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No Strings Attached celebrates 25 years of breaking the fifth wall

No Strings Attached cast members perform Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Anthony Rex
No Strings Attached cast members perform Not All Who Wander Are Lost

In 1993 writer and performer Helen Flinter Leach grew tired of the limited opportunities in South Australia for aspiring performers living with a disability. 25 years later, No Strings Attached is a leader in embracing and empowering diversity in the theatre sector.

It started with Helen Flinter Leach,” current No Strings Attached artistic director Alirio Zavarce explains. “She’s a tremendous force that wanted to do theatre, and went to many different companies in Adelaide trying to find opportunities for her and her husband, who had a disability, and they couldn’t find what they were looking for.

“A lot of people were giving them opportunities backstage and front of house, but not necessarily onstage. That’s when she started No Strings Attached – that was the beginning of the journey.” As Flinter Leach enlisted other artists and creatives to make No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability a reality, she started a community of performers and supporters that a quarter-of-a century later has become an innovative South Australian institution.

“It’s been a tremendous journey,” Zavarce says. “We’ve always been told that we punch above our weight, but it’s our responsibility to give people opportunities regardless of background or ability, or any perceived limitations, to create theatre and express themselves.”

Zavarce took on the role of artistic director in 2016, having started out with the company as a support worker, then tutor and director. “My brother was blind and had an intellectual disability – he was super influential in my life,” he says. “When I was born my mum just told me that I had to focus on the things that he could do, and not what he could not do. So for me, creating and finding ways and methodologies that the actors can express themselves with is kind of second nature to me,” he explains.

With a current pool of over 60 performers from across the Adelaide metropolitan area, No Strings Attached’s participants come from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, abilities and talents. As each work is developed with and for the actors, Zavarce and No Strings Attached are able to adapt to and support the different strengths and abilities of actors at every stage of the creative process.

No Strings Attached, ReConnect 2019
Anthony Rex
No Strings Attached cast members perform Portal

“We’re experimental, we use any medium, we pioneer just by the sheer necessity of what we have to do. So it’s an exciting company, and as a director my job is to find solutions; if an actor cannot express something, how can I help them? Sometimes we don’t realise just how much we’ve created – I totally believe that we’re at the forefront of equality and diversity.

“We are redefining disability, and that’s what No Strings Attached is known for. When you’re seeing a No Strings show, disability is like the fifth wall; those barriers of discrimination, or anything that we perceive as being different, just disappear. You’re seeing actors being terrific on the stage, telling their story and being empowered, and that’s a pleasure for me to be able to lead.”

In recent years Zavarce and No Strings Attached have taken their work overseas, with 2018 show I Forgot to Remember To Forget premiering at Singapore’s True Colours Festival.

“At the moment we’re very excited about our role in the Asia Pacific region, and creating collaborations; we’ve taken shows to Vanuatu and I’m going to Vietnam to collaborate with companies there. We also have a very exciting 2020 season coming up.

“It’s quite mind-blowing for us when we take a show overseas and they see what we can do, and for me it’s exciting to collaborate, share these methodologies and advocate for the rights of others in other countries.” While No Strings Attached has made great inroads, back home there’s work to be done to see equality of opportunity extended across stages and screens.

Duncan Luke and the cast of I Forgot To Remember To Forget
Alex Frayne
Duncan Luke (centre right) and the cast of I Forgot to Remember to Forget

“We still have a long way to go, especially on television and film,” he reflects. “I think there should be more opportunities for performers with diverse abilities, and a spectrum of pathways to also direct and create things. I’m very excited about the pathways we’re creating in terms of leadership, and making decisions and being involved in any aspect of creation or art that they want to be.

“In a nutshell, things have improved somewhat, but still … if you look at the State Theatre Company and how many actors over the past 10 years have a disability, even in the wider landscape of Australia, it’s very small.”

In the meantime, No Strings Attached will continue to foster the next generation of performers as it has for the past 25 years. “The show that we just did, we had a group of performers who had never been on the stage before,” he says of the company’s recent ReConnect 2019 showcase in November.

“It’s amazing for them, but also their families. Without even thinking about it, some families might have limitations that they put on someone based on what they think is possible.” Seeing a loved one perform and express themselves onstage, Zavarce explains, is a powerful way of both highlighting and shattering such perceptions.

“Humans are so complex, and through this expression we can show the whole diversity of not only ability, but gender and culture and all of those things… I think the beauty of the company is how all of that disappears. It’s all about the art, and the people creating the art.

“At the end you realise that what we sometimes might think divides us, is actually very small in comparison to what unites us as human beings.”

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country. His work has appeared in Rip It Up, The Saturday Paper, Smith Journal, Royal Auto, Swampland Magazine, Broadsheet and The Thousands.

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