Blog: Emily Nicholl reflects on Jerwood Fellowship - part 2

16 September 2021

Two people play with their dogs on a sandy beach under a light pinky blue cloudy sky at sunset. There are reflections of the clouds and pink sky in a watery pool on the beach. It's cold out so the people wear bright jackets. One is throwing something into
Two people play with their dogs on a sandy beach under a light pinky blue cloudy sky at sunset. There are reflections of the clouds and pink sky in a watery pool on the beach. It's cold out so the people wear bright jackets. One is throwing something into

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We have been able to spend time in workshops with the wonderful play worker, artist and consultant Max Alexander. Max’s ‘A Playful Manifesto’ brings such beautiful observations to the meaning and practice of play. His generous words give radical permission to play and to fail with compassion, joy and the permission to value others and ourselves. Looking sideways around things, catching ourselves by surprise, observing ourselves through thought or feeling, resisting ‘achievement’ as what we validate ourselves with. His words remind me of the practice of circus artists as they catch themselves or the audience by surprise and find ways to express the obsessive beauty they find in an object or movement through play, risk and failure.

“You can’t fail at play. We need space in our lives for things we can’t fail at, things we can’t judge ourselves on.” Max Alexander.

When speaking with Ellie Griffiths of Oily Cart, her self-awareness which centres another experience is inspiring. The importance of and process with which one can question your own positionality seems something tangible to observe and learn from her work and the way she talks about it. Through Oily Cart’s use of the social model of disability, their work and process allows for a removal of barriers and a centring of the person in order to offer relevant, responsive and positive theatrical experiences.  The political nature of their work raises the importance of providing shared cultural experiences for disabled young people and families. When we are so separated by society between disabled and non-disabled communities, the importance also of shared experiences and resisting that separation is highlighted by aiming to offer more visibility to disabled audience and artist led work in theatrical spaces, whilst also remaining true to what feels comfortable for this audience with their new work to be enjoyed at home made during the pandemic. This work is as inspiring as any others of theirs. Beautiful, thoughtful care packages of curated experiences, and fascinating sensory film ‘Something Love’ which resonated greatly.

As the pandemic also shines a light on what and who theatres are for, we ask what could offer a greater sense of belonging to these spaces for those chronically made to feel uncomfortable. When so much is about a shared experience, I’ve always preferred circles for performing in or watching from, but I find myself questioning even more so of late, what’s enjoyable about straight on rectangular shapes. Both Max and Ellie speak about not necessarily being able to make something that will please absolutely everyone at once, or allow everyone in, much like many things in life perhaps. But who are the traditional theatre rules for, who do they serve, what else can be done to remove barriers?

Thinking in responsive or sensory ways offers something insightful to a theatre making process for all and any audiences. This feels useful and important to notice, but it also feels slightly uncomfortable. Unsure where the politics lies when this learning to make theatre for audiences who don’t get enough theatre made for them, might shift into learning how to make better theatrical experiences for audiences who get theatre made for them already all the time.

Sensory work as inclusive, also then asks questions of the structures within which work is made. Swept up in a system (and arts sector) which asks for faster, better, more, with short deadlines, unfair access to funding and perpetuates its own elitisms, expectations and extractions from people and environment alike, what needs questioned? Is it, for example, enough to represent this work in a theatre’s program, or what else could we also interrogate? Disabled artist and activist voices have been offering guidance, advice and making demands for a very long time. During the fellowship, learning from the work of Birds of Paradise has been informative and generous, in this blog Sandra Alland highlights experiences during the pandemic for freelancers. In Not Going Back To Normal, this collective disabled arts manifesto for a radically accessible world is also filled with generous, honest, exciting and damning words.

Image: An empty bar or cafe during the first lockdown. The photograph is taken through the window and with the photographer’s reflection in the pane of glass. In focus is an empty wooden chair next to a wooden table facing another window opposite. There are chairs stacked upside down on other tables and empty armchairs.  Through the window on the opposite side of the cafe is an empty street with people walking in the distance. The photo is in black and white.

Despite aiming to play and allow myself to fail and acknowledge structural issues, this time did also give a lot of fear. Of not getting it right, of failing, of not using my time wisely. Of causing harm or upset to others. Of not being the right person. Of overstepping, of saying the wrong thing. Of not doing enough. Of not knowing enough. Is this entire blog post naive? Of nearing the end of this time whilst still feeling very much at the beginning.  Of being very much alone with my thoughts or with other people’s faces and voices streaming in from my laptop rather than in the physical collaboration which I am perhaps more used to. Of ‘who am I’ to be here on my own in my flat supported to do this, whilst so many people, families, teachers, face such enormous difficulty this year and all years. Of feeling very slow. Feeling my way between guilt and compassion as I took breaks to look after health and mental health.

Something which Imaginate was clear about from the beginning was that this fellowship is a period of support and learning with no specific outcome expected. Something generous, overwhelming and challenging all at once.  Navigating what I best need, what to do with this time which has been crafted by Imaginate and Jerwood Arts in order to do what many now call for in order to give long term, funded, supported positions. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been supported at this time.

At the middle to end point, I realise I arrived with many questions and currently have even more. (classic) I realise there are questions I am afraid to ask. Questions I don’t have the language for. Questions around pulling lots of strands of research together, into tangible physical or sensory experiences or a live event. Questions of process, of bringing the right team together, of being relevant, of being responsive, of how to make space for play and seriousness together. 

It’s obvious that people or audiences or young people who are chronically left out, marginalised, or invisibilised, have so much to offer to the world and deepen our understandings of the world. As Naoki Higashida writes in ‘The Reason I Jump: one boy's voice from the silence of autism’

“So how do people with autism see the world, exactly? We, and only we, can ever know the answer to that one! Sometimes I actually pity you for not being able to see the beauty of the world in the same way we do. Really, our vision of the world can be incredible, just incredible …” (p55)


A close up of very green ferns. Spiky green leaves curl to the left, as another leaf which is more in focus curls towards the camera. Their stems are brown. They are soft but spiky with individual leaves picked out by the light and shadow.

Thanks to Ellen Renton for her advice on the audio description of the photographs.