People

Setting the stage for performers with disability

ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

For over 20 years, Australian Kate Hood had a glistening career as an actress, writer and director.

She performed for major theatres like Melbourne Theatre Company, acted in films and TV series, and also directed arts festivals, including Melbourne Fringe and Brisbane Festival.

In 2002, at age 43, her world crumbled.

She was diagnosed with hereditary spastic paraplegia, a genetic disorder that progressively weakens the legs.

"I actually had it since the day I was born, but I didn't have many symptoms till I was in my late 30s," Ms Hood told The Straits Times. "It took five years for anyone to give me a concrete diagnosis."

What followed was grief and uncertainty about her future. She said: "It immediately made me go into grief because I thought 'what would this mean for my life?'"

Ms Hood started moving around with a walking stick, and then two.

MAKING A STAND

I formed Raspberry Ripple in response to a call in our performing arts industry in Australia. Disabled performers were not seen at all in the mainstream performing arts. And nobody has seen a disability-led theatre company.

The biggest gap I see is that although 20 per cent of the world has a disability, we are not represented on stage or on screen at that percentage.

MS KATE HOOD, Australian actress, writer and director whose glistening career dried up after hereditary spastic paraplegia, a genetic disorder that progressively weakens the legs, finally put her in a wheelchair.

"I clung on to the bits of the performing arts that I could do. I went to the recording studio and worked as a recording artist. I narrated in audio books and I worked in commercial voiceover studios," she said.

Eventually, she stopped getting work offers.

"The message I got from my industry was that the door was closed to me now that I could no longer work on stage as an actor," she said. "I felt like I dove in and hit the bottom of the pool.

"And I had nowhere to go but up from that point. Suddenly, I had nothing more to lose."

Refusing to take no for an answer, Ms Hood started advocating for actors with disability, wrote her own productions and performed at festivals.

In 2016, she put up a stage performance with actors with disability as well as able-bodied ones. And in the same year, she formed Raspberry Ripple Productions, a disability-led theatre company.

"I formed Raspberry Ripple in response to a call in our performing arts industry in Australia," she said "Disabled performers were not seen at all in the mainstream performing arts. And nobody has seen a disability-led theatre company.

"The biggest gap I see is that although 20 per cent of the world has a disability, we are not represented on stage or on screen at that percentage," she added.

The company aims to create a pathway for artists with disability to join mainstream performing arts through stage and theatre productions.

Ms Hood, now 59, collaborates with others as a director, literary adviser, mentor and advocate of actors with disability. She sits on the board of Art Access Victoria, a leading arts and disability organisation in Australia.

"I want to tell the story of disabled people and able-bodied people living in the world together. I want to tell stories that haven't been told before," she said.

Ms Hood was a key speaker on the opening day of the Arts and Disability International Conference in Singapore last Thursday.

Organised by the National Arts Council and Very Special Arts Singapore, delegates to the two-day event explored ways to make art more accessible to people with disability.

Ms Hood was one of 400 local and international delegates, which included social service sector professionals, policy makers and artists with disabilities.

In her keynote speech, Ms Hood said: "The barriers put in place by a world designed for normal people disable us far more than our bodies ever will."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2018, with the headline 'Setting the stage for performers with disability'. Print Edition | Subscribe