kind of aware of that as well and I’m, I’m excited-nervous you know?
KM: You mentioned being an undergrad in 2015. What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve been able to witness since 2015 as an undergrad to now in 2020 as a PhD candidate in theatre?
[00:39:12] Especially in disability theatre, accessible theatre, disability dramaturgy, disability justice within theatre in Canada?
JW: Yeah. I mean, I actually graduated in 2014. But, I think that I understood it more post-undergrad. And when I say it, I mean everything. I went to my undergrad in Guelph, Ontario at the University of Guelph, tiny, tiny little program. We had 35 graduates. I was obviously the only disabled person, although there are you know, disability – there weren’t as many disclosures as maybe…I had to disclose because, y’know, I could fall off a stage. I think what I’ve learned the most, when I graduated I had such a tumultuous uh, undergrad because I originally started as a minor in theatre and was a major in English which is ironic because I can’t read books with my eyes, so I read on average 15 books with my ears per term. So that’s like a lot.
And so by about halfway through my journey in my undergrad, I was really struggling to make my own route through disability. I didn’t know a lot of disabled folks; I wasn’t in the disability justice community. I was in the Blind community; I was on committees for disability but I wasn’t really with advocates, or I wasn’t reading the scholarship or seeing disability plays.
And so all I knew was this theatre world that I, I was tangentially getting exposed to. And then I took a trip to England. I took four months in England my third year. It’s the first time I’d been on a plane by myself and the first time that I’d been outside on a trip without my family since I had been Blind. I only went blind about a year before I went to undergrad.
So I learned – again, I keep talking about crash courses, but I really got a fast, quick and dirty way of being disabled in the world outside of my cushy, small town uh, Ontario vibe. And I came back to Canada after that four months a new human. I wanted to take acting, um, I took my first acting course that spring. Um, I wanted to be a theatre major immediately and I wonder about, again pun intended, London opening my eyes in a certain way to the possibility beyond what I was being told by you know, I had just gone blind before I started my undergrad. People were scared. My parents were like, my family was very much like, Do everything safely, you know? Don’t take too many risks. And when I wanted to go to England they all supported me obviously, but they were very scared and hesitant.
[00:41:57] Upon coming back and seeing my confidence and seeing my excitement for live theatre that could do stuff. Like I had seen shows in London that made me feel and do things. And so coming back I was like I want to do that, and I got woke up to dramaturgy and play writing. I really, really delved deep into it after that. And I still in my undergrad was in this bubble in Guelph of like not really knowing any community. And then I started working more for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, I started working more in a leadership capacity there. And by the time I moved to Toronto I was extremely like, equipped but also I had never lived in a big town before. And I think the big city really…the big cities, that was it! Like London, England and coming into Toronto and feeling the independence. And I say independence intentionally because 2015, when I came to Toronto I was alone. I knew nobody. The only people I knew were my friends from the CNIB which were like, people who technically taught me things, so I was their client [laughs].
So I didn’t really have…like they’re lovely people but they’re not like friends, right? So until I think a year in, until I understood theory more, until I understood the art vibe here in Toronto, I felt really alone. And you know, I had gone through this undergrad where I had carved a path. Like I had really you know, and I remember saying at graduation being like, I made changes in this program, so no one has to go through the pain that I had to go through to get there. The inaccessibility that I had to go through. And I still say that, but then coming to Toronto and being really opened up to my own path with activism, my own path with art, I never felt pressured to perform anything before I was ready. I’ve had, I’ve had offers from people being like, This could start your acting career! And I’m like, I don’t know if I want to be an actor. I think those decisions early on in my Toronto journey um, really helped me get to what essentially brought me into disability justice which was I was having a time, it was in my first – it was around 2017, it was around my second year of my PhD and I was doing some activism. And I can’t go into it too deeply. I was getting some pushback, some not very good um, responses to the activism I was doing. And it was feminism, it was you know, without again going too much into it, it was a lot about We believe victims, we believe survivors, that kind of thing.
And it got to a point where I went into my department and said look: there is a disability leadership summit happening at Banff, at the Banff Centre. And can this be a research trip? Can I go and it be a research trip?
[00:45:00] And the truth behind those questions was, I need to get out of this fucking place. I need to leave here now, and I need to be within the mountains. It was like February, I was like I need to be in the mountains, I need to be alone and I need to be with other Crips! I just need to go.
And I went and I met Jan Derbyshire, and Michelle Deconitez, and Ricki Entz, and Emma Campbell. And I met some really incredible…like Lois Brown and some really incredible disability artists. And I’m getting tingles thinking about it. Like it changed my life, being there. It brought me back to feeling like myself, I felt playful, I wrote a monologue about the Great Lakes [Laughs]. Because I was like I’m in Alberta, and like they don’t know about the Great Lakes so I’m going to tell them about my homes which is like Lake Huron, Lake Ontario. Anyway, I am really nerdy, and they loved it. I met Sarah Garten Stanley and Syrus Marcus Ware, and they invited me to the Republic of Inclusion. That time in Banff, I can’t remember what it was called but I always call it the Banff Centre Disability Arts Leadership Summit or whatever, and it taught me about co-creation and interdependence, and I was like Oh – oh! Like everything clicked. I think Jan Derbyshire, who I believe goes by JD now, it felt like having a mom. Like—you know, they would come over and be like, It’s so nice that, it’s really nice to see you today. And I was like Oh! It’s really nice to see you, too!
