Disability, deafness and religion with Claire Cunningham.

Guide Gods by Claire Cunningham. Photographer Brian Hartley.

Claire Cunningham is one of the UK’s most acclaimed and internationally renowned disabled artists based in Glasgow, Scotland. She has worked with Candoco Dance Company and her work is often rooted in the study and use/misuse of her crutches and the exploration and rejection of traditional dance techniques (developed for non-disabled bodies).

Her latest show Guide Gods comes to Salford in March2017. Here she tells us more about deafness, disability and religion.


Why is it important to have performances highlighting the issues of deafness and disability?

I’d say because  D/deaf and disabled people are part of society, everywhere, and because I think it is vital that art reflects society – we have to see people we relate to – and if the stages, films, tv shows, books, etc are missing the experience of disabled people (or only show them in a very negative biased way and from the perspective of a non-disabled person) then we are really only seeing the world through a very limited lens, that of quite a normative body and identity, and this perpetuates the shame and stigma many people view disability with.


I feel it’s vital that work exists that explores the world through a D/deaf and disabled perspective that also gives non-disabled people an awareness of what might be happening for disabled people but also shows what can be gained from these experiences.

D/deafness and disability also bring incredibly positive aspects to people’s lives that is still relatively unrecognised or valued. In the case of Guide Gods for example the issues of D/deafness and disability present very rich and interesting theological questions to many people regarding their life and faith and so it’s a very fascinating area to talk about.



Tell us more about how faiths around the world view deafness and disability and how this info is incorporated into the show.

The show is based solely on interviews I have had with a number of individuals, and as such the show doesn’t take the approach that any faiths clearly have one particular view. It can never be as simple as that. In the same respect that disability is a very different thing to different people, so too is faith – it is so fundamentally related to the individual. So what I have tried to do is talk to different people from various faiths to get their perspective, which for me is more interesting and more personal, so we hear the voices of the people I spoke to throughout the show telling us their experiences.


There is no sense of pitting one faith against another to see which is “better”, that doesn’t interest me nor would I want to do that. I want people of faith (and those who don’t follow any faith) to come to the show, to be encouraged to think about things they perhaps had not considered before, and not feel attacked.  So the show tries to be honest, and a little humorous, that everything is subjective to these peoples experiences, to my experience, and to the personal experience and history that every audience member brings with them into the room that night.


What does it mean to be presenting as part of sick festival at the Lowry?

I’m really looking forward to bringing the show.  This opportunity gave me a chance to expand the work which I have really appreciated.  When I made the show originally in 2014 I wasn’t able to interview anyone who identified as Jewish and disabled, and in coming to Manchester we have been able to come and meet with some members of the Jewish community, and to do some interviews and add these perspectives into the show.  I am really very grateful for this possibility.  I was frustrated with myself at being unable to include Judaism in the original work so I’m glad to have this chance to expand my research and the piece. It also means that I got to have a really wonderful time with the Jewish community and to have some incredibly rich and fascinating conversations.  So the show when it comes now will have some new material which is exciting (and a little nerve wracking!)


What has been the audience reaction to GG so far? What can new audiences expect to see onstage?

I have been incredibly humbled by how much people seem to take from the show, or from the evening I should say really.  We always invite everyone to stay after the show for a cup of tea and to chat with each other and with me, and I have been pleasantly surprised by the fact that, on the whole, most people stay, which seems a positive reaction to me. I figure if people had a bad time they’d be trying to leave as fast as possible!


People can expect a safe space.  I wanted with this work to try to, in a way, create a community for a night, as I felt that was the core thing many people gravitated to faith for, and is part of what I get from being an artist. So in this show we created a space where everyone is equal, everyone sits in a circle – so there is also nowhere for me to hide! – where every perspective is different, but no one is made to sit in a specific place because they are disabled for example. This is at the core of the work. There is myself and the musician and composer in the show Derek Nisbet “onstage” (though there is no real stage) and also Louisa who is captioning the whole show for audience members who are hard of hearing.  There are screens to read the captions, there is a voice which provides audio description throughout for visually impaired people and also we have a sign-language interpreter present in at least one show in every location.


To be honest I think Guide Gods is more a show about listening than watching, but I mean listening more in the form of paying attention to what someone is telling you and how, rather than the sensorial meaning. There are things to watch – I’m definitely doing things! – but the visual aspect of what I do is really not the focus, that really is the voices of all the people I talked to.


The main feedback I get is that people say they go away with a lot to think about, and that they have been given things to think about that they had never considered before – this from people of faith, faith leaders, people who don’t follow faith, D/deaf and disabled and non-disabled people….so it brings together a lot of different people which for me seems vital.  I don’t have any answers in the show, and I don’t claim to, but I simply wanted to make people think about something that I felt wasn’t really being talked about, and it feels like the show does that which is quite satisfying.


Can you describe GG in 5 words, what would they be?

Safe, honest, curious, fragile, relaxed.


For more information or tickets visit the website here.