My Introduction To Inclusive Filmmaking: A Reflection

This post was originally written on 17 September, 2018. The day after the most amazing arts workshop I have ever attended – when two of my favourite things in the world (film and theatre) collided! I updated it on 19 June 2020. I’m not sure why I haven’t shared it to my blog yet (laziness I guess!) but in a way I’m glad, because I want to talk about it again and again and again! So here is an excuse to re-share! It is such a brilliant and rare example of equal access. I’m not sure I have experienced inclusion like it since. My sincere thanks to everyone from re:group Performance Collective, and to the amazing Alyce Fisher (executive director of Murray Arts) who made it possible for me to attend/participate.


On Sunday September 16, 2018, I attended an incredible workshop on Live Cinema, facilitated by re:group Performance Collective. It was so fascinating to learn about the steps involved to create this crossover experience of film and theatre. As participants we were given the opportunity to recreate scenes from well-known films. The participants Who took on the role of actor were instructed to imitate The characters from these scenes as accurately as possible, whilst the camera operators worked to achieve the same accuracy with angles and shots. It was interesting, particularly as a person who has always been totally blind, to note the important subtleties that needed to be just right. For example the movement of an eyebrow, or the precise timing of a face breaking into a look of horror or discussed.


Because there wasn’t already enough to be excited about, my day was made when I reflected back and realised this may have been the most inclusive arts workshop I had ever attended. When I was in primary school we spent an entire week creating our own films with some professional filmmakers, but no one bothered to engage me in this process. I never received tips on how to portray characters. And as for being kept well informed of any cinematography or special effects… forget it! Similarly with other acting workshops I have attended (even professionally as an adult), I almost never receive enough information about what’s going on around me – or I receive too much – which prevents me from fully participating and comprehending what is happening.


This particular workshop, however, was an exception. The facilitators and fellow workshop participants always made an effort to describe everything that was going on around me, most of the time without being reminded. Even when many of them were madly running around assisting the other actors, camera operators ETC, there was always someone around to keep me updated on Visual details I would otherwise have missed. Nobody assumed I wouldn’t be interested in these details, or that I didn’t need to know about them. When my turn came to act a part, I was given some great verbal pointers on the facial expressions and movements required… there was absolutely none of that “come and touch my face” rubbish! (Just so we’re all clear, face touching is weird and doesn’t help me get an idea of facial expressions at all!)


I can recall one particular accessibility highlight, when I was struggling to hold a big paper sign in frame. Without me even needing to think of a solution, one of the guys grab some black masking tape to place on the black chair we were using, so I would have a tactile guide to follow. This was all done quickly and efficiently, then we just got on with what needed to be done, like it was no big deal. I never felt as though I was holding up the group, that I was different, special, or that I had been assigned a particular person to “look after” me throughout the day. That, right there, is inclusion!


I do not write this to sound overly soppy and sentimental, but as I pointed out to the facilitators at the end of the day, it is so, so rare for me to experience such feelings of independence and normality within a group of people, especially when completing such visual tasks. I am so grateful, and would like to do it all again!


I have been acting out stories since I was a child. I wish I hadn’t had to wait until my adult years to realise that I could learn good acting and camera technique. I never imagined as a kid that this could, and would, be my future. No child (blind or otherwise) should be made to sit in a classroom for an entire week, literally twiddling their thumbs and thinking about what they had for breakfast, while their other classmates get to create media projects that are put on DVD and shown off to their parents. Everyone involved in this amazing live cinema workshop proved to me, and to everyone reading this, that if we all get out of our own little bubbles and do a little creative thinking, anyone and everyone can experience film and drama.

Fair Play Symposium Review: Where is the equity and inclusion in diversity?

What can I say? What should I say? For a fair play symposium, I have to say that the treatment of myself and fellow artists with disabilities was pretty… unfair.


In February, Diversity Arts Australia along with Creative Victoria hosted a Fair Play Symposium in Melbourne. This event launched Creative Victoria’s ‘Fair Play’ program’, which offers two years of equity and inclusive training to 20 creative organisations in Victoria. You can read more about the program here.


