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Interview: Ruth Gould

A picture of Ruth Gould, the artistic director of DaDa fest. She has long hair and is wearing silver earrings.

Ruth Gould is the Artistic Director of DaDaFest. She is trained in performance arts, speech and drama from Liverpool Theatre School. She is on the Board of Contact Theatre, a Governor of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, and an advisory member for Granada Foundation and Liverpool City Council Tourism and Culture Select Committee. Ruth is passionate about Disability and Deaf arts.

TARSHI: Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey? What inspired you to choose Disability and Deaf arts as your work area?

Ruth Gould: I came to Disability/Deaf Arts by accident. I had not really achieved in school as every career path I was wishing to pursue was prohibited to me due to me being deaf (with a small ‘d’).I have been wearing hearing aids since the age of six, undertaken lots of operations and had many negative attitudes expressed towards me throughout my life.After school I was kind of drifting not knowing what I could do or who I should be. After doing very boring admin and catering type jobs I got married and had my first child at the age of 22. At this stage I was a little overweight and went to a local dance school to participate in an exercise class, thus discovering my first passion – the performing arts. I began to develop short physical theatre performances and felt I had found my vocation.I auditioned for a local theatre school and got accepted on a three-year full time performing arts course.

I loved learning about the arts, performance, production and also having the support of a drama teacher who helped my speech develop. After various opportunities which included a time in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and eventually back to my home city of Liverpool, I ended up working in my mid 30’s in an arts-based grant giving initiative.When checking the equal opportunities monitoring, I realized that no disabled artists or people were coming forward for this great opportunity. This led me to discovering North West Disability Arts Forum [NWDAF], based in Liverpool since 1984 to support disabled artists into the creative industries sector.

At the time I was increasingly struggling with my deafness and identity as a disabled person and undertook a disability equality training event.It was the first time I came across the social model of disability and I understood that it was not my deafness which was the problem, but the many barriers that I had faced from the earliest of ages due to being deaf.It wasn’t my fault! The barriers can be addressed and mostly erased; the deafness is part of who I am, intrinsic to how I live my life.It had a liberating, life-changing impact being the first time I had ever come across a positive way to live and be confidently known as a disabled person. Thus my second passion was ignited and I was eager to work in this area from then on.

T: You established DaDa Fest in 2001. How did the idea of DaDa fest come into being? How has the festival evolved over time?

RG: Meeting NWDAF was a game changer for me.I got involved and then took over as CEO in 2001.We were involved with delivering a lot of training and professional qualifications in the arts, yet the arts sector gate-keepers were reluctant to view these talented artists as such. I was approached by Liverpool City Council to help towards their bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2008 on 3rd December – the day we celebrate internationally our lives as disabled people. I didn’t wish to do a tokenistic one-day happening, but use the money to pull together the artists into mainstream arts venues and produce our own programme of events.I gathered a working group to explore what could be achieved, who we should work with and a way forward. We agreed on a concept and name ‘DaDaFest – Disability & Deaf Arts’, and aims to achieve three key things:

  • Give the artists a profile in the mainstream
  • Create a culture change in the venues, by promoting the social model of disability, thereby challenging their specific barriers to disabled/deaf people’s participation
  • Allow us to engage with mainstream media to challenge the negative stereotypes of disability, i.e. produce our own press releases and media messages of empowerment and positivity about our lives.

Our festival has become so successful that we changed the organisation’s name from NWDAF to DaDaFest in 2008.It has become more international over time and it is now delivered as a biennial, the next one is in November and December 2014. It takes place over this time to include 3rd December as international disability day.

T: Can you shed some light on the Young DaDa initiative?

RG: Young DaDaFest started out in 2003.The young people wanted to have a part in the main festival – but we were convinced that it had to be led and shaped by them.This work has now become incredibly successful and we have a working group of 22 young people who have identified a leadership and an artistic pathway.The aims are to help young people to use the arts to empower themselves,and to support those who want to seek training and careers in the arts sector.

T: Please tell us about the importance of DaDaFest in strengthening disabled people especially disabled women and girls, their self-esteem/self-image, which is often very low. What is the role of DDF Youth in this and in supporting young DP to develop confidence, to be able to engage with others, to join in conversations, develop friendships?

RG: We deliver work within a social justice remit.We don’t just do the arts for art’s sake, but art with important messages in changing how disabled /deaf people are viewed by society, and also by providing positive messages to disabled/deaf people themselves by ourselves. ‘Nothing About us Without Us’ has been a mantra for 40 years in the UK – we have to keep reminding people that we are valued and contributing members of society.

Even though we have had legislative changes in UK and have been working within human rights frameworks since the mid-1990’s, things have not improved to the extent to which we would like. Our self-image needs affirming through positive representation – this is still so rare.Issues need addressing about things like sexuality and life-style choices.

We can’t do everything to challenge the prevailing negativities about disabled people and our lives, but we do keep on going, aiming to make a difference and challenge mind-sets from within and from outside the ‘crip culture’ scene.The festival time creates all sorts of opportunities for people to meet and talk about such issues as only a gathering like this can.

We have undertaken only a few gender-only projects over the years and these have been mainly with learning disabled women to explore issues such as identity as women.We find it is important for people to give themselves permission to explore issues and seek to empower them to do so.We have moved to a more equal society in UK when it comes to women and girls’ rights and involvement in life choices.

T: DaDaFest organized ‘Beauty & The Beast’, an adult fairy tale – tell us what it is about and what inspired you to feature it in the festival.

