You Are Not Alone: Matilda Ibini reflects on Unlimited & Theatre Bristol’s workshop day

In May, Unlimited invited Theatre Bristol to facilitate a workshop day for early-career artists who identify as disabled, focused on pitching ideas, and finding funding and support to make their art. We invited playwright and screenwriter, Matilda Ibini to blog about the day. Here are her reflections:

So before I start I always feel like I should give people a heads up before sharing my thoughts:

  1. I write how I speak – so grammar and punctuation police, please move along nothing to see here.
  2. So much wonderful, insightful gems of advice were shared so I’ll be paraphrasing, as I wasn’t able to pin exactly who said what when (because I was too busy taking notes) but this is a summarised version of events (as opposed to minutes). A bit like, you know when making squash and there’s that point when you add too much water? This is that blog.
  3. I should also mention that I’m a playwright and screenwriter so that’s where I’ll be coming from in terms of art form, but I know not all the attendees were writers, they came from different art forms/disciplines.
  4. There’s going to be a lot contradictory information but that’s the whole point. So many artists have found their way into their profession in a variety of ways. What may work for one person may not work for you and vice versa. Take what you need from this and disregard the rest – this is not gospel, it’s just one perspective. Being an artist means so many different things to people and no meaning is more or less valid.

Contents:
Part 1: So what does it mean to be a ‘disabled artist’?
Part 2: Mastering the dark arts of funding
Part 3: What I wish I’d known when I started out…

 

Part 1: So what does it mean to be a ‘disabled artist’?

Firstly you are not alone. You are part of a community of artists whether that is virtual or in the real world, who are willing and ready to provide support and advice, so don’t be afraid to reach out.

My understanding of being a disabled artist is no different to being an artist and the work you’ll go onto create. My impairment can inform my work but that doesn’t mean my work is of a lesser quality than the mainstream (I may be a disabled artist but my work isn’t disabled). And I think this is something that we as disabled artists are always going to encounter in our career. But I think identifying as a disabled artist is about acknowledging the particular structural and systematic barriers you face as a result of society’s historic attitudes and behaviour towards disabled people. The barriers range from financial, socio-political, educational and physical etc. (if you aren’t familiar you should look up the social model of disability). I felt this was an important but also personal talking point that bubbled under the surface of our conversations throughout the day.

The event started with a brief intro from Fiona Slater (Unlimited) and Laura Drane (Theatre Bristol) who were facilitating the day. The day then kicked off with a discussion led by artist Raquel Meseguer, who asked us to each introduce ourselves to the group and name two things that make you irrationally happy and what you hope to get from the day (I chose Janelle Monae’s music – not-quite irrational but her music just makes me so damn happy). Raquel then asked, if you were a book that people could borrow from a library, what would you contain? And what was really great about this exercise was that it didn’t have to be directly linked to your art discipline and showed that we are all experts in so many different things and that we often forget that we can contribute in many other ways than just our art/discipline. For example, I felt that I could contribute to a book about Afrofuturism, and how to deal with rejection (in work and life).

Raquel then went on to talk about the theatre company she co-founded, the break she took in her career and her journey to changing and evolving in her art form. She talked about how her real-life experiences had shaped her and the work she would go on to make. This really rang true to me as a writer, especially when starting out, I was always encouraged by tutors and facilitators to write “what you know” (as well as write what you want to know) as a good starting place.

Raquel then shared with us her five tips she’d learnt that are now essential to her creative practice (again I’m paraphrasing):