Thanks to Regional Arts Victoria and Murray Arts, I was offered a promo ticket to attend the symposium. As a regional emerging theatre maker, performer and teaching artist who is totally blind, I grab any opportunity that comes my way which will benefit my arts practice and allow me to network with others in the industry. So I was keen to get ideas, and hoped to be able to have input into the discussions – sharing from my own, rare experience. As an attendee with a disability it was made clear early on that too many people didn’t consider our so-called minority group a priority. If you are involved with the arts in some way – be that a practicing artist, someone who works in marketing or a person who works front of house at a theatre – please, please stay with me to have a read and a ponder, because it’s you I am writing to. You need to read this.


The first shock I received was whilst planning to attend the symposium, I learnt that provisions had not been made for potential attendees with blindness or low vision. A professional audio description (AD) service provider had been in contact with Diversity Arts Australia before I even knew I would be in attendance, to ask whether or not they would set aside a budget for AD and a sighted guide around the venue, as another blind artist had expressed interest in the symposium. DVA said they would not do this, but could offer a friend/sighted companion a free ticket. Thankfully, after I wrote to them explaining that locating food, bathrooms and generally avoiding getting lost, as well as being made aware of any visual displays in presentations is just as important as captioning and Auslan interpretation, they agreed to cover the cost of this service. Thanks to the representative from DVA who made this happen. However, this situation should not have occurred in the first place, and it is more common than you might think. I shouldn’t expect a “friend” to give up two days of their week so they can describe an event for free. Furthermore, refusing to pay trained professionals – who also need to make a living and who are qualified to know what sort of information and assistance I will require – is inconceivable. We need to live in a world where these provisions are standard practice, or at the very least, when the service is requested it should not be questioned. Just make it happen! I’m the person who lives with the disability, so stop making assumptions about what accommodations I do and don’t need because I – the person with lived experience – am far better qualified to make that call. While I am an experienced independent traveller, had I not had someone to guide me around the rather large venue with multiple levels, I might have been in a panic every time I needed to locate a bathroom, find the catered food or move to sessions in various rooms throughout the venue. In a crowded space, especially when it is a crowd of unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar environment, I can’t easily get somebody’s attention when I require assistance. There were also occasions during talks when visual displays such as power points were utilised, and without somebody to describe these I may have missed vital information. With all this in mind, and considering one third of the symposium was supposed to focus on the inclusion of people with disabilities, access for blind participants should have been implemented immediately after it was requested.


I was mortified to hear remarks such as “We just can’t employ people with disabilities or make our work accessible for them. It just isn’t a priority for us and we don’t have the resources.” Okay… Why were you at the fair play symposium then? If you don’t want to discuss strategies for making your work diverse and accessible, don’t come to an event that is designed for just that purpose. Someone else could have had your ticket who actually wants to make us a priority. Also, I enjoy art both as an audience member but also as a practicing artist. Are you saying that you don’t care for my work or the skills I could bring to your organisation? Are you saying you don’t think I would be interested to come and look at your work? Sorry to shock you but you are actually quite wrong. I love supporting art created by other people but unfortunately, I am often prevented from doing so because no effort is made to ensure it is accessible.


The last two sessions on the last day were related to intersectionality. Quick definition: Intersectionality relates to the interconnecting nature of social categories such as race, gender and disability. So, it’s about recognising that we must make provisions to ensure all of these groups are included in society, but also recognising that some people might fit into multiple categories. For example, an Indigenous Australian who uses a wheelchair would fit into the category of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander as well as a person with a disability. As I listened to these talks, I couldn’t help reflect on the irony: I didn’t feel that Diversity Arts Australia demonstrated intersectionality well at all during the symposium. At the end of each day participants were segregated into separate debrief sessions where we could reflect on events of the day. People with disabilities went off together, people with culturally diverse backgrounds gathered as a group and so on and so on. At no point were we able to come together and share those reflections. One of the speakers made an observation: “Looking around at this audience I’d say we have the interested people in the room; we need to get the disinterested in here.” To be honest, I don’t think the disinterested would have had their eyes opened by attending this symposium, because there was no time where we could all debrief together. Sure, we should be allowed some time to connect with those from our own minority group, but the constant segregation demonstrated the very opposite of equity and inclusion. It also meant that those who fit into more than one of these categories had to make a choice about which group they would connect with. Perhaps the event organisers might like to revisit the definition of “intersectionality” and how to put this into practice.


