McCaffrey takes A Different Light back to world stage

News News & events

15 Jun 2016

On the eve of another global conference appearance, leading disability performance researcher and practitioner, Ara theatre tutor Tony McCaffrey is focused.

He's in Stockholm in a few days for the International Federation for Theatre Research conference. Then he's taking his differently-abled theatre company, A Different Light, to another major international conference, Performance Studies International 22, in Melbourne. There the company will perform their latest work, Three Ecologies of Different Light, at the University of Melbourne's Guild Theatre. Immediately on arriving home the company performs again at the, also very significant, Inclusive Education Summit at the University of Canterbury.

When McCaffrey began specialising in disability theatre, he may not have imagined his work would see him in demand at conferences and events around the globe.


Caption: A Different Light with Green Party MP Mojo Mathers, who visited the theatre company last year.

In Stockholm McCaffrey will present his paper 'How can theatre involving actors with intellectual disabilities have a history?' The question raises more questions. Capturing a live format, of-the-moment modality has its own challenges; photos, video recordings and critiques will never replicate the original experience. But when the company members have intellectual disabilities and communication challenges then whose history is it to tell and how is it told? 

McCaffrey says it's about restaging, recycling and revising pieces of theatre. "An economy is about usefulness, but this is an ecology where things can grow in strange ways, where we can operate in a more tender and more forgiving way. It's a plea for inclusion, for allowing people in who don't have much of a chance to make their voices heard, who may have been institutionalised or who need a lot of assistance to perform certain functions such as communication."

Disability culture has its own traditions and then McCaffrey is also keen to make connections across history and across cultures. There is no point reinventing the wheel, he says.

Seven years of PhD research, whilst also teaching at Ara, about 'Incapacity and Theatricality: Politics and Aesthetics in Theatre Involving Actors with Intellectual Disabilities' feeds into McCaffrey's current thinking. He quips that "I am now pursuing publication of a book from this with publishers – and the book might well have a catchier title."

McCaffrey has been guiding A Different Light since 2004 and many members have been with the company for as long. "This depth of experience lends the company a great deal of humour," McCaffrey says. "It's certainly not all doom and gloom." 

And yet there is plenty of material from the performers' lives to work with. Three Ecologies explores three stories. There is a tribute to John Lambie who lived in Hohepa community for 50 years before moving to a retirement facility. The story of Glenn, a Different Light member, is about being in a wheelchair and needing assistance with everything he does. Louise, the third story, was a survivor of psychiatric system abuse and a company member; following her passing, in what ways is she still present with the company? 

As soon as the company gets back to town, on July 10 they present that performance as a keynote at the University of Canterbury Inclusive Education Summit in Christchurch.