  1. Having an ally in the industry – someone interested in supporting your work. I know this is a lot easier said than done, however a good place to start would be with any personal contacts you have. It may be an awkward conversation but one that needs to be had. So if you know anyone directly or through a friend of a friend (of a friend) who might be up for having a coffee with you and chatting about what it means to work in a particular art form or how to get started may prove worthwhile.
    As you never know when you may end up meeting a potential collaborator, what was key to Raquel is asking for help and advice with certain conditions and parameters. She also found sharing your work (to an extent) or at the very least talking about your work to people is what gets people interested in wanting to support it. Because if people don’t know that you create/make work, how will they know when opportunities arise to contact you or think of you? It is really hard to find someone who will champion your work but when you do, it can prove invaluable. So put yourself out there.
  2. Theatre Bristol’s artist support program supported her development. She got support writing her arts council application. She had the time to learn how to make work around her disability. What I took from this tip is the importance of trying to build a relationship with your local development agency/theatre, preferably one that is local to you and finding out what they have to offer. So doing your research and finding out if your local theatre or institution has an outreach program or an artist development program that you can apply for or at least show that you’re interested in. Having the support of a building or institution, can help create important building blocks for your career. For example they can help facilitate introductions with potential collaborators, they may be able to help provide a platform to showcase your work, they may be able to give you space in kind or time to develop your craft, they can also provide some clout when applying for funding, especially if you’re still very early on in your career.
  3. Grant writersfor those who find funding applications too difficult, you could pay a grant writer. If you can afford it, otherwise, if you can, team up with someone and agree to read each other’s applications. Going it alone can be difficult so try finding people, even if they’re not connected directly to the industry. Finding someone you trust to read and give you feedback on your application could prove helpful. Is my project clear? Have I made sure to cover all my costs of the project? Which leads nicely onto Raquel’s next point…
  4. Having a group of peers you can confide in is important. Whilst starting out and writing applications. Join a artists group or set one up yourself at a local café. Make work dates with other artists to work at each other’s houses (though try not to distract each other). The support network of other artists is invaluable. Finding your tribe of collaborators is just as important as finding your tribe of cheerleaders. People who will pick you up when things are quiet, when rejection feels relentless, when you’re feeling unsure of your work. A kind ear you can rant or vent to is undoubtedly important as an artist.
  5. Media coverage – sometimes all it takes is a well-placed blog that can lead to many other opportunities. What I took from Raquel saying this, was with the advent of social media, we are well-placed to be able to give ourselves more of a platform than ever before. Of course finding your audience and fine tuning your craft won’t happen overnight, but having an online presence has shown to be both useful in connecting with other artists (you may not otherwise get a chance to meet), valuable introductions, and opportunities that are now advertised through art institutions/theatres social media accounts. Raquel used the example of a blog she wrote which was published by Disability Arts Online and how that blog alone attracted local radio and TV station coverage. Now it’s not to imply that every blog you write will go viral or get picked up, but when you make work or talk about your work in a way that resonates with people it can spread like wildfire.

Raquel also stressed the importance of being practical, patient and keeping the faith and thinking about what’s the best use of your energy and time in any given moment. You don’t have to spend endless hours online or writing blogs or even honing your craft but doing what you can, when you can. We are artists not robots.

She gave some examples of how she works in a way that incorporates her access needs like doing your meetings lying down, or having meetings at particular times of the day. I myself have most of my meetings locally, minutes’ walk from where I live, which means I don’t have to worry about taxis or taking public transport to meet people. There is strength to be found in knowing and expressing your access needs, as they are just as (if not slightly more) important than your creative needs. I know first-hand it’s frustrating and can at times be intimidating but having my access needs met means I can focus on the task at hand – creating work.

However, this is something I still struggle with especially when meeting new potential collaborators, theatre companies, production companies: at what point do I disclose my access needs in a way that’s comfortable for me. My access needs are not all wrapped up in my wheelchair. I don’t solely need wheelchair access, at times I need more time for delivering work because I am managing my fatigue, my mental health and my care package. I often think having a disability is like having a full-time (unpaid) job. I have so much to manage which takes time and energy away from the hours I want to give my art form/discipline. And this isn’t always understood by the wider society because we still live in a world that doesn’t value disabled people let alone the work that we make. I wish we lived in a world where I needn’t explain, so in the meantime I have to inform people of the barriers I face and if they are in a position to remove them – then they must; so I will continue to highlight them because I want to continue creating.

This portion of the session ended with conversations around empowerment as a disabled artist, funding, sharing knowledge already in the room, creating a learning environment and a safe space to talk about barriers faced (like that saying a problem shared is a problem halved). There is real strength to be found in talking about the barriers you’ve faced as a disabled artist and realising how many artists may have also experienced those same barriers and that by collectively acknowledging those barriers, by bringing them into the light is the first step in dismantling them.

Part 2: Mastering the dark arts of funding

We then had a session led by Ruth Kapadia from Arts Council England around funding applications, the changes (which could be a whole other series of blogs) and handy tips on how to apply for funding through their online application portal called “Grantium” (it is as ominous as it sounds). To apply for funding you have to set up an online profile on Grantium, which takes about 5 days to be verified and activated (so set up a profile now, so that you’re not waiting for your profile to be verified when you’re ready to put in an application).

