Vital Xposure describe themselves as, “a disabled-led touring theatre company that promotes hidden voices with extraordinary stories to tell… All our work presents an inclusive experience where access issues do not intrude upon the aesthetic of the productions.”
I was lucky enough to interview the company’s founder, Julie McNamara, who led the company’s creative work for the its first 10 years and its new director actor, playwright and activist, Simon Startin.
Leslie to Julie: Can you give us an overview of the performances Vital Xposure have put on, please, including a description of some of ‘the hidden voices with incredible stories to tell from the periphery of our communities’ who you’ve featured?
Julie: I had just gained the South Bank Show Award for Diversity, following work on a production called: Crossings, which focused on forced migration and sexual slavery at the foundations of our metropolitan cities. I was born in Merseyside and the city of Liverpool was one of the key ports in the slave trade. Crossings brought together stories from International slavery Museum in Liverpool, from the walls of Te Papa in Wellington, New Zealand, Petone Settlers Museum with the voices of young girls in gangs on Liverpool docks. The voices I had written from stay with me even now. Museums are filled with the stories of voices that have been erased, neglected or disavowed. I am particularly interested in unearthing the stories we rarely, if ever hear. Sometimes an unopened letter, a discovered diary, an overlooked entry in a book, an old recording is all it takes to spark an idea.
I was in the process of writing The Knitting Circle in 2010 when the landscape of the arts was changing here in England and I began working with Arts Consultant and Theatre Producer, Isobel Hawson to build a touring theatre company. Back in 2010, I was in a unique position as a regularly funded individual artist of Arts Council England and that was about to change. We worked together to put systems and policies in place, to build a robust disability-led company that would be driven by social justice. It was our mission to centre excluded voices, people marginalised from the political periphery. We then registered that company at the beginning of January 2011.
The Knitting Circle developed over three years and was presented in three iterations: as a series of monologues at Soho Theatre, as an ensemble piece with BSL integrated inside the show with a run at Decibel and Cochrane Theatre, London and finally as a fully bilingual production with a cast of 8 actors, two of whom were deaf and two with knowledge of BSL. It was our most ambitious work yet.
Leslie to Julie: How did Vital Xposure begin? What have been the key human events in its growth? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned over the 9 years you’ve been creating work?
Julie: I have been creating work as an individual artist and filmmaker for over 30 years. Vital Xposure began in 2010 with the shifts in funding from individual artists to focus on companies and arts organisations. There were no disability-led companies working in social justice when I was looking for companies where I could produce work; no companies that were staging creative activism in theatre spaces or any other venues. It became a necessity to build afresh, to create a company that would take the lead and shoulder the risks in staging some unpalatable truths about the world we have built, who we deem worthy of life and continually celebrate centre stage, and who we exclude and erase in the margins.
The most important lesson I have learned over the past ten years of Vital Xposure’s existence is to seek out what is not being said – remember that the truths we have been told are never the whole truth, there are many voices who have been neglected when we look back and witness whose stories have been told. So much of the history we have been taught in schools is skewed by deliberate crafting of narratives that uphold Imperialism and Empire; narratives that have almost obliterated the voices of people and communities who were decimated by wars we created, we funded in support of the glories of Great Britain.
And we will be a new writing company, because we need the new stories. We will develop disabled writers and reach out to other writers who struggle to access careers in the arts. We will find them, grow them, expose them and send them out into the sector, but with the promise of a home to come back to.
Leslie to Julie: What has been compelling & spectacular for audiences about your visual work, your challenge to so-called ‘norms’ and literary narrative, please?
Julie: When I look back over these past ten years, for me, the most arresting and spectacular work we have presented was led by a 14 1/2 foot Puppet, bursting onto Stratford Olympic Park with a booming voice, breathing smoke and leading a cavalcade of learning disabled artists crying out for “Freedom, Justice and Equal Rights” as they marched in parade across the park.
Pullen’s Giant, later called Admiral Pullen’s Parade was a collaboration with Access All Areas and their posse of learning-disabled artists for Liberty Festival, funded by the Mayor of London’s office. The design and build of the puppet was quite unique in that it was an exact replica of that built by James Henry Pullen inside Earlswood Asylum in the 1870s. Pullen was latterly known as ‘The Genius of Earlswood’. He had been incarcerated as an ‘idiot’ since the age of 12 and became an extraordinary carver, model maker and self-taught mechanical engineer. Together with the team of artists from Access All Areas, we re-imagined Pullen’s Giant as our liberator, breaking out of the asylum and leading people with learning disabilities across the Olympic Park, taking centre stage at the Mayor of London’s Liberty Festival to demand human rights for all. The slogans posted across the placards we carried across the park were screaming out urgent messages that we had crafted from the UN declaration on Human Rights, with its noticeable omissions regarding people with learning disabilities. We were effectively demanding an end to discrimination against disabled people. The writing and creation of the production was driven by re-imagining the voice of a man whose voice had been obliterated way back in the 1860s and we were bringing him alive to speak on our behalf, to raise urgent questions about why some lives are so devalued in society today. Pullen’s voice became our angry cries and his demands for Freedom and Equality was splashed across those placards. It is worth noting that all scripts used at Liberty Festival have to be screened through the Mayor’s office to censor any political messages, but nobody considered looking at the physical props used in the productions / presentations and parade.
Leslie to Julie: Can you give an example, please, of audience reaction to your shows?
Julie: This is from Maja Milatovic-Ovadia, writing about Voices from The Knitting Circle:
“Film is beautiful! I’ve cried and laughed. It is an important story of human cruelty and heartlessness (happening only recently, during our lifetime in a prosperous country!) beautifully intertwined with acts of love, resistance and laughter leaving us hopeful that we have a power to combat the injustice. Please let me know about any events or actions you are planning.”
Leslie to Simon: What is your artistic vision as the new director of Vital Xposure, please?
Simon: My proposal in essence is to make Vital Xpsosure a theatre company that would make Brecht proud. That makes work that deeply interrogates the personal/political, the notion of social justice, the essence of the gathering in the forum to explore our social relationships, And led by disabled people,
Disabled people: who embody social justice. Who have a social model toolkit that not only serves their access needs, but has huge potential to conceptually expand and to fertilise the whole of theatre making.
Under my leadership, Vital Xposure will be the home of a community of activist journalists and socio-artists. Gathering stories, opening debate, standing proud and loud in theatres, non-theatres and the digital agora . A theatrical embodiment of the energy of your Twitter feed, but also a space to look deep and long and high at the tides of our society. We will be commissioned by our community. We will listen. We will spark and curate debate. We will continue to find the stories that have been hidden and they will be performed by those who have been hidden. Always inclusive of disabled people, always led by disabled people, but with… many people.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.