Radio LUMI

8:30 PM | Access Advisory Spotlight: Jessica Watkin

October 14, 2021 Luminato Festival Toronto
Radio LUMI
8:30 PM | Access Advisory Spotlight: Jessica Watkin
Transcript

Christine Malec (00:00):

Welcome back to Radio LUMI. We are going to have an extended spotlight to chat with Jessica Watkin who's a member of the access advisory for Luminato. Jessica is a PhD candidate at the center for drama theatre and performance studies at UFT. She studies disability and performance. How are disabled artists creating and getting support? She's also an artist and consultant in Canada, and she has a collection of disability plays from Playwrights Press, coming out this fall which we will get to during the course of our conversation, because that's very exciting. Jessica, first of all, welcome and I would ask, even though this is audio only, we have, we like to encourage the practice of self-description and I know you're a fan of this as well. So can you give us a little visual on yourself at this moment?

Jessica Watkin (00:55

Absolutely. So I am a white settler female person stunting human being, I have one green eye, one blue eye, sometimes they match sometimes they don't. One of those eyes is fake. I wear cat eye glasses, I have light brown hair that is about to be cut today. So right now it's quite long because of the pandemic, but will eventually be shorter. And I'm wearing a little witch shirt today, I'm wearing a graded flowy arm dress because it's spooky season and I'm nestled into my little office. I have a little pandemic home of cozy books and yarn. So that's where I'm sitting today and that's me.

Christine Malec (01:39):

You're much better dressed than I am. I first met you in 2020, went back in the days when we used to have in person meetings. And I remember sitting across the table from you and being so intrigued because your part of an academic community is not a place where I'm too familiar and you are using words like drum liturgy and things that I was like, what does that mean? Wow. And so some of the... I know a bit better now, but some of those things are ideas that I'd like to gradually unpack. And so I'd like to start by asking, you're clearly a really busy woman. What made you decide to accept the invitation to join the Lumi advisory?

Jessica Watkin (02:22):

Oh, I am a busy woman. I love working with Disabled artists. That's like the first and foremost. So any AP opportunity that I get to learn from and learn with and make change with Disabled artists is an opportunity that I'm going to jump at. And when Cathy Gordon approached me about the access advisory committee, we were having conversations about ways to create more accessible Toronto theatre and how to use different techniques that are being used both across the city, but also across the country.

Jessica Watkin (02:58):

And I have been consulting individually either as a blind consultant for specific theatre organizations or as a disability consultant for six years now, since 2015, since I moved here and I've always worked on my own and I was really interested and intrigued by this idea of having a committee, not saying that an advisory committee as a new concept, it isn't, but to have an advisory committee specifically talking about artistry and access and working together as an interdependent collective, really intrigued me to see how we were going to impact change, how Luminato would receive our feedback.

Jessica Watkin (03:37):

And also just to see the vibrance in the excitement in everybody since those meetings in 2020, you mentioned that we're in person all the way to our zoom meetings of the past 18 months. It's been really exciting to see that even though it's been a hard turn for everybody in the pandemic going online, it's been really exciting to see those challenges come up and people rise to those creative problem solving techniques that come out of that committee.

Jessica Watkin (04:03):

So I honestly rose to the challenge as an excited member of the community, excited to work on dismantling ableism in different ways and working in conjunction with other people and it's been such a beautiful process. So that's what drew me to this project in particular and I'd always been interested and intrigued by Luminato not quite understanding much about the programming process or anything and now I feel like I have a much better idea and I feel like there's been some really interesting reciprocity with the organization and the members of the committee. So it's been really beautiful to watch that happen.

Christine Malec (04:37):

I'm also a consultant in certain context around disability in the arts and I'm wondering about your perspective on how the pandemic pause has affected the world of disability in the arts.

Jessica Watkin (04:51):

It's really been a pause and it feels like a pause because it's been essential to survive through this moment. And not all of us have disabled people, disabled artists, all of us have been touched by loss now and so the beginning of the pandemic brought a lot of isolation and terror I think from disability communities around world and the artists that I work with myself included the ways that we intrude dependently.

