Mental Health Burlesque and Life-Saving Blood Hounds at VAULT Festival

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VAULT Festival is back, bringing over 400 shows including theatre, comedy, immersive, experiences, cabaret, live performance and late night events. This is their most diverse festival yet, with 53% female-led work, 25% LGBTQ+ work and 11% disability-led work. Natasha Sutton Williams spoke to the VAULT programming team, and four theatre companies who are leading the way to making disability arts more visible at London’s trendiest underground festival.

Photo of an underground archway is

Vaults Festival

This year the festival has created four new curatorial positions. Gillian Greer is inaugural Head of Theatre and Performance. She described how their programming team are actively trying to improve their engagement with disabled artists.

“The primary way is by programming disabled artists and supporting them to make the absolute best work they can to tell their story. I still think we could present more stories on more variations of disability, and more stories on the ways in which it’s necessary to navigate the world. There is outreach to be done.”

Greer continues, “On my end, it’s about finding those stories, fostering them and bringing them to the festival. Hopefully, by allowing shows like Katie & Pip and Access Platform to happen with as much support as possible, we can tell disabled artists that VAULT is a place for you and your story, and we want you here.”

Amy Bethan Evans is a playwright and one of the curators of Access Platform at VAULT. She describes some of the challenges that come with being a disabled artist and applying for opportunities.

For me personally, mental health can be an issue. There are often days where I feel I’ve failed or that I’m not good enough. It’s important that we have strong mentoring and an understanding team in those instances. When reaching out to D/deaf and disabled artists, there are a lot of confidence issues and additional barriers to submitting applications. People wonder if their writing is good enough in a way that non-disabled artists don’t tend to and also question their eligibility to identify as disabled.”

A young white woman stands side-on on stage with her dog Pip jumping up at her

Katie & Pip by Tin Can People. Photo © Mihaela Bodlovic

Katie & Pip by Tin Can People

Katie & Pip centres on the bond between Katie Gregson, a teenager with Type 1 Diabetes, and her pet dog Pip. Katie trained Pip to detect when her blood sugar levels go out of range. On countless occasions Pip has alerted Katie before it has become critical, saving her life. The show celebrates this unusual and captivating bond.

Charlotte Berry and Rob Gregson are co-directing the show. Rob also happens to be Katie’s brother. He describes the piece as utilising, “dog dancing, flailing blood sugars, chaotic agility, flashing lights, hundreds of tennis balls and fast paced spoken word rants. Kit-kat breaks, blood tests and insulin injections. The audience will journey through the labyrinth of Type 1 Diabetes – with the highs of Hyperglycaemia and the lows of Hypoglycaemia.”

Katie Gregson, performer and inspiration for the show, discussed the difficulty in experiencing blood sugar lows just before the start of the show:

“It can be difficult trying to articulate to a member of venue staff that whilst sitting down eating five Kit Kats and downing bottles of fresh orange juice, what I’m experiencing is a medical emergency. If I don’t consume that sugar, I will pass out, end up in a diabetic coma and die as a result. Most venues have been amazing and understand that it’s too dangerous for me to go on until my blood sugars go back in range.”

a young woman sits laughing on a couch

MC Rosie Verbose of Invisible Cabaret. Photo: Steve Gregson @stevegregsonphotos

Let’s Get Visible curated by Invisible Cabaret

Invisible Cabaret is a cabaret and burlesque troupe that perform vaudeville-style variety shows devoted to raising mental health awareness.

“We do not intend to stick sequins on self-defeat, rhinestone anxiety, or embellish existential despair,” says Rosalind Peters, performer and co-founder of Invisible Cabaret. “What we do believe in is using the tools of performance, comedy and entertainment to open up the discussion of what mental health means to each individual in the audience”.

Through burlesque, comedy, dance, original song and more, they aim to break down stigma surrounding mental health. Their raison d’être is to spark new and open discussions of what mental health means to people, and make the invisible visible. Their works explore themes such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, intrusive thoughts, and the importance of seeking medical help.

“There are also a lot of boobs. Occupational hazard,” says co-founder and performer Rochelle Thomas.

Two young white men hold each other

Robbie Curran as Thomas. Rehearsal photo © Tyrone Lewis.

Thomas by Snapper Theatre

Snapper Theatre’s latest production Thomas centres around two cousins: Thomas, who has Asperger’s, and David, who doesn’t. The play presents the journey of how these two boys struggle through the ups and downs of youth and into manhood. It explores the experience of living with this still often misunderstood condition, and the challenges it poses.

I was taking xanaxbest.com in a single application. I have read the annotation and know that this is a very strong antidepressant, it is even considered as drugs. You can buy it by a prescription.

Robbie Curran, playwright and actor playing the title role, spoke of the difficulty of getting the initial idea out of his head and onto the page:

“There is a need to quiet my mind to the point where I can just do the thing and get that dreaded first draft out. Concentration is a key challenge for me with my Asperger’s as my brain can be very busy. Redrafting is more straightforward and the pursuit to make it better feels less stressful than the initial struggle”.

Access Platform curated by Last Word

Last Word has published an open call (deadline 31 Jan) for self-identifying D/deaf and disabled writers to submit short plays for a specially curated night of new writing. They will choose five plays, dramaturg the pieces, find and rehearse a small ensemble of actors (preferably D/deaf and disabled actors), then stage the plays over a two-night slot at VAULT.

Stephen Bailey and Amy Bethan Evans are co-founders of Last Word. Evans thinks it is imperative that disabled artists are given space on the Fringe circuit so they can learn and develop their work through events like Access Platform.

“To me, art is activism. If we can improve the opportunities for disabled artists, we can change people’s perception of disability. It’s not for us to identify people as disabled but if you’re a disabled person reading this and worrying about wasting our time, please don’t. That’s why we’re here.”

Katie & Pip is on 23 – 27 Jan at the Network Theatre
Thomas is on 23 – 27 Jan at the Network Theatre. All performances of Thomas will be Relaxed
Access Platform is on 13 – 14 March at the Brick Hall in the Vaults
Let’s Get Visible is on 14 – 15 March at the Cavern in the Vaults

VAULT Festival runs from 23 January to 17 March. There are a multitude of shows offering Extra Live and Relaxed performances. All venues at the Vaults (with the exception of the upstairs of the Punch) and Network Theatre are wheelchair accessible. Travelling Through and The Horse & Stables are not wheelchair accessible, due to stairways.

Please contact Front of House at foh@vaultfestival.com in advance if you have questions or access requirements. They usually offer free companion tickets, so please let them know in advance in order to confirm companion tickets.