BY CHRIS KOHN
Coordinator, Master of Directing for Performance, Victorian College of the Arts; Faculty of Fine Arts and Music; University of Melbourne
Last year I was lucky to see Julia Hales’ extraordinary You Know We Belong Together in its World Premiere season. I flew over from Melbourne especially to see it, after being granted the privilege of observing the work in rehearsal some weeks earlier. I grew up in Perth, although I haven’t lived here for 25 years. The city has always nurtured unique, idiosyncratic artists, from all art forms. I credit the “Blenkinsop years” of the Festival of Perth, together with Fremantle’s thriving music and community arts scene, for my lifelong love of adventurous performance. Shows like Bran Nue Dae and Cloudstreet and the early work of artists such as Chrissie Parrot and Sally Morgan came from this period. Sitting in the audience of You Know We Belong Together, surrounded by an enraptured public, I realized it was a show that would add another chapter to this trailblazing history.
It may not be obvious, because the artists don’t brag about it, but the premiere of You Know We Belong Together was a landmark moment for disability arts, advocacy and the theatre industry more generally. Never before had a show, in a major international festival, and in a major theatre company’s subscription season, anywhere in the world, been led by an artist with Down syndrome. Several such shows have featured the work of artists with Down syndrome – but never before in a leading artistic role. With the talented, passionate and skilled Julia Hales literally centre-stage, co-writing and creating, the show was an embodiment of the well-known mantra in disability arts, “nothing about us without us.”
With the support of her collaborators, Julia revealed a hidden history of Down syndrome. Meticulously researched, it is a true story of ignorance, misunderstanding and stigma. People with disabilities have always been capable of much more than society has expected of them. As Julia points out in her show, it was only one or two generations ago that people with Down syndrome were considered by most to be incapable of reading, writing, living independently, finding a life partner or holding down a job. Insititutionalisation and infantilisation was the norm.
As Julia demonstrated, thanks to the tireless work of self-advocates, families and their allies, society’s expectations are evolving. By telling her own life story and talking about her ambitions and providing a platform for her peers to do the same, Julia proposed that we reconsider what a diagnosis of Down syndrome means for that individual, their family society more broadly. Down syndrome (and disability more generally) is not a tragedy, a cause for pity or a drain on society – it is a normal part of human existence and something that adds to the rich diversity of who we are.
While we have come a long way, Julia bravely asserts in the show that we have a long way to go. At one point, she asks the question of why so many parents with a pre-natal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancy. “What are they so afraid of?”, she asks. With the recent development and adoption of methods for detecting Down syndrome early in pregnancy, this question is timelier than ever. People with Down syndrome are living longer, healthier lives and contributing to their communities in a range of ways. Like Julia, most people with Down syndrome don’t believe that their condition is incompatible with a happy, fulfilled life – their own experiences disprove this. Studies have shown that people with Down syndrome and their families report higher than average rates of overall happiness. As a parent of a child with Down syndrome, this does not surprise me. Sure, there are challenges, but the “plusses” far outnumber the “minuses”. The greatest difficulties arise from other people’s low expectations, assumptions and prejudice.
It’s no surprise that You Know We Belong Together was a resounding success. Julia Hales has been developing her skills as a performer, researcher and advocate for two decades – she has worked long and hard for her “overnight success”. Given her obsession with Home and Away, she has found an ideal partner in Clare Watson, whose distinguished career has been built (in part) on her abiding love of pop culture and what it reveals about ourselves. To borrow from another 80’s TV classic, Julia Hales and Clare Watson have proven to be a “perfect match” and this show is testimony to that.
I am so glad that You Know We Belong Together is returning for another season and hope that it enjoys the long life of touring that it deserves.
Image: Julia Hales (You Know We Belong Together, 2019). By Toni Wilkinson.