Saturday 20 January 2018

Trickster that will redefine the arts, culture and disability

He had been commissioned to produce a piece of performance art in Galway, but Jez Colborne is not your typical artist. Born with a rare disorder called Williams Syndrome, his mother was told he would never walk or talk, but, finds Aine O'Connor, Jez could certainly sing... and, 40 years later, he has proved he can act, write and co-direct as well

No boundaries: Jez Colborne’s shows have taken him round the globe, from Hong Kong to road trips across America on a Harley Davidson.
No boundaries: Jez Colborne’s shows have taken him round the globe, from Hong Kong to road trips across America on a Harley Davidson.

Aine O'Connor

When Jez Colborne was born his mother was told that her son had Williams Syndrome, a rare neuro-developmental disorder, and would never walk or talk. He was a toddler in the back of her car when she heard him singing along to the radio and she thought, "Wow, he mightn't be able to walk or talk, but he sure can sing", and it inspired her to use her son's extraordinary musicality to help him connect.

Forty odd years later it is Jez who tells that story, part explanation of why he was in Dublin last Monday, and why he'll be back and forth to Galway for the next year. A successful and celebrated artist in the broadest sense of the word -- he composes, acts, writes and co-directs -- Jez, based in the UK, has been commissioned to create a piece of performance art, one of three that will form IGNITE, an Arts and Disability Ireland initiative to expand the scale and ambition of arts and disability projects in Ireland.

Local Irish arts and disability groups were encouraged to choose an international artist they'd like to work with and That's Life, a Brothers of Charity run group in Galway, chose Jez and Mind the Gap, the theatre company he works with, on foot of their previous work.

A commission was born and in November 2014 audiences will see Trickster, a one-hour musical spectacular in, and outside, the Black Box Theatre in Galway. A sister piece to Jez's shows Gift, and the highly acclaimed Irresistible, it promises to be something extraordinary, based loosely on the Odysseus myth featuring, amongst other things, a cherrypicker as the Cyclops and sirens, as sirens.

One of the most common features of Williams Syndrome is perfect pitch and extreme aural sensibility. Jez first learned piano as a child before moving on to drums, percussion and tin whistle. He began composing at the age of ten and has learned to tame many of the noises he most hated, like sirens and thunder, by using them in his art. They are currently experimenting with using a shipping container as a musical instrument.

Despite Jez's innate musical ability, after school it was his disability that was focused on when he was sent to work in a sheltered workshop. "I kept saying 'mum, this isn't for me. I want to be out there'," he says now. "It was packing washers for a pittance, labelling eggboxes, stacking up books, and you couldn't even talk."

So he left and went to a place for young artists where he once again got into writing songs. "I tried my hand at a one man show and then I moved to a house and that was a bit like an institution, they had some support workers who weren't very supportive and they'd say 'how dare you talk about your disability like that'." Once again Jez stuck to his guns, he left for a new independent living place where he is very happy. "Support will come in any time of day but not sleepover, we don't need sleepover because we are quite independent," he says

In the early 2000s, Jez got to know Tim Wheeler who runs Mind the Gap in Bradford. Tim, impressed by Jez's skills offered him roles. Over time Jez's confidence and skills widened and the breadth and scope of their collaborations has grown.

A project called Unlimited had challenged and encouraged disability and arts groups to create works to run in tandem with the 2012 London ParaOlympics. Tim describes the Unlimited initiative as "a brilliant move. It really pushed and people's game was raised and they really rose to the challenge".

From that grew Jez's biggest show to date, Irresistible. It started small but became huge, adapting to different venues. They travelled with it to four festivals in Switzerland. Indeed his art has taken Jez all over the world, from Hong Kong to road trips across the US on a Harley Davidson. And now Galway. Jez enjoyed a Gypsy Caravan holiday with his family around Ireland in the eighties and is looking forward to the trips back and forth to Galway that Trickster will require. The performers from That's Life -- an initiative of the Brothers of Charity Services in County Galway to support people with intellectual disabilities to engage in the arts life of their communities -- will also spend a week in Bradford to see how Mind the Gap works. Jez says he is not a hard task master. Tim demurs, slightly. "You get what you want!" Jez concedes, "I'm firm but fair. And I'm not scary."

Padraig Naughton of ADI believes Jez is one of the first people with an intellectual disability to lead a project of this size. Something which will influence how people work in Ireland. "There's some very interesting work here in the area of arts and disability," he says, "but in the past it was almost seen as therapy, so for people like Jez to be contributors to the culture of a country, as opposed to people receiving culture, that's the really big shift."

"It proves that not only can people with disabilities contribute," Padraig adds, "but they also have marketable, unique quality work that can sell tickets in the same way as a Druid Murphy and will add to everyone's experience of the arts."

Jez agrees. "People in disability in the olden days seemed to be unworthy and stupid and dumb and spastic or whatever, but this is where I come in and show people we're not like that at all, we're hard working people. We're professionals, we're not a Punch and Judy show."

Travel and new experiences change us all and Padraig also relishes exposure to Jez's attitude. "Some of the things that Jez has said about asserting his individuality, that's something you wouldn't hear as much among the disability community here and that serves as a role model as well," he says.

It should be an interesting year for the hundreds of artists, musicians, actors, writers of all ages and abilities who'll be taking on this Trickster. As he says himself , "that's the thing about disability, some people still see it as a burden whereas people who know the arts, and know us, see it as a great, great opportunity to show off unity and community".

Irish Independent

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