RG:This was the UK debut of Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz’s production of Beauty and the Beast.It fitted so well into our 2008 festival, hence it’s showing there.This was held in a huge old warehouse, the performance using five different areas within the space.It worked brilliantly and was programmed due to the ongoing relationship we have with Mat Fraser [he is one of our Patrons]. He was a key player in the first DaDaLesque in 2007.

T: Could you shed some light on how issues around sexuality and disability have been highlighted in the DaDa fest, and, do you think sexuality has been adequately represented in the fest?

RG:Over the years the festival programme has tried to capture and reflect such areas that need change.In 2007 we developed DaDaLesque – a platform for disabled women and men to explore sexuality and its place in society.The burlesque performances were wonderfully received, alongside which we delivered our first seminar on sexuality and disability.This theme continued for the next four festivals, accumulating in 2010 DaDaFest International focus:‘Bodies of Curiosity & Desire’. During this festival edition we also delivered ‘Criptease’ – a training workshop programme and performance, life drawing workshops, through to conversations around the body perfect representation prevalent within gay culture which can negate many disabled people from feeling part of that scene.

T:Can you discuss with us, the challenges of working around issues of sexuality and disability, especially at a large platform like the DaDa fest?

RG:It takes time to change cultural holds, and sadly we face many of them. I mentioned the ‘gate-keepers’ earlier and that is where some of the issues lie.This is especially pertinent within impairment communities who are perceived to require more support; for example there are loads of taboos around people with learning disabilities,that they can’t understand sexuality, be parents etc. and we are aware of many non-disabled people in charge of such groups, who are averse to allowing politicized thinkers to access their communities.It is true that we can all have a role as a gate-keeper – I am so aware of this when I programme as to what I let in or take out. So it is important that we can challenge our own thinking and work with others to get opinions and views on what we are doing and why: by doing so we can bring to the fore key issues that fit the theme of each festival and move thinking on.

I feel we are doing this more and more; disabled people are breaking through the gate-keepers’ holds and accessing the programme directly.I was especially thrilled with the performance last Thursday as part of Young DaDaFest– the ending of one of the theatre presentations, was a kiss by two learning disabled young people.The young people in the audience were cheering so loudly – when do we ever get to see this? I am determined to get a picture and promote it everywhere I can!

T: Can you tell us a little bit about Deaf Arts and how you see it to be celebrated as cultural diversity?

RG:Deaf arts – with a capital ‘D’, signifies people who are culturally Deaf.They use Sign Language as their first point of communication. Sadly, the Deaf community receives little resources and support in the arts, so we acknowledge that the arts created by Deaf people are unique and based upon a visual language that requires celebration and space to be appreciated by mainstream audiences.

T: You have travelled through India.What have been your thoughts regarding disability arts in India? Do you have any future plans to work in this part of the world?

RG: I had a whistle stop tour of India – there for 7 days and visiting three cities.I managed to meet with 13 organisations, 12 of them working with disability or deaf issues.So I didn’t get to spend that much time to truly understand where things are at.The nearest I saw to disability arts within the concept I understand it to be, was with a couple of organisations:Samarthyam, New Delhi who use artistic activities, dance, drama and visual arts with their live public events; Swabhimaan, a deaf women’s programme to help educate deaf women as to protecting themselves in regards to inappropriate sexual behaviour , though using drama enactments;and,lastly,Blind with Camera in Mumbai.I did see lots of arts and crafts activities being used, some by way of vocational training. I met some wonderful people and their work, especially in Jaipur and New Delhi.Yet I didn’t meet disability arts, or artists who were leading in this work – they must be out there somewhere.I did meet some artists who see the need to develop this concept as a way forward which makes me feel very excited.

The next stage is to develop a workshop programme accumulating in a w/e of conversations for February 2015 in New Delhi.I am working as part of a group with key organisationswho wish to bring this to the fore, and also hope that the British Council will help to get behind it. To take disability arts forward, it must to be on India’s terms, led by people from within the country to truly embed culture change.We need to find disabled or Deaf artists and get some support from the Indian government too.

T: What do you see as the future of disability and art festivals? What are you working on these days – any new ideas/dream projects you would like to share with us?

RG: I think they should be springing up everywhere:not only to bring accessible events to the fore, but to challenge the disability representation within different cultures. They do need investment and resources, accessible spaces and training from all involved to ensure they are successful on every level.We also need trained and experienced disabled people working in the arts, and a festival can be a showcase and expose their talents.I always say that these festivals save lives – ‘cos that is what people have told me, they challenge thinking from both sides of disability, and they bring the arts offer to all; disabled people see themselves in positions of empowerment and non-disabled people start to view us differently.

The next DaDaFest International launches on 7th November 2014 in Liverpool.I am excited by this year’s theme, ‘Art of the Lived Experiment’.It is already triggering lots of responses and new arts work; we are also delighted that we are going back in history to celebrate the life of a Liverpool born blind man, Edward Rushton ( b. 1756 d.1814) who was one of the first people to highlight the injustice and inhumane treatment of Africans captured as part of the 18th Century slave trade.Disabled people themselves are examples as to how we challenge injustice and bring in changes, as we have the lived experience.

My dream is to bring disabled artists together with regular events that help to build on the sense of belonging as part of a global community.We have many issues to face and many challenges and barriers to address, but by learning from each other we can do this faster and help to bring some of the powerful policymakers to account to make us feel proud and accepted no matter where we live in the world.