Still along the lines of intersectionality: I was astounded when I heard that the organisations who are selected for the ‘Fair Play’ project only receive training for one of the categories in question. Meaning that if a company decides they would like training in making their art more inclusive for people with linguistic and culturally diverse backgrounds, they cannot receive training in disability access. How is that encouraging equity and inclusive art? And it certainly isn’t demonstrating that “intersectionality” thing they are apparently so passionate about.


I also couldn’t help noticing that during the breaks, aside from the few people I met in disability debriefs and attendees who were acquainted with my audio describers, NOBODY came to talk to me. If I was a non-disabled white Australian at that event, and I saw someone with a different cultural background; someone in a wheelchair; someone with a guide dog… I would take the opportunity to walk up to them and say “Hi, I work at a theatre/art gallery/ library etc, can we talk about your access requirements and whether there’s anything my organisation can do to ensure our venue and works are fully accessible?” Come on folks! Make some new friends and meet some new colleagues whilst enjoying your cup of coffee. Use your initiative. We don’t bite and I assure you, my condition is not contagious: you won’t catch blindness by talking to me; my guide dog won’t eat you. COME. AND. TALK. TO. US!


In conclusion, I am an emerging artist with a disability. I hoped the ‘Fair Play Symposium’ would be a place where I could network with others whilst sharing and learning strategies to utilise when advocating for equity and inclusion in the arts. I was not satisfied when those with lived experience of the chosen minority groups were segregated and unable to share our reflections with those participating who needed to hear them. The organisers should not have assumed that people with certain disabilities either wouldn’t come or wouldn’t require the services they requested. Nor did they consider the fatigue brought on by these events and the extra concentration and energy used by those who are disabled and chronically ill. Some were unable to even participate in the debrief sessions and some could barely focus if they were present. Diversity Arts Australia and Creative Victoria should have consulted further with Arts Access Victoria during the planning process. I think this symposium proved that it’s time for arts organisations and artists to re-think their approach to equity, inclusion and diversity. Where is the equity and inclusion in diversity?


For further recommendations regarding accessibility specifically related to blindness and low vision, please read this article written by blind critic Olivia Muscat following a community engagement workshop run by Description Victoria.

Writing tips from Micaela and Florrie: The Art Of Good Description

I started at the shrill sound a few feet in front of me. What was it? And then I heard the unwelcoming hiss and the low threatening growl that seemed to say “don’t you come a step closer or I’ll tear your skin”. I froze. The scent was the other thing I noticed; rather like the smell of dead mice in the walls. I wanted to vomit. I imagined myself as a much smaller creature, a cat just like this one. I imagined it sinking its teeth and claws deep into my flesh… oh the throbbing!!! Worse than accidentally cutting one’s finger with a kitchen knife, almost as though the cat was tearing out my very soul. What would be the point of that? I wouldn’t exist without a soul. Then I realised, I’d barely exist if I didn’t have any human contact either. I wondered if that’s how this cat felt? Cut off from a meaningful life because avoiding contact with other living creatures is like taking away the purpose of existence. I heard it again, a loud, wretched shreik. And I felt alone.

“Really, Micaela, that is a seriously dark beginning to your post”, you say. Well, yes. Sorry about that, except I’m not really sorry because I’ve included it for a reason. That was a description I wrote after a friend of mine challenged me to describe a feral cat. But here’s the catch… I wasn’t allowed to describe with colour, phrases such as “the sight of blood”, or any descriptive language that a person with working eyes might use when encountering a feral cat.

“Why? Surely that’s not a complicated task for someone who has always been blind and has no visual memories at all…”

Not so long ago I may have agreed with you there, dear reader. But recently, the above mentioned anonymous friend (let’s call her Florrie) sent me a rather frustrated message about the fictional blind characters who always feature in modern every-day books, or who only appear in sci-fi and fantacy novels to share an inspirational quote or two and that’s it. And why can’t there be a blind protagonist who messes around with time travel, or discovers she has magical powers or uses the legal system to defeat the bad guys… anything but seeing the future and being inspirational for no reason.

Anyway, that’s a topic for another blog post, but it got us thinking: how would we write from the perspective of a blind character? We have both always been blind, but we are so used to reading books that describe the blue sky, the black ashes from a fire etc, that whilst we don’t actually know what these things look like we have just subconciously included visual descriptions in our writing. And there is nothing wrong with that. Of course we are allowed to use those descriptions if we want to. But we were suddenly having to re-think all of that because if we were fictional, our character wouldn’t have cause to think of colours and other visual details. It wouldn’t occur to them because they can’t imagine something they’ve never seen.

