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Vici Wreford Sinnott, Photo credit: Black Robin

Digital as a tool of empowerment

Vici Wreford-Sinnott is a disabled theatre director, playwright and Artistic Director of Little Cog, a disabled-led theatre company based in the North of England, with 30 years of experience in theatre and Disability Arts. She creates work where leading disabled protagonists challenge age-old stereotypes and outdated cliches and tropes around disability.

Vici spoke to Space associate Brendon Connelly about the new processes and huge potential she recently discovered after working digitally and taking her work online for the first time. This is an abridged version of their conversation.

Voices that need to be heard

I saw how the language around disability changed very quickly at the beginning of the pandemic. The word disability almost disappeared, and new words were created like ‘vulnerable’, and ‘underlying health issues’ and we were medicalised again. This is an uncomfortable place for people who are experiencing a social phenomenon.

I believe the disabling factors in people’s lives, people who happen to have one condition or another, are the barriers they encounter. Disability Studies scholars, academics who are far cleverer than I am, have traced back disability exclusion, and discrimination over two thousand years. Disability is the way that society is arranged and organised to exclude disabled people.

The opportunities that arrived at the beginning of the pandemic were also necessities. We needed to ensure that, as a disabled artist community, a disabled population, we could keep our experiences of the pandemic, our stories and our language in profile and give them visibility.

As many people experienced, the pandemic was when the digital world became almost the whole world. I have to acknowledge that lots of disabled people did not have access to the internet or the digital world for various reasons, but I do think a strong level of activism gathered online in the Disability Arts community at that time.

Creating with digital processes

At least half of my practice is working with learning disabled artists. I work with a collective called Full Circle Theatre Company, an ensemble who devise and create original work. Some of them live independently, most of them live in residential settings or with family. None of them, however, had been on a laptop before the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, we would meet two days a week to devise and create new work. There was a whole thing about having to train people in the use of Zoom to keep us going during lockdown. Zoom became a literal lifeline. For two years, we still met two days a week, but now online. If you’d said at the beginning “You're gonna have to meet for two years on Zoom, is that okay?” we’d have thought it was impossible. But that’s what we did. We devised a piece of outdoor theatre by working online in people's, bedrooms and living rooms. The continued artistic connection and having that platform to be creative and heard was essential.

At the midway point we created a short film about the work and shared that at an online festival because that’s all that was happening at the time, but I’m delighted to say the work we devised, Stomping Ground, was eventually performed at Stockton International Riverside festival in a live production.

Digital as a tool of empowerment

Often when we’re talking about digital work we’re talking about a digital product but this was a digital process that was really crucial. Empowering is a funny word that's quite often misused, but this empowered all of us. It meant we had continuity, our isolation was reduced, and we were able to produce artistic work, including the learning disabled people among us who have some of the least heard voices.

Something that I created with Little Cog was a guide to work accessibly online, how to hold accessible rehearsals through the Zoom platform, and what people needed to consider. Suddenly, everybody was doing these things. Everybody was armed to be more accessible. That was a way to create allies: providing them toolkits and guidelines.

The reach and potential of working digitally

For somebody of my generation in disability arts, television felt out of reach. Really cool people were making digital work, and I'm certainly not a really cool person, so I maybe excluded myself from that because I thought it was more complicated than it turned out to be. But my plan now is to continue making digital work that can be shared online, because I believe there's a big audience [Watch Hen Night - Little Cog]. I think we’re still to explore how me monetize it, even if we monetize it, and there are interesting questions about business models to share digital work in accessible, affordable ways where artists can get some kind of payment.

I definitely have a different practice, from conception to delivery, for digital work, or work that’s going to be on a screen. My live work is built around an audience’s experience and I would have said it has always been quite experimental in structure, but in conceiving work for digital, I see the potential for bigger audiences, and I think I’ve been making things for them in a slightly more traditional structure. I have made the decision to do character-based digital work, making drama that I want to be widely accessible. It's about disability but it doesn't have to be niche. It can reach a more mainstream audience than might be possible in theatre.

The importance of ‘blended events’

When a piece of work is launched it would be easy for it to just appear online somewhere but, for me, it’s important to have a conversation around the work so we’ve had live online events with Q&As. I've held lots of events around the work, conversations and discussions, and also expended the work into blogs.

Lots of my work remains online to this day. On Friday I held something called Gathering of the Clans for disabled artists in the north-east, and it was an opportunity to explore a blended event, where some people were online and those who were comfortable could attend in person. I have experienced events where the online bit feels like the add-on, but this was predominantly people on Zoom with a handful of people in person. This tells me that the demand, both for convenience but also accessibility, remains, it’s just that a lot of mainstream organisations aren’t still offering it.

Find out more about Vici on her website.