Bella Freak: Unwritten is challenging, and sometimes disquieting, performance piece about disability and impairment. We wanted to show the hidden history of Scotland for the first time, for a diverse audience of disabled and non-disabled members. To do this, Disability History Scotland applied for and received a £10,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, under their Stories, Stones & Bones programme. Without HLF’s support, Unwritten would not have been possible.
Unwritten confronts conventional narratives about disability, which are in fact often shaped by the non-disabled, and instead presents disabled performers’ stories as a fundamental part of Scotland’s national story. Our audiences’ reactions were overwhelmingly positive, and underscored the importance of staging a show about disability as part of an international arts festival. To quote two of our reviews, ‘Bella Freak: Unwritten is a moving piece and an important addition to the Fringe programme’, and ‘there will likely be few shows on the Fringe with more authenticity than this.’
This isn’t the moment we remember, however.
It was important to us not just to stage a show about disability history, but one that was accessible to disabled audiences. As part of this, three performances included closed captioning and a BSL interpreter. Before out final performance, we met a deaf audience member we knew would be using the captioning. Therefore, we were somewhat terrified during the performance to see frantic looks exchanged between our front of house staff, leading us to believe this service was not working (due to our positions on stage, the captions weren’t visible to us.) After the show, we discovered this was a false alarm. Rather than struggling to read the captions, the audience member was engrossed in the show. She told us, happily, there were very few accessible performances like this, and it was a joy for her to be able to experience this rare pleasure with a show that addressed memories that were so important to her. And she was off! Telling us her own story, her own history, engaging with the stories we had told, and telling us her own…
With Unwritten, we wanted to create a show which reflected disability history, but also the lived experience of disability in modern-day Scotland. Disability heritage is often, sadly, a history of obscurity, and one of our stated outcomes was for participants to gain a deeper sense of their heritage and identity as part of Scotland’s story. ‘Participants’ meant performers, volunteers but the feedback we received from many who saw the show (particularly the audience member in the above story) showed us that by sharing our own individual stories, as part of a wider heritage of disabled people, we drew in others to engage with, and once again participate, in that heritage. For all of the enjoyment and personal satisfaction we gained from staging the show, and its benefit to DHS as an organisation, it is clear to us that this encouragement to engage with disability history will be Unwritten’s lasting legacy.
Find out more about the making of the Unwritten, from the initial idea through the research, writing, and rehearsal stages, to the finished show performed at Surgeon’s Hall during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017.
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