Jessica Watkin (05:18):

And when I say true interdependence I mean work together, rely on one another to work through systems that maybe I have barriers and oppressive barriers that are in front of us. So using each other and relying on the support from each other to get through those processes that disabled artists are accustomed to being disrupted entirely by not being able to be near people are really easy example of that would be like a blind person needing a guide to go anywhere. I'm sure Christine, you know that vibe.

Christine Malec (05:48):

I do.

Jessica Watkin (05:50):

Myself included, if I haven't said already, I am blind as well. So it's been rather isolating and so it's been really interesting to watch the artists that I work with pause to survive. And that's thing that I've had to do on multiple occasions. You mentioned that…I mean, academia hasn't had a pause. There wasn't a pause. I'm known for my email responders, this is strange tidbit about me.

Jessica Watkin (06:18):

So, if I go on vacation, I write really thoughtful, exciting, I don't know, engaged... I don't know. People get really excited about when I go on vacation because my email response is... Because they're not mine, it's an automatic response, but it's like me being like you deserve to sleep. Like I think maybe just people are excited, but I'm like, I'm resting. So maybe you should also rest too.

Christine Malec (06:39):

I love that.

Jessica Watkin (06:41):

And so I put on an email responder through the pandemic that was just in case you forgot it's a pandemic still. And just in case, because to be perfectly honest and I was literally thanked by academics who got that email because they were like, thank you for acknowledging that there's still crisis happening because in the fields that we roll through both the arts' industry and the one that I roll through, academia, haven't everyone's really trying to push forward and move forward. And so I've been really interested in the ways that actually disabled artists in particular have taken a pause that haven't of course we have to work to pave our bills, and right now that's survival is really antigral but actually taking a moment and going look I don't have to create right now because there's something bigger. I have to find a way to move through this world and survive.

Jessica Watkin (07:30):

And so it's actually been a really interesting moment because the art that's being created is out of necessity to connect. I think immediately if Alex Palmer's postcards for my balcony or the pandemic postcards project that she did with Harbor front, where it all began from her just creating small postcard moments from her apartment in isolation that March 2020 and grew into this beautiful huge project that invites disabled artists from around the world to reflect on what this pandemic has done from them and that varies from finding moments of joy with Brian Solomon, to looking at Don Jenny Burley, having to create ASL interpreted COVID access information because they weren't creating accessible content about COVID particulars where she was. And so it's been really interesting to see disabled artists. So in this pause, I've really witnessed survival, I've witnessed a pause and I've really witnessed people wanting to take care.

Jessica Watkin (08:31):

I think as well, the turn towards being more careful. I hope I've seen I say this. The disabled artists that I've worked with have really started to take up a little bit more being like, okay, we need to take care a little bit more. We need to be thinking a little bit more about care and to be perfectly honest, that's all I want. Lets... I'm happy everybody's just focusing a little bit more about taking care of each other, so that's been really beautiful.

Christine Malec (08:57):

Yeah.

Jessica Watkin (08:58):

Yeah.

Christine Malec (08:59):

I want to move to a term that's new to me and that's accessibility design and I know you're working in this and with this, can you give a sense of what this means, particularly for the disabled performer?

Jessica Watkin (09:15):

So accessibility design is not necessarily like TM trademarked. It's not in the dictionary, it's not fully formed as a full concept, but what we say accessibility design, we're working towards a way of planning accessibility. I feel like that's the easiest way to explain it is that to curate accessibility with intention and design it, not just being like, oh, okay. A deaf person, someone who can't hear might come to this, let's add on ASL two weeks before opening, it's sitting down at the table read, it's sitting down at programming moment and thinking, do we want accessibility? What accessibility, what communities do we want to invite into this space into this story? And how can we create a design? How can we, Marjorie Chan said this to me in a meeting recently and she said, accessibility deserves our artistic attention.

