Limited accessibility and representation are two major issues impacting people with a disability who work in the arts industry.
Next time you go to a live performance — a play, comedy show or recital — ask yourself if the venue is wheelchair accessible and whether the event is AUSLAN interpreted. Ask yourself how often the entertainment industry misrepresents or excludes people with a disability, often telling their stories for them with scripts shaped by stereotypes and very little, if any, lived experience.
Derriere, an Egyptian Australian, HoH (hard of hearing) performer and photographer, has brought the Big Thick Energy festival to Sydney this month after its inaugural season last year. The three-day event (March 11 to 13) featuring burlesque dancers, drag and live music is a body positive festival promoting self-love, liberation and diversity. The festival's website promises "thick, curvy performance artists breaking stereotypes and celebrating all bodies" and Derriere says that's exactly what you'll get.
Derriere explains that the concept was born out of addressing their "personal experiences, past trauma and discrimination" in the arts industry and even earlier while growing up in southwest Sydney.
"The way Big Thick Energy came about was [through] me talking about my experiences about racism and discrimination here in Australia. As a POC, queer, disabled body, I have been outcast continuously, whether it's in my professional life or personal life," Derriere tells Refinery29 Australia.
"We experience so much fatphobia and discrimination against different bodies, and the media has a lot to do with it. So, I wanted to create a space where I could educate people to understand that all bodies are beautiful, and to abolish fatphobia and really raise voices for misrepresented communities."
Derriere believes that "inclusivity and accessibility is trending" among entertainment event curators and producers at the moment, but authenticity and involving the community are key to achieving legitimate representation.
"Every organiser and promoter wants to whack the inclusivity title on their events, but they keep missing the mark, they don't quite hit it," they say. "So that's why I feel like that's what I'm here to do — just to lead by example and show them how it's done."
Derriere recalls casting calls earlier in their career where they were "the token fat girl or the token POC body on the lineup".
"So many producers come up with a bullshit excuse that we don't exist, that POC big bodies are non-existent," they say. "It's an absolute lie."
Reclaiming their body publicly, the neo-burlesque dancer will lead a 'Bootylesque' dance workshop during the festival and also perform on stage in the evenings. All festival events will be AUSLAN interpreted, as Derriere explains, "I'm a hard of hearing woman and accessibility and involvement in the deaf community is really important to me."
Every organiser and promoter wants to whack the inclusivity title on their events, but they keep missing the mark, they don't quite hit it.
Across the border in Victoria, Melbourne's Fringe Rebound is taking place. It's a three-week event featuring artists that weren't able to be part of the Fringe Festival in 2021. Rosie Roulette — actually a friend of Derriere's — is hosting The Chronic Cabaret, an event putting a spotlight on disabled artists in cabaret, burlesque, circus and drag on March 6, 8, 10 and 12.
"What you can expect to see is a cabaret that celebrates and platforms all disabled performers and chronically ill performers from diverse backgrounds [including queer and BIPOC]," Roulette tells Refinery29 Australia.
They say what makes this event unique is that it not only entertains but educates audiences, teaching them about disability rights and accessibility in the arts through the sharing of performers' real-life experiences.
"Along with showcasing all of these amazing artists' talent, I will be sitting down with each of the artists in between the performances to have a quick chat with them about their experiences," they explain.
Roulette, who was born with a degenerative connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, also has fibromyalgia (a condition that causes widespread pain and tenderness in the body), endometriosis as well as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which prevents their blood from circulating properly.
It took a long time for them to embrace who they are, and it's their own experiences of facing adversity in acting and music that have led them to be a disability advocate in the creative space.
"Being somebody who grew up in the performing arts and was studying musical theatre, it was something I hid for a long time... I never wanted to be perceived as somebody who wasn't able to do six or seven shows a week and do the work," they explain.
"And you had to be perceived as somebody who was strong and able, and so disclosing disabilities and health problems was a big no, no a lot of the time, especially going for certain sort of big acting jobs."
They describe the entertainment industry "as a world that judges you for needing any kind of accommodations for chronic pain or disability". That's why Roulette eventually decided "to take my work into my own hands because I knew I was my own boss then". It's a decision that's allowed Roulette to connect with other artists in the community and produce a show like The Chronic Cabaret.
Besides learning more about the artists, Roulette hopes that show-goers will take notice of widespread accessibility issues in many entertainment venues.
"I really hope we might get a few people come away [from the show] — who might be venue owners or who might have their own space — and think, 'What can I do to make my space work accessible for disabled people or people who have disability or chronic illness?'"
"I would love for there to be a government initiative that venues can apply for to get funding to make their venues accessible. I would love for there to be more initiatives so that there are rooms available for people with audio processing issues so that they can go to a safe space so that they can just take a break from all of the noise when they need to, and then come back."
Derriere says they hear time and time again that bodies like theirs are "brave bodies". And if there's one thing they really want people to take away, it's that this sort of mentality needs to change.
"I don't want them to see me as someone who's being brave. I want them to see me as just another artist. Another person."