The Cripsters: April Hubbard on the DisabiliTease Festival

April Hubbard performing in drag as Crip Tease is seated in her wheelchair with the sky in the background. She is wearing a mermaid's tail, a jewelled brassiere, and golden tiara.

April Hubbard, a mad, disabled, interdisciplinary artist based in Halifax, is a featured performer in this year’s DisabiliTease Festival, which takes place in Minneapolis, MN, and on Zoom from July 19 to 21. Akimblog recently spoke with her about making theatre accessible, and how the circus, drag, and burlesque scenes embrace disabled artists.

I started out in theater, but as soon as I became more visibly disabled, I quickly realized there wasn’t a place for me in the community anymore. I was actually told, “We don’t want you on stage because we feel it will make the audience uncomfortable.” Despite having worked as a professional theater artist for years, I just wasn’t getting the calls anymore and wasn’t having people reach out to me for roles like I used to. In the twenty years since then, there have been changes in venues wanting to become more accessible, but the big change that I’ve seen in the industry as a whole has come from me and a small group of disabled performers who have fought tooth and nail every step of the way to say, “We are going to make you look at us, whether you want to see us or not, whether you want to welcome us in the community or not.”

A big part of that has been through the Halifax Fringe Festival. Fringe was created as a platform to give a voice to outsiders who didn’t typically have space on traditional stages. For me, that was the ideal place to start pushing boundaries and show there are people being left out who have important messages to share. About a decade ago, Halifax Fringe made the choice to no longer use any spaces that weren’t fully accessible. We started training our volunteers to be sighted guides and made it clear that the festival was a safe space for everybody to have a voice. By doing that, we started to make inroads in the performing arts community as a whole. Now, when I talk about different access measures, people know what I’m talking about. A decade ago, if I talked about touch tours or visual descriptions, nobody had any idea what those terms meant. It’s nice to know now that the conversations have at least become a little more mainstream.

April Hubbard is pictured seated in her wheelchair against a grey backdrop. She is wearing a bright yellow wig, a pearl necklace, and a black dress. She has on light blue eye shadow and red lips. She is smiling.

I was invited to be the author of an accessibility study through the Eastern Front Theater Society a few years ago. Its main goal was to study where we are at with accessibility and provide a baseline on what types of performing arts are doing better and where we have more range to improve. Drag and dance were two really accessible modalities of art here in Nova Scotia. They were much more willing to accept atypical bodies, and they were prioritizing different types of accessibility in the arts, whereas theater was the farthest behind and still had a lot of learning and unlearning to do.

In 2019 I found an opportunity to come back to my own artistic practice when I started performing with the ladies of LEGacy Circus. I fell in love with melding unconventional movements to disabled bodies while still getting difficult messages across to an audience. Then in 2021, after some encouragement from friends, I decided to try drag during the pandemic because there weren’t a lot of accessible drag spaces at the time. When everybody was forced to create drag at home, that was my way in to start exploring. And so I created my character of Crip Tease.

Burlesque, drag, and circus have, from the beginning of their histories, been modalities for outsiders. They’ve really had to think about who’s in their spaces and what stories are being told and, more importantly, what stories are being excluded and what voices are being excluded. As an artistic community, they’re willing to change and make adaptations and learn from one another. For years, more traditional modalities like theater have had it so easy that they think, “Well, this is classical theater and this is the way it’s done and we don’t want to change that.” They worry they’ll lose something if they have to change the way the show is put on rather than see what can be gained by welcoming other viewpoints and bringing other people into the conversation.

April Hubbard is shown performing on a trapeze against a black background. She is dressed in black.

I wasn’t really thinking of circus as a performing possibility for myself. I was just invited to be a body during a class here in Halifax. Erin Ball, who is part of LEGacy Circus, was training local circus teachers how to work with atypical bodies. I knew Erin already and ze said, “You’d be a great example of somebody who knows how to work with their body with confidence and can communicate those things clearly.” Ze asked me to come in just for the workshop, but the second I touched the trapeze, I was in love. It was so freeing for me to be able to move through a space without feeling held back or less than or having deficiencies. It was one of the first times in the arts, since I had become a wheelchair user, that I felt I had free movement, that I felt strong and powerful, that I felt graceful. Vanessa Furlong from LEGacy Circus asked me to train with her for a project right away. Within four months, I was performing as a professional circus artist.

