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Gaelle Mellis– Theatre Designer

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For 25 years, Gaelle Mellis has defined herself as an artist with disability committed to cultural accessibility and diversity.
Gaelle Mellis– Theatre Designer
Gaelle Mellis is a disabled artist and has worked as a theatre designer and collaborator in Australia and overseas for over 25 years. Her designs have toured to the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia, New Zealand and the United States. She has designed for companies including Restless Dance Theatre, Australian Dance Theatre, Brink Productions, Adelaide Film Festival, Vitalstatistix, Rambert (UK), Graeae (UK), Tanja Liedtke and was a co-founder of performance company Ladykillers. Individual awards received throughout her career include 2002 Adelaide Critics Circle Individual Award, a 2004 Churchill Fellowship, a 2009 South Australian Screen Award for her production design Necessary Games and, most recently, she was awarded an inaugural Australia Council Creative Australia Fellowship. Gaelle proudly defines herself as an artist with disability committed to cultural accessibility and diversity. Most recently, she provided access consultation for the 2012 Adelaide Festival, conceived and integrated aesthetic access for rarely seen an exhibition of photography by blind and vision impaired artists and was invited by the Kennedy Centre Washington DC to an International Convening of Thought Leaders in Theatre, Dance, Disability, Education, and Inclusion. Gaelle is currently developing her own disability-related performance project Take Up Thy Bed and Walk, presented by Vitalstatistix from 24 October – November 10 in Adelaide. It’s a performance about women, disability and fiction. Here she talks to ArtsHub about the project. When did you know you would work in the arts? When I was young I was interested in lots of different things. Gradually over time I was drawn towards an artistic life. I knew without knowing, in a way. How would you describe your work to a complete stranger? I make beautiful and immersive theatrical environments, and a lot of my work is more like art installation than decorative set design. My recent work is all about the aesthetics of access. I find my conceptual responses to making work ultimately come from an emotional place. I have a strong interest in creating spaces that are somewhat ordinary and don’t feel ‘designed’. What's your background – what did you study to get to where you are? I studied dance and then technical theatre, and then I got my Diploma in Theatre Design from Adelaide’s Centre for the Performing Arts. What's the first thing career related you usually do each day? Like most people, I check my emails. What are some of the challenges faced for artists with disability? Oh, where do I start? There are constant barriers for disabled artists. These include lack of access to workspaces (theatres are notorious for being inaccessible backstage), communication barriers, and, most especially, the attitudinal barriers that are still prevalent: eg. in Australia we’re still not casting disabled artists, not even in roles that are disabled characters! How can we limit challenges for artists with disability? Be actively aware, think laterally and ask people what their access requirements are. At least 23% of our population have impairments and they are not being represented on our stages. If we think about contemporary performance practice – don’t we want this diversity to be represented? Don’t we want to see real people? If someone has, for example, an idiosyncratic way of moving, perhaps this can be integrated to add another dimension to the work. We have to stop being afraid of disability and we have to stop seeing disabled people as ‘other’. Let’s see real people on our stages, and explore how people’s individuality and impairments can push art forms in new directions. And, as my dear friend and colleague Jenny Sealey MBE (artistic director Graeae Theatre) said, Shakespeare never said Juliet wasn’t a wheelchair user… How did you feel when you found out you had won a Creative Australia Fellowship? I couldn’t breathe. Then I went and bought a little bottle of Moet. What do you hope to achieve with your fellowship? I want to explore how access can be at the core of art practices. I want to investigate how contemporary artists might consider access as an integral part of their work and what dimensions might open up as a result. Seeing how access elements such as audio description, sign language and captioning might broaden the aesthetic palette of artistic experience for both audiences and creators. What do you hope to learn at the Arts Activated Conference 2012? It’s really important to me to be part of a national discussion, to connect with other Deaf and disabled artists, and to be part of the ongoing conversation about inclusion, diversity and disabled people’s participation in the cultural life of Australia. I want to connect with individuals and learn from them. My disabled colleagues and I really relish this chance to meet face to face, to share ideas and learn from each other. My previous experiences at these conferences have been full of passionate dialogue, and I leave feeling really energised. Arts Activated is on in Sydney 30 – 31 October 2012. What do you think is the biggest misconception about artists with disability? That they like basket weaving and waving chiffon scarves. This is bullshit. And that it is all too hard to work with disabled artists, that it costs too much and they have limited abilities. This is also bullshit. What is the best thing about your job? Well, at the moment I’m working on my project Take Up Thy Bed & Walk, so the best thing is working with my fantastic team of collaborators, four of whom are perfectly imperfect performers: Michelle Ryan, Emma J Hawkins, Kyra Kimpton and deaf dancer Jo Dunbar. I’m really enjoying exploring the integration of aesthetic access into the core of the work with Hilary Bell, Ingrid Voorendt, Gerry Shearim (Auslan interpreter) and Lara Torr (audio description) and the performers. What’s the most challenging aspect? Fatigue. My impairment means I get tired really quickly and this gets in the way of my work sometimes. You can find out more about Take Up Thy Bed & Walk at its official website, where deaf and disabled women are invited to contribute videos. You can also read more about the Arts Activated Conference here.

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