So Florrie and I set ourselves a challenge. And it had nothing to do with all those weird situations where sighted people use physical objects, feelings and experiences that blind people supposedly associate with various colours etc:

But we would assign each other an object, or place (Florrie then started to get mean and give me people as well), that we had to describe from our perspective.

Blindness aside, this exercise made me realise that I’ve been finding writing such a struggle because I just don’t play around with adjectives, metaphors and analogies enough. Florrie told me to describe an abandoned office building and I not only focused on the musty smell, but the stringy sticky spider web and the sheer loneliness of the place. I think, had we not set ourselves this challenge, I would have spent more time describing the blood and physical appearance of the feral cat, rather than the sounds and smells and the impact they had on my character’s internal thoughts and emotions. I challenged Florrie to describe the circus, which I suspected would be tricky given without good audio description circuses are generally just like an overwhelming amount of noise. But Florrie focused on the feeling of a backpack pressing into the shoulder and spine as the character tried to walk down stairs with the crowd of audience members, the crunch as she sat on a pile of popcorn that was dropped on her seat, and the place, she wrote, “smelt of chaos.” Brilliant!

This has been so helpful to both of us. Florrie messaged me excitedly yesterday because she had finally been able to write about a blind protagonist that she has been struggling with for a while. And I am just having fun finding new and creative ways to describe… everything! I am super excited to get working on my one person show again this week now that I’ve had this obvious but helpful revelation!

My challenge for you is to use this as a writing exercise and let your imagination run wild. I don’t necessarily mean imagine things from the perspective of a blind person, either. This applies to literally anyone and everyone! The only rule I suggest you start off with is try to describe without colour, that’s how Florrie and I began, and see what happens. There are so many other things to notice in the world around us if we are willing to think outside that colourful box! So if like me you struggle to come up with interesting adjectives, or you just want some brain stimulation and a fun writing game, have a play!

Florrie has kindly allowed me to end this post with her description of the circus. Enjoy the old popcorn (yuck), and see ya’all next time!

Circus description:

The place smelled of chaos; the sweat of hundreds of people crammed into a space designed for half as many, the reek of animals and the sweet stench of rotten food. Heat pressed down on her, heavier than the backpack slamming into her shoulders and spine with enough force to make her curse internally every time she walked down stairs. Music blared from an unseen speaker, abrupt as thunder from a clear sky and she nearly fell backwards into her seat; old popcorn crunched beneath her backside as she dragged herself into a more dignified position. The scrape of claws on wood, the crunch of heavy boots over straw. A primal roar, both beautiful and terrible in its sheer power. It screamed its dominance to the tent and the world beyond; it was strong, it was powerful and it WOULD NOT be tamed. The music picked up speed and the crowd drew in a collective breath as the booted feet on the stage took a step towards the lion. The creature roared again, a feral challenge to the world, the tent, this foolish human who thought itself worthy to tame it. Such a proud creature, how could it remain confident and beautiful when it lost this same battle every night? How did it not lose faith? She leaned forward in her seat, fingers clenching on the rail in front of her. In the rational part of her mind she knew this was staged, knew the performer would win, had to win. But another part of her, as proud and primal as the lion itself, thrilled with anticipation, feeding off the excitement of a thousand other people caught in the same moment. The presence of danger in a place of safety, the chaos within the order, seemed to thrill them all.

Micaela’s Monday Musings: Part 2

Another Monday, another addition to this slowly growing collection of Micaela’s Monday Musings. And to make up for the fact that I haven’t posted anything in over a month, I’ve written you a nice long piece with lots of anecdotes! Lucky you! Also they’re just musings so I’m not apologising if it seems all over the place!


Something I have found myself feeling very passionate about lately is how drama can encourage creativity, body awareness and good communication skills during early childhood development. I believe this is important for all children but at the moment I am particularly focusing on the benefits this would have on blind children, as I don’t believe much research has been done on this at all, if any.


As I am a long way off from setting up a drama program for blind young people, and don’t have any readings to refer to on this topic specifically, I have started with what appears to be the only potential sources within my reach: Family holiday videos.