Jessica Watkin (10:16):

And that's what accessibility design means to me. It means that in an audience setting is creating ease of engagement for that audience member. So we're designing that ease of engagement and then if you switch it over to what you asked me about, right? Being a disabled performer, how do we design your designs? Lighting designs, set designs, stage designs, theatre designs with accessibility in mind. And this is something that if you may or may not have been inside a theatre before there is a normally a raised stage, normally lots of stairs up into a stage. Normally lots of, there's a drop off of the stage when I performed a lot, when I was younger in my, the days of you are when I was a performer, I did my entire masters when I started grad school about blind performers.

Jessica Watkin (11:12):

And why do we create a performance space that is entirely inaccessible to me as performer shining bright lights in my eyes. I can't see this, I can't perform confidently if the bright lights are on my eye shining on me, but that creates the best access for the audience. So where do we compromise? That's what I'm suggesting with accessibility design. Maybe not compromises in who doesn't get their ease of access, but how can we create a playing space, a performing space that also is accessible to the disabled performer? I don't know. It seems exciting to designers. I know that probably sounds quite scary to designers who might be listening to this but I think it's actually, it opens up the possibility of what we can do both on stage with the stage and the performers.

Christine Malec (11:59):

Anyone who's done work around accessibility and inclusion knows that an accommodation always ripples out to positively affect more than just the target groups. So I'm wondering about this phenomenon when you consult with artists during a creation of their work, do you see a broadening in some cases, does it help them to think about their art in a different way?

Jessica Watkin (12:23):

I think so. I truly do hear from non-disabled and Disabled artists alike when I suggest something that maybe is brand new or an idea that they wouldn't have thought in conjunction with theatre, for example, like oh, a blind person might come see your show.

Christine Malec (12:41):

Yeah.

Jessica Watkin (12:41):

Right? Like they wouldn't, they're probably, if they're not blind or don't have blindness touching their life, they're probably not creating a show thinking, oh, a blind person's but when I say that also opens up, I feel it, I feel the fissures open up the shifts happening.

Jessica Watkin (12:56):

And even it takes time I think the first time I have a conversation with an artist, maybe their eyes aren't open pun intended immediately. But I think what happens is I always have to take this when I consult with somebody and anybody as a disabled person. And I say this to the young blind people, I mentor all the way to disabled artists that I support in academia or in art is that you might be the first disabled person someone needs.

Christine Malec (13:22):

Oh, it's such a good reminder.

Jessica Watkin (13:26):

And it's antique world for us to remember that because it's our every day, but there are truly people who aren't touched in their life, in their reality and they're tangible, tactile in their visceral lived experience of life have never been touched by disability. And so I don't think every disabled person deserves to shoulder that rate of doing that education work. I truly don't. But I do think that some compassion around this first contact with disability and so I always actually say, if I'm a teacher, I teach the university level, or if I'm teaching both in consulting, I say, I'm the disabled person you can ask the questions that you're really nervous to ask to. I'm a safe, disabled person and trust me, you can't ask all of those hard questions to everybody.

Christine Malec (14:11):

Don't walk up to someone on the street when they're just doing their shopping.

Jessica Watkin (14:15):

Absolutely not. But I put myself as that person and I say like ask me the questions and they...

Christine Malec (14:21):

Yeah.

Jessica Watkin (14:21):

Do why is this capitalized? Why do you say this? I'm not differently able and I can answer those questions, but I think what happens when I come in visceral lived experience contact with people, first of all, I'm disabled as well. I do think just meeting a disabled person who's in performance, helps change people's minds period. So I do think just being there, being present, talking about how they can accommodate me in the conversation and then starting to talk about the access that they want integrated into their work, starts to give them lived experience to demonstrate an engagement to build a relationship with a disabled person and disability. And I think that helps plant those seeds of like, oh, maybe I shouldn't be using this word.

