Mourning the Present, Demanding a Better Future

Reflections on Freelance Task Force and Disabled Community in Scotland

Written by Sandra Alland

Collage of performances and films from ‘A Wake’. Left-Right, Top Row: Emilia Beatriz reads from their phone, they are Puerto Rican American with short brown hair and glittery lipstick, a caption reads “You’ll see, it feels beautiful, it feels good.”; Emilia is being interpreted into British Sign Language by Lisa Li, a British Chinese woman with shoulder-length black hair and glasses; Jeda Pearl reads a poem, she has a patterned top and long, brown curly-frizzy hair, bronze-brown skin, brown eyes and no makeup, a caption reads “Hold fast”. Left-Right, Middle Row: Brooklyn Melvin performs sign-song with a pleasant expressions, they are white with short brown hair with shaved sides and wear an orange hoodie, a caption says 'to dance again'; a still from Raman Mundair’s short film, she is adorned as a Goddess with yellow flowers, a crown, and Punjabi tribal folk markings, to her left and right are different ocean horizons; Etzali Hernández, a nonbinary latinx queer femme with brown eyes, hoop nose piercings, long black hair and glasses, they sit smiling in front of a bright turquoise background; Etzali is in conversation with San Alland, a smiling white person with short brown hair, glasses and a red and black striped tie, interpreted into BSL by an also-smiling K.Yvonne Strain who's a white woman with wavy shoulder-length brown hair. Left-Right, Bottom Row: Bea Webster performs Hamlet, Bea is Scottish-Thai with straight shoulder-length dark hair and brown eyes, she wears glasses and holds a tiny toy skull she's pointing at with a shocked expression; Lake Montgomery plays a song on her guitar into a large mic, Lake is African-American with chest-length finger-thick dreadlocks, brown eyes and no makeup, a caption reads "Heal a suffering mind"; Lake’s lyrics are being interpreted into BSL by Lisa Li, described above, whose hands move over her head.
Collage of performances and film stills from ‘A Wake’, September 17, 2020. Left-Right, Top Row: Emilia Beatriz, Lisa Li, Jeda Pearl. Left-Right, Middle Row: Brooklyn Melvin, Raman Mundair, San Alland, K. Yvonne Strain, Etzali Hernández. Left-Right, Bottom Row: Bea Webster, Lake Montgomery, Lisa Li.

Back in June, which seems a lifetime ago in the time-altering world of a pandemic, I was invited by artistic director Robert Softley Gale to work with Birds of Paradise Theatre Company on Freelance Task Force (FTF). 

A three-month initiative by Fuel Theatre, FTF created around 130 one-day-a-week jobs. The idea was to advocate for live arts freelancers in response to the lockdown. While people in management kept their jobs, many self-employed folk had their work cancelled indefinitely, often without government or employer support. 

FTF was a challenge from the get-go. How to (self)organise arts workers from vastly different backgrounds? As a skint queer disabled person, I found myself flailing. I had never used Zoom, and was suddenly in a meeting with over 100 people. FTF also set itself up on Slack, an online space inaccessible to many people. There were constant emails, and folk were outlining agendas before we’d learned each other’s names.

BOP encouraged me to approach the role as I wanted, and supported my focus on talking with other multiply-marginalised disabled people. I set up ten one-on-one conversations with arts workers, including performers, writers, interpreters and captioners. Our interactions echoed my research and experience with issues like lack of access to food and care, internet poverty, loss of independence, and being locked out of arts grants and emergency funds. Our chats also highlighted specifically how disabled, neurodivergent, ill and Deaf people are struggling in Scotland – especially when also Black, POC, LGBTQIA+ and/or working-class. We talked about what we’d been through with lockdown and before it, and created a list of demands going forward.

Meanwhile, I searched for connection in the larger FTF. I scoured bios and conversations for disability, queerness, anti-capitalism. Slowly, I connected. Playwright Nessah Muthy was posting brilliantly about class issues, and formed a sub-group I met with early on (and through which I met the fab non-FTF Debbie Hannan). A Scottish sub-group also formed, and what a relief to Zoom with only seven people – and people deeply dedicated to a place left out of much FTF conversation. Over time, I realised many of the above folk are also disabled, which didn’t surprise me given the outstanding care I witnessed in their work.

As time progressed, disabled task-forcers raised access concerns, leading to the formation of disabled Slack and WhatsApp groups. One of few faces I knew from previous work was musician and solid/wise/best person Miss Jacqui. Over the course of FTF, we played Overwhelm Tag, where one of us would summarise what the heck was happening for the overwhelmed other (when we could decipher it). I also connected with director Hannah Quigley and artist Xana. Hannah and designer Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey created a life-saving safer space by organising Disabled, Deaf and Neurodiverse meetings. If it wasn’t for these people and others, I would have given up on FTF. I can’t overstate the value of disabled organising, of small and slow organising. Of not having to explain to non-disabled people before being able to start (or stop) work.

To be clear about the complexity of creating a truly inclusive space, FTF was actually an unusually accessible entity from its formation. There was BSL interpreting and live captioning, even an access fund. It was impressively less white, straight and abled than most of the arts (though white supremacy, geographical bias, ableism and classism were definitely present). Despite the bumps you’d expect from throwing a bunch of people together, FTF was heavenly compared to most of the UK. 

