Madeleine Little: access in the arts

Madeleine Little
Madeleine Little
insight featured image
In recognition of International Day of People with Disability observed on 3 December, we recently interviewed Madeleine Little – a creative, performer and access consultant based in Brisbane.

After finding her passion for the creative arts in school, Madeleine has forged a career in performing. Her role as an access consultant was inspired by her work in the disability sector, advising theatre production companies on accessibility requirements to enhance experiences for actors and audiences. So, why is disability representation in the arts so important, and how can we work towards a more inclusive world for all?

In this episode, Madeleine discusses her career journey, why representation is critical, and her advice for people with a disability aspiring to have a career in performing arts.

Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or within your browser.

For more information on Madeleine Little and her work, click here.

Read the full transcript

Rebecca Archer
Welcome to The Remarkables – Grant Thornton’s podcast that seeks to uncover stories about remarkable people doing incredible things for their community, bettering the world for future generations and inspiring others to do the same.

I’m Rebecca Archer, and in recognition of International Day of People with Disability, which was on 3 December, I’m joined by Madeleine Little – a creative, performer and access consultant based in Brisbane. She holds a Master of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts and is an award-winning leader in the disability arts space.

Welcome Madeleine – thank you for joining us on the podcast today!

Madeleine Little
Thank you for having me. 

Rebecca Archer
To get things started, I'd love to hear from you about the journey. What led you to the current point that you're at in your career now?

Madeleine Little
I love telling my creative origin story, if you will, because as a kid, I wanted to be Hilary Duff – that is where it came from as a kid. I wanted to be on stage, and I thought she wrote her own music at that time. So, I wanted to write music and perform and do acting as well. And then of course, there's that thing that pops up as a kid when you are a disabled kid and you start to kind of cotton onto, hang on a minute… okay…I do things differently... I walk differently, or sometimes I don't walk, and I use a scooter or whatever and then going, oh, there's no one on TV that looks like me or that does what I do. I don't know if this thing is going to work out.

And so, I still engaged in music and drama through school just as my passion, and then the dreaded picking what you want to do after high school moment came, and yeah, I picked drama. I said, I'm going to study drama. I don't really know what else I'm going to do, and people are very quick to go, oh, well, if you're studying drama, you're going to follow it up with an education degree, right? You're going to be a teacher. And I thought that that would be maybe the go, but soon after performing in just a couple of shows during uni, I was like, no, this is it. This is it. This is what I want to do. But if the opportunities aren't here, how do we fix that?

So that's when I started working with different companies, but then decided, no, okay, I'm going to study a master's. I'm going to research accessible theatre practice. Why is it so inaccessible at the moment, and is there anything that I can do or find out that might increase the chances of people like me and people from my community being able to engage in theatre and performance a bit more?

And so that's kind of led me to a bunch of different fabulous opportunities, but it all came from Hillary Duff.

Rebecca Archer
So, can you tell me a little bit about your performance in the stage productions The Normal Heart and Hold?

Madeleine Little
The Normal Heart – what was that – that was October and November 2022 – feels like a lifetime ago, but at the same time, it feels like yesterday, and I was so privileged to play the role of Dr. Emma Brookner, and I don't know if you know a lot about The Normal Heart, but it's in a brilliant play by Larry Kramer, and it's set in 1980s New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic and when people didn't really know what it was. And Dr. Emma Brookner is a character based on the real-life doctor who was a wheelchair user and was a polio survivor, and she was one of the only doctors taking it seriously. And this beautiful friendship forms with Dr. Emma Brookner in the show, with all of the characters but the lead, Ned in particular.

And that was actually the first role that I'd ever played that was not based on my life and had nothing to do with me other than, like, a couple of parts in uni, and that was really something special because there's a feisty monologue in there, and I had to figure out, okay, how do I be angry with this ten minute monologue, with this American accent, and also navigate wheelchair mechanics on stage, which is a thing. It's so many moving parts to consider.

