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We caught up with Matt Needham, Assistant Director of DIS:Play - an immersive living history museum created by young disabled creatives from across Greater Manchester.  | 5 Minute Read

Congratulations on the DIS:Play project; it looks incredible! For anyone who doesn’t know, please could you tell us a bit more about yourself?

Thank you so much – we are super proud of everyone involved. It’s been unlike any theatre I’ve worked on before, and it turned out to be something truly unique & refreshing!

I’m Matt (they/he), an Artist and Activist based in Manchester. I work primarily as a writer/director for live & recorded performance as well as engaging with local Arts Organisations in an advisory capacity discussing strategy, inclusion and access equality.

I’m a Young Ambassador for Young Manchester, I also work for the charity as their Marketing, Communications and Administration Officer. I am a Neurodiversity Champion with Starling CIO and a member of CONTACT’s Young Company (CYC). I’m currently part of the ‘Intro to Directing’ programme at Sheffield Theatres with Ramps on the Moon (ROTM) and have recently been chosen as an Arts Agent for British Art Show 9 (BAS9).

Could you share what it’s been like working as Assistant Director on DIS:Play?  

It’s been a true joy and pleasure to assistant direct this project. Sam Holley-Horseman, myself and a team of talented producers have spent the last six months supporting this inspiring cohort of young creatives, all of whom are passionate, articulate and creative with their activism.

Through 1-1s and group workshopping, we worked to create individual ‘exhibitions’ that relate to their lived experience as young disabled people, with the goal being to share this with an audience whilst paying homage to the activists from the Disabled People’s Movement who have come before us and paved the way.

This role has given me great learning insights as a Director – Not only through shadowing Sam and getting to absorb her amazing directing style and organic rapport with the young people, but also by making me confront parts of myself I had neglected or felt ashamed of previously. Through workshops where we discussed access equality and contextualising the movement, I came to realise that my disability is both my superpower & kryptonite, it all comes down to how we as a society are framing it.

Black and white image of two people on stage with banners hanging all around.

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What’s been your highlight from the months of work spent creating DIS:Play?

Ooo you can’t ask me that – it’s too hard to pick!

Honestly, it’s been getting to experience the humour in each session – everyone is hilarious! I don’t know what I’ll do without hearing Lewis and Anustan’s detailed Dr Who tangents. Or Elena and Molly comparing squishes on Zoom – I still can’t choose between the Penguin and Avocado…please don’t make me!!

The humour and resilience of these young people are a massive highlight for me, they often learn to laugh in the shadows and find light & joy in things others may not appreciate. Thanks to all of them for sharing their stories and laughs with me, it’s been an amazing journey!

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What advice would you give to any arts practitioner looking to make their work or projects more accessible?

Great question! Firstly, we should realise that a more accessible world is a better world for everyone.

During the pandemic, whilst non-disabled and neurotypical people experienced time in our shoes, theatre was made available online and accessible to audiences isolating at home. We were so happy, finally, theatres were realising that shows can be made and broadcast from anywhere and that ‘audiences’ are not necessarily limited to an auditorium.

It didn’t last… months after the last lockdown ended, whilst a large percentage of disabled people are still shielding, here we are again – live performance is back and streaming now seems confined to the past. For Disabled / Neurodivergent people going to see a theatre show can be challenging for numerous reasons. Having one BSL performance out of a ten show run is a barrier, not embedding creative audio description or closed captioning is a barrier, only having space for one wheelchair user is a barrier. Practitioners doing the bare minimum is a barrier.

It is our job as creatives to ensure our art is accessible to everyone. By practitioners starting to view access is a tool they can employ to allow more people to engage with their work, they are investing in the quality, reach and meaning of their Art.

When making your work more accessible, the first step is to speak to Disabled people, find out what we need, where the barriers are and work from there.

What would you say to any young disabled person looking to get involved in creative projects? 

Do it – you won’t regret it!

Find a group or project which really speaks to you, what are you passionate about? What type of art would you like to make? Who would you like to meet, collaborate and learn with?

We’re so lucky to be young people living in Manchester with so many different amazing creative opportunities out there. It would be a real shame if more young disabled people didn’t feel they could get involved.

There are some great organisations that specifically offer creative projects for disabled young people (GMCDP, Venture Arts, Able Orchestra etc) but there are also many other opportunities which you can also apply for. If you’re in doubt as to whether an opportunity is accessible to you, you can always reach out to the organisers and ask.

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How can people get involved or keep up with GMCDP and the Young Creatives work?

To get involved or to stay updated with the work of this cohort of Young Creatives keep an eye out on the GMCDP and Contact Theatres social media accounts for updates. Alternatively, you can contact Gemma (GMCDP Project Worker) for more information.