Arts Council England’s two main funding schemes are: Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants and Developing Your Creative Practice. (p.s. they don’t fund educational courses/qualifications) If you are using art in your project then you may be eligible to apply.

The first scheme is Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants

You can apply for grants starting from £1,000 up to £100,000. It’s a rolling program so you can apply throughout the year. The grant is split into two strands:

  1. £1,000 – £15,000 grant, which has a six week turnaround to hear a decision
  2. £15,000 – £100,000 grant, which has a twelve week turnaround to hear a decision (though they ask for more in depth questions/evidence/marketing plans)

She stressed the importance of being clear about the specified time scale and being able to articulate your outcome e.g. we want £x for x amount of time. And being realistic about the length of time it’ll take you to undertake your project.

The questions in the application aren’t there to trick you but for applicants to prove they are who they say they are, and can do what they say they can do (say that five times quickly!).

The four main questions in the application are:

  1. What do you want to do?
  2. Who with?
  3. Why?
  4. What relevant experience/skills/achievements do you have to complete the project?

Tips she shared were:

  • Have confidence in what you want to do.
  • The work must have potential to be seen by an audience. So think about who you think could be interested in this work?
  • They don’t award grants based on how many people it will reach. So think about the quality of the experience and not the numbers, and how you will achieve this.
  • Budget realistically. How much will it cost? (Don’t forget to budget time into the project). The grants are about rewarding and remunerating artists. Value your time and that of your collaborators and put that in your application.
  • Access costs should be included in the budget not as a separate access budget e.g. specialist equipment, cost of a support worker, cost of BSL interpreters, cost of accessible transport etc.
  • You have to find 10% of your budget from other sources. This can come in the form of support in kind/support from trusts/other grants/money you’ve earned/fundraised etc.

This grant can be used to fund a whole host of things (check the Arts Council England website to see projects they have funded in the past). Also on their site is a 78 page (gulps!) guide to applying and handily a document of just the questions and the word count for each answer, so you have a chance to nail your answers before you upload them into your application. Your answers can be saved on the Grantium portal but even technology has its off days, so it’s a good idea to have a back-up of your application in a word document (and if you’re paranoid like me a back-up of that back-up). So go use the loo, grab yourself a cuppa and some biscuits and take some time to go through their site, especially if you have never applied to the Arts Council before.

What was also really great was hearing that failure of a project is not a bad thing. Not achieving the goals you set out to achieve is not a bad thing, as long as you can share what you learnt in your evaluation of the project. As a playwright, the research & development stage is vital in the development of my work. To have dedicated time and space to experiment, to fail and grow as an artist is just as important as the work that is produced.

The second scheme is: Developing Your Creative Practice

  1. A new fund for artistic development
  2. Three rounds a year to apply
  3. You can apply for a grant between £2,000 – £10,000
  4. For individual artists and/or creative practitioners.

In this particular application there is no requirement to talk about audience engagement or participation and you don’t have to source 10% of your budget. However it is not a rolling program like the Project Grants – this fund opens 3 times a year and there is a limit to how many times you can apply for this fund.

Top tips:

  • Why should Arts Council England invest in you now? Think about what do you need to take your work/practice to the next level?
  • Tell them your idea really clearly. What is it? How will you do this? You want them to understand you and your work.
  • Write your application in your own voice. It may help to read your application out loud to yourself.
  • Try and express yourself confidently and clearly on the page. Show your motivation and enthusiasm in your application for your practice.
  • Budget realistically – how much time and space do you need to develop your creative practice?
  • Access costs should be included in the budget not as a separate access budget e.g. specialist equipment, cost of a support worker, cost of BSL interpreters, cost of accessible transport etc.
  • Evidence your claims – with whom and where have you worked before?
  • What’s your plan b?
  • Give yourself time to apply more than once, in case your application is rejected in your first submission.
  • Think about the word count – are you answering the question as succinctly as you can? You can put in too little, as well as too much.

Arts Council England can also provide pre-application support to help applicants with access needs and support them to use their systems and guidance to make an application. If you’re not sure about a question or if you’re eligible for pre-application support – you can contact them here.