But I was really glad to work with Ad Astra Theatre Company on that one because they fully embraced my access requirements as well. So, I shared the role with Janelle Bailey so that I could have some rest time, and it was such a moving show to be part of, and then to receive a Matilda Award for that performance is like, oh my God, I didn't think that that would ever happen to me, but that's really cool that it did, and I mentioned that it was my first role not playing myself in terms of my professional career, and that hold was the previous show that I'd done kind of 2019, just before the ‘c’ word [sic:COVID], and hold was a show that I wrote, directed, produced, performed, and researched for, and there was my master's research project, but it was also a bit of a passion project as well, converting some poetry of mine into performance and really trying to explore the concept of ‘touch hunger’.

And so, for disabled bodies that are often in the medical world, you're poked and prodded, and there's a forced intimacy involved in being a child growing up in a system. Physiotherapists really kind of help themselves, and what does it mean to then become an adult and go, hang on a minute, I haven't really liked touch, but now I'm craving a meaningful relationship. I want to be held by someone who actually wants to hold me and my soul, and so, through the concept of a girls’ night with friends, we explore the main characters – stories about men. Let's just say that not all of them are positive, but it was also a show that tried to integrate accessibility.

So, I was very mindful with the set that we used so I could take breaks. We had a deaf actor in the performance who spoke and signed at the same time. We had a shadow interpreter for everyone else. We had captions displayed on the screen behind us and we had integrated audio description through the role of this narrator who kind of has this booming God voice and will come in and provide audio description, but also some subtle judgment on some of the choices by the characters.

So, that was a really fun thing to do, but that was the last time I played myself, and I'm hoping it will be the last because I'm very ready to take on more meaty roles that don't require my own trauma dumping.

Rebecca Archer
But speaking of meaty roles, how did you get into your disability consultancy work?

Madeleine Little
I found that – it kind of happened by accident initially because there aren't many openly, proudly disabled people in the theatre sector in Brisbane. I think word got out that I was one of them.

So, people started asking me more questions and I'm like, hang on a minute. If there are enough of these questions and if people are figuring out that I am researching accessible theatre practice, then maybe this is something I can monetise so that I can maybe pay my bills.

So that's kind of how I stumbled into it, and I found that while I love working with any arts company, performing arts companies in particular are chef's kiss, like, I love working with them because I find that there's this kind of unique intersection there of, we're not just trying to solve the accessibility concerns for the audience, but there's this thing called – well I've been calling it disability dramaturgy – which is really looking at, if you have a disabled character or performer, how do we navigate the representation of that so it's done ethically and responsibly?

We're not trying to kind of censor or anything like that, but being mindful of how people may receive certain things in different ways. I had the privilege of being an access consultant and disability – I think I called it at the time disability sensitivity consultant – for Shake & Stir's brilliant show that debuted this year called, Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas! and it was bold and glittery and sparkly, and there's a brilliant performer, Maya Dove, who played the lead role of Tae Tae, and she's a wheelchair user as well.

And so, I had the privilege of being able to read the script ahead of time and identify things that might be a bit tricky, things that may or may not be received well, depending on who people are, and just provide some feedback that I was really pleased that they took a lot of it on board, and then I got to see the show again.

There's something really powerful about seeing your community in the audience enjoying a show that they feel welcome and safe at, and so that's what it's all about in the end.

Rebecca Archer
You're now the festival director for the Undercover Arts Festival, presented by Access Arts. What does Access Arts do?

Madeleine Little
Access Arts is a brilliant organisation who does many things. It is the state peak body for disability arts and supporting people who are disadvantaged in the community.

So, there are a few different things that access arts does – the workshops, which are really fabulous, so people can engage on a term-time basis and join the access arts singers and get their choral singing on, or they can join the theatre and dance ensembles.

