Cultural Shift Conviva

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Joe Turnbull reflects on the Conviva event held at the Arc, Stockton on 2 February, celebrating 3 years of the organisation’s Cultural Shift program with a day of practical actions and scratch performances.

Woman kneeling reading a piece of paper

Philippa Cole in Vici Wreford Sinnott’s Another England. Photograph: Vici Wreford Sinnott

Something special is happening in Stockton. This forgotten Northern nowhere town, in a region ravaged by de-industrialisation, Thatcherite policies of successive governments and criminal underinvestment. Nestled in the shadows of sleeping giants like Middlesbrough and Sunderland, Stockton has a spark, is holding a candle for hope.

Its challenges are not unique, in fact they’re all too common outside the cosily insulated South East. But strategic thinking and strong leadership mean Stockton is carving a niche for itself. The Council has had the foresight to invest in culture and a night-time economy, with micro-pubs popping up, a newly-refurbished Georgian Theatre and a reinvigorated, award-winning high street.

And then there’s the Arc. Taking inspiration from the Agent for Change model, Arc Stockton instigated its very own ‘Cultural Shift’ programme – bringing in the talented disability arts stalwart, Vici Wreford Sinnot to lead a vanguard of disability arts and accessibility with a distinctly North East accent. “Funding from Spirit of 2012 helped accelerate our ambitions, but it wasn’t necessary to make change,” explains Arc’s Director, Annabel Turpin.

In a deliciously oppositional move for these times of austerity, earlier this month it hosted a ‘Conviva’ – the sharing of a feast – to celebrate the achievements of the Cultural Shift programme and look forwards to future of disability arts beyond this little enclave. And feast we did.

Provocations that were actually provocative, scratch performances that genuinely left you wanting more, insightful breakout sessions and cake… both literal and metaphorical. Cultural Shift is at the end of its three-year journey, and the point of the Conviva was to share what had been learned and take stock.

Simon Startin standing at a podium

Simon Startin as the ‘constantly emerging’ disabled artist. Photograph: Nick Wesson

So many initiatives like this start with the best of intentions but lose steam. But Cultural Shift feels like its genuinely gaining momentum. How have they managed this? With a three-tiered approach that included making disabled-led art, organisational change at Arc and bringing in new (disabled) audiences – with over 300 participatory events.

The phrase ‘top-level buy in’ might reek of rancid buzzword, but it’s clearly in effect at Arc and judging by the considerate, access-aware approach of all the Arc staff (from Director to usher) this has really filtered down. Arc’s chair, Lynne Snowball, said Cultural Shift had “fundamentally changed everything we do” – hyperbole, possibly, but it feels genuine. It is seen by Arc as “less a project, more a process of organisational change”.

The agent provocateurs of Deborah Williams, Dolly Sen, gobscure, Julie McNamara and Simon Startin gave us stark reminders that brought us all back down to Earth, but in brilliant and creative ways. The latter’s soliloquy about the disabled emerging artist thrown crumbs, involved in conversations about conversations, endlessly plied with prosecco but still left ‘emerging’ 26 years later – and inexplicably unsatisfied with his lot – all told from the perspective of the mainstream programmer was “funny but poignant” – in his own words.

In break-out sessions groups explored ‘getting started’ aimed at venues wanting to start working with disabled artists; identity (that old chestnut cum hot potato); spectacle and the gaze; and, ‘constantly emerging’. A group of five disabled artists had spent the previous day under the tutelage of Mik Scarlett and then on the day of the Conviva each of them ‘pitched’ a current project they were working on to the audience. If there were any programmers in the audience, this was certainly a great way to throw down the gauntlet. This idea should feature more at such events.

One of the juiciest cherries on this tasty layer cake was a teaser sharing of Wreford Sinnott’s latest work, Another England. It was the second piece she wrote as part of Cultural Shift, following Butterfly. I was impressed with Butterfly when I saw it, an original, imaginative one-woman show. But judging by this sharing, Another England has the potential to eclipse that accomplished piece, though it needs opportunities to tour. A third piece, ‘Lighthouse’ is currently in development.

Flash mob of young disabled people

Cultural Shift Flash Mob as part of 45 Days To Find My Way group

Another England is set in a not-too-distant dystopian future where disabled people have their ‘social numbers’ removed, meaning they can’t participate in society at all – even buy things in shops – and are being forced into ‘camps’. It centres around two disabled characters, on the run from the authorities. One from a Disability Rights upbringing, the other, a myopic little Englander intent on blaming foreign others, despite the blatant state and social oppression visited on him. For a teaser, it was convincingly acted, well executed, with Audio Description seamlessly integrated. I can’t wait to see more.

So, this didn’t feel like just another disability arts conference. It had a distinctively Northern flavour with some new voices. Seeing a video of a Flashmob of a group of young disabled people reclaiming that award winning high-street and putting themselves out there in an empowering display of joy really hit home how this initiative is making an impact in its community.

As Aidan Moesby said in his summing up remarks: “It [was] a refreshing day full of difference. A celebration of an ending, but it feels like the start of something”. Something out of the ordinary.