‘Guttered’ was striking.
Far too often the perception of disability theatre is that it exists to allow artists with a disability the “chance” to perform. What makes the work of Restless Dance Theatre so extraordinary is that they loudly and proudly challenge that notion. Instead, they use movement and dance to give audiences the “chance” to experience and understand disability, thereby, pushing both the audience and the art into the present. ‘Guttered’ is no exception.
Set and performed in a bowling alley, ‘Guttered’ expertly explores inclusion, accessibility and performative activation. From the moment the audience arrives in the space, these messages are played out in both action and performance. Unlike much immersive, site-specific theatre, ‘Guttered’ allows audiences to participate or not participate in the action at whatever level is comfortable and accessible for them. Audience members are asked as they enter: “Do you like bowling? Do you want to bowl today? Do you want to be a member of our cheer squad?” These questions allow the show to be enjoyed at whatever level audience members feel comfortable with. At no point were disabled audience members made to feel ashamed for requiring to move around or to withdraw if necessary. As an autistic man, I was not once asked to remove my headphones or stared at for continuing to wear them. That is what accessible theatre looks like.
As the show started, a mix of disabled and non-disabled dancers moved up and down the alleyways creating a world of movement that was spectacular to watch and deeply heartfelt. A standout moment came halfway through the show when disabled dancer, Charlie Wilkinson, kept attempting to bowl by himself but kept being held back by non-disabled dancers in an attempt to “help” him. The experience of being infantilised by non-disabled people in an attempt to “care for” us is an experience that far too many disabled people, myself included, are familiar with. By bringing this experience to life through movement and dance, Restless Dance Theatre has shone a light on an issue that has remained silent for too long. This is the power of what Restless Dance does.
All the dancers – disabled and non-disabled alike – had their moments to shine. Jianna Georgiou was delightfully cheeky as a person desperate for love and affection, Alexis Luke created a beautiful balance between the caring loved one of a disabled person and the overstepping controller, and Michael Hodyl had a solo dance moment that I’ll never soon forget (more on that in a moment).
One of the many tragedies of what disabled performer and Youtuber Sydney Zarlengo describes as “the disability arts ghetto”, is that disability art is far too often underfunded and under-resourced. What was so remarkable about ‘Guttered’ is that it was clear just how much funding was behind this production. No expense had been spared. The set design, the costume design, the lighting design, the video design and the sound design all had the majesty of a large-scale QPAC musical. Technical manager, Johnathon Edwards, has brought these elements together at such a high level. But a special shout-out needs to go to lighting designer Geoff Cobham and Jason Sweeney as music soundscape designer, who, alongside Hodyl, created a moment I have never seen before. While Hodyl danced, a miniature film of Hodyl was projected onto his white singlet and danced as well.
Rehearsal director Larissa McGowan and Artistic Director Michelle Ryan both need to be congratulated on what is overall a specular production from top to bottom. Each moment sang with authenticity and moved me to tears with pride as a disabled man.
Often reviews can become very formulaic. Introduce the show, talk about the performers, talk about the design, talk about the direction, conclusion, move on, done. Like many disabled people, ‘Guttered’ didn’t fit into the mould created by non-disabled people so neither should a review of it. As a disabled man, I can honestly say I don’t think I have ever had the privilege to review a show that is written and created by disabled artists. Far too regularly non-disabled reviewers will take these opportunities and miss the nuances that only a disabled eye can see. I thank not just Brisbane Festival for programming this production but Theatre Haus for giving me the opportunity to share my unique position in reviewing it.
‘Gutted’ performs until Sunday, 18 September 2022 at Kingpin Chermside Bowling Alley. For more information, visit Brisbane Festival’s website.
Photo Credit Roy Vandervegt