INTERVIEW: New Wolsey Agents for Change Amy Nettleton and Jamie Beddard

Why did you apply for the positions as Agents for Change – what was your experience and interest in the theatre before taking up these roles ?

I am actor, director and writer, and have also done much training and advocacy around diversity and inclusion across the arts sector.  The Agent for Change role is a statement of intent from The New Wolsey, an organisation I have long admired with an obvious commitment to embedding access.  I was particularly keen to work for an organisation for  whom inclusion is core, rather than an add-on.    Ipswich has a vibrant and growing arts scene, and I want to be part of it.

I am a professional freelance Sculpture artist and have worked a lot in Arts and education with a specialism in Disability Arts Education. I didn’t really have a background in Theatre – apart from regularly visiting NWT if that counts!!. I applied because I thought I could make a difference, with my professional and personal  experience of Disability, Education and the Arts.

You’ve been in your roles for about six months – after that time, what changes in arts accessibility do you now feel are most needed, and where do you feel there has been most progress ?

We have had many successes over the short time we have been in post. I have made really strong connections with East Anglian based disability organisations and charities and we have seen our audiences grow. We have developed our access offers and are really excited about our Bradbury Platform which will be in place for panto allowing 16 extra wheelchair spaces that can be put in any formation. We have many other individual offers to support people in whatever way they wish. We will continue to work on our access and diversity offer, however there is only so much we can do – we work with other theatres but we need all arts venues on boar

I feel The New Wolsey has been making big strides in practice and thinking around providing access, and this is being disseminated across the region and sector.  I think the organisation, and staff working here have greater understanding and ownership around accessibility.  The recent successful Ramps on the Moon bid is going to have big impacts on the provision of access and visibility of disabled performers in venues across the country.  We need to ensure audiences who have previously been excluded or marginalised from theatres understand where and what provision exists, and are made  to feel welcome and integral to the theatre community.

What is the balance in your roles in working with disabled artists and with disabled audiences?

This is where Jamie and my jobs are very much split, I focus on the audiences and support the actors once they are in the theatre. I do however work with local disability theatre groups. Jamie has the experience as an actor; working with actors across the Uk. We stick to our strengths but also share experiences and knowledge which makes a great working partnership.  Disabled audiences and performers are inextricably linked, it is vital that both are reflected off- and on-stage.

What were the most meaningful and positive ideas to come out of the Ramps on the Moon discussion at Pulse ?

There was a real sense of purpose amongst the presenters and attendees.  Only through action can change be instigated, so exchanging the practical steps organisations and individuals are taking was vital and informative.  New conversations and unlikely alliances were initiated between the broad mix of attendees; some with loads of experience of the issues, others less so.  The productions in the afternoon were testament to the importance and potential of embedding access in the creative process.

What difference will the recent large funding award make to the ongoing work for greater arts accessibility at the New Wolsey?

The funding of the Ramps of the Moon marks a step-change for The New Wolsey and six other regional partners/venues.  Each will become a hub of good practice with the proliferation of Agents for Change, disabled performers taking main stages, deeper engagement with disabled organisation and access and inclusion embedded in organisations.  This network will be vital in leading sectorial change.  This will all be underpinned by ambitious and amazing productions.

The New Wolsey is leading this consortium, enabling the consolidation and development of ongoing projects, profile-raising and the realisation of our aspirations; namely placing disabled people at the heart of theatre.

The New Wolsey is a leader in disability arts provision – without blowing your own trumpets too much, what do you think other venues could learn from the Wolsey’s policies?

The understanding that such provision cannot be seen in terms of additionally, but needs to be at the core of thinking, programming and activity.  It must be understood and owned by the whole organisation, rather than placed under the remit of particular individuals.  The Agent for Change model could be reflected in, and adapted by other organisations.   And a whole host of specific changes around access we have implemented throughout venue and organisation.

On a personal level, what have been your best and worse experiences of arts accessibility?

Very simply, seeing my life and  experiences reflected on stage (sometimes even by me, the actor!) is gratifying and life-affirming.  The feeling that disabled people are not intruders on a non-disabled theatre ecology.   Representation and access are equally important, and work together to ensure inclusion.

How important is it that arts accessibility is integrated with other local infrastructure, policies and planning?

Vital.  Theatres are civic resources and, as such, should be embedded in and reflective of local communities.  Infrastructure, policy and planning are critical in facilitating this.

What show or act would you most like to bring to the New Wolsey, accessible to all or course?

Oh dear, where to start!  My own acting career started with a Graeae production of Ubu many, many years ago, but it was ground-breaking, anarchic and accessible.  The plays and themes seem of even greater relevance in these times.

There are so many shows that can and should embrace true integrated accessibility. A show that blew me away was Forest by Frozen light. Specifically written for young adults with profound multiple disability – it was so on point. The audience disabled and non-disabled loved it.

Doug Coombes