Thrilled as I am to be representing Dao at the Fringe this year, from even the briefest glance at the programme I can tell I'm going to be a whimpering, knackered mess by the end. There are so many performances and events by and for disabled artists this year that I'll need equal amounts of speed, spirulina and 'shut up, you have the coolest job going' to keep me going.
Unlimited and the British Council are in town, and shows touching on everything from mental health to mortality can be found across comedy, theatre, dance, music, events and cabaret. I'll also be getting jacked up on professional development at events at Zoo Southside, Summerhall, Forest Fringe and Fringe Central.
Colin Hambrook and I will be up reviewing and schmoozing from August 23rd-31st so if you see us do please say hello.
A few of my top tips and tantalising treats for your dance cards are as follows:
Dive Cabaret: Last year the lineup included some of the most riotously profane signed poetry imaginable, and as DIVE organisers Annabel and Annabel have started working with local disability social network Get2gether I'm hopeful of meeting some new pals AND expanding my pornographic BSL vocabulary.
Good for: queer cabaret, inclusive programming, dirty thrills.
iF Platform: A gorgeous collection of leading UK disabled artists covering heaps of styles and approaches curated by Stopgap. I'm particularly looking forward to Jo Bannon's Alba; her sensitive style and chic aesthetic make my heart sing. Touretteshero's Backstage In Biscuitland looks like an absolute scream, and our man Rowan James' Easy For You To Say looks like it'll ring my bell politically, despite my mild allergy to beat-boxing.
Good for: connecting the regional dots of the UK's rich scene, assured quality.
Black- Le Gateau Chocolat: The first solo show from international operatic drag star Le Gateau Chocolat promises a soulful look at what a picnic it is growing up black, gay and depressed in Nigeria. Having seen Gateau as a cabaret performer many times I am already in love with his voice and adorable stage presence, and Black is top of my list for confessional one-handers.
Good for: knee-tremblng vocal talent, testing the resilience of waterproof mascara.
Abnormally Funny People: Celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, Abnormally Funny People has a rotating all-star cast of stand-ups bringing you their best bits every night, including Gareth Berliner, Eshaan Akbar, Liz Carr and Tanyalee Davis. This is where mama keeps the juice; go at least twice.
Good for: variety, famous faces, songs and laughs.
Bryony Kimmings- Fake it Til You Make It: Bryony's previous work on sex, celebrity, feminism and drunkenness make her something of a performance pin-up of mine. Partnering with her fiancee Tim to present a work on severe clinical depression, masculinity and love with her trademark humour looks to be another in a long line of hits for her.
Good for: fantastic aesthetics, frank humour and live-art influences.
Guerilla Aspies- Paul Wady: I'm a sucker for a spoof lecture, and Paul's whip-smart daftery should do really well to promote his book 'Guerilla Aspies- A Neurotypical Society Infiltration Manual'. Aimed at preaching to the unconverted but with plenty of insider jokes for his fellow aspies, Paul is on a mission to help you 'see things our way'.
Best for: TED lovers and haters, slideshow junkies, fact-finders and newbies.
Euan's Guide: Not a show but a resource listing and reviewing venues for accessibility. You can also get helpful info from the EdFringe website.
Anything I simply MUST see? Stick your recommendations in the comments below please, and I'll get back to trawling the programme for even more goodies to check out.
Full disclosure: I’ve seen, and worked in, a lot of immersive and promenade theatre and its offshoots. Probably too much.*
With companies like Shunt, Carnesky's Ghost Train, You Me Bum Bum Train and Punchdrunk leading the scene there have been some pretty awesome feats of immersive/interactive theatre pulled off over the last 15 years, but it’s a tricky thing to get right, and often it fails to engage, let alone transport.
Sensibly-shod, I entered the secret FO[U]ND Corporation building in Cardiff on Friday, willing the combination of Punchdrunk’s deservedly excellent reputation and Hijinx’s expertise in working with learning disabled actors to bring out something to sock me right in the jaded eyeball. Given that their last collaboration bagged them Wales Theatre Awards’ Best Production in English, and the show promised themes of corporate skullduggery, memory and secrets my hopes were high.
