Guide Gods

Is physical impairment really a result of karma or the will of a higher power? Theatre maker Claire Cunningham explores disability and religion

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When disabled artist Claire Cunningham visited Cambodia she was planning to research the effect landmines have had on the country.

Three decades of war have left an indelible mark on Cambodia. The country has a population of 15 million people, yet it has some 40,000 amputees – one of the highest rates in the world.

Cunningham, who has a condition linked to osteoporosis, was interested to see how the “objects that generate more disabled people” have shaped the culture of Cambodia. As part of her research, the Glasgow-based artist and choreographer visited a school where most of the teachers were disabled. It was there she met a former Buddhist monk, who told her that he considered his own physical impairment to be a result of karma.

“It was a belief that I knew existed in the world but I’d never met anyone directly who had this belief,” says Cunningham. “I realised I didn’t actually know how to talk about it with him because I was coming from a secular background. I was quite sceptical and I realised that my instinct was to disprove his belief, and that told me more about myself than it did about him.

“What did it mean – the fact that I didn’t know how to have a conversation with him, and that my instinct was to challenge him rather than open up? It made me curious to realise how blinkered I’d become in not really opening myself up to other people’s perspectives. I realised I didn’t actually know many people at all who followed any faith.”

The realisation set Cunningham on a new path, one that would eventually lead to the development of her acclaimed piece Guide Gods, which explores the way different faiths view deafness and disability.

Cunningham started interviewing a range of people from different faiths to ask about their experiences of disability, but the answers she found were far from black and white.

“I realised no religion is exactly the same. One Christian is not the same as the next. They have completely different experiences. I realised I couldn’t say Christianity believes this and Islam believes this. It’s a ridiculously immense topic to take on; both disability and religion are huge.”

Using audio from her interviews, Cunningham, who is also a trained singer, started to develop a live piece incorporating movement and song.

“I wanted to keep people’s voices in,” she says. “I wanted to hear people’s voices within the work. I am not an actor and I don’t like acting. I’m not interested in trying to be someone else on stage, so I didn’t want to try and take other people’s words.”

The hour-long performance features interviews with religious leaders, academics and deaf and disabled people, and explores questions such as whether disability is a result of karma, or whether it is the will of a higher power. Audiences are invited to stay behind after the show and debate the issues put in the piece, and Cunningham says the discussion is the most important factor of the performance.

“People seem to want to have a conversation about the thoughts that it’s provoked for them,” she says. “That’s all that I can hope for – that it will provoke some other actions or conversations.”
Guide Gods will be performed in community centres in Manchester and Eccles on 15-17 March. The performance is part of Sick! Festival ( and Big Issue North is media partner. Visit the Centre Stage section of where Tim Harrison, creative director of Sick! Festival, invites us to join a conversation about the very stuff of being human

Photo: Colin Mearns

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