The Arts and Social Impact

A view from Stopgap Dance Co


Our Executive Producer Sho Shibata elaborates on how Stopgap’s artistic and developmental work strategically align to make a difference in the wider world and the industry.

“We are putting the artistic vision at the heart and rethinking how we can build out from that to affect social change.”

Photo from Stopgap's 2014 production, Exhibition. A group of four dancers are facing a wall hung with empty picture frames, with their backs to the camera. They are dressed in 19th-century style costumes and each balancing a apple on their head. In the foreground a small table with books, bottles, a pineapple, and apple and some kiwi fruit.

Photo from Stopgap's 2014 production, Exhibition. A group of four dancers are facing a wall hung with empty picture frames, with their backs to the camera. They are dressed in 19th-century style costumes and each balancing a apple on their head. In the foreground a small table with books, bottles, a pineapple, and apple and some kiwi fruit.

Stopgap’s dance artists have encountered many journalists throughout the last two decades and have experienced that there are very few journalists who have in-depth knowledge of both arts and disability. This can make the interview process awkward sometimes, which can result in the article becoming rather diluted. I find that the main issue quite often comes from the fact that there is a mismatch between our artists wanting to talk about the art and the journalists wanting to talk about disability and issues surrounding social barriers. The journalists’ underlying reasons are varied; it could be that s/he assumes that our work would be all about disability issues, or in extreme cases they assume that the company is doing disabled people a favour by allowing them on stage…! In response to this, I’ve created an information sheet for journalists to break the company’s work down to the basics, but in this blog, I’ve reframed it for the followers of Stopgap Dance Company.

Why our artists want to talk about the art and not about disability per se

To put it in a nutshell, it’s because the social model of disability is firmly embedded in our Artistic Director Lucy Bennett’s creative process. Creating a barrier-free environment both in attitudes and physical space has become second nature for all the artists at Stopgap Dance Company, and any newcomers get appropriate training but they mostly learn by osmosis. This inclusive culture at Stopgap enables them to explore a fuller range of things they see in the world by allowing them not to get fixated on disability versus non-disability. Their artistic work is therefore rarely about disability issues per se nor is it about direct activism. They simply want to make an original performance first and foremost that the audience will hopefully enjoy.

This is not to say that our artists cover up or ignore their differences. It’s quite the contrary. To really get things working, Lucy’s creative process requires that all the dancers acknowledge each other’s individual differences and that the creative spark lies in these being blended together. The fact that inclusive culture comes so naturally to our artists means that they are less bothered about talking about how disability or non-disability play a role in the work. They are more excited about the work that comes out of the process, and that outcome is usually what they want to talk about. And that’s fair enough, since in their eyes, that is the real fruits of their labours…

But being a producer, I’m of course very appreciative of why some journalist (and audiences sometimes) would want to talk about disability and it would be untrue to think that Stopgap’s work does not have any impact on the social inclusion agenda. So in the information sheet, I’ve written out the shape in which our company as a whole want to address disability issues, and I suppose this forms the core mission for the social impact of the company. Thinking about our social mission in fact became a very useful exercise. I’m very conscious that our core funder Arts Council England is developing a 10-year vision for its investment strategy for 2020-2030, where they are planning to ask funded organisations to start thinking about the social relevance of our creative activities. I think this is fair enough – if we are using public money, we need to reflect this by becoming organisations that can engage with and reflect the wider public better.

What is Stopgap’s social impact that we want the journalists to write about?

I’ve written in the information sheet that:

“As a whole organisation, we do advocate for a more equal society but we do this by showcasing works that depict social interaction between disabled and non-disabled people as a matter of fact. Our work invariably advocates for an inclusive society, but this social mission is quite separate from our artistic ambitions.”

Interesting facts:

  • 67% of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people
  • 43% of the British public do not know anyone who is disabled
  • 36% of the British public tend to think of disabled people as not as productive as everyone else

Source – Attitude survey by Scope

By writing this press information sheet, I realised that artistic ambitions that embrace creative case for diversity doesn’t necessarily need to have social mission as its focus because the social impact can come as a positive and potent side effect.

Our inclusive creative process enables our diverse artists to make high quality works that showcases diverse people interacting as a matter of fact, and it’s down to the company as a whole to utilise the gift that our artists have given us. We know that the audience will witness a micro-model of what an inclusive world could look like through the show, so we should do our best to point out to the audience that an inclusive world is possible and use wrap-around activities to show them how we do it. Our current show The Enormous Room is a good example of this. The show has a physically disabled performer playing the role of the father to a learning-disabled performer, and the focus of the plot is how these characters are dealing with the death of wife/mother. The performers are simply telling the story about a grieving process to grip the audience, and we as a company should follow this up by pointing out that they’ve just witnessed an inclusive world in action.

The one big hindrance that makes it hard for Stopgap to realise a fully inclusive creative process

In the information sheet, I also wanted to point out the issue of training for disabled dancers too, as I wanted them to really understand that our disabled and non-disabled dancers are properly on par with each other in the creative process, but that achieving this requires hefty investment of our time, resources and focus:

“The biggest social barrier for disabled dancers is actually present way before they reach Stopgap’s studios. Disabled people have very limited access to grassroots and tertiary level dance training compared to their non-disabled peers because the mainstream provision remains highly inaccessible. In response to this, Stopgap offer extensive and inclusive training, which you can see here. By investing in our own training programme, we ensure that disabled dance artists entering our studios have had the same level of experience as their non-disabled peers, and this is crucial if they were to collaborate on an equal footing properly. It is also the key to making sure our productions are of the highest and professional in quality.

As a company that specialises in inclusive and rigorous dance training, advocating for mainstream training institutions to become more accessible continues to be another organisational focus.”

It’s a roundabout way of trying to discourage interviewers asking our disabled dancers ‘how long have you been dancing’ (I could have been more direct but let’s face it, no one likes an explicitly finger wagging document of dos and don’ts), but it felt important to point out the final piece of our strategic cog to make sure the readers got a full picture of what we do.

Conclusion – what next?

The long-time followers of Stopgap will know that our artistic ambitions and its social relevance has always been there from day one, but the relationship between them has perhaps not been fully articulated, and how our artistic work could be used to facilitate positive social change has not been explicitly strategised. The fact that our art has this potential and that Arts Council England’s new 10-year vision is imminently going to ask funded organisations to spell this out makes it a timely moment for us to get on and flesh these out. So we are working with a consultant from People Make It Work to do this. We are part way through this process, and it is already helping us to sharpen our thinking and understand why we target particular audiences – those audiences who are more likely to change their mind about inclusivity and take the message out to wider world.  We are also thinking what our most effective distribution methods are in taking our work to these people, so our future touring activities could start looking quite different.

But none of these is going to change our artistic vision or ambitions. Rather, we are putting the artistic vision at the heart and rethinking how we can build out from that to affect social change. This process is made easier I suppose, because since Lucy took over the Artistic Directorship in 2012/13, her artistic vision and style has got stronger and bolder at each production, and there is a foundation of a distinctive devising process that embraces creative case for diversity. I think this was a massive positive of her decision to take us away from a repertoire company to a devising ensemble for making original productions.