After 20 years heading one of Europe’s leading outdoor arts festivals, and three years after helping to direct the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Bradley Hemmings could be forgiven for resting on his laurels.
But following an MBE in the latest New Year’s Honours, he is now set to direct the second Paralympic heritage flame ceremony at Stoke Mandeville Stadium, in advance of this summer’s Paralympics in Rio.
The flame will be created on 2 September, five days before the opening ceremony of the Rio Paralympics, and will be sent “virtually” to Brazil where it will merge with the Brazilian regional flames to form the flame used on the torch relay and then light the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony.
He has been advising Aylesbury Vale council on what the heritage flame ceremony could look like – although he has not yet been confirmed as its director – with further details likely to be announced in March.
It would be interesting, Hemmings said, to mark the four-year journey from the London 2012 Paralympics and “imagine where [disability arts]might go next” – what that journey meant, what has changed during those four years, and what still needs to change.
Asked what needs to change in the world of disability arts, his answer underlines his priorities as a disabled artist, and a festival organiser: “More people, more creativity, more collaboration, more internationalism, and more recognition for artists and for this still very fragile part of the cultural sector.”
Hemmings (pictured) is probably best-known as one of the two artistic directors – alongside Graeae’s Jenny Sealey – of the critically-praised opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics.
But he has been artistic director of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival (GDIF) in London since founding it in 1996, and has produced the mayor of London’s disability arts festival Liberty since it began in 2003.
He also directed the inaugural heritage flame ceremony in 2014, which celebrated the Sochi Winter Paralympics.
He is proud both of GDIF’s longevity, when many other festivals have failed to sustain their existence over such a long period, but also of the festival’s work with Deaf and disabled artists over the last 15 years.
He said: “What’s also been great is a number of those artists [he mentions Marc Brew, Graeae, Stopgap and Fittings]have through the building up of this kind of outdoor theatre sector gone on to enjoy touring and performances in other parts of the country.”
He has, he said, a “particular vision of fairness in outdoor theatre”, and added: “The whole point is that outdoor theatre is profoundly about something really democratic; and what is good about it and brilliant and moving about it is when you get the audience feeling that [the experience is featuring]the same people who live in the city, that it includes everybody.”
His own identity as a disabled person has played an important role, he said, in these ideas of “fairness and democracy and a sense of consideration about the way in which one likes to be communicated with or thought about or thought about imaginatively and with a degree of care”.
Although Hemmings believes that disability arts has moved on and developed in the last 15 years, with far greater recognition from the Arts Council, he said he did not want to be complacent.
He said: “There has been a wider conversation that has been possible about disability arts than there would have been perhaps 15 years ago when there was fantastic work being made but it was perhaps not being seen by nearly enough people.
“There is a sense that things have moved on, but there is a lot more to be done, big challenges.”
One of these is the challenge posed to many Deaf and disabled artists by the administration of the government’s Access to Work employment support scheme.
With festivals such as Liberty, artists’ access needs are often built into the funding, he said, but “in the wider life of the artists it’s a much wider problem”.
He said: “If you think about your working life in general and how you might be able to go about that and prepare and develop your work outside a moment in time, then that is obviously a considerable challenge.”
He is also keen to dispel the myth that just by putting on a free outdoor festival in an accessible location “you have made it accessible and that’s it, job done”.
He said: “There is a lot of work that needs to be done in engaging with audiences, which encourages people to feel that they are going to be safe and it will be an experience that they will come to and that they will enjoy it.”
Access is not just about viewing platforms, he said. “It’s [also]about ways in which front-of-house staff are ready and equipped to think creatively and positively about how they might communicate with people across a range of impairment groups.”
It is, he said, the “sense of welcome that is really important”, something that is often not done well with performances inside buildings.
He said that much of GDIF’s work was “highly visual”, but when there is dialogue, the festival has “brought in not just captioning but thought about ways in which we can integrate text into performances”.
GDIF always tries to ensure that at least one of its “large-scale spectaculars” has audio description, while it engages with the audience through volunteers and staff at festival meeting points so “it feels like a positive social experience rather than something that just stands in isolation”.
He praised the charity Attitude is Everything for enabling outdoor festivals to “think creatively” on access, and added: “It’s obviously not an exact science, but it’s very often a question of openness and imagination.
“I don’t think anything is ever perfect. That is what life is like: you’re always striving to do something new and make something better. That’s the challenge. I don’t think there is a nirvana.”
The Liberty disability arts festival has posed some different challenges, including the criticism drawn when it was forced to merge with National Paralympic Day from 2013.
Hemmings accepted that people had “a wide variety of views” on whether that merger was a good idea.
But he said: “From my point of view, there is a great deal of common ground and a great deal of opportunity in terms of the megaphone it provides through Channel 4 and so on and the way you can communicate with bigger audiences and tell different stories, so as somebody who makes theatre I’m interested by it.
“There are all sorts of ways of coming at it and I know as we go into 2016 – although I don’t know yet what the arrangements will be – [Liberty] will feel very different again, because a lot of the focus of the Paralympics will have moved to Rio rather than to London.”
He said his approach to his work was “always to listen”, as he was “quite a practical and grounded person”.
And he points to Circus Space, the training programme he and Sealey set up in preparation for the London Paralympics opening ceremony.
Some of those who took part in the programme – and later appeared in the ceremony – were actors, performers, ex-servicemen, or people who “just wanted to have a go and hadn’t self-identified as an artist or anything else”.
He pointed out that the opening ceremony itself featured striking sections towards the end about the importance of protest, including the emergence of the statue of a pregnant Alison Lapper and the performance of Ian Dury’s Spasticus Autisticus.
He said: “There was dialogue, there was certainly common ground and sharing between all those different participating artists, sportspeople and services.
“I wouldn’t have thought they are in completely different camps [at Liberty]. There is always possibility for exchange and sharing and there’s a lot of stuff that perhaps could be done to make sure that happens more.”
Liberty, he said, had always been “a place of exchange, a meeting point, a coming together”, and he has noticed how families who attend because of their interest in the Paralympics “are going back and forward across the [sports and arts]areas and engaging with both”.
Hemmings said there was some relief in the arts sector after the government’s spending review last November.
He said: “It is not just [GDIF] but anybody working in the arts was prepared for a difficult autumn statement in November, and when that didn’t happen there were huge sighs of relief heaved throughout the whole sector.
“We were anticipating a really, really difficult time this year and next and that hasn’t happened in the way we thought it might.”
But although that has meant relief for the Arts Council – Hemmings is a member of the London area council of Arts Council England – many local authorities, which are vital to outdoor theatre around the country, have not been so lucky.
GDIF has been fortunate, though, because Greenwich council has “stuck with the arts through thick and thin”, while committed sponsors such as Canary Wharf Group and London City Airport have also played a significant part in the festival’s continuing success.
At a time of austerity, when many disabled people are finding it difficult to be included in their local communities, Hemmings hopes his festivals can make a contribution.
“There is something about people coming together in large bodies to experience something together in an atmosphere of conviviality,” he said, “which might not sound very much on the surface of it, but it’s actually really important.
“I think all of us need those occasions when we share something wonderful together that is quite different from sitting in any other kind of cultural experiences, because you can’t help but be aware of the other people who are in the audience with you.
“You get this sense of real exhilaration from being in that experience – that is what people tell us, anyway – and I think that’s important and to make sure deaf and disabled people are right in the heart of that too is what I feel I have tried to do.”