They've got amazing visual arts program and often do exhibitions as well, which are just absolutely stunning, and then, of course, there's a professional side of things that we do with undercover artist festival, which is, how do we elevate disabled and deaf and neurodivergent artists and their work and put them on stage, and it's a really amazing thing to kind of look at access arts as a whole and see the support for artists with disability at all different stages of their career, or people who just want to engage for fun as well – that is completely valid and so important in the community, and what I've had the privilege of seeing is artists engage in different programs, engage in the festival and perform their work there, and then go on to book more venues, go on tour, go to different fringe festivals, and that's absolutely amazing.

Rebecca Archer
And Madeleine, why is it that disability representation is so important in Australia?

Madeleine Little
In Australia, I think the latest stats are one in five Australians are people with disability, and that makes us the largest minority group, which is huge; it's epic. And so, when we look at our stages and our screens, it's really important that they reflect our society as it is and not just the norm. It makes a huge difference for people like me. I spoke about my origin story. I didn't see anyone that I could relate to.

Sure, I loved singing music, and I could see people who loved those things, but I couldn't see someone performing a song and walking with a similar gait that I walk with, or spinning around in a wheelchair, and when you see that, it makes it so much easier to feel like you belong just in the world, that there's nothing inherently wrong with you. It's just you are one piece of the bigger puzzle.

There's an analogy I use quite a lot when I deliver disability awareness training, which is I ask people if they think emus are birds, and everyone goes, oh, yeah, they're totally birds. And I’m like, right, well, they don't fly, do they? But it doesn't make them less of a bird. They're just birds that don't fly – and it's a bit of a silly analogy, but it really gets people thinking about how the emus are like they're on our coins; they're a national symbol; they're so important. What would happen if society started to recognise disabled people in much the same way that we are equally as important or worth celebrating?

And that can change things for a lot of kids in particular, who either are disabled themselves and can grow up with a better self-image and a better sense of safety in themselves, but also for the kids around them who don't learn about these prejudices that are kind of just enforced by what we see. If kids without disability don't see disability on stage, they think it's weird. They think it's weird, and it's something interesting; it's something different, but if disability was just part of what we do and part of who we are, then it's just normal.

Rebecca Archer
Now, I wonder if you'd be willing to share some stories of the greatest challenges that you faced?

Madeleine Little
I think the one biggest challenge, or hurdle, which I think is a daily one is, I often talk about how disability isn't actually the hardest thing. It's the judgment or the opinions and the attitudes of other people that comes with it, and so, with that, I've had to learn to say no a lot more and to advocate for myself a lot more.

The idea that disabled people kind of get stopped in the street and asked, what's wrong with you? What happened to you? And I used to feel very much like I had to answer that question to educate other people, or I had to fill in the gaps and it's actually like, hang on a minute, I don't have to, and there is so much power in being able to say, no, I'm not going to answer that question, or I've had a couple of people in the world maybe suggest that it's so nice that I am a Festival Director, because that must be really hard for you.

And I'm like, I mean, the job is hard, a lot of jobs are, but it's not hard because I'm disabled. So, it takes a lot of strength to be able to say I'm doing well, and I can acknowledge that I'm doing well, and I think that's the biggest piece of advice I'd give people, is there's, I think, a tendency to feel like we need to be humble and not gas ourselves up too much.

There is a healthy amount of just acknowledging who you are and what you actually do achieve and taking some time to focus on that, and not in this toxic positivity kind of way, but just going, look at the facts, look at where we are, and if you feel like you're constantly butting against something, that to me, is a sign that something in the world needs to shift – and it's not always you. It could just be the people you surround yourself with, or the environment you're in, or it could just be that the access barriers are just too much.

You get to choose the path you want to take. Just own it; say no more; say yes more – whatever it is that works for you.

Rebecca Archer
Just based on that theme, I wonder, what should employers in the Arts sector, and more broadly, be doing to create more inclusive workplaces and really trying to remove those big barriers to participation?

Madeleine Little
A lot of workplaces have this either unspoken or well-meaning spoken motto of, well, this is the way we've always done it, and I think you need to toss that in the recycling bin because ‘this is the way we've always done it’ is not a good enough reason to hold back from doing things better.

