“A disabled gay guy with red hair who has only one hand,” is how Filip Pawlak introduces himself when we start to talk.
A Polish performer and the head of production office of the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, Filip works in the field of art and disability and deals with networking, as well as being part of an international network called Europe beyond access, which in 2019 published a report titled “Disabled artists in the mainstream: a new cultural agenda for Europe”, which provided guidelines for the allocation of European funds with the aim of promoting accessibility in the entertainment sector for artists and audiences with disabilities.
The existence of international networks, he explains, is already changing European cultural policies and promoting the exchange of good practices between different countries. One of the main objectives is to value and enhance the presence of professional artists with disabilities on the stage, in order to generate change when it comes to visibility. Even though there have been many steps forward, this remains difficult and there is often resistance at the structural level, for a variety of reasons. Filip tells me how pleasantly surprised he was when he attended a performance involving an actor who used a wheelchair – who stood up at the end of the performance, thus revealing that he was not a performer with a disability, but an actor playing a part.
Why is it still so difficult, I ask him, to put a body with a disability on the stage? First of all, according to Filip, that means making an avant-garde choice, challenging theatre in its more traditional forms and questioning the known imagery, pushing the audience to break out of its idea of “beautiful” or “ugly” bodies and thus questioning their own normativity. It is often difficult to engage in dialogue with those involved in production and artistic direction in theatres with long-standing and renowned traditions because creating innovation means questioning long-established poetics and logics, confidently accepting the risk inherent in change. It is also important to move away from a strongly Catholic, charitable approach to disability, which, from a welfare perspective, has led to great isolation of the disabled community, marginalising them and relegating them to invisibility in the public sphere.
The process that is underway, he explains, is necessarily gradual because it is working at a systemic level, where many aspects are interconnected: artistic direction, educating the public to cultivate a new outlook, the revolution of certain practices in artistic training institutes, the role of theatre critics. We are always moving towards utopia, trying to take small steps forward every day.