The Festival of Rest & Resistance: a celebration of the concept of a ‘relaxed venue’

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Curated by Jess Thom of Touretteshero, The Festival of Rest & Resistance at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) from 4th – 16th March is the beginning of the venue’s commitment to becoming a relaxed venue. Jess talks to DAO about the festival and its aims to provoke, disrupt and inspire change.

The idea for a festival that celebrates rest and resistance was important to me. I wanted The Festival of Rest & Resistance to celebrate disability culture by centring disabled artists; acknowledging the history of disability arts and its roots in terms of activism. I also wanted it to reflect the current political climate and the impact that is having on many disabled people.

The festival takes a relaxed approach from start to finish and affirms the idea of resting and care and the importance of that within the arts and activism. As a community, we talk a lot about action, but I think we need to get better at talking about collective care and solidarity and how we can build capacity to resist; amongst ourselves and for future generations of disabled people.

I have been working with Battersea Arts Centre for the last two years on an Arts Council England Changemakers project around the concept of relaxed venues. We have been working together to collaborate on thinking about a methodology of what a relaxed venue could be. They don’t exist yet, or certainly didn’t exist two years ago and we have been imagining how to make the entire programme at Battersea Arts Centre relaxed – that’s for shows, that’s for spaces and for participatory programmes in the venue.

a young white female wheelchair-user is portrayed against a red brick wall

Jess Thom. Photo © James Lyndasy

We want to flip on its head the assumption that theatre is still and quiet and watched in a particular way by one type of person. Our intention is to take a relaxed approach to everything unless there is a clear creative rationale for not doing so. That idea came out of my frustrations with the single relaxed performance. It first emerged when I was writing about the conversations that were happening within creative communities about the concept of relaxed performance; and about the concept of extra live; and the risks that what was being created were segregated performances.

Within The Festival of Rest & Resistance I wanted to acknowledge the broad scope and diversity of what is on offer from within the disability arts sector; to make sure we created opportunities for artists at different stages of their careers. And so, we have a number of residencies for established and emerging companies to present new work. We have shows like the vacuum cleaner’s Mental which was significant in my creative journey and represents a hugely influential piece of disability arts history. I wanted to also bring together different kinds of artists. We were intentionally thinking about creatives who experiment with different forms.

There are also a number of talks and events. Seeing the performances of Francesca Martinez and her confidence as a disabled artist gave me confidence to feel that I could also perform. And so I have set up a discussion about the opportunities for disabled artists to connect to each other that I hope will expand out between us and the audience members. There have been lots of opportunities for disabled people to talk outwards to the sector and I wanted to create a space for us to talk to each other and to bring people together, and for it to be a sharing of ideas and perspectives. Hopefully, we’ll be able to challenge and listen and respond to each others’ experiences and to do that with kindness and respect.

My intention behind mixing up different artists and creative practices is to open up conversations and connections in new ways. I wanted to make sure that a festival themed around rest and resistance wasn’t going to be exhausting in and of itself. The programme is broad and ambitious enough, but equally, my hope is that it isn’t overwhelming. There will be chill-out spaces and hopefully time and space for quieter moments for conversations to happen.

There are some experiments like Comedy without Victims, which is an attempt to reframe comedy and create a relaxed environment where the audience and the performer agree that nobody will be singled out as the butt of the joke. As much as people should feel able to attend without feeling at risk, so the performers will not be too self-deprecating on stage.

This is not a festival about finished product necessarily. It is more about conversations, adjustments, celebration and a process of creating and making together.

I have had an ongoing relationship with BAC for the last 4 or 5 years. When the opportunity to take on a Changemaker project came up they felt like a natural partner. I’d always been interested in the idea of expanding what relaxed performance could mean and of how to embed the idea within a venue. I had talked and written about relaxed venues on several occasions and felt it was time to put my money where my mouth was and to start thinking about how a relaxed venue could be created.

a young white female sits in a chair on a rooftop garden

Jess Thom. Photo © Laura Page

Relaxed venues are an opportunity to think more deeply about taking an inclusive approach. I have come up with three guiding principals. The first being ‘no new barriers’. In essence, it’s quite a simple idea but with a potentially radical outcome. If a venue agrees to not make any new barriers then it acknowledges they might have inherited some old barriers they need to work through and slowly unpick. By saying there will be no new barriers, it will be an agreement to think about difference in everything the venue does or presents. The idea is that they will make fewer barriers to unpick in the future.

The second principle is the idea of ‘equality of experience’. I and many other disabled people are fed up with things being just technically accessible to us – and I think that can’t be good enough any more. We have to think about some parity of experience. That doesn’t mean everything is done in the same way. It means thinking about creative ways to make work and to use spaces that embeds an equality of experience for people with different impairments. It is about allowing opportunities to think creatively and to play with how access is provided.

And the final guiding principle is the idea of ‘reduced fuss and faff’. The intention is to acknowledge the cumulative impact of constantly feeling you are unwelcome somewhere. There can be a lot of anxiety in venues around how access is provided. By confidently providing access and embedding that within everything, a relaxed venue can reduce the accumulated fuss and send the message that you have been thought about and are welcome, rather than the negative message that is currently behind some access provision.

I see the Festival of Rest & Resistance as a starting point for the BAC’s journey to becoming a relaxed venue. It is damaging to think about access as a task that has been achieved. It is much more useful to talk about it as the process of working to identify barriers and talking about what can be put in place to remove them.

I hope this sets BAC up for being able to do that in an ongoing deep and sustained way that will improve the experience of disabled people in their spaces, whether they have a requirement for relaxed performance or not.

The process of working with BAC has been collaborative. The organisation has responded with energy, with kindness and with commitment. There have obviously been moments of challenge and tension – and many of those have been about the physical building and the environment, rather than attitudinal challenges as might have been anticipated.

BAC has done a lot of work in having conversations with disabled and non-disabled artists about what becoming a relaxed venue means. One of the biggest challenges for the sector is around having some of the different ideas around relaxed performance – not seeing it as being about creating a segregated space, but seeing it as about relaxing the rules. There may be an investment in specific facilities, but it is about acknowledging that movement and noise are okay. It is about communicating clearly to your audience whether there will be moments that could be triggering or that could trigger sensory sensitivities. It is about doing what is right for the work and communicating in accessible formats.

I am excited about sharing lots of the work we’ve done. I am also looking forward to consolidating the learning as part of this process and being able to share that with other spaces. The whole time we’ve been thinking about the relaxed methodology we’ve been very careful to not just think about BAC and to not just think in terms of theatre, as well. I am hoping to create a resource that can support the cultural sector in thinking about those invisible barriers and how they can be challenged in a much wider sense.

I also hope to continue developing the relationship with BAC in creative ways by making new shows. They have been very supportive of me and of Touretteshero by allowing us to experiment in their building and that has led to a deep knowledge of that space and the working processes and I hope to take that and use it to build on a very solid foundation.

The Festival of Rest & Resistance runs at Battersea Arts Centre from 4th – 16th March. Please click on this link to the BAC’s website for more information.