A chat with the CEO of No Strings Attached

Sun, Dec 3 2023
Ahead of International Day of People with a Disability, we sat down with the CEO of No Strings Attached, Dr Kari Seeley to discuss accessibility and inclusion in the context of the arts. No Strings Attached is a professional theatre company that proudly works exclusively with disabled performers
A lady is smiling at a camera whilst she holds the side of her hair.
AMPLIFY. Photo: Anastasia Comelli, Adelaide Frringe 2023
Kari has been with No Strings Attached for almost 10 years and has had the privilege of being the inaugural CEO since late 2019. Prior to joining No Strings, Kari’s career spanned various roles, including a paralegal, a position in broadcast media, and a stint in public service. Initially starting at No Strings Attached as a favour to a friend, Kari quickly found it to be a place where she could effectively utilise her diverse skills. The ethos of the organisation strongly resonated with her, particularly the commitment to advocate for people living with disabilities, to work towards true inclusion, and to ensure access to meaningful paid work opportunities in the Arts. 

Kari has just completed her PhD in disability arts access, specifically looking at Audio Description for blind/vision-impaired audiences, a topic and cause very dear to Kari which aligns with the ethos of No Strings Attached, in providing access and opportunity for diversity and inclusion.

No Strings Attached creates new works through a unique collaborative approach, drawing on the lived experiences of performers and working with practising professional artists. Additionally, the organisation values the disability lens, regardless of whether their works are specifically about disability. 

Through the power of partnership and advocacy, No Strings Attached provide theatre skills workshops tailored to the individual interests and capacities of performers. This allows for the greatest form of engagement and expression, and showcases the power of diversity and acceptance. The organisation also advocates for access and opportunity by letting ability shine through, and challenge those with low expectations and educate society to achieve true inclusion. 

AMPLIFY is No Strings Attached’s annual end-of-year showcase performance season, celebrating International Day of People with Disability. No Strings Attached believe that drama skills are life skills, and they do not “give” their performers a voice; the organisation simply “amplifies” their voice, by supporting them to develop theatre skills and hold a space for them to share their stories in their own voice.

Each year, AMPLIFY is co-created by No Strings Attached performers, working alongside theatre professionals. This year Suzanne Bleeze, Catherine Purling, and Christopher Williams have worked with our Troupe, Theatrics and Studio ensembles, ably guided by our No Strings Attached artistic leadership collective of Paulo Castro, Jermaine Hampton, and Mitre Khammash. This year AMPLIFY explores several themes including power, the environment, and waiting! The show is presented in three acts, with two intervals.

Kari, can you tell us about the journey of No Strings Attached and its core mission?

No Strings Attached is a professional theatre company working exclusively with people living with disability. The company was formed by the late Helen Flinter Leach, who discovered that local theatre companies were open to welcoming her to help backstage or front of house, but could not “work out” how to have her step onto stage. So, back in 1994, Helen started her own company and No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability was formed! We carry on her legacy: challenging the barriers associated with disability; celebrating ability; and committing to excellence and innovation. When we undertake large scale productions, such as “My War” (part of the State Theatre 2023 Stateside program), we engage our performers as professional actors and ensure they are supported in their professional work. This is very important to our core mission.

How did your personal experiences shape the vision and ethos of the organisation?

At No Strings Attached, we are privileged to carry on the legacy of our Founder who had a passion for the transformative power of meaningful work in the arts, and this continues to drive the organisation today. Over the years there have been shifts in terminology in the disability sector more broadly. For example, should we talk about “people living with disability” or “disabled people”; “disabled actor” or “actor with disability”? There are strong opinions for both, so we choose to be guided by the person themselves. Some of our performers are proud of their disability identity. Others prefer to identify themselves, first and foremost, as an actor. As a professional theatre company, we strive for and celebrate ability, and in doing so we do not diminish the challenges that shape individual experiences. We truly celebrate diversity and inclusion, creativity and experimentation.

In what ways has No Strings impacted the disability community in Adelaide?

Over the last 29 years, No Strings has become a premier disability theatre company in South Australia. We know that “you can’t be what you can’t see”.  Since our very beginning, we have provided access and opportunity for people living with disability, to learn their craft, get on stage, and tell their stories, in their own way. 

During COVID, we went online (as did the rest of the world) and undertook an online collaboration with artists in Singapore. This resulted in the development of a ground-breaking work called SAME-SAME, which was delivered live online and in person in Adelaide and Singapore. It certainly “broke the mould” and I think we broke Zoom. Samela Harris identified that show as the first in the world, and it was done in “little old Adelaide” and by people with disability! To me, this epitomises No Strings Attached. When others say it can’t be done, we partner with extraordinary collaborators and together we devise creative solutions!

Several of our performers have then gone on to develop their own performing arts careers. Some have won movie roles at open (mainstream) auditions. Others have developed their own one-performer shows that have had wonderful success at Adelaide Fringe, and beyond! No Strings Attached is an amazing theatre company that welcomes everyone, regardless of ability, and through hard work and dedication, our performers can take on the world.

Can you share a memorable success story or transformation that occurred through your organisation's work?

