V&A Dundee

Claire Cunningham: Design as Care

Written by: Claire Cunningham

The word care has always felt a bit tricky for me. As a self-identifying disabled person*, moving through the world with my crutches, the word care was one of those words I felt had a lot of difficult, problematic associations. It was a word often used in relation to disabled people (even on an industrial or commercial level) but I felt perhaps it was something that presumed a sort of passiveness, was a thing done to, or for disabled people rather than something that disabled people always had agency or control in. It also summoned up ideas of charitable or patronising relationships, so I wasn’t sure that it was a word I felt I wanted to embrace but I began to recognise in recent years that care had become an important part of my work.

Claire is A white woman, just under 5 feet tall.  She has blue eyes and dark brown hair with grey patches and she wears clear rimmed glasses.  Claire uses 2 grey elbow crutches wherever she goes.  Claire dances with her crutches and use them in lots of different ways.  In this image she is crouched down using them under her armpits.
Claire Cunningham

I am performance maker and choreographer, based in South West Scotland. I’ll give you a little self-description here – I’m a white woman, just under 5 feet tall. I have blue eyes and dark brown hair with grey patches and I wear clear rimmed glasses. I use 2 grey elbow crutches everywhere I go, which are my companions and which I also consider part of my queer, quadruped body. I dance with my crutches and use them in lots of different ways. In the image here I’m crouched down using them under my armpits.

I’ve been creating my own performances – first for theatres, and increasingly for other spaces – over the last 14 years. As a disabled artist it has been my desire to create work that invited, welcomed, and prioritised disabled, D/deaf, visually impaired, and neurodiverse audience members. And this has influenced the form, location, duration, capacity, process, and content of my work. I began to trace a concern for care from the very beginning of the idea for the show through all the decisions of the performance itself and everything that went around that work.

In 2018 I made a group performance piece, Thank You Very Much, which was my first time bringing together an ensemble of performers, specifically all disabled artists.

I was particularly interested in working with the idea of care throughout the project, both as an ethos for working, but also as the artistic enquiry itself, or even an aesthetic. Through research and conversations we had as a company and the methods we developed around working in a careful(l) way, we began to gather the work we were doing into the idea: “The choreography of care”.

The concept of the “choreography of care” is that it is about attending to care in all aspects of creating a work – from (pre) production/fundraising, to studio work, staging, touring, marketing, audience experience and access, and so on.

We began to think about it within the following frames:

  • Time as care
  • Communication as care
  • Design as care
  • Performance as care
  • The complexity of care

And that all these frames combined create “The choreography of care”.

I thought I might talk a little bit more here (as this is V&A Dundee!) about the frame of design as care.

In my mind the concept of design as care includes the designing of a whole project: how it is scheduled, who is brought together, and when and where things take place. But of course, within that there is also often a set designer.

For me, the right set designer is the person who cares about the people on the project first and foremost, more so than the literal design. Of course, I want to work with someone who cares about their own set design, but not more than people and how people are treated. If I sense they care about the people who will have to work with their design – be they technicians who have to build or move it, or performers who have to interact with it, or indeed the audience who have to engage or perceive it in different ways due to being disabled or visually impaired, for example – then the design will be right, and it will fit with the ethos of the show.

Bethany Wells, who was the set designer for Thank You Very Much, very much embodies that approach of caring about people first and letting that shape the design that emerges.

At the back is a stage with several flight cases on it and blue lights shining outwards. A wooden staircase with white handrails connects the stage to the floor in two directions, one towards the camera and one to the right.  The floor is a wooden with white tape marking various lines on the floor.  Towards the front, there is a smaller stage, white with grey lines crossing over.  In the middle of the stage is a microphone stand. Circular tables with white tablecloths and blue dining chairs surround the floor area.
Full stage set.

Within the show we talk about physiotherapy, and I was interested to have that present in the set in some way. An item that often features in physiotherapy departments is a little set of steps for practicing walking up and down stairs. These practice stairs were encountered by all the performers in their childhoods, and some of us have quite stressful and traumatic associations with the objects themselves and the time we encountered them.

In theatre there are often little sets of stairs backstage and onstage (they are called treads) and they have a very standard design. Painted black, no handrails, no edges on the sides of the steps, with a standard width and height of step. They are like this partly from a presumption that it will always be non-disabled people using them (a widespread design problem) and partly because things like handrails might interrupt audience sightlines. In our show we needed a way to access other levels in the performance area, and we were interested in how we might (in a political way) have stairs in the show but on our own terms as disabled people.

We went through a long and careful process with Bethany of sharing stories, of playing on and researching stairs, responding to her quiet, playful, and sensitive questions, her drawings, and thoughts about what our ideal, utopian, stairs might be like. Lists that spoke to what our bodies physically needed, and our minds worried about:

  • Treads/steps that accommodated a whole foot, not just part of a foot
  • Closed steps not open, so crutches can’t slide through
  • Handrails - always on the right side for one performer, always on the left for another
  • Step heights that fitted the two taller performers, another set that fitted the smaller performers
  • Edging on the side of the steps to stop crutches sliding off
  • Steps that could be taken apart by our technical crew and transported, but that were solid when built, with no shaking, for the performers
A small white stage with grey lines crossing the top.  A small white staircase with three steps leads up to the stage.  On the left hand side of the stairs is a white hand rail that curves down at each end.
A stage with several flight cases and a clothes rail on it with lights facing out.  A set of wooden stairs leads from the stage to the wooden floor. The stairs have white handrails at either side which curves down at each end. On the right hand side there is a glimpse of a handrail from a second set of stairs leading down from the same place as the first.  In the foreground are two dining chairs.
  • Set of stairs, with handrails.

  • Set of stairs, with handrails, leading to the stage.

What Bethany gave us were sets of bespoke stairs. Tailored to our bodies. They possibly don’t seem so remarkable to our audiences. Our stairs look simple, clean, and efficient; they are not black and hidden, they are light and fully visible, allowing us to share with our audience the choreography of us using stairs. They have these beautiful handrails, that look like something for climbing into a luxury pool, and these handrails interrupt the sightlines a little bit, which I love. Because sightlines are not the most important thing. These stairs make my performers and me feel safe, listened to, cared for. It brought a whole new meaning to the idea of taking care on the stairs.

Footnotes:

* this means that I choose to identify as a disabled person, due to my mobility impairment, as opposed to the idea that I am simply identified by other people/society as disabled. It is a partly a cultural identity for me, alongside the political identity of Crip.

The choreography of care concept has been developed over many years with contributions by Luke Pell, Prof Julia Watts Belser, Nadja Dias, Vicky Wilson, Jess Curtis, the cast and crew of Thank You Very Much and Bethany Wells.

If you’d like to hear more about the idea of the choreography of care you can listen to this podcast conversation between Claire and Luke Pell.