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Pioneering disability-led performing arts: A Conversation with Madeleine Little

**Disclaimer: Language choices have been provided by a representative from The CPL Group to align with their preferred terminology when discussing people with disability.**

The Undercover Artist Festival is a pioneering venture in the arts community, dedicated to empowering artists with disability. Theatre Haus spoke with Madeleine Little, Festival Director, to find out more.

“Undercover Artist Festival was conceived by Access Arts in 2015 in response to a strong demand for performance opportunities for artists with disability…it was a wild success and started an important legacy!”

The festival, having started with the goal of addressing the significant gap in the sector for disabled artists, has grown into a crucial platform for these artists to lead their own work and maintain creative control.

Little elaborates on how the festival is structured to achieve this: “Undercover Artist Festival has three programming tracks: our Career Track is home to professional development, our Community Track hosts community arts organisations and their work, and our Creative Track focuses on professional level performances and is disability-led, meaning that disabled artists are taking the lead in their work. They might be the lead performer, writer, or director, or perhaps it’s an Ensemble where more than 51% of the artists involved are people with disability.”

This structure is instrumental in filling the gap for disabled artists to showcase excellence in disability-led performing arts, a sentiment that Little echoes: “There aren’t many opportunities for disabled artists to lead their own work and have creative control while working professionally,”

The festival’s collaborations with other organizations, including Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival, have been crucial in reaching wider audiences.

“Our relationship with Queensland Theatre continues this year, as our venue partner, and we’re thrilled to be once again sitting under the Brisbane Festival umbrella,” Little shares. She also expresses gratitude for other collaborators, including Australian Event Productions, FAB Interpreting, Reporter’s Ink, Vantage Point Audio Description, and Vision Australia, which contribute to the festival’s success.

Regarding the notable performances and artists at this year’s festival, Little expresses her excitement, likening the difficulty of picking highlights to a parent being asked to choose a favorite child.

“I’m so stoked to have almost every performing arts genre covered,” she says, before listing a few notable acts: “Comedian and legend Steady Eddy… Alexandra Ellen’s ‘Betsy and I’ and Kathryn Hall’s ‘Sheltered’… the world premiere of ‘Sleep and the City’ by Emma-June Curik… ‘The Crooners’ are returning… Aspy Jones back to Undercover Artist Festival as one of our headline acts at WunderSounds – a fantastic concert that feels like a micro-music festival – sharing the stage with Ambition Road, MC Wheels, Emma Tomlinson and Eliza Hull. It’s going to be absolutely electrifying and a brilliant way to end the Festival with a bang!”

The festival prioritizes accessibility and inclusivity for both performers and audience members with disability.

“We have a minimum standard of accessibility, which includes Auslan Interpretation and Live Closed Captioning, and Audio Description. Queensland Theatre is also a wheelchair accessible venue,” Little explains.

Other accommodations include haptic vests for the WunderSounds concert, Braille programs, timetables, and bar menus, and a Breakout Space for those needing a quiet recharge.

Little is particularly proud of the festival’s online booking system, developed in collaboration with Queensland Theatre, which allows everyone, including disabled audiences, to book accessible tickets online.

Discussing the festival’s contribution to Brisbane’s cultural and arts landscape during the Brisbane Festival, Little acknowledges the excellent work of local disability arts companies and groups. However, she underscores the unique opportunity that the Undercover Artist Festival offers:

“[it is] a unique opportunity to gather the community in one place to share and celebrate each other’s work, network, and find a sense of solidary and cultural safety… There’s truly nothing like it.”

Engagement with the local community is crucial for the festival. Little explains the proactive approach taken: “During the application process, we had an open call to artists from Brisbane and beyond… And we are proud to say we have over 10 Brisbane, Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast based artists/ensembles joining us on stage in 2023.”

Little, who is also a disabled performer, theatremaker, and access consultant, reflects on her personal connection to the festival:

“I consider it a huge honour and privilege to be in this role as Festival Director, where I can call upon my research and training, consult with the community, and hopefully have an impact and support artists to boost their careers and create lasting legacies.”

Looking to the future, Little is hopeful: “The Festival has created a platform for showcasing excellence in disability-led performing arts, and my hope is that this legacy will see many more disabled voices and stories on all stages – community, independent, and mainstage.”

Tickets for the Undercover Artist Festival are available online, allowing everyone to book accessible tickets with ease. Be part of the broader movement towards disability-led performing arts and celebrate the excellence of this community by booking your tickets now!

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