Emotional and topical: one day at ‘The Sick of the Fringe’

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The Sick of the Fringe, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, was a 3-day festival held from February 17-19 in various venues across London. Review by Nina Muehlemann.

a dark human silhouette in front of a dark green background

artwork for austerity cuts, (c) by Manuel Vason for DARC_Collective & The Sick of the Fringe

The line-up consisted mainly artists who had performed at the Edinburgh Fringe whose work speaks about the body, illness and disability. As such, even though The Sick of the Fringe featured many artists who identify as disabled, it offered something that many disability arts festivals do not, as it provided an opportunity for those to join the conversation who identify somewhere between disabled and non-disabled or between sick and healthy. This makes The Sick of the Fringe a very welcome (no pun intended) and multi-faceted addition to the UK’s art and performance landscape.

The programme was varied and featured performances, talks and an exhibition. As I was only able to attend for one afternoon. I only saw a small part of its programme. All the events I attended were free but ticketed.

AUSTERITY CU TS was an extremely topical and important piece of performance commissioned by the festival. The monologue highlighted how sick and disabled people’s lives in the UK have been affected through changes in the benefit system and the introduction of a points-based work capability assessment.

The performance was created and presented by an artist who had to remain anonymous precisely because they would risk losing their benefits if they were seen doing work, whether paid or unpaid. Due to its anonymous presentation, AUSTERITY CU TS highlighted the gross unfairness of these cuts, but also commented on the conditions under which disabled artists increasingly have to work – anonymously, in the dark, always in fear their work will be discovered.

The UK has been at the forefront of the disability arts movement for decades, but these cuts threaten to destroy disability culture and disabled lives. The monologue that was part of AUSTERITY CU TS was poignant and eloquent, and it was all the more saddening that its author could not be on stage and share a room with the audience.

After this performance piece I attended Starring Your Pain a panel that discussed how critics can write about work that is autobiographical and that, more specifically, deals with illness, pain or disability. The discussion featured writer Maddy Costa, the Guardian’s theatre critic Lyn Gardner, performance artist Bobby Baker, dancer and choreographer Alexandrina Hemsley, and Rosemary Waugh, a theatre critic for Exeunt.

This panel touched on several issues I grapple with in my PhD research on disability performance. Do I have to write in an objective voice? What does ‘objective’ even mean? When writing about disability, should I disclose that I am disabled too? What difference does it make whether I disclose this in my writing or not? If it makes me nervous to write about an artist whose life experience differs greatly from mine (for whatever reason), how can I deal with this?

During the discussion, the panel likened the critic to a witness, someone who documents the work and enters into a conversation with it from a particular point of view. As critics, we always bring our own baggage, as well as privileges, into the theatre and it is important that we realise how this shapes our response to artwork.

The very cheerfully entitled We’re all going to die! was next on my programme. Rather than a discussion, this was an interactive lecture about death, given by Dr Kathryn Mannix, a former palliative care doctor. The lecture included a game where we, the audience, had to pretend we were Strictly Come Dancing judges and were made to rate depictions of death in movies according to how realistic and entertaining they were. This shaped our awareness that realistic death is rarely depicted on our screens.

We, as a society, are no longer are familiar with death as it happens and maybe as a result have become all the more terrified of it. Mannix’ mission is to re-familiarise her audiences with death and she uses her own experience in palliative care as well as youtube videos of real dying people to do so. Throughout the talk many in the room were reminded of their own personal experiences with death and the moments I could swap stories and tissues with the people seated around me felt extremely precious.

I was happy to end the day on a somewhat lighter note, as Jess Thom gave a talk about the next project she is going to tackle in her stage career: She will create and star in a performance of Samuel Beckett’s play Not I.

Thom discussed how she instantly read Mouth, the protagonist of Not I, as a neuro-diverse character and how intensely the play resonated with her when she first became familiar with it. Thom also explained that the conventions around the way Mouth was usually performed on stage made the production challenging – usually the performer is strapped in and suspended in the air during the performance, which creates a challenge for Thom.

Part of the project of reclaiming Mouth is therefore trying to figure out a way the production can both honour the stage directions of this play and make the performance accessible to a disabled performer. Thom also used the example of Not I to engage in a wider conversation – she also discussed her experience of attending the theatre as a neuro-diverse audience member and finding that many productions were not open to her:

What kind of plays are accessible to disabled performers, or disabled audiences? What would it take to make mainstream or high-brow theatre more accessible to both? This forthcoming production of Not I will hopefully manage to address some of these barriers and from what it sounds like will work around them in a highly creative fashion.

Even though my afternoon at the Sick of the Fringe felt a bit like an emotional rollercoaster, it was an extremely gratifying experience to be there. It was a pleasure to attend a festival that put such diverse, important pieces and artists into conversation with each other.

The Sick of the Fringe’ goes to Adelaide next, during March 2017