It's that whole work smarter, not harder kind of energy as well. Apply that to accessibility as well. The idea that it's too hard or too expensive to employ a person with disability is often – those are the most quoted reasons why – but then you find that employers don't even know that the federal government has the job access program.

So, if you're worried that a future employee with disability can't get up the two steps out front, have you considered the job access program can actually pay for that ramp? Have you considered the sit to stand desk that can raise up? I've got one of them at home; I love it. That's also something that can be covered.

You've got a deaf employee who needs Auslan interpreters for meetings with lots of people – covered. There are avenues to take, but ‘this is the way that things have always been done’, will stop you from exploring them. So, to have an open mind and just go, how can we work smarter, not harder? And how can we do things better? And also think about is your desire to avoid change stronger than your desire to be inclusive? Because when you think about it that way, I think you'll find that you do actually want to be inclusive. It's going to be uncomfortable.

You have to embrace the discomfort sometimes, but it's a lot easier than you think if you're willing to try.

Rebecca Archer
I want to ask you if you think it's actually improving Are we getting better as a culture here in Australia? Is there better representation, both in the Arts for people with a disability, but also across the board?

Madeleine Little
It's slow and steady at the moment. I think every year I see just that little bit more, a little bit. You know, you see the fabulous Chloe Hayden in, you know, receiving nominations for all these amazing awards. Brissy based actor Joel Largo just got nominated for an actor award for the role in Erotic Stories, which was on SBS, and was absolutely brilliant. You know, we're seeing more and more and of know Dylan Alcott. I think his profile has certainly helped, and I just read recently that he's accepted a role in Rocky horror. He's going to be the narrator, so he's embracing acting too.

Yeah, I think it's slowly but surely shifting. I'm very curious to see how the impact of the Disability Royal Commission will influence things as well, because that's sure to influence an update to the Disability Discrimination Act and some other vital legislation that I think will hopefully help encourage society to be more accessible overall, because the more accessible society is, the more that we can enter into it and be part of it, and with that, I think, comes greater representation too.

Rebecca Archer
And for those people listening who might be thinking, oh, I'd love to enter the Arts, but I'm just not seeing the vast majority of people out there reflecting who I am. What advice would you give them? I mean, it must be, some days you just sort of feel like there are just so many brick walls in front of you.

Madeleine Little
Yeah, absolutely. There are still some days where I feel like that, and I am very privileged to be employed in this world and it can be exhausting, and I think that's where you go, acknowledge your need to rest and reset if you need to. You don't have to just keep going at it every single second of every single day. That's, again the way things have always been done, they say if you want a job in the Arts or you want to work in the Arts, it's a hard slog, you got to keep at it. You can actually nap. It's okay. The world will not end; your art will still be there. So that's my first big tip.

But then the second is, there will always be people out there who want to work in similar ways to you, or want to support what you do. It might take a while to find them, but don't be afraid to embrace networking, because the more people you meet, you'll find that they're connected to someone – actually, my sister's husband actually produces an exhibition that you might be interested in.

You never know. All of those little things can add up, and certainly, if anyone's interested in – I want to make performing arts my career, but I'm disabled or deaf – then Undercover Artist Festival is here for you. Even if you're not ready to stage a show just yet. We run a bunch of different amazing workshops and creative development programs that help you find what that next step is.

Rebecca Archer
This might be a bit of a tricky question, but over the course of your career, is there any advice that you were given that really resonates and stays with you?

Madeleine Little
Yes. Yes, there is. Look, I'll give you two, because there's one that a disabled artist gave me and one that I just got just generally. I was attending a residency in Perth in, I think it was 2017, thereabouts, and an amazing disabled artist was there – I mean, it was a room full of disabled and deaf artists; it was a residency for us. It was my first time being surrounded by my people, which was also very great, but instinctively, I had learned over the course of my life that when access isn't right and I ask for help with it, I would instinctively apologise, I’d say, oh, I'm so sorry, can I please have a different chair?

