A little more action: theatre, disability, and Elvis

Elizabeth McGuirk interviews Claire Cunningham, the internationally acclaimed disabled artist, about taking risks, engaging audiences beyond our own bubble, and the enduring power of The King

August 20, 2020 · 12 min read
Scene from Thank You Very Much. Photos: Hugo Glendinning

Claire Cunningham is a performer, choreographer and creator based in Glasgow. Cunningham’s work challenges traditional dance aesthetics by focusing on and experimenting with the physicality and aesthetics of non-normative bodies. The tour for her show, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Her ensemble piece, Thank You Very Much (TYVM), focused on interpersonal connections forged between Elvis tribute artists and performers with disabilities. The result is a deeply engaging work, prompting ruminations on the role of impersonation, identity and acceptance, and the universal question: ‘Who are we?’

Elizabeth McGuirk: I saw Thank You Very Much at the Manchester International Festival last year. I didn’t know what to expect and it blew me away, particularly the choreography. How did it develop?

Claire Cunningham: The project started six years ago for me. I had initially been interested in fellow artists with cerebral palsy and the correlation between Elvis’s physical vocabulary – the way that he moved, particularly in the 1950s – and the movement of some disabled bodies. The first connection I started to make was to do with what was considered ‘involuntary movement’. Elvis’s movement had been considered in that way; his body ‘out of control’. Then I started to see other connotations and correlations.

The movement he did in the ’50s was never what you might call straight lines in the body. There were bent limbs. One of his trademark movements is almost like a limp, where he drags his leg across the stage. There’s a famous saying: ‘Elvis has left the building.’ It was announced at the end of his concerts, otherwise nobody would leave. I began to think: how long would it take Elvis to leave the building if he used a wheelchair? Would he even get into the building? That was one of the first ideas I was playing with: a disabled artist or a disabled performer with an Elvis persona.

That grew into the idea of making a group piece, and then more specifically considering why I was being drawn to look at Elvis particularly and what it was about his movement. Then I started to zoom out onto how he was perceived because of that movement, and that became really recognisable to me as well because he was considered problematic because of the way he moved. It disrupted the whole musical scene at the time. There were things about that which I recognised about disabled bodies – moving in a way that isn’t acceptable, or that isn’t expected, and being considered to be ‘troublesome’, as I often refer to it. Elvis caused trouble just by the way he moved.

There is also the whole question about where that movement came from, and Elvis’s appropriation of it from black culture. Those movements were problematic to white people in America because they were associated with African Americans. He was a pretty white boy, able to do things in a way that no black artist was permitted on those stages or on television. So it is also a reminder of a whole culture that was repressed.

EM: The performance certainly challenged the way I think about the body, especially in terms of what is considered ‘normal’. Did you intend the work to have that kind of impact?

CC: I’m not sure that I ever really know what a work’s going to do, because it will do different things for different people. One of the big things that’s changed in the way I’ve made work has been learning to give space to the fact that everyone in the audience is an individual with very different lived experiences and is at different places in their life with regards to many things but particularly to disability.

There are politics in there, for sure, that I hoped would translate and would be recognisable to people, but at the same time I knew that we weren’t ever going to be stating that stuff very blatantly. I was curious whether people would understand the connection I was making, which was quite abstract and unusual. The feedback so far is that people got this strange comparison and still got the politics that were underpinning everything.

EM: The venue chosen for the performance in Manchester, the Ukrainian Cultural Centre, was also striking. For me, it brought up the issue of access – not only in terms of disability but who has access to theatre more broadly.

CC: The choice of making work in a space that wasn’t a theatre was very purposeful. As I move along the years as an artist, I take the time to note what has become comfortable and to push myself out of that. Or to at least question, ‘What am I afraid of doing and why?’

Fifteen years ago, I would never have considered that I would get on a stage and show my body in any way moving to people, nor to then get to a place where I have made my own theatre shows and have become quite comfortable with moving on stage and singing to people. My last three or four works have been about recognising that I’ve made the black box, the Proscenium arch world, very safe for myself: ‘You sit out there in the dark and I’ll make myself this thing that I can control up here.’

I began to question that, and to subvert it, in terms of not making things that are only to be viewed from the front – so bringing audiences further around or closer. For Guide Gods, from 2014, the audience was in the round, a very small audience, very intimate.

Fifteen years ago, I would never have considered that I would get on a stage and show my body in any way moving to people

Historically, I’ve been terrified of any show that might put me close to the performers, that is site-specific or interactive. All of those things, particularly as a disabled person, terrify me going to see a show. Traditionally, performance-makers make work for audiences in their own image. And traditionally, those have been non-disabled people who are fully sighted, fully hearing, much taller than me, more physically resilient, able to move out of the way quicker, or happy to stand for long periods of time. So ‘site- specific’ and ‘interactive’ shows have been quite frightening spaces that I wouldn’t want to go into as an audience member.