And they to me are an elder in our community, I’m not sure how we feel about disability elders in Canada yet because Jan’s not young – she’s not old – right? She’s not an elder in that grandparent sense, right, but she made me feel at home. And I felt like my voice mattered and the second that happened, even though I wasn’t a professional artist like the Canada Council might say, and I didn’t have any public showings [grumbles]– all the things that make you a professional artist, like I was new. Brand new. Baby. But having someone be like, You’re so welcome here was just like, again, still brings me tingles and every time I see JD I’m like, just so grateful for the care and compassion that they showed me. And I think like that’s something, post-Republic of Inclusion which was an intense time as Yousef can say, to say the very least, understatement…Since then it’s been a priority for me, for anybody I meet now in our community is to immediately try and make them feel at ease and welcome. Because I remember that feeling of being so … burnt out by activism and so burnt out by the systems that I was dealing with and feeling so alone in Toronto and then coming to Banff and having people be like You belong here. Even if I haven’t, like I say, been in a gallery or been in a show.
And so, but I was making art.
[00:48:05] And they were like Of course you’re an artist! And that, for me, brought me into disability justice, it brought me into activism in terms of cripness, it brought me into … it was interdependent magic. Like it really felt like magic. And I am, I honestly cannot be more grateful to that weekend in the mountains. I cannot be more grateful to the people I met at the Republic and the opportunities I’ve been given, I’m extremely privileged and extremely grateful. But I also am like very knowledgeable that I worked really hard for this, and I, I always try to give back to this community. New artists, emerging artists, children – you know – children, people in school. Because I’m like, it could make a huge difference just to be like, You belong here.
YK: Absolutely. And I think we’ve seen you do that, at least I can say I’ve seen you do that since I first met you.
JW: You guys are going to make me cry!
KB: Tears on the first episode! [laughs]
YK: So we’re coming close up on our time here, but before we get to the wrap up there’s one more question that I really want to hit on. Um, so thinking about like all the things that you’ve learned, like doing accessible dramaturgy, as an artist, as a person, as someone who just goes out and sees theatre, um, when you dream of the future of performance, what do you envision?
JW: I dream of a performance future that is anti-capitalist. That has no barrier for access to see the show; I don’t want to have to spend $75 to get into, you know, an incredible show that I need to see. I want to be able to either pay what I can, pay what I think, which are two…or, I have this dream of like exchange – where it’s like Here’s a ticket to my show, can I come see your show?
That’s my dream in terms of capitalism. I have a dream that disabled people are not seen as disruptions in theatre spaces ever, meaning like … all of the chairs in the theatre are removable and all of the places in the theatre space, audience space are accessible for any mobility device user and any person.
I dream of a space that is decolonized in a way that feels … I don’t want to say natural but feels right to the people that that affects. I don’t want it to feel stagnant or weird when we talk about the land that we’re on and how we’re not invited there.
[00:51:08] I think that is starting to happen, but I think it needs to happen everywhere and all the time. I think that the idea of feeling … I don’t think we need to feel safe in a theatre space in terms of like, You may not get offended; I think you need to feel safe in terms of your physicality, but I think I want to continue and push for a challenge and also joy and enjoyment. Because I think there’s like a balance between shit that like, deals with the hard stuff, and shit that makes you feel good. Because I think people you know, I don’t always want to see a play that’s going to make me cry. I do a lot of the time – I really do. And I could write and tell you on one hand the shows that really have gotten to my soul in this city, for the past five years that I’ve lived here. I dream of a performance culture that is rooted in lifting people up and critique that is not based in malice or um, ignorance but it is rooted in making this industry better. And so I think that is anti-capitalist, I think that is anti-ableist, I think that’s anti-racist. And that might [exhales] – that’s going to take some time. I don’t think it’s actually possible to do, um, in the way that we understand economy and the way that we understand each other right now.
But the dream of feeling like, that feeling of welcome that I felt with JD many moons ago, where I felt like I was so terrified to walk into that space, which I am a lot of the time in the theatre, where am I going to sit? Am I going to sit on someone’s lap today? Am I going to find my assigned seat? Those fears wouldn’t be there because I would feel welcome. Nobody, not just me, anybody could feel comfortable walking into a space and asking for something and that being received. And that can be disability and that can be in terms of class privilege, and that can be in terms of anxiety and mental illness. Like I think there are lots of ways to make people feel welcome and that’s the theatre that I dream about, and I would also love to just see less white, cis, able stories on the stage.
I would really like to see different stories of enjoyment and challenge because I think a lot of the times in the way that Cahoots theatre describes, um, theatre artists from the margins or from the edge, a lot of the times those – so like marginalized folks – people who are marginalized tend to stereotypically the shows are all very sad and deep and gloomy and you know, they say, they tell us the stories of hardship.
[00:54:05] But there also is a fuck ton of joy here! And you know, I want to see joyful stories. I want to see celebration and pride and I think that it’s gonna, again, take a big turn and a big movement past what we’re dealing with now. But I think there is so much capacity for our communities to demonstrate and perform joy, that I’m hopeful.
KB: Crip Times is presented as part of the Wheels on the Ground podcast network. This podcast is produced by us, and supported by Tangled Art + Disability and Bodies in Translation.
If you enjoyed this interview we release new episodes every Monday wherever good podcasts can be found.
[Jazz music outro]
[December 21, 2020]