When my siblings and I were quite young, our Dad was often glued to the video camera when we went away. Or if he was busy interacting with his family, that faithful device would usually be set down somewhere close by; capturing some of the most fun moments, the most embarrassing… and some of the most boring too!


As well as feelings of nostalgia and laughing or cringing at the weird things we did as kids, it’s interesting to note some of the little bits of character development (aha Good use of acting terminology there Micaela) that take place during these videos.


In a couple of the videos, we can be seen visiting Australia Zoo in Queensland. My brother, being a huge Crocodile Hunter fan, was eagerly touching and feeding any animals he could get his hands on, whilst my sister and I were not always so keen. We were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to hold and feed a macaw. In case anyone doesn’t know, it’s a fairly big, noisy bird and the idea was that we would let it sit on our shoulder, hold a peanut between our lips, and allow the bird to grab this with it’s beak. Well… four-year-old Micaela was not having any of that! I was terrified. I refused to even just hold the bird. So, my Mum, along with the very generous staff member holding the bird, patiently worked on convincing me to at least touch it. As I was extremely nervous and had no way of knowing exactly how far away the bird was from my hand, Mum gently placed her hand under mine, so she was able to help guide me and make sure I felt right to the end of it’s long tail, without having complete hold of my hand and dragging it to where it needed to go, which would have been less effective. A similar approach was taken when my sister became anxious about holding a snake.


Another interesting example of desensitising occurred at the beach when every time a wave splashed onto the feet of three-year-old Micaela, I would have a melt down and beg my Aunt who came with us on that particular holiday to pick me up so I didn’t have to experience the texture of sand and water covering my feet. What did my Aunt do? She sat down in the shallows, holding me so that I was secure, but still made to endure the small waves. Naturally, I still objected for a long time, but eventually with the right encouragement, I began to get used to the sensation of waves flowing over my ankles.


The above scenarios are examples of receiving necessary assistance to overcome fears and take risks. However, there are times in life where children and adults alike must be allowed to independently take risks and perform their own problem solving without intervention from others. And here is a perfect time for a final moment from Dad’s collection of holiday memories:


So, back to three-year-old Me again, this time in our holiday apartment. Keeping in mind that my Dad is obviously following me with the video camera, so there is someone watching me the whole time, but he remains silent and I am therefore oblivious to the fact that he is present. I can be seen walking, rather unsteadily on my feet, towards the front door, where I find one of my Mum’s sandals. I try putting my feet in the toe end, but quickly realise this is wrong and correct my error. I then walk out the front door and fall over. After picking myself up I continue on my merry way for a few seconds before I must decide it’s time to go back inside. I wander back and forth for some time, feeling around for the front door. I know it’s there somewhere; I can hear my older siblings playing rather noisily and the television can be heard in the background too, I just have to find that door! Eventually, I do, and make my way in, announcing at the top of my voice that I fell over as if I expect the whole world to stop for a few seconds and admire my bravery.


I relay this story to show an example of me – the blind person – experimenting, making mistakes, and coming up with solutions to my own problems. Meanwhile my Dad – the sighted person – looked on, ready to support his child or stop her from injuring herself if necessary, but giving her the opportunity to sort herself out first.


Unfortunately, it is too common for sighted folk to assume when we need help, what sort of help we require, and that they are there to protect us from taking any risks at all. Last year during my secondary school drama classes, I was given the task of presenting a five minute solo performance. I selected a plastic takeaway coffee cup as my prop. After practicing my piece a few times in a carpeted room, I performed in front of my teachers and classmates in the auditorium with a wooden floor, which I had not rehearsed in. Had my brain been properly switched on it may have occurred to me that when I reached the part in my performance where the character through their coffee cup in anger, it was going to roll away. Needless to say, there was an unplanned audience participation moment part way through where I was crawling around on my hands and knees whilst the onlookers shouted “to your left a bit more! Now reach out a bit further!” As if the experience itself wasn’t humiliating enough, my teachers told me in front of my classmates that in future I should tie props to my wrists to ensure I would never lose them. It didn’t matter how much I assured them that I knew what had caused the problem and how to deal with it in future, weeks later they were still asking me to tie props to my wrists during the final exam… not sure how they thought this would work considering my two main props for said exam were a chair and a chest!