The basic ingredients of an immersive show tend to be
- Use of derelict, unusual or secret location for staging.
- Themes of intrigue, mystery and unveiling.
- Medium to large cast of actors, often interacting with audience members to influence their experience.
- Promenade; audiences generally being free to roam the spaces as they choose to ‘drop in’ on the action around them. A ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ book made 3D.
- Elaborate art direction and sets/installations, frequently with excessive knick-knacks and vintage miscellany. A filmic feel is common in the sound and lighting design.
- The grand reveal! Your hosts want you to stick around the buy from the bar afterwards so the final scene is usually a party.
- Fairly high ticket prices.
Lost and Found hits some, but not all, of these points, and unfortunately fails to progress or subvert what is a well-established trope. Alas, it falls a bit flat.
Once masked and inside the building you’ll be greeted by a hammy ‘sinister woman’ and directed into the guts of the building to explore detailed installations of vauguery, repetitious performances and as much Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Terry Gilliam aesthetic as you can stuff in your face holes.
Speaking of face holes, asthmatics beware; the hazers are on high and the building is a dusty bugger. Wheelchair access looks possible throughout but there was some loose flooring around Lost At Sea that could be tacked down. Access information was very good before and at the show though, and the production team were very attentive.
There is some nice interplay between the actors in the Lost departments, particularly the spies and the corporation officials, and the costuming is stylish although often a little mature for the ages of the performers. In exploring I tried to tail the likable post-master figure but appropriately he lost me pretty quickly, and I found myself at a rack of luggage tags asking for me to write down a memory. (What is it with luggage tags in theatre these days?)
The best bits were the genuinely creepy washing lines and witnessing a resurrection at sea, and one could have a good time playing hide-and-seek in the set with a mate. The actors mainly, but not consistently, pretend you’re not there so as long as you’re not deliberately disruptive (it’s got to be unnerving enough playing to a masked audience) I encourage you to make your own fun. If you get lucky you’ll be siphoned off for a one-to-one performance; the one I witnessed was genuinely clever and stylish.
Above ground, a plot reveals itself in printed materials, ironic artefacts and a confrontation scene which was well delivered but in which I felt some of the disabled actors were presented as props rather than characters.
Whilst I’m splitting hairs, I’m also not totally down with how acquired disability was used as a metaphor in a narrative about “who we used to be” either.
The meta-nerd in me really liked how the themes of augmented reality being sold to a jaded population were being explored through trendy immersive theatre, and I had a nice little flirt on the way out the building with one of the characters, following a patchy-but-sweet finale, so I guess I had overall an enjoyable but pedestrian experience.
If you’re in Cardiff and you’ve never seen a Punchdrunk or Hijinx show, or indeed attended a promenade show before, then go. For £10/6 it’s a fine price to take a punt on something new.
Overall, I feel the attention to detail in design and process was well-developed but the resultant message and characters were unclear, so perhaps go and view it as installation rather than performance. Or just rewatch Brazil.
Beneath The Streets: Lost & Found will be on until July 3rd as part of the Hijinx Unity Festival, Cardiff at a secret location revealed after booking. For tickets visit www.hijinxunity.org.uk
* In 2004 the first show I saw upon moving to London was Shunt’s Tropicana, I’ve performed in The Apocalypse Gameshow several times, worked (regrettably) for Secret Cinema, performed in spoof séances in Masonic temples and attended tons of performances from professional and amateur companies seeking to transport and bamboozle their audiences, as well as gigging at ‘immersive dining experiences’ attempting to cash in on the popularity of the trend. I also studied at Goldsmiths College 2004-7 and as such had site-specific and promenade work presented to me as my new religion, and for a short time worked as a Kalashnikov-weilding insurgent in crisis simulations for special U.N and Medcin Sans Frontieres envoys.
Ahead of his first Edinburgh Fringe show ‘Easy For You To Say’, I met up with punk poet Rowan James to welcome him to my neck of the woods and find out his ambitions and motives behind the piece.
