You’re just a body. You can’t be trusted.

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Content note: Mentions of sexual assault survivors, but no graphic imagery or descriptions.

 

This blog post is also available as an audio version through SoundCloud. Click here to listen

I just read a piece by Melissa Gira Grant, titled ‘All Bodies, No Selves’, about a problematic trend in media reporting and policy making that reduces survivors of sexual assault to just bodies, and it resonated with me in regards to disability reporting and policy. It reminded me of why I decided from day one of planning my podcast that I would only invite people with chronic illnesses and disabilities on as guests.

Grant comments that people who write about gender/sex/sexuality politics from within their own experience are often expected to do no more than present a compelling personal narrative. She says:

If you have something political to say about gender or sexuality, you will be expected to voice it through what your body is and what it has done, what has been done to it.

Media interviews expect little more than a “peep show”, Grant says, requiring you to create value with disclosure after disclosure. I had an experience like this in a recent radio interview, for which I had been invited to comment on the government’s drive to push people aged under 35 off the Disability Support Pension. I had expected that I was invited in my capacity as an advocate, given that I had written about this subject and hosted a podcast about young people with disabilities. However, when the radio host turned the discussion to me, her voice became sad and she adopted a funereal air as she introduced me. For, you see, I am young, and … d i s a b l e d. I had a dozen statistics and facts that I kept trying to bring to the conversation about government welfare policy, but the host talked over me, asking instead for me to disclose the sorts of cruel things people say about my disability.

I was taken aback because – maybe thanks to my white cishet privilege and the fact that usually people can’t see my disability so assume I am able-bodied – I had presumed that they wanted my opinions. It surely helped that my opinions were informed by personal experience as well as professional work, but I was just happy that the mainstream media was inviting a young disabled person to comment on policies specific to young disabled people. The commentator the show had had on before me was an older man from a disability advocacy body. (He wasn’t asked what mean things people say about him.) I didn’t realise that my status as someone possessing a chronically ill body was the only thing they were interested in.

In ‘All Bodies, No Selves’, Grant wrote this passage about sexual assault survivors that could easily be about people with disabilities (two groups which as a Venn diagram would be nearly circular):

Be a good poster girl. Get vulnerable enough for someone to step in with the right story, the perfect #hashtag, the slightly more powerful person to carry your cause for you. (You’re just a body. You can’t be trusted.)

This reads to me as a perfect account of inspiration porn.

Some of this was in my mind when I began planning my podcast Just A Spoonful, back in mid-2014. I liked the idea of a disability-only space, where able-bodied people’s voices were denied access. Not out of a grudge – but to pound out a level playing field for us. Each episode I have a guest with a disability. Everyone on my podcast has a disability. So there’s no opportunity for novelty – you already know that they’re disabled or living with some chronic illness, because otherwise they wouldn’t be there. What this also means, is that nobody has to be the poster child for disability or for their particular condition. I’ve had three episodes where my guest had bipolar disorder, and none of their stories are the same.

I tell each guest when I invite them onto the show: we don’t need to talk about your condition, your impairment, your illness, your disability. The fact of it is already there, baked into the show’s premise. There’s no need for you to relive your diagnosis story, or talk about “what it’s like” if you don’t want to. You’re here because I want to know about you, because I wanna pick your brain. Your band, your clothing store, your sustainability advocacy, your pet kitten – like, that’s why I invited you. (More guests with kittens, please.)

That being said, an incredible amount of guests choose to talk to me about their conditions. After all (and this is kinda the point of the podcast), our bodies are huge part of our lives. They’re sort of vital to everything we do. But they’re not the whole experience. Too often, the wider population gets stuck at the ‘body’ part of people with disabilities. Nobody talks to us because we’re just bodies. That’s how The Australian can run a piece about the closure of a residential institution in NSW in which the journalist visits the building, profiles some of the residents, and only includes quotes from their family or advocates. I actually spoke to that piece’s author, Rick Morton, via public tweets, and he offered that,

In this case I wanted to tell the story of one resident who moved from Westmead. He is non-verbal. But I should have tried harder.

I have a really wide network of people with disabilities who I call frequently, to orient my reporting from their perspective.

I understand Morton’s bind in wanting to present the most compelling story but also report respectfully. I do not think he accomplished his goal in this case. Martin Ryan, the 54-year-old man Morton was profiling, was presented as merely a body that was tended to and spoken for. Ryan’s 84-year-old mother (not a resident) was interviewed about what the closure of the institution meant to her, and NSW Disability Services Minister John Ajaka was quoted describing disabled people picking out their own linen and paint schemes. Yet group home residents themselves were still absent, a silent group being shuffled from one building to another.

I can’t help wondering, why couldn’t the journalist covering that story, any disability story, be someone with disabilities. If you don’t have someone in your network who has a disability and is appropriately qualified, why not train someone up? People with disabilities are more than capable, and a very diverse community. A bunch of us are writers, freelancers, and if we lack the commensurate professional experience of our able-bodied peers, it’s probably because we either can’t physically manage full-time work or because workplaces are structurally inaccessible to us. These are not huge obstacles to getting more disabled voices out there. Got a story about the NDIS? Put someone with lived experience on that beat. Then you’re less likely to get subpar reporting that forgets to interview any of the people directly affected.

As Grant asks in her piece, who actually benefits from reducing people to tragic circumstances? We hear a tragiporn story about a 29-year-old who has to stay in bed all day. We hear about her diagnosis, her illness, everything about her life that we hope won’t happen to us. Then, to quote Grant, we

take from it a gush of feeling, and then move on. We’ve consumed. Now that we’re done with it, we can put the body back in its place.