I’ve been really thinking in recent years about how I could make work that allows for those more personal interactions and different perspectives and experiences. So, looking at spaces where you can bring an audience closer, you can interact with them, but thinking about how you can make that interaction safe – for the performer and for the audience. In the same way as considering ‘access’ in the disability sense of the word, it’s almost always to do with information and choice.

It’s about trying to create spaces where people have a choice where they can sit, as much as possible. Rather than being ghettoised into ‘people who are in wheelchairs must sit here; people who are deaf must sit here’, you can say: ‘If you sit here, these things may happen. If you are not comfortable with these things, those seats over there are better.’ And again, trying to make sure that’s not a judgement, because there are so many reasons why people may not want to interact. Not just presuming that people are okay with being touched, not presuming that people are communicating by spoken word, are hearing.

There will always be gaps. You can’t plan for everything, it’s not possible, but trying to build consideration into a work, as much as possible. People then presume there’s no risk in the work if you tell audiences ‘this might happen’. Sometimes there’s a bit of a push back, of people saying: ‘I want to be surprised!’ I don’t believe that one negates the other. You can still make work where people don’t know what’s going to happen but can feel they’re not going to get hurt or pushed into something that’s damaging. It’s not easy but it’s possible. The thing that’s important is that people genuinely feel they have the agency to say ‘No thank you’ to something.

We’ll keep learning as we get feedback, but we did try to create something that invites audiences to participate in very gentle and specific ways, and trying to make sure that’s very much with their consent.

EM: In terms of access to roles for disabled artists and, relatedly, representations of disability, what progress do you see being made? I’m thinking, for example, of Liz Carr, who plays Clarissa in Silent Witness, where her disability isn’t the focus of her part.

CC: The problem is that, historically, these roles have always been performed by non-disabled people acting as disabled. It’s a vision of how disability is perceived by non-disabled people, so it’s unrealistic. It’s very superficial.

It’s not simply about disabled people being represented but the voices making the work. Maybe I’m biased because I’m a maker, but actually it’s about the work being made by disabled artists – actors, writers, filmmakers.

Although I’ve not had a chance to speak to Liz much about her role, I think she’s been able to have a voice in that process, of how that character develops and the reality of what that character does. Absolutely, that character is disabled, but the storylines are not about being disabled, they are about the reality of life. Life is more than just that one thing. It informs that life, and it affects that life, but it’s not everything about it.

Gradually, in terms of theatre, we’ve been fortunate to see more work made by disabled artists who are gradually gaining the skills and the opportunities to tell their stories. But there’s a long way to go. We can still get stuck in our liberal bubbles, seeing each other’s work but forgetting that there might be a wider public who are not accessing it, particularly the work being generated from the voices and lived experiences of disabled artists. That’s the thing for me in terms of art, but also in terms of entertainment.

I realised with TYVM that I had a snobbishness about art and entertainment, and where the divisions fall between those things. I think Brexit was a big driver for me, as well, in having to admit that predominantly I’d been performing to mainly white, middle-class, university-educated audiences, mostly non-disabled, although I probably have a higher percentage of disabled audience members than non-disabled artists have for their work. I can’t shirk responsibility for also having caught myself in a bubble of my people. I’m trying to think about how I come out of those spaces.

EM: Is that a theme that’s influenced your work beyond TYVM?

CC: In recent years my work has been about asking: ‘How do we engage with people we think we have nothing in common with?’ Guide Gods was about religion and disability and the intersections of those themes. As someone who didn’t follow a religion, I was as guilty of stereotyping people who did as I felt others were to disabled people. It was a purposeful choice to go and meet those people and understand that there were lots of things in common about how we were perceived in society.

The research for TYVM and going into the tribute artist world was another manifestation of that, of feeling that these are people who work in a different world from me and I don’t really have anything in common with them other than I might like Elvis a little. But when you spend time with somebody, if you just get in a room with somebody and just sit down and talk, there’s something about learning about what someone’s passionate about that changes you.

With TYVM, I wanted to share that way of working with my performers. We could just have watched videos of how Elvis moved and tried to copy it, but that doesn’t make sense to me. I asked them to go and work individually with tribute artists because I wanted to know what happens when you meet with another human being who really cares about this thing. All my performers came back quite fascinated and passionate about Elvis, even though none of them were before. They had been infected by that, but also by hearing how the tribute artists feel they’re perceived, and what it means for them to be compared to other people, ridiculed in society. There were a lot of really interesting parallels in seemingly very different experiences.

This article originally appeared in Issue #226, Winter 2019. For further information, including tour dates, see www.clairecunningham.co.uk / @ClaireCprojects

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