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Chronic Pain and Crip Performance Practice

by Dr Sarah Hopfinger (she/her)


Sarah is a queer-crip artist-researcher, working at the intersections between live art, choreography, performance, disability studies, ecology, intergenerational collaboration and queerness. She creates collaborative, participatory and solo performances, often working with diverse collaborators including children and adults, trained and non-trained dancers, disabled and non-disabled performers, and nonhuman objects and materials. Her work responds to her lived experiences and she creates performance as a way to practice alternative and ethical ways of living and being in the world. Sarah approaches performance-making as a way to ask difficult questions and to be within the unknown and complexities of those questions. Her performances have been presented nationally and internationally, with organisations such as Take Me Somewhere, Battersea Arts Centre, South London Gallery and Imaginate. Her research is published in leading performance journals including Performance Research and Research in Drama Education. Sarah is a lecturer in contemporary performance at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

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Sarah’s contribution to the event is a performance lecture that reflects on performance making as a crip practice. Through focusing on a recent audio piece she created – Pain and I – which explores the richness and complexities of living with chronic pain, this audio performance lecture is a gentle provocation about crip queer art making practice.

Performance Lecture

Dear you,


Take however long you need to set up this audio and to settle in to where you are.

You’re invited to be alone – alone with yourself, a support worker or care giver, or
perhaps with a human or animal companion. Choose somewhere that you will not be
distracted or disturbed, where you can let yourself experience these reflections. If
you wish to be inside, choose a room where you can relax. If you wish to be outside,
choose a place where you feel safe and at ease.

Throughout this experience feel free to place yourself in ways that are most

comfortable for you – you might sit, stand, lie down, lean, move around, make noise,
close your eyes. You could be in your bed, in a bath, on a mat, in a wheelchair, on a
sofa, at your desk, in the sunshine, in a city, in the countryside, in a park, on a
bench, or somewhere else. You can change between positions, and between
stillness and moving, at any time. You can pause and start this recording whenever
you wish.

You do not need to be a polite audience member. You’re invited to do what is most
caring for your body and mind. This space does not merely accept you but needs
you to be you for it to be itself. This space shakes its head at pressure and
judgement. It wants another way. It’s a space to rest into your body, to acknowledge
yourself however you are, and to reflect on what it might mean to crip performance

Hello. In this audio performance lecture I creatively and personally reflect on my
current thinking around crip performance, in relation to a recent audio performance
that I made called Pain and I. I also share some extracts from that performance.

Pain and I is an intimate audio piece, exploring the complexities of chronic pain
experience through autobiographical text, with sound design and composition by
Alicia Jane Turner. I have lived with chronic back and nerve pain for 19 years, and
had largely related to my pain as a barrier to my life and work. A few years ago, and
for Pain and I, I turned towards my pain as a creative collaborator, exploring it as an
intimate life companion. Pain and I aimed to playfully and unashamedly acknowledge the hardships and celebrate the complexities of living with chronic pain. It was produced and funded by Take Me Somewhere and Platform, with support from Creative Scotland, The Work Room and Battersea Arts Centre.

To briefly introduce the term crip. Crip theory and practice builds on the foundations
of the social model of disability – the social model proposes that it is not an
individual’s impairment that disables them, but rather societal structures: it is the
physical architecture, societal attitudes and cultural norms that exclude and dis-able
individuals. But crip also draws on the ethos of the disability arts movement and
disability pride. It is a politicised view that challenges pity and deficit narratives of
disability, refusing the configurations of disability as tragedy, limitation, dejection,
loss. Closely aligned with the affirmative model, with a crip politics an individual’s
impairment is a crucial aspect of their identity and their place within disability or crip
culture. Crip is a term that is reclaimed from the derisive term ‘cripple’; a similar
process of reclaiming language as with other movements such as queer activist and
academic movements. I am interested in developing my research and arts practice
as a crip approach, where what I do and how I do it acknowledges and celebrates a
crip – and queer – perspective. I definitely do not always achieve this – and I don’t
always know what achieving this looks like. But having the intention makes all the

So this performance lecture takes a meandering structure, interrupting itself with
different tones and writing styles, including reflections, questions, performative texts, and autobiographical thinking. This structure enacts the kinds of creative process I go on as someone living with chronic pain – the pain means I often have to work for short stints of time, at odd times of the day or night, and I can’t sit for too long as this makes my pain worse. The stiffness and diverse types of pain I experience such as shooting spasming, dull beating, nerve pulling, heated, scrunching pains, can all interrupt me at various points in my thought processes, working patterns and time commitments. I often interrupt myself to stretch and exercise – and I have done this throughout the making of this performance lecture – where these interruptions can feel unwelcome as well as bring new insights and thoughts. Interrupting the flow can in fact be one of the most creative things that happens in my processes of making and writing about art making. The interruptions can help me resist normative structures and ways of doing things.

