The performance of disability histories: remembrance and transmission

Award Holder

Dr Sonali Shah

Higher Education Institute

School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds

This project grew out of a larger project, ‘Time of our Lives’, a Nuffield Foundation funded project focusing the the interplay between macro structures and biographical narratives of disabled people born in 1940s, 1960s and 1980s Britain.

The programme brought together academics (from social science and performance arts disciplines), theatre practitioners (actors, choreographers, writers, dancers etc), and students/trainees, in three themed events to explore issues around life stories, disability history and culture through the relationship between performance and text.

Three workshops facilitated dialogue and a process of devising a micro-performance (or proto-play).Each of the three workshops, had a unique theme, and involved an academic presentation, practitioner presentation and devised theatre performance work stimulated by biographical research data generated from life history conversations with past and present generations of young disabled people growing up in Britain The workshop events were:

Workshop 1: Histories, biographies, performances (London Metropolitan University, 29th November 2008)

Workshop 2: Revising Texts, Devising Histories (Nottingham Playhouse, 11th February 2009)

Workshop 3: Performing Lives, Lives Performed (Leeds University, 6th April 2009)


The aim of the workshop programme was to inspire academic-practitioner collaboration towards the transmission of disabled people's history to new generation audiences, using multi-modal devised performance based on biographical research. More immediately, the objectives of the workshops were:

To bring together academics from different disciplines, arts practitioners and students, to examine the performance potential of life history research with disabled people.

To explore the impact of performance on the transmitted meanings of disabled people's remembrances, for researchers and practitioners.

To advance the use of para/post-textual methods in arts and social research and to promote the value of performance in research practice.

To demonstrate the potential of innovative collaborations and methods for the creation of a future and larger-scale devised performance aimed at new generation audiences.

Thematic discoveries

1. Opportunities for Embodiment

Embodied imagery can be particularly powerful, both as performative communication and as embodied learning. We should resist the temptation always to ‘translate' visual data into verbal knowledge. Sharing and exchanging interpretations and reactions in a variety of embodied ways opened new dialogues between the workshop participants (i.e. subverting the assumed reception of narrated stories while ‘sitting in rows' by sitting in circles, standing, walking, talking, making faces, posing, tableau). It is important also to consider how we develop appropriate sensory ‘texts' for audiences with multiple and profound learning difficulties. Embodying a memory produces new feelings about it. So it is important to read embodiment into texts.

Composing our dramatic responses to disability through play and emergent objects offers useful possibilities, including the emergence of meanings not yet named. However, we must be constantly aware of the context in which disability is perceived and received by audiences (i.e. the cultural scripts that they already have at their disposal).
The performance of disability has potential to question and shift the frames within which disability has traditionally been played and offers new ways of presenting it.

Text vs imagery

As social scientists, ‘we love our text, we love our words, and the security we get from that'. Yet there has been an increasing interest in the use of visual methods to research and understand lives. Texts often prevent a visual perception (or mapping) of the relationships between lives, times and places. Non-textual interactions offer a ‘common language' between diverse disciplines.We exploit visual performance and memory throughout our lives (e.g. in family photos) but visual records of our lives can generate negative memories of truths that should not be revived.

The workshops provided a spaces for professionals to read and inhabit the lives of an imagined other. However performers have their own 'baggage' thus this inevitably has on influence how the they read, interpret and perform the imagined life. It may be useful, therefore, to create several alternative images for single stories so audience members can get a rounded picture of the character's actual life (with its multiple faces and identities) as opposed to the performer's interpretation of it.

Acting out and acting up

It is important to convey the differences and diversity between disabled people, and to avoid representing disability through a single character. For disabled actors, there may be challenges in performing material that is close to personal biographical experience. However, the presence of disabled performers is key to shifting boundaries.

The emergence of disability theatre and ‘crip culture' has challenged received discourses of ‘who we are' as disabled people in society. We ay often begin by telling stories ‘for us and for each other', within the disability community, which only then spill out to wider audiences. There are problems of audience perception - what do they expect from disability performance or from disabled lives? Can audiences differentiate between disabled actors and fictional characters? Is suspension of disbelief less problematic for audiences faced with non-disabled performers? Audiences often become voyeuristic of disabled actors, wanting to know about their impairment labels and medical conditions. Whilst theatre is inherently voyeuristic and performers place themselves on show, there is a need to actively contest ‘freak show' assumptions and a responsibility to re-present disabled people. There are opportunities to tell positive stories in new ways.


All three workshops were documentated via still photographs and video. 

The work of the project was the feature of an event held at Leeds University, in collaboration with the Centre for Disability Studies on 15th December 2009. The event presented the creative work generated via the BT workshops and life history project  to an invited audience of academics, practitioners, researchers and key informants (some of who were involved in the work). It demonstrated how the biographical stories, collected from different generations of disabled people, could be translated into performance. Further, the images, tableaus and micro performances that were recorded (via photography and video) were integrated with extracts from the original qualitative interviews, and analysis of macro-level policies, to illustrate social change in the lived experiences of disabled people spanning 3 generations.

See workshop programme here.


Image: dsc_0037.jpgParticpants at the first workshop on November 26th at London Metropolitan University. Photo by dsc_0099_copy.jpgImage: dsc_0166.jpgImage: dsc_0151.jpgImage: dsc_0187_copy.jpgWorkshop 3 - Eyes, nose, mouthImage: dsc_0114.jpgImage: dsc_0021.jpg

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