As part of DAO’s Electric Bodies project – Disconsortia brought twenty disabled artists from the North East of England together at the ARC arts centre in Stockton on 6th and 7th November 2019. Producer Vici Wreford-Sinnott reflects on the impact of the workshop and cabaret events on the disability arts community.
With a hint of tentative apprehension in the air to begin with, 6 and 7 November were fabulous days for disability and the arts in the North East of England. Apprehension of mine was a feeling of responsibility – I was bringing together 21 disabled artists, some of whom had never met, some of whom were disability arts movement stalwarts, some of whom didn’t necessarily refer to themselves as disabled and some of whom were in the early stages of a diagnosis.
All of this was by design – and I have to say, many more people will join us in future – from my conversations with disabled artists over the last five years, there is a consensus that our communities have changed beyond recognition but rather than simply attempting to recreate the amazing work of the past we must build on it, recognizing, reflecting and representing a new set of voices, and voices which may have changed over time as our work evolves. Truly exciting and just a little bit nerve-wracking.
The Disconsortia North East gathering was held at ARC Stockton, one of the country’s foremost centres of support for disabled artists, and supported by Disability Arts Online through their Electric Bodies D4D project. Electric Bodies is a research project looking at disabled people in the arts and communities, and gathering a series of stories through transcription poetry by Allan Sutherland and Colin Hambrook. Apprehension gave way as I felt incredibly supported. We had removed as many barriers as we could to ensure the widest range of people could attend. We had a broad range of artforms represented including musicians, photographers, visual artists, animators, film makers, performing artists, spoken word artists, live art, designers, carnival artists, novelists, poets, comedians and a signed song performer and so we knew our conversations were going to be full and rich!
Mindful of the need for safe spaces to discuss important themes, we were all artists and so we wanted our time together to be creative and celebratory too. Lisette Auton was our writer in residence, and created a lyrical essay, transcribed from her time absorbing the event. Lisette also facilitated a creative session where we all got to be creative together – it was a great way to get people talking and reflecting whilst being hands on creative together.
We discussed things which felt important – how disability impacts on our work either in its content or its aesthetic, we chatted about whether there is a disability palette from which all disabled people draw. How supported di we feel and how many communities are we part of. There was much discussion around why it doesn’t feel like there is a disability arts community in the North East and what we might do to remedy that – this was really exciting!
One of the highlights of the 2 days, and there were many, was the DIY Cabaret. I was privileged to both curate and MC the cabaret and I decided to unleash a new comedy character on the scene in the form of Raquelle Squelch, self-styled Crip Goddess of the North. Lip-synching, comedy and spoken wording my way through the event, I was thrilled to present an amazing bill of artists – The Karen Sheader Band got back together for the event and performed a fantastic set of songs old and new. Karen is a legendary figure of disability arts having provided much of the Northern soundtrack to the movement from The Fugertivs through to her own band.
Gobscure presented us with his satirical set Squarepegs Roundholes, where on our behalf, he literally smashed the languages of lunacy. Coll Metcalfe performed original spoken word and her brilliant signed song version of The Sound of Silence. Lady Kitt performed two pieces – (Un) Common Currency to the fab track of Money from the musical Cabaret, exploring why some individuals are valued more than others, and another piece looking at toxic masculinity, Dry Your Eyes Mate. Fabulous lip-synching. Lisette Auton presented word magic with a multi-character spoken word performance in the guise of The Crip Mistress. The cabaret was an opportunity to come together, share work, celebrate, laugh together and really let our hair down.
On our second day together I was honoured to present a historical perspective on the disability rights and arts movements, and how a series of developments coalesced to strengthen and accelerate progress within our community. I shared strands in disability arts, key actions in the rights movement, the development of legislation, I introduced key thinkers and academic studies, and looked at cultural critical analysis and developments in national arts policy around disability. The aim was to give a context for where we find ourselves today, and it was amazing to find that this was a hidden movement, an almost secret history that even disabled people aren’t aware of. There was consensus that we need to do something about that – the profile of a movement, but also to showcase the work of an amazing community of talented artists.
And so, with continuing support from ARC Stockton and Disability Arts Online that is the next stage of our adventure – a bit of a North East cultural take over! But what will that look like? The next few weeks of planning will decide that but we came away feeling newly connected or re-connected, we felt that we’d had an amazing time, with one person even saying that what they had been given by attending the two days was like a gift wrapped in a sparkly red ribbon.
I personally feel it’s a landmark event in the story of an amazing community – having space to talk, to create, and to share that is not agenda driven but is artist led was incredibly fruitful.
Vici Wreford-Sinnott is a British Disabled playwright, poet, screenwriter & Artistic Director of Little Cog Theatre Company. She is a lifelong equality activist, currently supported by ARC Stockton to create two new pieces of ground-breaking theatre and is studying for a practice based PhD in Disability Theatre. For more information go to http://www.viciwreford-sinnott.com