Jessica Watkin (15:02):

Or maybe we should be thinking more about the acoustics or not the acoustic, the visuals because of people who can't see or hear. So it's... I do see it ripple, but I do also think that a lot of the times I'm the first disabled person people meet and so it's, the ripple effect happens without even me giving suggestions, I think what I'm trying to say is that even just me being met as a theatre creator in the room...

Christine Malec (15:26):

Yeah.

Jessica Watkin (15:27):

And performing almost how to interact with a disabled person, helps them understand that much more and I think I've seen it. I've been working here for six years now in Toronto and I've seen different artists that I worked with six years ago and have an entirely different approach to how they approach their art now. And that's been such a beautiful shift to watch is to watch the growth that...

Christine Malec (15:49):

Wow.

Jessica Watkin (15:50):

Just one moment, one consulting gig with me isn't going to make you 100% disability justice inclined. To be perfectly honest I don't think that's attainable, but I think that starting moment, and then continuing to commit to accessibility disability, it grows. And I think that's really cool.

Christine Malec (16:07):

You're also part of blind imaginings, whose goal is to center non-vision in performance. Can you flesh out what that means for creators?

Jessica Watkin (16:17):

Blind imaginings is always such a soft, beautiful spot in my life. I was just on the phone with Alex Fullmer who's performing right now at Stratford festival, fully blind, blind aesthetics, loving it, love the Blinky representation and we were talking about blind imaginings in particular and how excited we are about the project and so what it is, non-visual performance technique. The best way that I can explain it, when you bring an audio description. So you have somebody who cannot see a stage and say, you're performing a Hamlet, right? And you've got the text of Hamlet that's being received to you probably through your ears, and then you have audio describers who are describing to you by what's happening in the action on stage that you cannot access as the non sided person. To me in that positionality as a blind person, the audio description is still telling me that the physical visual action on stage is the only way to receive the narrative.

Jessica Watkin (17:10):

It's the way you're missing something. If you're not seeing these visuals, which as a blind person, we get a lot visual jokes. I don't... People in a room will start laughing all of a sudden and I'll be like, why is the audio describer not describing to me what they're laughing at? And so that to me is the best description to say, even with audio description, we're still valuing the visual. And so what we're trying to do with blind imaginings, how can we conceptualize and even think about making a performance where you don't have to see the visual to understand what's happening. And so when we go through this work, say there was one activity we did and we had a week long Canada council supported summit in 2019 where we brought in artists and we did some practices with this.

Jessica Watkin (17:59):

And one of the practices was something scary is approaching you on stage. How do you communicate that fear without anybody being at able to see that something scary is coming. And so we worked with sound, we worked with breath, we worked with vibrations, we worked with different ways of coming closer to the audience and far away there're different techniques. So what we're looking at is centering the non-visual experience, the feelings, the experience of being in the room and sometimes that means indicating when there's something visual but actually it's more about the storytelling.

Jessica Watkin (18:37):

It really comes into, I feel scared and that's the description as opposed to something scary is coming towards me and you can't see that scary thing and scary thing looks like this. That's not important. What we're focusing on is those feelings. And so that's... Like I said, it's a new brand thing, blind imagining we're imagining blindly, but what's exciting about it for me is that we're able to think about performance in a way where I'm not missing something. If I'm not site, if I can't see the visual access.

Christine Malec (19:09):

And so is your hope that maybe this would become part of actors training?

Jessica Watkin (19:16):

Yeah. I think that there would be... It's similar to different types of performance. So there is a standards love ski school of performance training. Like Grotowski like these really big gross old white [inaudible 00:19:30] of the style of training and I feel like it would be a style of training. Maybe the Alex Palmer's style of training that her forward for it, not me where it's a way of cultivating storytelling in a way that isn't focused on the visual. So yeah, I could see it being a part of actor training. I could see it being a part of even design training as well and thinking about how to my partner is a lighting designer. And so it's funny because he's all about the visual in his artistry and I'm all about the non-visual in my artistry.

