We Ask These Questions of Everybody (soundfestival)

This part-opera, part verbatim audio poem is scored by Amble Skuse with a libretto by Toria Banks. We meet Hannah, who needs help, as she goes for her assessment with Lynn. Lynn works for a company who report back to the Department of Work and Pensions.

From the transcript of Hannah and Lynn’s meeting, and other testimony, Skuse and Banks have developed a piece which gives a voice to those with disabilities (or impairments, as language is important to the individual) are viewed in a world resolutely geared towards those who can see. hear, walk.

Commissioned for soundfestival, this is “a 50-minute live and digital operatic event sharing disabled people‚Äôs experiences under austerity in the UK, performed by an exceptional cross-genre, all-disabled ensemble.”

Screencap from We Ask These Questions of Everybody

Produced by HERA, We Ask These Questions of Everybody uses text drawn from real conversations; samples, soundscapes and singing. It is performed by a cross-genre, all-disabled ensemble, placing into sharp focus their experience of living under austerity.

This is a clever piece which uses on screen captions and words in an innovative way to keep the interest and to emphasise the opinions and situations being shared and expressed.

Joe Strickland, who you may be familiar with from their work with Chronic Insanity, is the digital producer, with Laura Spark’s creative captions and musical accompaniment from Sonia Allori (clarinet) and Steph West (harp: she also plays Hannah). Lynn, the accessor, is played by soprano Victoria Oruwari, who can also be heard in Extant’s Flight Paths.

Screencap from We Ask These Questions of Everybody

The DWP assessments have gained much negative publicity since their introduction: with questions far too broad, and interpretation far too narrow, many who need financial assistance will inevitably fall through the gaps.

When Hannah’s assessor writes to say “you say you cannot, I find that you can” it is like a punch to the gut when you have heard exactly the same evidence. The lack of empathy; the government-sanctioned “humilation”.

This is testimony from those who live it every day. Who meet people who don’t know whether to mention any obvious disability, by those whose unconscious biases lead them to make snap decisions rather than considering the whole person.

Screencap from We Ask These Questions of Everybody

Hannah’s experience highlights a gap in understanding of mental health as well as physical impairment, and the dangers of keeping doggedly to the limits of a form without thinking outside of the box. One size can never fit all.

I found We Ask These Questions of Everybody a piece which is set out to challenge our perceptions of those around us who may need our help, and how the system to which they are referred deals with their feelings and needs.

It does, and should, make a viewer think, and I came away with some insights I had not really considered before.

We Ask These Questions of Everybody is available on-demand alongside other shows in the soundfestival, on HERA’s YouTube channel. It is freely available until 28 February 2021.