Standing by the world’s largest minority

Standing by the world’s largest minority

Audrey Perera Audrey Perera

Audrey is the Executive Producer of True Colors Festival, 2021 Tokyo

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is the great disrupter of our lives this 2020. Many international events had to be cancelled, including the True Colors Festival Tokyo, a performing arts festival that celebrates diversity and inclusion. 

But that didn’t stop 46 singers, dancers and musicians from performing to a very timely message in their Stand By Me music video that has put the True Colors Festival in the news and on social media in recent days.

The full festival most recently took place in Singapore in 2018. Over three days, it featured over 200 artists with disabilities from 22 countries performing on stage.

Alongside were interactive activities to help people get a better handle on disability in fun and engaging ways. It was the first time for this festival format and producing it this way was a dream come true for me.

The 2018 focus was on artists with disabilities. Not my preferred term of reference, but a “safe” one as a variation of the UN-sanctioned term “person with disability”.

At the time I knew very little about this community, which is actually the world’s largest minority, at an estimated 1 billion. I had had no personal experience in this reality. But a small fire was lit in my heart. Here was a gift handed to me on a platter; I could design it as I envisioned, and it would be a way to begin to change misperceptions about disability; a way to turn the “pity narrative” on its head. I use the phrase ‘begin to change’ because I was under no illusions that one festival could change the way a society thinks.

But it could definitely make a difference to so many in this community, and to the artists who would come away feeling respected because they were treated like the professionals they are, and presented in a professional concert venue run by the best possible production team.

So in I dived, convinced from the start that this was meant to be, and that everyone who joined the team was meant to be there. In our vulnerable, wine-fuelled moments after a long day, this sentiment would sometimes pop up – the sense of rightness, a group of mostly strangers pulling together so strongly for something we all believed in. That doesn’t mean that there was no drama and conflict – but the centre held strong.

Street Dance Crew ILL Abilities finale

We learnt some good lessons:

Make sure the spaces you need are truly accessible. When building owners claim that their premises are disabled-friendly, it often just means that there is a wheelchair accessible restroom. Always go with your measuring tape and accessibility checklist.

The front-row seating will be messy and that’s ok: Who cares, if it means that wheelchair users can sit next to or within arms-length of their companions? It wasn’t how it is usually done in a professional concert venue. Be patient and appeal for understanding with the venue owners, it will be worth it.

Arts plus the Disabled doesn’t equal Charity Show. At every turn, people asked: What’s your fundraising target? Where will the money go? Why were the tickets so expensive? At every turn, people made the unconscious assumption that a person with a disability is less capable, less talented, less OK. That any show that features only artists with disabilities must be a fundraiser. One senior investment banker – AFTER watching the world-class concert that was completely without the “pity me, bring out your cheque book” narrative – had the idiocy to ask me how much we raised. Imagine that! So much work still needs to be done to shift people’s perception. 

Ma Li and Zhai Xiao Wei

Human kindness comes to the fore. When we needed specially-fitted wheelchair accessible vehicles to transport our overseas artists, hoists to support them in their rooms, spare wheelchairs for artists and festival attendees who might need one – people and organisations who provide support to this community came forward. Their message was simple: You all are doing something good and important. We’ll work together to support you. Whatever you all need, leave it to us.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. There are few things that faze me, but getting the VIP seating right was one. Anyone who has ever done this will know. It’s about understanding status, ego, who dislikes who, who needs to be seen in the right seat. During one planning session, as I felt my blood pressure begin to rise, I heard a voice in my head, clear as a bell: “Focus on the important things. Let the other things go.” I leaned into that message, and let go. No one’s life was irrevocably damaged by their seating positions. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget.

Appearances aren’t everything. Even today when people look at images of the concert, they comment on the number of empty seats and point out that attendance was bad. One veteran marketing director told me that I failed completely because of this. I’ve mostly stopped explaining that we picked the venue because it was the most accessible venue for performers and audiences. We knew it was way too large and there was no way we could fill all those seats but our priority was accessibility, not full-house-picture-perfection.

And so it was. The first True Colors Festival took place in Singapore in 2018. More than 10,000 people watched, teared, gave standing ovations and went away changed by the 200 artists from 22 countries who had performed in a moving, uplifting and inspiring live concert. A festival team of more than 100 amazing individuals, supported by a 200-strong volunteer pool made it happen.

But for me, that wasn’t the highest point of that festival. That moment came after the festival had officially ended.

Vendors and partners had packed up and moved out, furniture was being stacked, equipment being unplugged and loaded up. We kept the outdoor stage area open, for all the artists and crew to relax, meet, take photos and say teary goodbyes, as most the artists were flying home the next day. Everyone was relaxed, energised, thrilled for the standing ovations and the experience of making so many new friends.

The music was playing when one of the hosts started a group dance, calling on people to come up on stage and join in. The unexpected happened. Artists in wheelchairs took matters into their own hands, sped up the ramps leading to the stage and began to dance blissfully, while their caregivers tried to catch up. There was pure happiness and a total sense of freedom on their faces. Best of all, no one stopped and stared – the dancing continued as more and more people got on stage.

I turned to the artistic director of one of the groups; his musicians were the ones having the most fun, keeping their caregivers running behind them, as they spun in circles, raised their arms and whooped for joy.

I will never forget his words: “My musicians would never ever dance like this in public unless they felt complete trust and respect from those around them. This is what the True Colors Festival has given them, and I thank you all.”

And now we’re in 2020 amidst a global pandemic. It was disappointing to have begun and then have to cancel our 2020 Tokyo edition with no sense of when we might be able to resume. But we did, with the Stand By Me music video, the unofficial re-start of True Colors 2020/2021, powered by The Nippon Foundation in Japan.

Maybe this too was meant to be. At least for now, we have to go digital, and that means that we can share our message with people around the world much more quickly and easily. We’ll miss the sheer power of people together in one space being moved by a shared experience, but that’s just the way it is; and maybe one day that can happen again.

We can already see a new way of living. We’ve all adapted to alternative work arrangements, harnessing technology and remaining efficient. And as societies everywhere begin to envision life post-COVID-19, we’ve got to get it right this time. The needs of people with disabilities everywhere must be factored in right from the reset and not as an after-thought. We can build a world in which everyone’s needs are catered for, and no one is left behind.


Audrey Perera Audrey Perera
Audrey is the Executive Producer of True Colors Festival, 2021 Tokyo