What happens to the methods and modes of creating, thinking, theorising, writing
when my chronic pain body – and different bodies and minds – are embraced as
valid and knowledgeable bodies and minds, which have specific skills and

Well, firstly, for me, I breathe a sigh of relief. What a relief it is to be able to embody
more of who I already am. What energies and potentials get opened up when we are
able to be more fully who . . . we . . . are? What happens when I welcome in my pain
to the creative process?

I’m trying to listen to you, to get to know your qualities, character and atmosphere, to
mark you, honour you, and to see what you have to say. I hope that I’m giving you
your due.
The air calls you in.
The air calls you in.
The dust settles you here.
The breathes stroke your presence.

Welcome to the wakeful nights, the unease of daybreak, the hindered steps, the
troubled ones.

The air calls you in, speaking in a slowed disenchanted voice: there is space for you
here, space for the unhealed.
The touches of breezes and whirlwinds that have brought you here, the currents of
quiet and chaos . . . sound out their bells, booming your validity, vulnerability, and

Welcome the unchosen ones, the ones left out, the disruptive, uncomfortable,
quietened, shameful ones.
The air calls you in.
The air calls you in.
Your shimmering of the unbearable – your shadow sides – crisscross the now, and
we scream come back to me, there’s space for you here.
Your kiss of brokenness, your kiss of damage, it wets, softens and calms.

In Pain and I – and as this text might demonstrate – I wanted to give space to my
chronic pain experience. What happened if I did the opposite to what I had done the
majority of my life and what might be culturally expected – that is, what happened if I welcomed in the pain experience rather than resisted it, ignored it, did not speak
about it, wished it was not there, or played it down. Not in order to pretend having
pain is fine, but in order to creatively work with the lived reality of my body, and to
see how it felt to let that experience take centre stage.

The text that I just read from the audio performance Pain and I came from a creative
task I gave myself to invite in the pain – to welcome it in. The experience of writing
and speaking this was for me an experience of playfulness, sadness, calm, smiling,
grief, openness, hardship, peacefulness, all at the same time. It felt liberating to
practice a different way of being in relation to my pain – to welcome it as a friend. I
felt more friendly to myself, to my pain experience, and to what unexpected
knowledge might lie in that experience. In the final part of the audio performance,
within the text I hope there is a sense of the richness of knowledge that can be
contained in living with chronic pain.

I still sometimes live in fear that you’ll continue to spoil my life, to trouble me, unwind
me, make me disappear, be my crisis.

I have spent a lot of time hating you and I’ve used so much energy up to carry on
hating you. I’ve hidden you, ignored you, played you down, tested you and planned
many times that this time you will leave me. But you’ve hung around. You’ve stayed
with me for 19 years. You’ve seen me grow into an adult, leave home, study, make
friends, fall in love, fall out of love, work hard, be sure of myself, overdo it, lose my
confidence, grieve, become an aunty, welcome in a new sexuality, and start to grow
grey hair.

Even when you’re not loud, not making yourself so known, I think about you every

You’re never not here.
You are so committed to me.
You have a pattern that you don’t stick to.
You are so present and so ungraspable.
You’re too real and you’re not always believed.
I know you too well and I don’t know you at all.
You might never leave me.
You ask for gentleness and another kind of time.

You know about rage, shame, anxiety and panic.
You know about kindness, fragility and calm.
You know about those lines that go ‘ring the bells that still can ring, ring the bells that
still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack a crack in everything, there
is a crack a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in, that’s how the light gets
in, that is how the light gets in’.
You contain power.
You contain love.
Because of you I care more.

During the pandemic I have realised how much I need and yearn for queer crip
spaces – I think of it like queer crip atmospheres, qualities and communities – and
now I am thinking that what performance practice lets me do is practice the kinds of
alternative resistant spaces that I need, and hopefully others need, and this can be
thought of as the work of repair and love. I think a queer crip politics is about love.


Alicia Jane Turner (, Take Me Somewhere (, Platform (, RCS (

Go to the launch page here to see themes and contributions

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