One of our actors was non-verbal. They were able to communicate through gestures and noises, with pointing and a whole lot of passion. When they’d been at our workshops for a few months, they advocated for themselves to participate in an “Acting for Film” intensive program. Their parents were dubious as to how that performer would cope. I was amazed to hear what their Mum told me after Day 1: the performer had shown no interest in speech pathology sessions whatsoever. They couldn’t talk and were totally unmotivated to try. However, after several months in the weekly class, and the acceleration of the intensive, the performer decided they did want to learn to speak! The speech pathologist was astounded at their progress in a very short time. That person worked hard and at the end of year show, they spoke several very clear words for all to hear. The audience was unaware of the “quiet” revolution that had taken place! That performer proudly walked up to me, in the green room just today, and greeted me and asked me how I was - clear as a bell! We are not classed as “therapy”, but there are many stories like that as there are No Strings Attached performers!

What have been some of the major challenges you've faced in running No Strings?
How have you overcome these challenges and what have been some of your proudest achievements?

Funding is always a challenge in the arts! We are a registered NDIS Provider, which adds another dynamic to our business model, and which is certainly not without its own unique challenges. In that environment we are often called on to advocate on behalf of our performers, in securing the funding required to ensure their choice and control over their lives. However, I am delighted that we have an amazing Board that is incredibly supportive of the organisation, the performers, and the staff. They have all rolled up their sleeves to help us raise funds and build awareness of our brand. They are wonderful advocates!

I think one of the achievements of which I am most proud was the way in which we successfully pivoted our programs due to the pandemic. COVID was certainly a challenge for us, as our artistic model has always been face-to-face skills development workshops, alongside collaborative creative developments leading to full-scale productions. Within weeks we went online, which required us to purchase devices for many of our performers, purchase data, and teach them how to get online and use zoom. The COVID support from the government also enabled us to keep our professional practising artists engaged, and we even doubled their hours, which was especially important as they had lost all hospo income (the mainstay of most artists between gigs). It was the sudden and unexpected success of going online that drove us to explore collaborating overseas. This in turn saw us develop and deliver SAME-SAME, which toured to Singapore, and then SAME-SAME2.0 which toured the Melbourne, Adelaide and New Zealand Fringe Festivals, all from the comfort of our own homes (online).

How does participating in the Adelaide Fringe benefit No Strings and its members?

Several of our performers had their first taste of performing in a full scale production as part of our Fringe seasons. They are so proud of the “Fringe Performer” status and they can often be found hanging out in the ‘performer only’ areas of the Garden at Fringe time! They love getting out and about, and are thrilled when Fringe goers ask them about their show.
No Strings Attached has been around for 29 years, and yet sometimes it feels a bit like we’re the ‘best kept secret of Adelaide theatre’. However, Fringe audiences are often up for something ‘different’ and we are delighted to have been ‘discovered’ by Fringe goers 

Are there specific performances or projects that you are particularly excited about?

We are very proud of all of our performers, and especially of a couple of long-term No Strings Attached performers who have developed their own shows and presented them, to great acclaim, at the Fringe. Kym Mackenzie is a well-known celebrity in Adelaide arts circles (I need to find out how he gets free tickets to everything!) and he has presented his stand-up comedy show at the last few Fringe Festivals. Kathryn Hall presented her show, Sheltered, at the last two Fringe Festivals, and took out the inaugural Access Award for the whole of the 2023 Fringe. We are so very proud of their work, and are delighted that the skills and confidence they developed through years of No Strings Attached workshops has provided a foundation for them to forge new paid work opportunities in the arts.

Looking forward, what are the future goals and aspirations for No Strings?
How do you envision the role of arts and culture in promoting inclusivity and understanding of disabilities?

2023 has been a huge year for No Strings Attached, and we are already fielding invitations to take shows interstate and overseas (subject to funding, of course)! No Strings Attached turns 30 in 2024 and we have big plans – we have a full and fabulous program of performances and other events planned for the big 3-0. We will launch the year with a world premiere screening of our first-ever film, My Stories Matter, and we are partnering with the Mercury Cinema for that event on Tuesday 6 February. 

Drama skills are life skills. As people find their voice and develop their craft, they grow in leadership and independence, which creates exciting new employment pathways. No Strings Attached presents professional mentoring in a supportive environment, working in partnership with our artists to help them learn, grow, explore, and reach their potential. Providing true access and inclusion allows for the greatest form of engagement and expression.

What advice would you give to other organisations or individuals looking to support the disability community through arts and culture?
How can the general public better support and engage with arts organisations like No Strings?

The most important way that the general public can support and engage with arts organisations like ours is to get along to a show. No matter how much you think you know about No Strings Attached, or other disability arts organisations, there’s nothing like personal experience. Our work challenges stereotypes. We do not shy away from having important conversations through our art. No Strings Attached theatre is funny, surprising, confronting, thought provoking, and glorious. As one of our audience members said, “No Strings is full of ability!” Another said, “I had no idea it was going to be this good. It is extraordinary!” As a professional theatre company, we take our craft seriously, and we set high standards, and then we work in partnership with our artists to support them in their aspirations and ambitions, to develop new skills and to share their stories in their own ways. The more that authentic disability stories are heard and seen on stage, the more we can challenge society’s low expectations and celebrate diversity.

How can people learn more about your organisation or get involved?

Visit our website:  www.nostrings.org.au
Follow us on Facebook:   https://www.facebook.com/nsatheatre

How does No Strings Attached recognize and contribute to the International Day of People with Disability? Are there any special events or initiatives planned by your organisation in observance of this day?

Our end of year showcase, AMPLIFY, is always presented on or near 3 December, to mark and celebrate this important day. We are so thrilled to have the support of State Opera South Australia, who provide their Rehearsal Studio, at Netley, for us to present our performance season.