Interview: Simon Startin Discusses Vital XPosure And Inclusive Theatre Practice

The newly appointed artistic director shares his ambitions for the disabled-led theatre company

By: Dec. 14, 2020
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Interview: Simon Startin Discusses Vital XPosure And Inclusive Theatre Practice
Simon Startin

Simon Startin is a disabled actor, director, playwright and activist. He was most recently seen on stage in The Visit at The National Theatre.

Startin was recently announced as the new artistic director of the disabled-led theatre company, Vital Xposure, taking over from Julie McNamara. We spoke to him about taking on the role.

Who inspired you most growing up?

For a disabled person, the issue of role models in our culture is problematic, since up until now, culture has been bent on the erasure of disabled people. As it became clear to me as a teenager that I wanted to be an actor, there was no one like me whom I might draw inspiration from.

I admired various actors, but they certainly did not show any kind of path for me. The turning point came in 1990 when I saw Nabil Shaban in Deptford Graffiti on Channel 4. Nabil's performance embodied the energy of rebellion that made all things possible. I applied to drama school the following year.

Congratulations on being the new Artistic Director of Vital Xposure! What drew you to the role?

I was drawn by the following: a chance to deeply interrogate what political theatre, made by disabled people, in the 21st century, might achieve; to build on the progress made by disabled artists in communicating the disabled experience but to bring that experience to bear on the wider issues society faces; and to explore perhaps more searching questions than our able-bodied friends are prepared to ask.

Vital Xposure is a disabled-led company. Can you please outline what that means to you and why it is important?

Vital Xposure is led by people who have experience of being disabled by society, because of their so-called non-normative bodies and minds. A non-normative that makes up over 20% of our working-age population.

And why is it important for us to be disabled-led? Because we know what we are talking about and do not need hand-holding. There is a wealth of disabled talent out there that should not be smothered by an ableist theatre-making culture.

As we journey out of COVID, there has never been a more important time for society to hear the voice of disabled artists, who have been living at the sharp end of human fragility and resilience long before the rest of the world woke up to it.

What are your plans for Vital Xposure?

Well, firstly, in partnership with Dervish Productions, we are going get the show we have been busy working on during the lockdowns, White Pariahs: Quiet Rebel out into theatres where it needs be.

The show tells the stories of the white working-class women who married the men of the Windrush generation. They protected and nurtured proud mixed heritage families in a country driven by prejudice.

Beyond that, I'm going to keep my tinder dry on announcing exactly what we will be doing, but I can tell you that it will be addressing the urgent need for this country to take a moral inventory post-Brexit.

For disabled people, the double whammy of the austerity project and now COVID with its language of "vulnerability", "underlying conditions" and "Do Not Resuscitate" notices have starkly highlighted, yet again, the readiness of the powerful to sacrifice disabled lives to the gods they call "prosperity".

How can people continue to challenge the barriers in the industry?

By calling on all "enabled" funders, producers and gatekeepers to rethink what they know about disabled artists and to spend significant time and resources in making long-lasting partnerships with them.

People should question the aesthetics and development cycles by which they make work; to profoundly examine their assumptions.

It is not disabled peoples' job to tear down the walls that others have built.

Why do you think we see this disparity in access and inclusivity except when companies like Vital Xposure take the lead?

Good question. I could be charitable and say it just does not occur to people and that they are so busy and caught up in what they usually do that the idea they should innovate is beyond their imagination.

However, on a deeper level, society has invested an awful lot of energy in brushing our human fragility under the carpet and dealing with their fear of it by keeping disabled people out of sight. By the time people reach a position to make a change, their lack of perception of the obvious is far too ingrained.

Any advice for aspiring Artistic Directors?

When you walk into any space, ask yourself, "Who should be here and isn't?", then try to find ways to open the door to them. Enable people. And if you want to make change, be a constantly dripping tap.

How can artists get involved in the work of Vital Xposure?

It is our ambition to really open up the possibilities of participation for disabled people in creating work, so please keep an eye on our social media channels. We will be calling on you soon.

In the meantime, think politically, think deeply, research until you drop. When the idea comes, that is so urgent that you are obsessed with it, drop me an email. If we can't make it happen for you, we will try to find someone who can.

Any other projects you'd like to tell us about at the moment?

As well as White Pariahs, over the coming months, I will be working with disabled sociologist Dr Alison Wilde, and several National Portfolio companies on "The Black Box Project".

The project involves researching current casting practice in mainstream theatres from a perspective of the social model of disability. We hope to shine a light on what is excluding disabled performers from mainstream work.

How can audiences best support the work of Vital Xposure?

Gives us your time and if you have it, give us your money. Come on this exciting journey with us.

Follow, subscribe, retweet and share your way to a more just and profound way of making theatre. And post-COVID, if your local theatre stage does not have disabled people on it, tell them to get in touch with Vital Xposure.

Find out more about the work on Vital Xposure on their website