It’s one of the city’s most prolific touring theatre companies, and one of its most avant-garde; but you might not have heard of Fittings Multimedia Arts.
Tucked away in an office in the Bluecoat, the company – also based in Edinburgh – is inspired by storytelling and hidden histories, and celebrates its 20th anniversary next year.
With a core staff of just three, the company works with associate artists up and down the country to bring new writing to life in its own unique style.
At the helm is artistic director and performer Garry Robson [pictured above, front row centre]. Although he lives in Edinburgh, he spends regular stints in Liverpool and in addition, was well-known in the city as a former artistic director of the city’s own deaf and disabled arts festival DaDaFest.
“Things like integrated companies and productions with embedded BSL [British Sign Language]are not just things that should be done on a tick box basis, but because they make brilliant theatre, make things more exciting,” he says.
“Fittings is committed to making work created by integrated artists and performers. We are very interested in hidden histories and storytelling, and making work that is stylistically unique. What we make isn’t safe – we are eclectic and like to show things in strange places and take shows into interesting spaces – making them very visually exciting and accessible to the broadest possible audience. There is always a lot of original music and songs.”
Productions have been set in the world of the Victorian freakshow and the circus; featured drag queens, conjoined twins and more; their most current work in development is inspired by the African American dancer said to have invented the style of tap – outsider culture is a big part of what inspires Fittings and makes it tick. A disability-led company, their work often overlaps into the LGBT scene – avant-garde artist David Hoyle (“one of the most creative and dangerous performers I had ever seen”, enthuses Robson) has been increasingly involved with Fittings of late.
The company makes work on a variety of scales, and has performed everywhere from the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, to a purpose built big top, to day centres – locally, they will often perform work in Valley Community Theatre in Netherley – with a strong education and outreach programme around each show.
Robson, who is a wheelchair user, has been involved with Fittings for 20 years; he recognises a lot has changed in that time.
“I refer to myself as a disabled artist as a political statement,” he says. “Deaf and disabled arts started as a political movement. People were dispossessed, needed a voice. I think people understand that now – our ideas grew from the way we grew up.
“Fittings has been a great platform to develop my ideas over the years. In terms of theatre, when I started out I couldn’t get theatre training. It is changing but it is still difficult. People don’t use their imagination; you get cast if it’s a disabled part, but not otherwise. Disabled people are still poorly represented on film and TV, it tends to be typecasting. Things are much better than when I started out, but still not great.”
Productions over the years have included Danny Diva, the tale of a real-life deaf performer and drag queen; Raspberry, inspired by the life and songs of Ian Drury; The Last Freakshow, which toured in an actual big top; adult comedy Heelz on Wheelz, and an integrated co-production of The Threepenny Opera.
The new project Missing! is currently in development with the co-operation of groups of deaf and disabled young people, further developing a short show previewed last year. In Search of Master Juba was the story of William Henry Lane, who fused plantation dance with Irish dancing to create the earliest form of tap dance in the mid-1800s, and who disappeared at the height of his fame. The show began as a 20 minute street show and was later remade for Black History Month.
“There was a massive response from young people who really related to the themes; from identity, the media, to going missing. We started doing interventions and workshops, particularly with deaf and disabled young people, creating work around these themes.”
The multimedia in Fittings Multimedia Arts comes from the company’s fusion of performance styles; for example, 2011’s The Ugly Spirit (reviewed here), which was performed at the Bluecoat among other venues, began with a promenade art installation through the building, led by David Hoyle, before a quasi-interactive scripted play – with songs, natch. Incorporating film and digital also helps to appeal to larger audiences.
“We have our reliable Fittings audience that does avant-garde theatre, but we go show by show and try for the widest audience,” explains Robson. “I think we have a pretty good following. David Hoyle wanted to work with us because he is a fan – I didn’t know that. He had just killed off his character Divine David and was more interested in becoming an actor. I wanted to find a piece for him and came up with the Ugly Spirit. we had a great time and want to do more together.”
The company recently announced it has lost its regular Arts Council funding; its National Portfolio status ends in spring next year. The current shows Edmund the Learned Pig and Missing! when it is ready will not be affected by the change – but what happens after that will have to be reconsidered.
In a recent statement, Robson said: “Whilst this news is hugely disappointing for Fittings we are also a little surprised as we are one of the few disability led theatre companies based outside the Capital and our shows as an NPO have met with both audience and critical acclaim. Thankfully recent cost cuttings and prudent housekeeping will allow us to continue with our current work and we will focus on a new model of funding for the future… without a fresh injection of funds our innovative and challenging work devoted to developing and entertaining new audiences and expanding the aesthetics of access will have to be seriously curtailed.”
The enchanting Edmund the Learned Pig (pictured top), described as a deaf-friendly musical for families – will tour across the UK, including a date at the Unity Theatre, in the spring of 2015. Missing! will continue to be developed and the project will run until 2016, while Liverpool will stay as an important base into the future.
Robson says: “Liverpool is a very important home for us and we are rooted here as well as having strong links with Manchester and theatres like the Royal Exchange and Contact. We always develop our work in Liverpool but we do need to become more well-known here and are determined to do more engagement.
“We want to make work of quality. Art should make people look at their world in a different way; good art should change you. And theatre has a dynamic – it has to be a two way relationship, it changes you both.”