The point is, school drama became an environment where I didn’t feel free to experiment as much as my peers. I felt pressured to always get things right first go because otherwise it was assumed I was incapable of doing a task, and that’s not how it should be. Throughout our lives we are constantly learning from our mistakes, but that’s okay. Not realising that the cup would role away on the wooden floor had nothing to do with blindness and everything to do with me not considering the environment I would be performing in. Sure, the fact that I couldn’t see where it rolled to meant that it was harder for me to locate it, but in my head, I was already thinking of strategies to prevent this in future, and I knew it wouldn’t be a problem for the final exam because none of my props were round and three dimensional shaped. As a creator and performer, I need to be allowed as much experimentation and risk taking as my sighted colleagues. I have to problem solve all the time, like how am I going to book this ticket if the website’s not accessible? How will I get to the shops when I can’t take my familiar route while the road is blocked off? How will I give my kitchen floor a thorough clean after dropping a jar of honey when it is very likely that I will leave some behind in the initial clean? How will I orientate myself to this new and unfamiliar performance set? I think you get the idea… I’m pretty used to making mistakes, encountering problems and solving them. Please believe that I know my own mind and be assured that if I need your help, I will ask for it or accept your offer gladly. But if I come up with a solution, don’t rule it out just because the blind person thought of it… let’s give it a go first!

Micaela’s Monday Musings: Part 1

Hello readers! Welcome to both my new blog and more specifically to Micaela’s Monday Musings! Before any of you regular blogging people get too excited, I’ll just point out that I don’t know if I’ll update this segment weekly; just whenever ideas come to me. But just think, every Monday when you’re struggling to come to terms with the early start for work or getting the kids off to school or whatever you do on a Monday, you can think “Maybe, just maybe, Micaela will decide to post some Monday musings today.” Won’t that just brighten up your Monday?


Did someone say ego? Sorry… I don’t know what you’re talking about!


Righto… here we go with Micaela’s first ever Monday Musings…


I recently discovered what it feels like to really love a job. Don’t worry, I still adore holidays and quiet weekends. But I don’t procrastinate or feel a sense of dread every time I open my computer to complete a work related task. I actually just spent my weekend doing a heap of writing for my job and I can’t think of another way I would have preferred to spend the time. I even had to force myself to take breaks, where as I used to long for those moments when I could just sit down and read a good book or watch Netflix!


“Micaela, you’re joking, right?”


“Okay, so, what brought on this sudden change?”


I believe the answer is quite simple… I have found something I am passionate about. Such a cliché, I know!


Quick history lesson about me: I tried a bachelor of music at the beginning of this year, I think mainly because I had subconsciously convinced myself that it would be impossible to try what, deep down, I really wanted to do. It became clear soon after commencing this degree that I was in the wrong place.


So what happened next? I’ll tell you what happened…


I joined local physical theatre classes, connected with some local theatre/drama type folk, and five months later, it turns out I am in the process of creating a one person show, to be performed in a theatre near you soon hopefully… haha we’ll see about that! I definitely feel I am where I should be now though.


One thing that has decided this for me is the realisation that advocating for myself no longer constantly feels like a chore. At uni, explaining to the same people over and over again why I required braille music to complete my studies always felt exhausting and tedious. I think that, had I really wanted to succeed in the music industry, I would have kept fighting to be treated the same as any other musician, and worked to ensure I had all the resources I would need to be successful. But the more I fought for those things, the more I realised I didn’t want them. Now, in the theatre scene, in those moments when I have to find different strategies for understanding a visual concept or I face barriers due to sighted colleagues making assumptions about what will or won’t work for me, the explaining and advocating often seems more tolerable. It gives people an insight into my world, and in turn I often learn about how they experience things, too. I also feel that I am fighting to succeed in a field I am interested in. Sure, it can still be frustrating and energy zapping, but the cause is worth fighting for – to further my career and, who knows, maybe even make things easier for future totally blind people to access drama, physical theatre, and the arts in general.


To sum up, my recent revelation is that you’ll know when you really love something, because you will fight to make it happen no matter what challenges and misunderstandings you face. Sorry, that sounds like another dreadful cliché!


I reckon that’s all for this post. If you’ve got any musings of your own, feel free to pop them in the comments. Happy Monday!