Writing applications and proposals

We then had a session led by Laura Drane (Theatre Bristol) on writing applications and proposals. Her top tips were:

  • Research: it’s worth finding out where other artists get their funding from, so ask around. Look at the programs of shows you see or exhibitions you attend. Check out the thanks section/page or sponsors of the event.
  • Funder’s perspective: it might help your application to think about your project from their perspective. What can you find out about the funders/organisation? Does your project help them achieve their goals?
  • There are plenty of trusts and foundations out there for example for playwrights/theatre makers e.g. Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Peggy Ramsay Foundation. But there are also plenty more out there (so keep on sleuthing!)
  • Your project: planning and knowing your project inside out is key. And don’t be surprised when filling in a funding application if it raises questions you may not have thought of about your project.
  • Getting someone else to read your application. Ask them what they understood about your project?
  • Mirroring the language in the question, in your answer can sometimes help you better understand the question. If you are ever unsure of something in the application, ask. Get in touch with them for further clarification.
  • Writing applications can feel like walking a tightrope (blindfolded and backwards), but there are things you can do to make it a little less daunting, for example using bullet points. Try to find a balance between the story of project and the stats, avoid “arts speak” (as it can read very abstract) be clear-cut in your language.
  • Credentials don’t a funded project maketh, people are interested in what you have done, but funders are funding what you are going to do! Show them where you are now and where this will project take you!
  • Don’t forget to include a contingency into your budget (it might come back to bite you in the butt), preferably 5 – 10% of your total budget. Stuff happens which you can’t always control, especially if you have unconfirmed funding in your budget.

An exercise Laura suggested was to create two different versions of your budget.

  1. The first budget is what the project would look like on £x amount: the very least you could run the budget on

AND

  1. The second budget is this is what the project look like on £x amount: in an ideal world – where there was no limit on how much you could apply for

Your mission (should you choose to accept it) is to find the middle ground.

 

Part 3: What I wish I knew when I was starting out….

The day concluded with an informal panel discussion with artists, Aidan Moesby, Jane Gauntlett and producer, Alice Holland. What was great to hear was the variety of their journeys and how it’s never too late to start (or restart) your career.

These are some of talking points we discussed, that I felt was useful to know at any stage of your career:

 

  • The importance of mentors – finding/having good mentors at different stages of your career. I can personally attest to the impact mentors have had on my life, work and identity as an artist. It’s incredibly humbling to have the ear of a mentor or even someone you consider successful and they share with you the intricacies of their process, the hang-ups they have about their career but mostly importantly the rejection they too still face. Approach mentors with something specific when asking them to mentor you. What is it about them you think can be useful to you? Tell them. I want you to mentor me for x reasons because you make x and I’m at a stage in my career where x. I’d be happy to meet on a fortnightly/monthly/quarterly basis for a two hour phone call/skype/ face to face/email correspondence etc.
  • Finding value in your work and in yourself as an artist. This also rang very close to home. As a disabled artist or however you self-identify, this can be tricky, when we live in a world (or in our case under a government) that doesn’t see value in your existence, it can be difficult to see value in the work you produce. But it was encouraging to hear and see all these successful artists kicking down barriers with their work, smashing the public perception and expectation of their work and unapologetically stating disabled people have cultural, professional, financial and social value. Your disability/impairment doesn’t lessen the quality or value of your work.
  • Create a framework that enables you to produce work. So I guess this leads nicely onto a weighty point. ACCESS. Your access needs go hand in hand with your creative needs. For example in my case needing a personal assistant, rest breaks and taxis when travelling around London is just a few of my access requirements that, once met, enable me to work and develop my craft. Knowing and understanding your access requirements will be part of your journey as an artist. Factor in rest days into your creative process if that helps you deliver work on time. Your access requirements may change throughout your career or even day to day and that’s ok.
    What can be difficult is voicing your access needs. And sometimes that can feel like putting your head above the parapet (which is frightening) especially when you feel like a lone voice within an institution or amongst collaborators… but it’s important to remember that you’re not. Sometimes in certain circumstances you may be the first but you certainly won’t be the last to voice your needs. And some of that fear (that I too experience) is that most work environments in the arts and wider afield have been historically not accessible, but by voicing your access needs you set a precedent – a much needed one in society.
  • Treat the work you create as professional and of value Create space for yourself to work, find a favourite place to work from, personalise your workspace, put up inspirational quotes, create a vision board, goals you’d like to achieve, create playlists or treat yourself to some stylish stationery (that last points for me).
  • Think about how you can utilise social media to work for you It can be a useful (and distracting) resource when researching, looking for opportunities, connecting with potential collaborators, showcasing your work and engaging with a potential audience.
  • Documentation is king, so make sure to evidence that you can do it and do it well Think about how you want to represent yourself and your work online. A website, an online portfolio, an online CV, LinkedIn profile etc. Try to keep your personal and professional social media accounts separate. Social media can be a useful way of documenting your work as well as showcasing it.
  • Create. It’s not a race. It takes time to build a track record or a portfolio. Don’t compare your journey with anyone else’s. We’re all on our own individual paths. You’ll get to where you need to eventually, so long as you create and keep creating (take days off when you need to and look after yourself – manage those stressful days).

