This is a project supported by The City of Melbourne Covid Quick Response Grant. I have interviewed disabled and Deaf artists about how their creative practice has been impacted by Covid-19.
Jacci Pillar is a comedian and satirist. Their pronouns are They/Them. Jacci’s words are below.
“I have been doing variety show style comedy and some stand up for four years now and started my comedy production business in 2017. It is an extension of my work in my representational anthropology career for over 15 years, the difference being I am putting myself on stage as the voice box through the medium of comedy. I do characters, skits, musical comedy with a dash of spoken word, monologues and stand up. My aim is to do more variety showcases on stage highlight diverse and marginalised voices and to launch a series of comedy documentaries made for TV or streaming on taboo social topics. The aim of these will be to shed light on community voices in a way that I take the heat for saying difficult things that need to be said. To be able to say things that others want to say but have safety concerns about saying, is a great use of my privilege as an artist. These productions aim to make pointed social commentary about the systems of injustice, punching upwards, so that my productions talk to the issues, the legislators and power brokers of privilege.
One of the barriers I face is sensory accessibility. As an autistic person I have sensory challenges that most venues and producers simply do not cater for. You know that old “lights, camera, action!” expression. For me it should be changed to “the right kind of lights, camera position and stimming action space!”. Part of this is genuinely that autistic performers are an exceedingly small percentage and people don’t know or understand our accessibility needs. Part of that is lack of knowledge, and part of it, sadly, is lack of will or discrimination. You get used to “sorry, we don’t have dimmable lights and we can’t accommodate your headset mic” as though these are ‘extra demands’ and not accessibility needs. I’ve been told I pace on stage too much and my rolling of fingers and flappy actions (autistic stims) need to be ‘toned down’. I channel my stims as part of my performance, they are ways I communicate through my body, not extra communication. As for needing a quiet space or even a quieter space before and after a venue, this is often near impossible. Venue accessibility is still very much about patrons and not performers, and I often experience a level of unconscious bias about this. I have found able bodied comedians often expect a lot of open mic stage time from me, as this is considered a comedy rite of passage. They do not acknowledge the accessibility issues and there is a “suck it up” mentality or a perception that you shouldn’t be doing comedy unless you slog through this able-bodied rite of passage. I have heard stories about disabled comedians (including those with mental health or chronic illnesses) being told they are unreliable or not supporting the local comedy scene when accessibility prevents them actively participating in the comedy scene. A byproduct of this, for me, is that I am limited to daytime events and sensory friendly venues (Hares and Hyenas is wonderful). I tend to align with comedians and venues who are consciously supportive of accessibility conversations without getting defensive. It is enormous emotional labor trying to explain these things, and I have been designing a sensory accessibility checklist for venues (and I use Melbourne Fringes guide for producers as well for education purposes).
I was injured in my day job in October 2019 and was unwell to begin with. COVID extended isolation for me and it’s been a real struggle, but I’ve ended up being quite productive. But what it has allowed is me to formulate and write grant applications and scripts. I have designed a community arts project called “The Deadline” which I am really excited about and which had great external support from national peak bodies and prominent diversity activist-artists. It will be a darkly humorous comparison of two family stories of stigma and taboo, one from 1888 and one from 2018 about the taboos of talking about mental health and addiction inside families. I am collecting stories from my own family and other people’s families that will be delivered anonymously, woven into the story lines.
The limited amount of grants available compared to the numbers of artists (both before and during COVID) with quality projects has meant I have not been successful in grants programs. The reality is, because I have an auto immune disease, that for the next two years my live performance ability will be very much limited. So, I have had to redesign “The Deadline” to be a hybrid blog, podcast and short film series and remove the community theatre aspect.
I’ve also taken the time to learn piano and have just written my first complete comedy song composition after ten lessons and lots of hours of practice. This feels great after relying on others with musical composition, I am super proud of the first song “The Presidents Lament”, mocking the Trump administration. I am also starting a research post grad degree in 2021 focusing on political satire and hoping to launch a new political satire character, Bronwin Budget-Slap by the end of this year. I managed to put my planned Melbourne International Comedy Festival into a pre-recorded format for Melbourne Fringe and it had a run of eight digital shows. In the middle of it all, I started my community TV show, “Talk-ist” which is produced by BentTV and airs on Channel 31.
Yes! The digitalisation of art, due to COVID-19, made things more accessible for you as an artist and audience member. But then I have lived in remote Australia for a great deal of my life before moving to Melbourne, so this is not unfamiliar for me. When you live somewhere with limited options you tend to be a consumer of online streaming anyway. I loved Schizy Inc. Mojo Film Festival online, this was fantastic. It was great to see a range of small films about mental health as an online audience member. In fact, I haven’t been able to physically go in previous years, so the online option was welcomed. I am looking forward to launching my website for “The Deadline” on the 1st February 2021. Digital Melbourne Fringe was awesome! All of it.
I think our mental health is a primary concern and we are starting to talk about this. Not only do we normally get asked for work for nothing (the game of “exposure”), now there is a proliferation of online opportunities, also unpaid.
The plight of the arts has been largely overlooked by government, however, I think the arts industry has banded together in solidarity, so that is a positive. I also think our networking has improved in the process. We are reaching out to each other more and talking more about the challenges, and collaborations are being strengthened. It has also meant people have had time (even if begrudgingly) to consolidate their efforts and invested in equipment and innovation like they have not before.
My top 3 tips to artists and arts organisations for making art digitally accessible?
Closed captions. We need to do our utmost to ensure we can CC. I am seeing a lot more CC on products. I know there are number of challenges in this regard, particularly for live CC, but I think we need to lobby together to make CC regular and frequent practice and hold software manufacturers accountable.
Livestreaming. Investing in livestreaming is not only good for the COVID world, but also good for communities who need to be able to control light and sound or who live in remote localities. Let us open up our art to the world!
Ask. Ask what people need and think about the physical (ramps, physical space, CC, number of faces on a screen, transcript availability), the sensory (light, sound, speed of information) and the emotional (content warnings, ability to take a break like in relaxed performances).
In a post Covid-19 worldly I hope to see more art because we will have, across the world, realised the value of small arts productions. I sincerely hope we do not have a world getting tired of TV reruns that we get on top of COVID soon. However, I hope it leads to more diverse availability of art and a reinvestment as a culture into developing and emerging artists rather than depend on large scale productions. A sort of redistribution of artist wealth (symbolically and physically) as a result. I also hope the government will take mental health more seriously and commit more funds to it as a result.”
Autistic person. Disabled. Nonbinary neurodivergent truth bomber. My community TV show, “Talk-ist” has facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TalkistTV. Like my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/jaccipillar) and follow me on Twitter (@Scribeandcomic) for news on my new project “The Deadline” hybrid arts project commencing February 2021. If you have an Irish-Australian background and want to talk to me, about family taboos and stigma about mental health and addiction, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. As an anthropologist with a specialty in ethical representation, all information will be treated confidentially and will not be reproduced (anonymously if needed) without your express permission and written consent. The Deadline will be available from the 1st February at http://the-deadline.org/
This project has been curated by Carly Findlay and supported by the City of Melbourne Covid grant.