Nonetheless, problems emerged that always emerge when disability justice is not a core principal. There was too much information, the pace was ridiculously fast, and those who over-worked controlled the narrative. Of course, thirteen weeks was never going to be enough time for such a project, and it’s admirable anyone tried. But when disability did get addressed, basic access took precedence over the ethics of disability justice. And access was often quantified, with suggestions of needing to “justify” requirements. 

But the tireless efforts of disabled people meant most access needs were met (BSL, captions, note-takers, breaks, voice notes). An access manager was eventually hired to administrate the budget and arrange some support. But we didn’t succeed in slowing down the pace and volume of meetings and communications. Many Deaf and disabled folk worked beyond our hours, unfairly burdened with the labour of fighting for basic equality (which also replicated the issue of underpayment / overwork in freelance arts). I left with the conviction that there’s a more urgent need than ever for disabled-led organising. 

When I say ‘left’, I mean at one point I stopped interacting with the larger FTF. I gave up on saying, “You’re going too fast”, and decided my energy was better spent with my communities. The vitality of the one-on-one discussions I’d been having led me to ask Birds of Paradise if I could bring people together for a group conversation and sharing of artwork. Something that came up in several chats was that as marginalised disabled people we have experienced so much death and loss – recently, and in the past decade – and there’s been little space for collective grief. What were we meant to do with all the sadness and rage, all the preventable loss?

This was the birth of “A Wake: On mourning, marking, and moving forward together with joy”. The semi-private event on 17 September was “a collective ritual and discussion for disabled, neurodivergent, ill and/or Deaf artists in Scotland”. It had captions, breaks, audio description, and BSL interpreting from Lisa Li and K Yvonne Strain. We posed several questions, including, “How do we mourn and mark our collective losses while being asked/forced to ‘return to normal’? How do we refuse this return, demand better? Can we make space for joy?”

I commissioned eight artists to contribute a 5-minute piece on grief or loss. Delicious work and ideas flooded the screen from Emilia Beatriz, Etzali Hernández, Brooklyn Melvin, Lake Montgomery, Raman Mundair, Jeda Pearl, Bea Webster and Emma Webster-Mockett. There was film, music, storytelling, poetry, opera, sign-song, dance, and even a little Hamlet!

Still from ‘A Wake’ discussion hosted on Zoom, with eight people visible in seven squares. A yellow caption reads: "We also had 'cancellation of all rent! [San laughs]" Left-Right, Top Row: San Alland is white with short brown hair, they wear a black shirt and black and red striped tie, and they're laughing; Emilia Beatriz is Puerto Rican American with very short brown hair and a black top, they are sitting next to a plant and smiling large while giving a double thumbs-up. Emma Webster-Mockett is a white woman with very short brown hair, glasses and a septum piercing. She gestures excitedly to the camera while sitting next to a smiling Bea Webster, who is Scottish-Thai with straight shoulder-length dark hair, brown eyes and glasses. Left-Right, Middle Row: Jeda Pearl sits in front of a bookshelf wearing headphones and smiling, she has long, brown curly-frizzy hair, bronze-brown skin and brown eyes; Lake Montgomery is African-American with chest-length finger-thick dreadlocks, brown eyes and no makeup, she laughs in front of a portrait painting and a lit candle; Etzali is a nonbinary latinx femme, they have brown eyes, hoop nose piercings, long fluffy black hair and glasses, and sit smiling in front of a bright turquoise backdrop. Bottom Row: Yvonne Strain is a white woman with shoulder-length wavy brown hair, she is interpreting into British Sign Language.
Still from ‘A Wake’ discussion hosted on Zoom September 17, 2020. Left-Right, Top Row: San Alland, Emilia Beatriz, Emma Webster-Mockett and Bea Webster. Left-Right, Middle Row: Jeda Pearl, Lake Montgomery, Etzali Hernández. Bottom Row: Yvonne Strain. Not pictured: Raman Mundair, Lisa Li.

A Wake’s art and conversation once again made me want to praise disabled people from the rooftops (if I could get up there). This is the kind of connection we need more of. Witnessing, sharing ideas for dealing with bereavement, weighing the joys and limitations of art. One person sent me a message after, “I think everyone healed a little tonight”. And aye, I certainly did. I’ll take what I learned with these talented and generous artists into the next phase of surviving the pandemic (and Tory rule). Mourning is a necessary and political act, and recognising its importance in community gives us strength to keep fighting.

As for being part of FTF, I would never have come to the idea of A Wake without BOP’s invitation. And I made valuable connections and re-connections with amazing people on FTF, witnessed folk forming vital collaborations and doing urgent work. Most of all, I was part of pandemic lessons in a microcosm: the absolute brilliance that is disabled people making our own spaces and guiding non-disabled people towards a truly inclusive future. We may not have gotten there yet, but I have hope that we will.

Warmest wishes from Glasgow, and thanks again to BOP and all the artists, captioners and interpreters.

Further Info:

Sandra Alland is a writer, filmmaker, interdisciplinary artist and curator living in Glasgow. www.blissfultimes.ca

Disabled, Deaf and neurodivergent people who want to access a video recording or transcript of A Wake (video has BSL interpreting, captions and some audio description) can get in touch with San at sandra@blissfultimes.ca.

San has also compiled a list of grief and mental health resources.

Find more FTF info on a website created by various task force members