 

When applying for opportunities/funding:

  • Think about who you are applying to. They don’t know you. So you have to tell them as clearly and succinctly what you do, what qualifications or experiences you have e.g. I have a record of doing x. I’ve done a project of doing x. I have experience getting people to do x.
  • Research examples of applications or proposals you could read. It’s much easier to find cash for the project than a project for cash. A good place to start is looking at past winners or those shortlisted for awards or grants. You could ask funders to read examples of applications that have been successful.
  • Find good collaborators to work with and develop those relationships (it’s not Tinder!). There is strength and community in those relationships. Sharing what you know is another way of feeding your soul.
  • It’s ok to support the work you do through means other than just your art form/discipline. Many, many artists make their living through a part/full –time job whilst also creating (playwrights or any artists working in theatre know this all too well). It’s unfortunate and is part of a wider discussion around gatekeepers, who gets to make work and who can afford to (how the arts are undervalued by our current… ahem government) but as artists creating is part of our DNA and until we’re able to make a sustainable living from our art form/discipline alone, you’ll have to get creative in the interim.
  • It’s ok to say no. To a project, a collaborator, level of pay etc. (trust your gut). You and anyone you collaborate with should be paid. It’s ok to volunteer your time or do work for free, only if you can afford to. As you progress, the amount of plates you’re spinning gets harder and harder – so it’s ok to say no and it’s ok to walk away.
  • Join your art form/discipline union. We’re stronger together.
  • We don’t have to be poster children for disabled arts or an entire community. That’s a lot of pressure. We are in charge of our destiny. The only thing you represent is who you are and your work.

Gems of wisdom:

Freewheeling thoughts and gems I noted from everyone in the room (some of these will be going around my own workspace).

  • Sometimes to get projects funded, you have to look beyond the usual routes eg. commercial work, business donations, sponsorship, product placement etc.
  • Producers are like language brokers between artists and those with the resources to support them. Producers are not just money people, the work they do is creative and are artists in their own right. There are so many different types of producers, so find the type you would like to collaborate with.
  • Be persistent. A no/rejection/set back isn’t always a bad thing. You never know who has seen your application and by applying you are attempting to build a relationship – striking a match almost, so when it’s on the right surface it will ignite. It just needs to be the right match.
  • Don’t assume it’s the same person rejecting you every time (they don’t always know who you are). You have certain things you have to offer and not every place will be interested in that. That’s ok, there are many others who will be interested in it. (also big organisations/institutions have a high turnover of people), so it is always worth reapplying if you get the chance to.
  • Don’t be too grateful. Don’t be too humble. Don’t be too polite. (Take from that what you will)
  • Be able to quantify what you are offering. How much time will x take you? What resources will you need? How much do those materials cost? Think about how much your time costs you? (Break down the maths)
  • If there is an event/conference/industry talk you want to attend but aren’t sure about access – write to the organisers. Find out if they are offering bursaries to disabled people. If not, why not?
  • Being an artist is a life sentence. Don’t give yourself unrealistic goals. Think long term.
  • Rejection: ask for feedback even when they say we don’t give feedback. Some may have the time to give feedback whilst others may not.
  • If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
  • Think of yourself as a company – who is on your board? Who do I want to be able to go to when shit hits the fan? Who do you want in your network?
  • Your priorities and art will change and shift over time (and that’s ok).

Now go create!

Huge thanks to everyone who put the day together, facilitators and panelists for a truly motivational day:

Miriam Battye (Theatre Bristol), Becky Dann (Unlimited), Laura Drane (CEO Theatre Bristol), Jane Gauntlet (Artist), Alice Holland (Artist and Producer), Ruth Kapadia (from Arts Council England), Sarah Kingswelll (Theatre Bristol), Raquel Meseguer (Artist), Aidan Moesby (Artist), Fiona Slater (Unlimited), and fellow attendees: Beth, Eve, Jennifer, Justin, Maddie and Naomi.

Find out more about Unlimited‘s work and opportunities here.

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