Rowan has been based in Ipswich for many years but has come to the warm, cidery bosom of Bristol to develop his first feature show in a new context and to gain a bit of perspective on all that he has achieved so far, an impulsive decision his producer Luke Emery regards as typical of Rowan’s style.
From supporting Scroobius Pip and Attila the Stockbroker on tour to teaching at special education schools Rowan has broad experience as a creative practitioner; I was most struck by his considered and open identity as an artist and activist, and his ability to bring his artwork to many different arenas.
“There’s no hard or fast rule about what an artist should do; some people aren’t up for changing anything socially. Personally that’s not art that interests me, I’m always into things that surprise me, turn my head and challenge me,” says Rowan, “I started out on the music scene being the poet on between bands, and that’s the audience I prefer. I haven't always enjoyed the sit-down poetry gigs as much. I like captivating the audience be a challenge. I like having to work the mic and my physicality to bring people in, having to be in people’s faces in a way that finds balance.”
I can relate; as an emcee I always love the freefall, the risk, in daring to make an audience love me for being provocative, maybe even making them uncomfortable yet always included. A few beers from now Rowan and I will have bonded over the social construction of gender, classic 80s trainers, the importance of outrageous flirting and the scandals and gossip we know from the performance poetry scene; a bender is brewing, one that will leave me with disco whiplash in the morning, but for now all is professional…
The first time any artist offers their heart on a plate to the Edinburgh Fringe is an important moment, and I wanted to know what Rowan’s intentions were for his ‘big push’, performing a continuous poem in a rave setting accompanied by beatboxer Marv Radio to explore labels, self identity, perception and about the aspiration and lack of understanding within society around learning difficulties and disabilities. Well, shit, there goes the neighbourhood.
“One of the themes of the show is looking at diversity, how in the same way as globalisation and immigration, it makes us stronger. I’m looking at medical advances since the 1970s, that I’ve dubbed myself a first-generation survivor of, from being the first generation of congenital heart conditions that babies have survived and the knock-on effects of that.
I’m fascinated by Socrates’ distrust of writing; he thought that our brains would change if we weren’t holding information in the same way; I’m someone who finds the journey from brain to page really difficult and I want to look at how that has been under-represented in an unfair way and why that is.
I want to talk about my frustration about how, for example, when people talk about the Holocaust how it’s never mentioned that disabled people were the first people to disappear.
I don’t know if I can do all that in one show. It’s hard, quite heart-breaking, to research the sense of apathy around how far we should go to change our systems to include more people. What is the ideal? What is fair? What is reasonable?”
Conversation of this scope obviously requires more space than one blog post can contain, so, in the interests of developed discourse Rowan and I hit the backstreets of Bristol to wreak havoc, dance like twats and inflict ourselves on the general public in the name of critical dialogue. Nice work if you can get it, folks, and I'll be bringing you more on this dynamic artist as we sober up.
You can get your tickets to 'Easy For You To Say' at the Edinburgh Fringe HERE
Rowan will be performing and Alice will be giving a presentation on crowdfunding at 'Shaping a Diverse Future' on July 10th at The Point in Eastleigh. Tickets HERE
And you can donate to our crowd-funding campaign to support Rowan's show HERE if you'd like to chip in a few quid towards the poking of the status quo and the development of a young artist on the verge of kicking up a stink as part of the iF Platform at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Staring vaguely into the middle distance in a chalet in rural Wales, it’s hard to process that for the last week I’ve been on a tidal schedule; a wind-burnt face and a sleep-deprived sense of befuddlement my only souvenirs of a week on the bank of the Thames helping Liz Crow bring her ‘Figures’ project into being. Was it only a few days ago we stood outside Parliament giving interviews to Finnish news channels and to Occupy? The BBC DID show up, didn’t they?
The human cost of austerity as a theme for a project is one I’m totally behind and the value of humanity in arts production has featured heavily in lessons learned this week. Working under tough conditions, be they battling 60mph winds or a being in a group of strangers thrown into a flat together, is par for the course in production, but the ability for a team to pull together and play nicely is key to success.