 

 

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Theatre People feature: “Watts Up With Alvin Sputnik”, Nov 2011

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A feature article I wrote for Theatre People, interviewing WA’s Tim Watts.

It’s the opening night of the Perth Theatre Company’s latest production at the State Theatre Centre. An eager crowd pours in, primed by two years of rave reviews from this show’s runs in New York, Seoul and Edinburgh. Reviewers have used no shortage of gushing adjectives for this show, even calling it the theatrical equivalent of a blockbuster Pixar film. But if this audience is expecting a big-budget production, they aren’t going to get it. They’ve come for the story of one little man made out of a buoy and a white glove. This is the fringe theatre darling known as The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is set in a bleak future where the seas have risen and wiped out most of humanity. Someone must volunteer to journey down into the watery depths to find a new place for the survivors to live. Alvin Sputnik takes on this dangerous mission, hoping to follow the soul of his beloved wife, to be with her once more. Alvin Sputnik is told through a fusion of live performance, animation, mime, puppetry, projections, music, live drawing and even a ukelele. Alvin himself is portrayed by a mix of performance, stick-figure animation, and clever puppetry.

Two weeks before the show’s opening night, I’m sitting in a North Perth café with Alvin Sputnik’s creator, Tim Watts. He has come a long way since the first performance of Alvin Sputnik at The Blue Room in 2009. The show was quickly picked up by the Perth Theatre Company and went on to tour the United Kingdom, the United States, South Korea, India, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Watts and Alvin picked up a swag of awards along the way. Now, in 2011, Alvin has come back to Perth a hero, starting a season at the newly minted State Theatre Centre.

After all the positive press over Alvin Sputnik, is Watts feeling the pressure to deliver? “I’m just worried that it’s going to be over-hyped,” he admits. “Towards the end of the UK season, I think people came in with really high expectations. I think no matter what happens when you go into a show and your expectations are through the roof, it can never really measure up.

“At the beginning of the show, where I’m just doing the live drawing, I try to bring things down to a basic level, so that people aren’t necessarily going to expect a big song and dance. Then I can surprise them from there.”

Despite the show’s accolades and years of touring, Watts has been careful to preserve what he calls its “nice little handmade quality.” Since Alvin Sputnik’s first incarnation at The Blue Room in 2009, Watts has added more animation and more puppetry, but says it is still essentially the same show. “You don’t want to polish it up to where it doesn’t have any heart left.”

Watts developed Alvin Sputnik in collaboration with fellow Perth theatre peep Arielle Gray. Their development process focused on audience response; they would work on the show together, then present showings to their friends and ask for feedback. Watts was prompted to try this kind of process by watching stand-up comedians.

“I got really jealous of stand-up comedians who’d have an idea for a joke, and could get up that night and try it out. They got real feedback as to whether the delivery was right, whether the joke was any good. They could work on their set through actual response from the audience, as opposed to a lot of theatre shows where you have an idea, you write out a script, and you spend six months putting it on. Then you perform it for two weeks, and no one is really honest with you as to how it goes. If anything negative is said about it, you just go and sit in a hole. You think, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about it now’.”

The character Alvin was created in a puppetry workshop with ‘Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’ in Fremantle, out of a buoy and a white glove. Under Watts’ expert hand, these abstract objects take on a very human life. He attributes Alvin’s anthropomorphism to the audience’s imaginative engagement. “To be able to pretend that this is a little guy … it’s as though you’re delighted at your own imagination. Then, when he does something human, it looks even more human,” he says. “When you’re really imaginatively engaged with something, you’re more likely to be emotionally engaged as well.”

Whenever he mentions Alvin, Watts absently arranges his hands into the shape of the little puppet, so for a moment it’s as if the deep sea explorer is at the table with us. It’s clear that Watts has formed a strong bond with the little round-headed man. So, how long do they plan to stay together? “Next year I’m kind of winding it down a bit. I don’t have a finite date where I’m like, ‘2015: no more Alvin’. I’m happy to keep doing Alvin, but I’m hoping to introduce more shows into my repertoire.”

But for now, it looks like Alvin will be sticking around. It’s the opening night of Alvin Sputnik’s Perth season for 2011, and I’m sitting in the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground, holding my breath in anticipation. Watts needn’t have worried about the hype. It’s not often you see a show that wins over the audience’s heart so quickly, or so completely. But Alvin Sputnik does it. During the performance, theatre-goers of all ages are sitting forward in their seats, faces shining, completely enamoured of Alvin. There are soft gasps of delight the first time puppet-Alvin emerges, and bursts of joyous applause throughout the 45-minute show.

Alvin’s underwater adventures arc towards a poignant finale. This is the second time I’ve seen The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik (having seen it during its inaugural season in 2009), so I reckon I’ll be able to steel myself against the emotional gutpunch and maintain a cool demeanour. Err, not so much. I straight-up weep. But I am relieved to see plenty of other patrons dabbing at their eyes as we leave the Studio. Something about this simple story of love and self-sacrifice has certainly captured people’s imagination. Perth audiences are usually dour and bestow admiration grudgingly, but Alvin Sputnik receives an ovation that seems to go on forever, and cheers such as are usually reserved for rock stars. But that’s how it is now. Alvin is a rock star. And it’s only a matter of time before Tim Watts achieves the same status.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is showing at the State Theatre Centre of WA (Perth) from Tuesday 22 November to Saturday 3 December.

Tim Watts performs with one of the Alvin puppets