Jessica Watkin (20:05):

And so a lot of the time I ask him, I'm like, what would lighting be if you weren't thinking about the audience, but you were thinking about the performer and the safety of the stage. Do you do that when you're lighting designing? And so those are the questions, it's a little bit more about safety and engagement and less about the visual. And so, yeah I could see it an actor, I could see it designing, I could see it at directing and also in film and different ways as well. I know film is quite a bit more are anchored in with the sighted, but I think sound is really the possibilities of sound and film are endless. So I feel it'd be really interesting to think about it in film as well.

Christine Malec (20:43):

I'm curious, what is your dream gig as a consultant? Where do you want to go in and shake things up?

Jessica Watkin (20:50):

Oh, wow. I mentioned Stratford earlier. I feel like Stratford could be due for a big Stratford festival here in Canada could be due for a big shake up. I know that they're slowly shaking things up one play at a time, but I wonder about having somebody come in and do a really big disability consulting, both about accessibility but also about the programming and the context around the choices they're making and long term planning like I can only imagine what they do right now about their funding and around their long term planning, but I can only imagine having a disabled person in those rooms right? In those rooms being asked the questions about how to plan for a pandemic with disabled folks in mind. That's what for theatre, right? I think that's something that I'm hoping a lot of the theatre companies that I work with in Toronto are thinking about right now, but I'd be really interested not all disabled people can come back to in person theatre.

Jessica Watkin (21:50):

And so I just saw R plus J at Stratford a couple weeks ago and really thinking about am I the only blind person in this audience? Because Stratford may or may not be developing those relationships, but also it's a pandemic and access to theatre is very difficult. So I would be interested in something that big, a big institution like Stratford. I say that Christine, and then I think to myself, Stratford already has audio description, why not even go bigger? Why not go to Mirvish and be like, hello Fred?

Christine Malec (22:18):

I was going to, I wasn't going to say it, but thank you to saying.

Jessica Watkin (22:24):

And even thinking about Mirvish and their latest piece, which I would love to hear what your thought far on this blindness piece, have you heard about this performance that Mirvish had about it's called blindness based on the book and it was...

Christine Malec (22:36):

Whoa. No, I have not.

Jessica Watkin (22:37):

Yeah. So it was all about simulating blindness not created by a blind person, so.

Christine Malec (22:42):

Ooh.

Jessica Watkin (22:44):

Interesting politics there. So...

Christine Malec (22:46):

That's, let's do another interview tomorrow about that. Stay tuned all of that. You see...

Jessica Watkin (22:53):

All about the blindness, but yeah I think maybe the big ones, right? Mirvish Stratford, the big ones that have the money possibly have the funds, have the capacity, probably have the human power to be able to do this work, but are not doing it for question marks. So...

Christine Malec (23:10):

Right.

Jessica Watkin (23:11):

I think it would be really dope to get in there but I also think Alex and I, I've already emailed Mirvish, will they respond to us? I don't know. I'm not sure stay tuned.

Christine Malec (23:22):

Oh, I certainly will. Now you are also a creator yourself and I've seen a reference to your tactile art and the anthology coming out on the fall. What projects are you most jazzed about most excited about right now, that's absorbing your excitement and your interest for yourself?

Jessica Watkin (23:42):

The big one is the book it's called interdependent magic disability performances in Canada and it's the first edited anthology of disability plays in Canada, which is very exciting. I came to Toronto because I wanted to make a change in the community I saw. I went through theatre school and really struggled as a blind person to accommodate for myself every which way and my goal for my PhD was to create tangible change to offer something. Somethings were different for people like me and this book is going to provide at the very least a tangible thing that I can hand to theatre creators, I can hand to teachers, I can hand to everybody and be like, you can't tell me that they're isn't disability performance anymore because it's right here. I've literally collected them in a book so that you can't tell me that there're only Creeps by David free Moore, because that has been the most famous Canadian disability place since 1977 or something.

