Written by: Ben Evans, Head of Arts and Disability EU

The work of the British Council in arts and disability in Poland over the last five years was in the context of a larger initiative called Europe Beyond Access, the world’s largest transnational arts and disability programme. The British Council conceived and initiated the programme and financed the project alongside our seven consortium partners and with funding from the Creative Europe programme of the European Union. As part of the project, we needed to deliver a programme for artists in one country. We had been running Arts and Disability programmes on the ground in Poland since 2015 and our work had brought us memorandum of understandings with the national Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre and the National Institute for Music and Dance. Poland was a developing sector and there were some examples of excellent artistic practice. Teatr 21 institute in Warsaw for example, whose actors are mainly people with Down syndrome and autism, had been established in 2005 and was recognised across Europe. 

There were several Deaf and disabled artists who were ready to build international connections, but due to the local barriers to being showcased, they really were not on the horizon or radar of European cultural managers. Our aim was to impact upon both the individual artists, supporting their professional development and encouraging their careers, as well as on the wider music and dance sector in Poland and connect it with the UK and European cultural sector. We functioned as a convener in this context, supporting artistic exchange for Polish Deaf and disabled artists. Working in partnership with the National Institute for Music and Dance, we implemented artistic development programmes for the artists and brought international and UK expertise into the programmes. 

Through these fully accessible workshops, the leaders could explore the innovation and unique opportunities presented by disabled artists and support them to develop their practice. The impact of this was significant. Many participants had not attended a workshop that was led by a disabled artist before. This was because there were no disabled artists in leadership positions in Poland; disabled artists would always be choreographed by non-disabled people. But, through our workshops, Polish artists now realised that they could be the ones in the leadership positions. 

Through the European wide project, we had established our international laboratories, places where artists could experiment in dance, and we invited a selection of Polish artists to attend these. For some, this was the first time they had performed outside of Poland and their first chance of being seen in an international context. One participant, Tatiana Cholewa, a very respected dance artist working nationally in Poland, attended a workshop led by renowned disabled artistic director and choreographer Marc Brew. Marc was so impressed by Tatiana that he asked to host her as part of his workshops in the Netherlands and then in his company in the USA. Prior to our workshops, Tatiana had moved out of artistic work into teaching because there were very few opportunities for her, and those that were available were not enough for her to sustain any type of professional career. Now she’s being funded to focus on her career and is working nationally and internationally, having established strong relationships with the dance makers in the UK and across Europe. 

Showcasing and providing a platform for disabled artists was also an important activity. For the national showcase of Polish artists, we had eight disabled artists and supported and mentored them to develop high-quality pitches that they then presented to international programmers. A festival in Hanover picked up on one of the pitches and went on to fully produce it. We were also supporting the development of the cultural sector in Poland by presenting overseas works of renowned international artists, like Claire Cunningham from the UK and Diana Niepce from Portugal, at major festivals and major venues in Poland. This impacted the cultural sector by showcasing these internationally-respected artists, but also making the point that there are Polish artists whose work is innovative and of high quality, but who needed support to level the playing field. 

Deaf and disabled audiences were often quite marginalised and had endured bad experiences when attending shows and we were determined to implement improvements. This included making sure that the venues were fully accessible, that there were sign language interpreting on site and by using technology. Using ‘SubPacs’, which is vibrating backpack technology mostly used by gamers, Deaf audiences attending dance works were able to experience the music building and becoming more dramatic through the vibration of the SubPacs, connecting them to the emotional drive of the piece. 

We also wanted to challenge the prejudice amongst mainstream audiences and mainstream press and media about the quality of work of Deaf and disabled artists. We collaborated with journalists from dance periodicals, embedding them in some of our activities. We then commissioned them to write pieces on what they had observed. We undertook major press campaigns by bringing over international artists and encouraging debate and discussion to make sure the critics really understood the artistic rigor behind their work. There was also our major visibility campaign, ‘I am an artist’. We worked in partnership with six Deaf and disabled artists in Poland, led by Tatiana Cholewa and the concept was remarkably simple. Artists were photographed with the words ‘I am an artist’ written on their bodies and these images were then portrayed with some key phrases:

‘My work is not therapy’

‘I'm not asking for your charity’

Quite provocative. As part of the campaign, the audience were directed to a website where the artists explained why they wanted to participate, what the barriers are within the mainstream cultural sector and a call to action to see their work. The campaign was displayed around Warsaw on the public transport system and across social media and resulted in some unexpected wins. Vogue Poland covered it and two of our artists were invited to go on Polish national morning television and talk about the campaign.

Our partners at the National Institute of Music and Dance have gone on to continue the programme with a new generation of laboratories led by disabled artists. People who were the participants at the very outset of the project five years on are now the leaders, internationally recognised and working full time. Filip Pawlak, a disabled producer now working internationally, summed up our efforts neatly and succinctly:

‘This is what the British Council has done.’