Ara tutor writes the textbook on global disability theatre

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26 Sep 2017

Thirteen years of working with intellectually disabled actors, a six-year PhD into disability in theatre and becoming part of a global network of leading academics and differently-abled theatre companies has recently led to a book contract for Ara theatre tutor Tony McCaffrey.

International publishers Routledge have signed McCaffrey’s book, Incapacity and Theatricality: Politics and Aesthetics in Theatre Involving Actors with Intellectual Disabilities, as part of their Advances in Theatre and Performance Studies Collection to be published in June 2018.

McCaffrey directs A Different Light Theatre Company, whose members perform at conferences locally and internationally. The company challenges conceptions of disability in theatre through their participation in creating and performing theatrical works.

A Different Light theatre company

“Here in Christchurch the creation and sustaining of a global creative enterprise has led to people with intellectual disabilities becoming involved in performances, appearances at conferences, having an online presence, being part of educational initiatives and receiving serious coverage and published research in journals and books internationally,” McCaffrey says.

“It is life-changing for them, as they co-create an identity in theatre. This work is really reaching out internationally too. Future publications about A Different Light will ensure that the pioneering work done here in Christchurch and at Ara makes a sustainable contribution to this field into the future.”

A Different Light recently returned from performing a new piece, ‘I belong in the past and the future and the very now . . .’ at the Australasian Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies Association Conference: Performing Belonging in the 21st Century, at Auckland University of Technology.

“The six performers in the group not only gave a very good performance but also contributed to my paper and the ending plenary session representing the belonging of people with disabilities in contemporary Australasian performance,” McCaffrey says.

The new work was a 20-minute companion piece to ‘Three Ecologies of Different Light’, performed by the company at Performance Studies International Conference at University of Melbourne in 2016.  

A Different Light will further develop and perform both pieces in Christchurch this November.

The company has attracted interest from leading academics and practitioners such as Petra Kupper from the University of Michigan, who visited Christchurch in February 2014 and wrote about her experience attending an earthquake memorial walk, working with A Different Light and performing in public spaces around Christchurch.

In all these moments, from pilgrimages to the troupe meeting, from flower memorials to anthems, refiguration and contact become my reading lenses. Disability configures itself anew, as it always does when I am on the road on my disability culture journeys. Here, moments of difference, health, healing, and survivance created a vision of disability as luscious growth in a garden of many flowers.

She explores another visit with A Different Light in 2015 in her new book Theatre and Disability (just published by MacMillan Palgrave), describing a workshop on Waikuku Beach and the nearby Domain as a combination of creative play and public spectacle. “Performance can affirm and unsettle, and this walk on the edge is the core of our workshop,” Kuppers wrote about the experience.  She also drew on material from McCaffrey’s forthcoming book and other writing.  

McCaffrey is now an active part of an “international community of disability culture”, focusing on theatre with leading academics such as Kuppers grouping A Different Light with globally recognised companies: “I was there to visit with A Different Light, a well-known company that creates disability performance work in the context of cognitive difference, complex and layered work related to the practices of Back to Back Theatre (Geelong, Australia), Mind the Gap (Leeds, UK), l’Oiseau-Mouche (Roubaix, France), Maatwerk (Rotterdam, Netherlands), Theater HORA (Zürich, Switzerland), and others,” she wrote.

At the International Federation for Theatre Research conference at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in June, McCaffrey chaired six panels for the Performance and Disability Working Group, gave two papers, attended three executive committee meetings and helped organize the Working Group’s Artists Meeting with a diverse and vibrant range of performers. “This included Billy Saga - a wheelchair-using rapper and film maker, Paula Souza Lopez who helped organize the Unlimited Disability Arts Festivals at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, performance artist Estela Lapponi, who does public space performances in large cities in Brazil, Marcos Abranches an amazing dancer with cerebral palsy and others,” McCaffrey said.  

Along with his academic and practitioner expertise, McCaffrey brings uniquely kiwi cultural, and uniquely Christchurch post-earthquake, perspectives to these international gatherings.

“I was able to introduce them to the new terms for disability devised by the Māori disability community - whaikaha and takiwatanga,” he said.