Emily Dash: a leader in the making

Emily Dash. Image: courtesy the artist.

Emily Dash. Image: courtesy the artist.

Emerging artist Emily Dash not only speaks with passion and authority but is quickly becoming a great cultural leader too.

How did you start your career in the Arts?

I’d always wanted to get more involved in the arts, so I started looking for opportunities and came across a contemporary dance class for people with disabilities at Shopfront Youth Arts.  It was so much fun.  Afterwards I told Margot, the teacher, that I was hoping to find more artistic opportunities – and that my disability always seemed to get in the way.  Then she asked if I had ever done drama. This caught my attention.

Acting fascinates me, but I’d never found a way to do it so I was happy to sit and watch.  But here was Margot, explaining that she’d recently taken a job as a support worker for Ever After Theatre Company and they were looking for two new actors with a disability.  I asked her to send me the information, and went for an audition.  And the next day, with no experience, I was cast in a show called Social Network Stories at Carriageworks (which was supported by the Department of Family and Community Services and Arts NSW). Doing that show was one of the most nerve-wracking times of my life, but it was also one of the best.  And I haven’t looked back since – I’m still with Ever After, but I have also gone on to work with other companies, as well as creating my own independent work.

 Can you tell us a little about Can you see me? Theatre and your short film I am not a work of art?

Can You See Me? Theatre is an integrated theatre company comprised of actors with and without disability, which is committed to increasing visibility through high quality and professional performances.  We use a combination of physical theatre, narrative and vocal exploration to shine a light on issues that are often overlooked in mainstream media.  That’s why we are so excited to be returning to the Sydney Opera House with our new show Water Angel (supported by the Lifetime Care and Support Authority, Arts NSW and the Cerebral Palsy Alliance) – it’s a platform that allows people to come and hear what we have to say.

I wear many hats in regards to Can You See Me? Theatre – performer, writer, and most recently associate producer.  From all these angles, I am excited about the direction we are taking as a company.  Last year we created our short film The Cards I’m Dealt which dealt with issues of gender and sexuality that are not often explored for people, and specifically women, with disabilities.

In terms of my work as an independent artist, I wrote and perform in my short film I Am Not A Work Of Art, in association with Pearly Productions and Metro Screen’s Screenability program.  It explored discrimination – I wanted to communicate how it felt to be made into an object of discrimination, and I was fortunate to have a talented team to help me bring my vision to life.  And I’m proud to say that we were a core team of women, and a majority of our key creatives were also women.  This is something I will continue to work towards, because I think it’s important to diversity in our industry.

What do you hope your audiences will get out of the show and reflect on after they’ve seen it?

In terms of Water Angel, I hope that as always we can open people’s minds and shatter perceptions.  But this time we’re going about it a little differently, looking not just at disability but other areas of social justice as well.  We want audiences to think about how and where we meet, what unites us in an increasingly divided world…and what makes a life worth living.  All of this will be a celebration of what matters in life.

Do you think disability arts is becoming more understood and appreciated in its own right these days? In your opinion, what is an example of a best practice project that has taken place in Australia or overseas?

I think the very fact that we have something called “disability arts” shows that we still have a long way to go (I prefer the term integrated, if one has to make mention of it at all).  I understand the importance of subculture, but I would much prefer if artists with disability were better represented in the mainstream arts community. In saying that artists with disability are making great strides – look at Rawcus, Back to Back, the RUCKUS ensemble, the Unlimited festival in the UK, and InterACT in NZ.

I’m also really proud to be working with Red Door Arts, Maitree House, Shopfront Youth Arts and Ever After Theatre on CONNECT, a multi-artform street performance around themes of accessibility and inclusion in the local community.  It’s supported by Accessible Arts and it’s running 23/24 March at 12, 3 and 6pm in Rozelle.  I’m so excited to be the co-writer, co-curator and a performer in this project, designed to open up a fresh dialogue about inclusion within the local community.

Do you feel that you are, whether you want to be or not, a role model for other disabled artists or disabled people watching you as audience members? Do you feel you have a responsibility to help break down barriers or shatter glass ceilings?

I sincerely hope I am.  Although I don’t want to only explore disability in my work, my identity and my experiences will always impact my creative process – and if I have empowered someone with a disability, or even encouraged someone to view disability in a different light, then that’s a job well done.  I’m not always as explicitly “political” as I am in I Am Not A Work Of Art, but social justice is important to me.  I want to lift people up and show them what’s possible.

Do you have role models, if so, who?

I think it’s really important to have role models, and I have so many it’s impossible to name them all here.  But there are some wonderful creative people who deserve a special mention.  Alyson Evans and Kylie Harris, who aren’t afraid to dream big and take me along for the ride.  Every person who ever worked on I Am Not A Work Of Art, but especially Lynn-Maree Danzey, Pearl Tan and Sal Eccleston, Andrea Espinoza and Dean Watson, who worked tirelessly and encouraged me as an artist when I was still VERY new to the game.  Another role model of mine is comedian, actor and writer Sheridan Harbridge – the energy, passion and talent she brings to her work is something I aspire to in mine.

What do you think of International Women’s Day?

As a woman and a proud feminist, I believe International Women’s Day is important because it provides a platform for women (and men) to celebrate achievements in gender equality and women’s empowerment, and discuss what’s next.  In doing so, it can also help to raise the profile of minority women such as women with disabilities.  So I try to get involved in local council IWD events as much as possible.

Do you have any advice for artists who might be just starting out?  

Try not to let people convince you that you can’t do something. Sometimes even those closest to you might try and stop you.  My mother is my biggest supporter, but when I told her I had signed up for dance class she was more than a little hesitant.  She told me I had strengths in other areas, that I should focus on those. She didn’t want me to get hurt if it didn’t work out.  But it meant so much to me, and I kept going. I’m glad I did too, because otherwise I never would have done the show.

And that has led to so many other things. Be proactive in going after opportunities.  Even ones that don’t look applicable to you at first (like Ever After was for me) can be adapted, and who knows where that may lead?

Happy International Women’s Day!

Emily Dash is a 25 year old emerging writer, actor and speaker who works both independently and collaboratively. She graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Arts (Sociology) (Gender Studies) in 2013, achieving First Class Honours in Sociology. Beginning her artistic practice in 2014 with Ever After Theatre’s “Social Network Stories”, she undertook a 2015/16 professional mentorship with Red Door Arts to create “The CONNECT Project” which will be launched in March 2016.

Emily joined Can You See Me? Theatre in 2015, a fully integrative and inclusive theatre company of actors with and without disabilities. She co-wrote, co-devised and starred in their original production “The Waiting Room” at the Sydney Opera House. She is currently developing their new show “Water Angel”, to be presented in May 2016.

Social Network Stories was supported by the Department of Family and Community Services through Stage One of the NSW Arts and Disability Partnership.

Water Angel, produced by Cerebral Palsy Alliance’s Can you see me? Theatre is supported by Lifetime Care and Support Authority and Arts NSW 2015 arts and disability project funding.

Emily’s short film I am Not A Work of Art received funding under Stage Two of the NSW Arts and Disability Partnership (via Screen NSW) as one of four films produced by Metro Screen.

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