For a lot of years, I had been interested in drag and had always been adjacent to the drag community. I’d done front of house activities in the drag world and burlesque world, so I had connections and friends there. But I questioned whether it was a space that was mine to enter, specifically as a cisgendered woman. I had seen two traditional forms of drag: cisgendered males dressing up in a femme-presenting way and trans drag. Those were the only examples I had for many years.

But I had an amazing drag parent who really welcomed me to try it and to go outside the box. I felt so free to not only send the message, “Yes, I have an atypical body and I’m not going to hide that,” but I also got to explore being hyper-feminine, which is something that we don’t often get to do as women in the disability community. It’s very much the case that the one way to present yourself is to make yourself small and not seen. But in drag, I was encouraged to be over the top, to play with all the makeup and hair, and make myself hyper-visible. To challenge people to not only see me, but also listen to the messages I had. I bring in a little bit of my own story to educate people, so there are sometimes tough, political messages that are stuck in there with the fun. I find it helps my audience to listen more to the difficult messages than if I just stood on stage and shared a story in my own body.

April Hubbard in her wheelchair and Vanessa Furlong in stilts performing on a boardwalk the piece Where the Wild Things Aren't. The images is in black and white.

April Hubbard & Vanessa Furlong, Where the Wild Things Aren’t

For the DisabiliTease Festival, there’s a wide range of performances. It’s drag. It’s burlesque. There are some sideshow pieces. There’s definitely circus artists as well. It’s a little bit of everything. They’re open to any kind of gender-based play, which is amazing to see. And being a festival that’s totally focused on the disability community was something that had interested me as a patron for years. But I had a fear of applying because I felt like I’m still a pretty new artist and I don’t know if I’m ready yet. It was only because I am nearing the end of my life that I realized this is going to be my last opportunity, and if I don’t do it now, I’m not going to get another chance. So I got my courage up and applied, and they wanted me and welcomed me.

The piece I’m doing for the festival was originally created for a production in Halifax that was based on Disney-themed pieces, and I was the only visibly disabled person participating in that particular show. When I was deciding what song I wanted to use, I listened to “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, and it was as if I heard it for the first time through a disability lens. There were so many similarities to wanting to be part of this bigger world, but always feeling like you can’t participate in it fully and it’s not for you. I was so excited to create a piece based on that and pull together an amazing team of disabled artists. My videographer, my costume maker, and my makeup artist were all disabled. We had so much fun making this piece through the streets of Halifax. And to know now that it’s going to have this larger international audience is really exciting.

A colour picture of April Hubbard sitting backward on her wheelchair and looking over her shoulder at the camera. In front of her is an array of coloured lights.

I’ve seen so many of my able bodied friends take for granted the privilege they have to walk into any space and be heard and be seen. I never got that, so I had to become an advocate in order to survive as an artist. Whether I was being welcomed or not, or whether I was being seen as an annoyance and somebody who just wouldn’t go away, that fueled my fire even more. I have to advocate, because if I don’t, then the next generation still won’t have a single example of a disabled performer in our art scene. I didn’t want another generation to go through that. So I knew that I had to use the voice I had in order to make it happen. And I take a lot of pride in the fact that we have examples out there now, and I’m not the only one.

[April was recently approved for medical assistance in dying or MAiD. Her Living Funeral will take place on September 29.]

My Living Funeral is the last time I’ll get to celebrate with my community our art together when we come together as a big, sparkly community of outsiders. That’s a beautiful gift, but there’s advocacy in it as well. All of us who will be in the venue had to fight for so many years just to be able to be in those spaces. The proof that we’ve made a difference came when I posted that I wanted to have a living funeral, and a local theater reached out and offered their space to me for free. A lot of seeds of advocacy have been planted along the way, and this will be a moment of recognizing all of that and how far we’ve come. But I also know it’ll be the last time I get to see my community. So, in addition to the art and the advocacy, there’s definitely the aspect of just celebrating together one last time.