Jessica Watkin (24:40):

So that's been so exciting, tactile art wise. I've got a piece coming up at tangled art and disability, hopefully in person in January for their exhibition called hashtag Crip Ritual, which is all about disability, Crip identity Crip referring to a political term that disabled folks use to align themselves with political disability work. So Crip Ritual is all about what are the things that we do, the small moments, the rituals that we do as disabled people that keep us either in touch with other things or with ourselves, or keep going or survival. And so I'm actually creating a piece of tactile art, which will be created predominantly through yarn. So I've been really yarning it up in my house. I mentioned earlier that...

Christine Malec (25:31):

You did mention that.

Jessica Watkin (25:32):

I have lots of yarn in my office, I am a yarn queen. If you have a yarn that you want to send my way...

Christine Malec (25:38):

Oh, really? Oh, good to know.

Jessica Watkin (25:39):

Yeah. If you have any drugs hanging around your closets, you need to [inaudible 00:25:43] literally I've been sent yarn from across North America actually because I've just been like, I tweeted it out and I was like, anybody need to get rid of yarn? And they did. They sent it to me and I was like, all right.

Christine Malec (25:52):

Nice.

Jessica Watkin (25:55):

But so half the project will be yarn and half the project because of COVID. So originally I had planned on starting to knit a piece that I invite people through audio and through text to touch. And it's all based on this idea that when I was doing my undergraduate degree, I was reading books with my ears and I did an English literature degree. And I had to read 15 literature classic texts per term and I was reading them with my ears and I kept falling asleep.

Christine Malec (26:22):

I know where you're going with this.

Jessica Watkin (26:23):

And so...

Christine Malec (26:24):

I did the exact same thing. Don't do your reading, lying down, sit up and make something with your hands.

Jessica Watkin (26:30):

And that's how... Why I learned [inaudible 00:26:32]

Christine Malec (26:31):

Exactly how I got through school.

Jessica Watkin (26:33):

Literally 10 years ago, I learned to knit specifically because I was falling asleep. And so this project is all about the books. It's a love letter to the books that I've read while knitting and the person I've become through knitting. And the goal is to have experiences of the exhibit knit with me. So I will have an open piece so folks can pick up my needles and knit as well, and I'll have like how to do it. But with COVID a tactile art. How do we keep that clean? How do we keep it safe? And so I'm actually experimenting right now, and this is why I wanted to bring it up. I'm experiencing right now with plastics. So I'm looking at knitting, we've been saving my partner and I, through the COVID, we've been collecting plastic eggs throughout the COVID and I'm going to be knitting with them.

Jessica Watkin (27:21):

So I'm actually going to be using them as the material that I knit so that we can spray clean and wash dry the material in between people touching it. And I could be using, starting with plastic bags. I'm also going to try skipping rope, which might be interesting, but I wonder how I feel like it's going to be too heavy, but I wonder about one or two links anyway. So this is where I'm going in terms of conceptual thinking is I really want people to touch stuff, but I also want them not to get COVID while they touch stuff...

Christine Malec (27:52):

Yeah.

Jessica Watkin (27:52):

Of mine. So that's a big challenge that I'm thinking through, but it's very exciting. And, but yeah, that's the pieces I also have a piece that's just been put up on the National Arts Center website. It's a three minute video called part of their transformations project, and it's all about, it's a part of a small snippet of a play that I'm working on. I'm working on a play about a blind mermaid. So yeah, it's taking a very long time to write, but I'm happy to have a slow time with this mermaid. I think she deserves...

Christine Malec (28:26):

Splashy splash.

Jessica Watkin (28:27):

Oh yeah.

Christine Malec (28:29):

I feel like I could, I have so many more questions and not enough time, but Jessica Watkin, thank you so much. This has given me so much to think about, and it's been such a pleasure to work with you. Thank you for joining us today and sharing your insights.

Jessica Watkin (28:42):

It's been a pleasure.

 *Transcript created by Rev.