3am rarely brings out the best in anyone but we managed, by and large, to bring a little gallows humour to our early starts and heavy loads.
Every court needs it’s jester, and when I realised I was unable to help with a lot of the physical aspects of the performances due to a back injury I took my role as Production Support to be in part serving as a cheerleader for physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing amongst the team. Yup, a bit of mucking about whilst loading a van can go a long way, I feel, as does the timely application of bacon sandwiches, so I hope I was able to contribute a little to the team.
None of this would have worked without excellent planning, and commendation must go to Producer Jess Edge for preparing the most formidable schedule to help us keep on track! I’ve worked with complicated scheduling before as part of the production team of the Unfairground at Glastonbury Festival, and the skills of good resource- and people-management are totally transferrable in all outdoor arts endeavours. If everyone is clear on their roles and know exactly where they need to be at any given time it allows for much better problem solving in the moment.
I tip my hat also to Liz’s PA Jess Keily; her amazing skills and patience really highlighted the importance of skilled and properly funded assistance for disabled artists. Without her we would have struggled to keep the project afloat, and her excellent communication between the team and Liz helped us to adapt to Liz’s energy levels and requirements.
Liz herself has been a joy to work with; even freezing her fingers and toes in the clay and wind for hours at a time she always came back from the shore smiling and kind. Endurance work really is a test of the body and will, and Liz’s commitment to her work has been unshaken throughout. She’s a very impressive woman who’s work I will be following from now on.
Please do have a look at the Figures twitter account for details of the project and the stories behind the sculptures. We live in uncertain times and I will be watching the results of the general election closely for movement in funding to arts and disability.
It’s nice to be back in the real world, and to not have to wear four pairs of trousers to keep warm, but there was something magical about being the only people awake on the riverbank watching a lone figure making many small ones, making a quiet but powerful protest for vulnerable people in society. Let us strive to take care of one another and keep up the pressure on government to be accountable and fair to us all.
In the week dominated by coverage of Martin Sheen’s speech on the danger of middle-of-the-road politics whilst the NHS is eroded I found myself sporadically weeping into the pelt of a Golden Retriever called Archie and plotting to blow up Parliament. Welcome to arts administration.
In preparation for Liz Crow’s new sculpture performance ‘Figures’, I had the grisly-yet-illuminating task of copy-editing 650 stories of the human cost of austerity, each one to be represented by a clay figure made by Liz. At the office of CoQuo, the digital agency supporting Figures, I plugged in, caffeinated, and nearly dislocated my jaw from the number of times it dropped in disbelief.
As a borderline anarchist, the depths to which the authorities will stoop to do over the public in the name of budget cuts didn’t come as a total surprise to me, but my ignorance as to the situations of some people claiming Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payments was a bit of a shock.
I knew when starting this training that my limited experiences of personal disability were going to be challenged, something I am grateful for, but the total outrage I felt at reading the unfair ways in which claimants have been treated was a baptism of fire into disability politics that has brought me, still smoking, to total belief in the relevance of Liz’s arts activism.
People are dying waiting for their PIP re-assessments, families are being put under terrible pressure, and press propaganda is turning neighbours against each other.
The metaphorical clay from which we are all fashioned will, I hope, be transformed into literal protest in Liz’s hands, and I will be there, along with CoQuo and Dao to support this performance as it happens. Archie, my respite hound friend, will unfortunately not be in attendance as he is enjoying a retirement most humans would be lucky to have.
Matthew Fessey of CoQuo made an interesting point about the power of digital media; in that whilst only a few hundred people were in attendance at Martin Sheen’s speech his message has now been spread to millions thanks to a couple of smartphone cameras. Whatever our stories we must document them; the status quo cannot be trusted to record an accurate history.
Make art, share stories, shout loudly.
As I finish writing this post I have just received the great news that Trish and I have been accepted as Joint Fellows of the CultureHive Digital Marketing Academy; we applied with the intention of upskilling ourselves in the promotion of disability arts projects to even wider audiences.
Watch this space artists, or better yet, fill it!
Please sign up to follow @WeAreFigures on Twitter, where the 650 stories will be shared.