A collaboration between self-described disabled choreographer and performer Claire Cunningham and choreographer and performer Jess Curtis, The Way You Look (at Me) Tonight promises an immersive experience that takes us deep inside the experience of being human. It is a duet between two articulate performers — one whose physicality requires the use of crutches — and is fed by the creative efforts of philosopher of perception, Dr. Alva Noë, and others. Accessibility is a primary theme, and performances will be enhanced for audiences with physical or sensory impairments.
At the heart of this piece is the way we see and are seen. It asks whether we are empowering or disempowering one another in the process.
New Times recently spoke with both Cunningham and Curtis to learn about their creative process and the ideas that feed their work.
New Times: What does each of you bring to your collaboration?
Cunningham: I think Jess has an ability to open a space for people to be very honest about what is going on and create a very safe space for everybody to be vulnerable in. It’s beautiful in the process, but also onstage I can push myself a little bit more as a performer and maker. I know I’m with someone who can catch me and catch anything that happens.
Curtis: Claire is an amazing writer. Her insight into the human experience — and her ability to put that in language — is so beautiful. There’s text at the end of the show that I’ll not spoil... but it makes me cry a good third of the time. Claire is so articulate and has such a keen eye trained by the lived experience of being disabled. That brings a perspective that I as a nondisabled person really have never thought about.
Perception seems to be at the core of this piece. Would you agree?
Curtis: I’ve been very interested in the phenomenology of perception, which is a big word that just means how perception happens — how we perform our perceptions — [and] “enactive” perception, which is the idea that our sense organs don’t exist in a vacuum. Our eyes don’t do anything useful until they’re in a head that turns and moves and looks around and a body that can change positions in a room. So our ability to perceive the world is very much shaped by our bodies and also the skills that we then accrue about how we use the body to produce sensation.
[To Cunningham]: Does your experience with disability shape your ideas of perception?
Cunningham: I will notice different things in the world because of being disabled. I will notice the ground more. The lived experience of disability requires a very creative life. You have to be problem-solving all the time. The world hasn’t been built for your body to negotiate properly, whether that’s sensorially or physically. And so it often requires a lot of extra work and attention. In some ways, I think it’s quite a gift as an artist because you are being offered this different way of encountering the world.
Do you consider multiple types of disabilities in this piece?
Curtis: It’s interesting because some of this came from Claire’s practice working in the United Kingdom. There, almost every major theater will have some performances interpreted in sign language. Many shows have audio-description headsets available for visually impaired patrons. In the UK, there’s even a practice now called “relaxed performances,” which are for neurologically diverse folks. In Claire’s last piece, she prioritized having an audio-descriptive track and sign language interpretation or captioning. Going into this project, Claire was very clear that she wanted that. For me, it also made sense in terms of the themes that we’re talking about: perception and how it works.
Will these kinds of alternate communications be available to the entire audience or just those who need it?
Cunningham: There’s definitely a degree to which we’ve tried to embed these sensory accommodations within the work. In the UK, we term this the “aesthetics of access.” So certain sections of the work are captioned, and that’s something that everyone is experiencing. And within the sound score itself are descriptions of what we are doing. There are other moments where we provide additional support such as the audio description headsets that people can wear who have a visual impairment. And also, having a sign language interpreter on certain nights adds another level of access for deaf audiences.
Curtis: And there are things that we do that no one can see. Like you can’t see how something feels to me. And using this idea of the audio description about my sensory experience, we give that access to everyone on a deeper or different level. We are interested in this relationship between different kinds of languaging and are really aware that language is always interpreting. So there is a danger there, and there’s also a huge potential for poetry.
The Way You Look (at Me) Tonight
By Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis. 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Miami-Dade County Auditorium's On.Stage Black Box, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami. Tickets cost $25 for general admission, $20 for students, and $50 for VIP. To request materials in accessible format, sign language interpreters, and/or any disability accommodation, contact Tigertail at 305-324-4337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. TTY users can call 711 (Florida Relay Service). ASL interpretation will be available during the Saturday performance.