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Sarah Tonin talks to Joe McConnell about the Creative Routes Company, one of the most exciting organisations to emerge from the survivor arts scene in the last few years.

Photo of Creative Routes

Creative Routes - Deadbeat International at Liberty 2005.

Jazz singer Maggie Nichols and psychedelic violinist Chas de Swiet joined a powerful cluster of musicians in a jazz-impro-fusion-flavoured performance, which unfolded in a dizzying rotation of different combos delivering a set of powerful numbers raging against toxic psychiatry. Lloyd Lindsay's rap fusion number Statute of Liberty was particularly memorable and the performance culminated with a fusion of samba, rock and rap. - Review of Liberty Festival, dao, September 2005

The high point of last year's Liberty Festival was beyond doubt the performance of the Creative Routes Company - Deadbeat International.

The good news is that Deadbeat International are performing again at this year's Liberty Festival, which will take place on 2 September. I caught up with Sarah Tonin, founder of award-winning Creative Routes, to find out more.

Art of Madness

Creative Routes - Deadbeat International at Liberty 2005

Tell us about Creative Routes.

Creative Routes Company is run by and for people with mental health issues celebrating mad creativity and reducing stigma and discrimination through overtly mad performances.

Mental illness forces us to live in realities that clash with the outside world, which is why so many of us know only too well the utter loneliness and fear of being an outsider. We make sense of conflicting realities through our imaginations, even though later in more balanced mind frames it seems inconceivable that we could believe such truths. I think this is why mad people have genius levels of creativity.

Creative Routes members share passionate love of the arts, and the experience of exclusion and anger at the discrimination mad people experience in mainstream society. None of us have had professional training; in fact the common experience is disrupted education and extreme exclusion. So there's a lot of making it up as you go along. However, luckily we are all incredibly intelligent 2 legged and 4 legged beings.

To merely nudge the arts now and again is alien, no we live, eat and shit the arts, creativity is the drug we need to survive. For most of us art is all we have ever had. That's a statement of fact. Creative Routes members are all very different, but what merges us and maintains us as a close knit community is our passion for the arts, our pride in our individuality and our varieties of madnesses.

Come into the Creative Routes Company and you will find that everyday life becomes theatre.

Creative Route's act in last year's Liberty Festival was an exciting fusion of different art forms. Can you tell us about this?

Daily life is an interplay of sounds, rhythms, colours, forms… so it seemed more natural for us to combine art forms. We aim for the highest standards possible because on stage - we are ambassadors for mad people. We have passion, love for what we're doing and anger at the discrimination of mainstream society. This gives us energy and a focus and transforms destructive emotions like anger and despair into something instructive and inspiring.

Can you tell me about how the group evolved? Is there any connection with Mad Pride?

Robert Dellar of Mad Pride was the first person who showed us that it was OK to be who you are - that is mad and proud of it. He is the kindest most generous person I have ever met I will always look up to Robert Dellar. Pete Shaughnessy and Simon Barnet were also influential.

I started the Southwark Mind Arts Collective with Tony Palfrey. A millennium award from the Kings Fund marked the beginning of Routes, as we were then called, and the very first Routes performance was at the Young Vic Theatre in January 2004 (Gabby Vautier and the Young Vic Theatre have proved themselves to be our most loyal partner, who utterly respect and understand what we are trying to do).

The evolutionary fuel of Creative Routes are the people who sacrifice so much for the mad cause - mad liberation! People such as Pete MacDonald, Dolly Sen and Dave Skull.

Do you work with non-mad artists?

Sometimes we can't find mad artists with the required skills within Creative Routes and are then forced to call on non-mad professionals or mad allies.

We audition for performances - although some disagree with this - but we are representing the mad world and to do this effectively we need to be good. How very patronizing to suggest to people that they are good enough to perform when they are so clearly not. We offer workshops to the membership so they can improve their skills.

Discrimination is a very large heavy, ugly and evil talking baby that is truly alive and kicking. I believe it's ethical to call in non-mad consultants as long as mad people truly own the project and by own I mean it's their creative vision, ideas and skills that are being worked on.

Tell us about how Creative Routes develops its productions.

Chaotically. That is certainly our main skill, chaos and confusions. The members of Creative Routes are widely diverse in terms of musical and artistic backgrounds. Stronger musicians will take the lead, for example Pete MacDonald has been the beating heart of the musical and performing face of Creative Routes - Deadbeat International.

However everyone contributes as fully as possible. At last year's Liberty, we were trying to fuse completely different pieces of music into one whole piece. It didn't go quite as smoothly as we had planned, but it did work. The pieces are so different but held together by art and madness. It's indefinable music. Outsider Music. In fact, the outsider concept really opens things up. We are all outsiders in Creative Routes. We feel our exclusion deeply. We may define our madness in different ways but art can express this far more powerfully than any politically correct speeches.

With Mad Pride, the bands tend to be more punk-oriented and connected with madness and drugs. We refuse to put things separately into boxes, but merge everything together into a huge cascade of sound. This happens to sound brilliantly mad.

Beyond the coming Liberty Festival, what are your plans for the coming year?

We are working towards BonkersFest 2007, to be held early June.

On 11 January 2007 at the Young Vic Theatre, Andrew Motion - the Poet Laureate and Creative Routes patron - will award prizes to the winners of a musical poetry competition. The title will probably be The Ballad of the Bonkers Sheep.

Deadbeat International will be touring major festivals within a year.

As for the longer term future, well, since the lunatic mind is the highest on the evolutionary scale, I predict that the normals will eventually become the minority community and the world will thus become a more creative, eccentric, sensitive and of course nuttier, thus more healthy place to live. Yeah - onwards and fucking upwards!

This year's Liberty Festival will take place on 2 September 2006, from 1-6pm, in Trafalgar Square. Admission is free.

Routes CD

Creative Routes has recently released its first CD, The Statute of Liberty. The album features Deadbeat International, prize winning poet and author Dolly Sen, Rhythms and Voice featuring improv jazz vocalist Maggie Nichols, Jazzman John, The Escapists, Demons in Paradise, The Section, Crank, and the glam vocal-electro punk-folk duo Unity and Devision.

In addition to being sold at Creative Routes events and performances (price £10.00), free copies of the CD will to given to Southwark GP surgeries to accompany psychiatric medication prescriptions and will be handed out at Maudsley and Guy's Hospital outpatients and occupational therapy departments.

As the recording studio is portable, Creative Routes plans to develop an outreach programme on hospital wards giving in-patients an opportunity for their voice to be heard.



BonkersFest 2007 website:

Watch a 30 second film about Creative Routes.