DiVerse – finding my tribe

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DiVerse is a monthly spoken word night alternating between Saltburn and Stockton in Teesside, which is billed as a platform for ‘other voices’; poets who are women, LGBTQ+, visibly and invisibly disabled, artists of colour – or offer a perspective that differs from the mainstream. “Packed full of different perspectives in the form of exciting and thought provoking performances by our DiVerse acts, all delivered to a supportive and passionate audience in a welcoming and unique venue. What could be better on a Friday?” Lisette Auton went along to find out.

Woman wears shirt

Michelle Scally Clarke. Photo © Kev Howard

First thing I notice upon arrival is a full car park and the disability version of a red carpet  – a ramp. Second thing, a noisy welcoming hubbub as tables are extracted from the room and more chairs added, and even though it’s January the double doors have to be left open to allow excess audience to spill outside. If anyone tells you that a night of underrepresented voices is just an unnecessary box-ticking exercise, tell them to bring a folding stool and rock up to DiVerse.

Started in 2018 with funding from the North East Fund For the Arts and national spoken word organisation Apples and Snakes, DiVerse is continuing into 2019 with funding from Apples.

Not only does the night provide a space and an audience for other voices, part of its remit is to provide mentoring to emerging spoken word artists, and also open mic spots where first words can be uttered.

These first voices get an opportunity to mingle with the best the spoken word scene has to offer, both locally and nationally, this night being no exception with headliner Michelle Scally Clarke.

There’s a cracking welcome from host and poet Julie Easley who apologises for the lack of space;

“Oh my God – if you know anyone from Enviro Health, don’t tell them how many we’ve fit in the room! We’ll kick off with the open mic, if they can get to the stage, like…”

This sets the scene for what is to come – older people, younger people, people of colour, disabled people, women, straight, queer – and words that are powerful, funny, beautiful and everything in between.

There is a ramshackle mix of chairs, but also an empty wheelchair by the stage, crutches and a stick in the audience.

I realise it’s possibly one of the first and rare times that I don’t feel like the only disabled person in the room. And I feel invited and incredibly welcome.

woman stands on stage

Jade Gadd. Photo © Kev Howard

Disabled poet Jade Gadd and her assistant dog take to the stage, but he’s swiftly removed stage right. Her powerful words about disability leave the audience silenced. They’re not a pity party about her impairment but a rallying cry for the social model of disability, how it’s people that make her disabled; she takes off her gown to reveal a shirt which she has covered in the abuse that has been hurled at her online.

‘Disabled people have value and our own brand of worth,
we can do a fuck load more with our lives than school’s slim girth.
“Oh Jade… suck it up and go to class now”
Oh Honey if I could then don’t you think I’d be doing something better
than taking advice from a YouTube comments feed?
I think I’ll make decisions based on facts,
not just the world as you’ve decreed.’
Excerpt from Bravery Rewarded – Jade Gadd

I speak to Jade about her experience of DiVerse, which has also provided her with the platform of her first paid set:

“It’s very diverse. I really enjoyed it. The building; it’s eccentric and accessible. I feel like I’ve found a tribe of disabled people (…) makes me feel stronger, feel very included. In some ways I feel like my disability is an asset.”

smiling woman

Faiza Kiran. Photo © Kev Howard

Faiza Kiran blows the audience away with a hilarious poem complete with nonsensical alien noises perfectly juxtaposed with a piece about what wearing the hijab means to her. She tells me afterwards about why she came;

“Because I am different. When I accepted Julie’s offer I was a bit nervous. I need to tell people the truth – the truth is obscured. I need to tell people what reality is.”

Tall person stands on stage

Bordello Theatre. Photo © Kev Howard

Queer theatre makers Bordello Theatre give us a specially designed excerpt of The Pilgrims; move with haunting live music and a voice that takes you to another world, and local poet Kelly Butcher weaves words about the beauty of the every day.

Headliner Michelle Scally Clarke delivers a powerhouse of a performance in a shirt which states ‘There are no Rules’. Having seasoned professional performers on stage with those just beginning their careers shows what it means to both groups when Michelle says to Jade;

“You really moved me. Own your voice. Own your story. All those comments, fuck ’em.”

At the end of Clarke’s set the crowd demand an encore. When I’m leaving, I notice Michelle heading over to speak to Jade and her family. That pretty much sums up the night.

DiVerse is supportive, enables new friendships to be made, and doesn’t just provide a tokenistic night for underrepresented voices, but a packed house for exceptional voices.

DiVerse returns on 6th February, 7pm-9pm at Hope and Union, Stockton-on-Tees, TS18 1SL.

Join the DiVerse group on Facebook to find out more https://www.facebook.com/groups/349211292241001/

More information about Apples and Snakes can be found at www.applesandsnakes.org