This article was first published by Artery, the online magazine of the Australia Council for the Arts on 9 January 2013
Gaelle Mellis is one of Australia’s most highly regarded dance and theatre designers and is a passionate advocate for accessibility and diversity in the arts. A recipient of an inaugural Australia Council for the Arts Creative Australia Fellowship for an established artist worth $100,000, she is half way through a year of researching, workshopping and developing new works that make accessibility a starting point, not an after thought.
‘I get on my high horse a bit,’ laughs Mellis as she draws breath from arguing that the representation of people with disability needs to change in this country. Why when 1 in 5 Australians are people with disability are they not being represented in the arts, she reasons pointing to the Arts Access Australia’s initiative, Don’t Play Us, Pay Us . Why was it that in over 20 years working in the industry she hadn’t seen herself represented on an Australian stage? ‘I had to travel to see that,’ she says.
It was in 2005 when Mellis visited the UK on a Churchill Fellowship and connected with artistic director of Graeae Theatre Company , Jenny Sealey MBE she finally saw disabled artists like herself collaborating together in a professional context. A pioneer of embedding accessibility into the aesthetics of a production, Sealey encouraged Mellis to develop and design her own work.
Around the same time, Mellis was reading Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls by Lois Keith. The book examines how women with disability were portrayed in Victorian literature and argues attitudes have changed very little. It made Mellis think about how she could challenge entrenched misconceptions and prejudices about women with disability; about how many smart, funny, sexy women with disability she knew and how she might put those women centre stage.
‘I thought, ‘If I don’t make this work I don’t think anyone else is going to make it’. I didn’t think anyone else was going to make a work about, and by, disabled women.’
The result was the disability-led project Take Up Thy Bed and Walk, presented by Vitalstatistix , which premiered in Adelaide in October 2012.
A collaboratively performance work, conceived and led by Mellis, co-directed with Ingrid Voorendt and with an outstanding cast of women with disability, Take Up Thy Bed and Walk incorporated Auslan, audio description, captioning, animations, pre-show tours and other accessibility features into the core aesthetic of the work.
Take Up Thy Bed and Walk topped off what has been a busy time for Mellis. August saw the culmination of her Access Aesthetics work with Shots in the Dark: Rarely Scene , an exhibition of work by eight blind and vision impaired photographers. In September she was one of five Australians invited to Washington DC for the first ever ‘Assessing the Future of the Field’ an international convening of 50 thought leaders in theatre, dance, disability, education and inclusion from the US and around the world, hosted by the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts . She also attended Arts Activated in Sydney and was struck by how important it is for artists around Australia to connect with each other. We’re so geographically isolated, Mellis says but there are people doing amazing work and they need to know about each other.
Mellis is brimming with ideas for new projects in 2013, such as looking at how sign language and gesture can be used to communicate songs to deaf people, then she’s exploring audio description of visual art and ways to make cross art-forms more accessible. Mellis would also love to do more work on Take Up Thy Bed and Walk and has hopes it will tour in the future.
She may have been having a little well deserved down time over the Christmas break but Mellis says ‘I can’t help myself thinking and looking at things I want to look at in the New Year.’
Image Credit: Top; front row: Michelle Ryan, Gaelle Mellis, Emma J Hawkins. Back row: Joanna Dunbar, Gerry Shearim, Kyra Kimpton. Photo: Heath Britton & Vitalstatistix. Video; YouTube.