And so, I said that in this room and this amazing disabled artist next to me, Gaelle Mellis – I forever credit her for this pivotal moment in my life – she just put a hand on my arm and said, don't you apologise, that's your access. My brain exploded in that moment, realising that I had a right to engage in a fair and equitable way, and it was not my fault there wasn't a chair that I could sit on. So why was I apologising? So, that was the best lesson that I learned, and I think a really important one for disabled people in particular. If anyone makes you feel like you have to apologise for asserting your access needs, something's dodgy there.

But then the other piece of advice that I've gotten, and I've had it from a few different people, it's just trust your gut. Trust that gut instinct, and anytime that I've not trusted my gut, things have gone a little bit downhill, but the idea that even if you're an emerging artist, that maybe you don't know what you're doing or you don't know which path to take, your gut is worth listening to. It's going to make all the difference, and you'll at least be able to look back and say, I did what I could in that moment or with that project, I did what I thought was right. So, trust your gut and don't apologise for your access.

Rebecca Archer
Excellent advice all round. Madeleine, in 2022, you were the recipient of the Australia Council National Arts and Disability Award for early career artists. Congratulations!

Madeleine Little
Thank you!

Rebecca Archer
What did winning this award mean to you?

Madeleine Little
It was an amazing, shocking experience for me, but knowing that it was a national award, only one person gets in the early career artist category, only one in the established every year. Knowing how many people had been nominated for that.

The biggest impact for me, though, was realising, as they were telling me about it, as I was kind of reflecting on it, that award means that you've had an impact in some way, and that was huge – thinking that maybe, just maybe, some work that I have done has supported people, or made them think differently, or even just feel a little bit more welcome.

So, it did trigger a pretty hefty existential crisis for me because I was a bit like, oh, okay, if people are watching, what do I do now? Am I doing it right? No, I have to be doing it right because clearly, I just got this. It did also teach me that impostor syndrome does not go away. It will always be there, and that's something that doesn't matter how many accolades you'll receive, you'll probably still have that voice in your head that goes, but you're a fraud. You know that?

Again, you just have to trust your gut and trust the gut of people around you, too, who are saying, no, hang on a minute. We want to recognise you for this.

Yeah, it comes back to what we were talking about earlier. You don't always have to be super humble and quiet. You can actually go thank you.This is really cool. I'm very, very grateful for that acknowledgment. It was huge.

Rebecca Archer
And just finally, before we wrap up, I'd love to hear what you've got coming up that might be a bit exciting. It sounds like your whole life has got lots of exciting elements, but is there something in particular that you've got coming up that you can share with us?

Madeleine Little
Well, actually, yeah. I've just finished writing a draft of a new show. It'll be a comedy cabaret. I've created an alter ego for myself, I can say that, and it'll be dabbling in music a little bit more, which is great. It's something I kind of let slide as I focused more so on theatre, which has been great. So that's all I can say for now, but I'm hopeful that that show might see maybe a 2024, maybe ‘25 premiere.

Other than that, I continue to work with amazing people and projects as a consultant with the festival. Next year is an off year for the festival, so I'm also looking forward to a little bit more sleep and planning what the 2025 festival is going to look like. Yeah, I'm just really excited to support other incredible disabled artists and see more representation on screen.

Rebecca Archer
Madeleine, thank you so much for your time today. It's been such a pleasure talking to you. I wonder how we can continue to follow you beyond this podcast episode or perhaps even get involved?

Madeleine Little
Yeah, if people want to lovingly stalk me, you're more than welcome to. My website is madeleinelittle.com. You can also find me on Instagram and LinkedIn with the same name. You can also follow the work of Undercover Artist Festival at undercoverartistfest.com and Undercover's also on Instagram and Facebook, and Access Arts is as well.

Rebecca Archer
If you liked this podcast and would like to hear more remarkable stories, you can find, like and subscribe to The Remarkables podcast by Grant Thornton Australia on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Leave us a review or ideas on who you’d like to hear from next. I’m Rebecca Archer – thank you for listening.

Image credit to Gabrielle Burey