New disability arts festival ‘I’m Here, Where Are You?’ comes to Cambridge Junction

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I’m Here, Where Are You is a brand new festival showcasing disabled talent across artforms coming to Cambridge Junction 27-28 April. The packed programme will include theatre, comedy, dance and visual art and promises a raft of accessible performances. Disability Arts Online spoke to festival programmers Liz Counsell and Linda Rocco as they make final preparations for the ambitious event.

Group of people standing in a circle

Felix Peckitt’s Goldilocks Mixer. Photograph: Danny Hester

Producers Liz Counsell and Linda Rocco are both keen advocates of work by disabled artists. But the wealth of talent they’ve encountered is inversely related to the number of opportunities available for showcasing it. “The reason for producing a festival on disability arts comes from a strong desire to support and give opportunities to diverse yet extremely talented artists that too often struggle to find their own place within the art debate,” the pair explain. “We also want the audience to bear witness to truly challenging and radical works, the impact of which might considerably change their perspectives on disability.”

Counsell and Rocco have come from different perspectives within the sector. Counsell previously worked in the producing team at London’s Roundhouse, itself a regular programmer of disabled artists. She was involved in trying to get the organisation up to Attitude is Everything’s ‘Gold Standard’ of access. “This is when I discovered amazing artists like Jess Thom from Touretteshero, who we ran a weekend workshop with,” she recalls. “From there, I met a huge number of artists that I found innovative and incredibly exciting. I’ve since worked with Deaf Men Dancing touring dance shows nationally and internationally and I currently work with Rowan James, an amazing poet and theatre-maker in Bristol.”

Man standing against banners

Vince Laws with some of his ‘Political Banners’ from A Very Queer Nazi Faust

Rocco, on the other hand, is a disabled producer who has been involved in a number of Unlimited initiatives. First, in an associate writing role in partnership with Unlimited and the Art House. “I shared various thoughts on activism in the arts and the commissions that are shaping the Disability Arts discourse,” explains Rocco. Later, she was on the selection panel for Unlimited’s 2020 R&D commissions. The Unlimited connection is evident throughout the programming of I’m Here, Where Are You, with a hefty chunk of the work on display having been commissioned by the Shape and Artsadmin-run initiative.

“Unlimited is a huge inspiration for us,” say Counsell and Rocco. “They have been supporting the presentation of some of their previous commissions and we’re very lucky to have them on board for our first festival.”

But Counsell and Rocco’s overlapping interests were allowed to dovetail and flourish in large part due to Cambridge Junction’s Vision Mixers programme. It’s a producer development initiative which supports independent producers of innovative and emerging performance as the bridge between artists, venue/programme and audiences. I’m Here, Where Are You is all about disabled artists taking ownership of a prominent space and making themselves visible to both their peers and the wider world. Counsell explains where the name of the festival originates:

“I was at Improbable’s Devoted and Disgruntled, an annual open space event, working as an access worker. I was working with artists who identified as disabled and a brilliant visually impaired person who didn’t consider herself an artist, but regularly attended the theatre. Everyone said their frustration with the industry was that when they were present in theatre, whether on stage or in the audience, they rarely found any disabled people around them. After that, we started a hashtag #ImHereWhereAreYou to raise awareness of the importance of having disability represented in audiences and on stage, and that’s where the idea for the festival name came from!”

Leading up to the festival, participatory workshops have been taking place across the region. Director, Rachel Bagshaw has led a workshop in Cambridge on devising work from a personal starting point. Meanwhile, Unscene Suffolk, Ipswich’s resident theatre company of visually impaired people, has collaborated with Rationale Method to explore a new and dynamic form audio description enhanced by beatbox sound effects.

a female dancer poses with her hands around the face of a male dancer

Eve Mutso and Joel Brown in ‘111’

Counsell and Rocco have packed a lot into two days for the festival programme with performances including Jackie Hagan’s anti-theatre rumination on being skint and disabled, This is Not a Safe Space; scintillating dance duet by Candoco’s Joel Brown and former Principal dancer of Scottish Ballet, Eve Mutso, 111; Owen Lowery’s Transitions which will include a film and live poetry reading; a work-in-progress sharing of Jane Carter Woodrow’s Whackamole, described as ‘a feminist Breaking Bad set in the Fens’; and, spoken word in the form of Indoors Too Much’s, Learning to Swim on an Ironing Board. On top of that, there are installations in the form of Kristina Veasey’s sublimely ridiculous My Dirty Secret; Vince Laws’ vehement anti-austerity shrouds taken from A Very Queer Nazi Faust; and, Felix Pickett’s audio installation The Goldilocks Mixer which challenges you to create a soundscape that’s just right. Oh, and BBC Ouch will be there recording a live podcast.

“I’m excited about the Carnival workshop by Viva Carnival Alegria Samba School on Saturday,” enthuses Counsell. “It’s a free 3-hour workshop, that anyone can join in with, of carnival drumming, dancing and costume making followed by a flash-mob style performance and it’s going to be amazing!”

Although all of the work on show features disabled talent in some form or another, there’s also a strong intersectional element to the programme, as Counsell and Rocco explain:

“The intersectional ethos of the programme is a natural consequence of putting together a truly diverse group of artists, not only disabled, but multifaceted in all their aspects: from the economic background, to gender, class and so on. We are pretty homogenous in terms of nationality, but mainly because this is the first UK version of the festival, hopefully in the future we will be able to expand beyond the UK boundaries.”

Jackie Hagan, This Is Not a Safe Space

Jackie Hagan, This Is Not a Safe Space. Photograph: William Shields.

It’s not only the artists who have been given deep consideration. Audiences have been carefully considered too, with what Rocco describes as a ‘360-degree of thinking’ which balances the needs of both. Naturally, that presents a challenge, as Counsell expands: “It’s incredibly expensive to making something wholly accessible and we knew that this was something we wanted to aim high with from the start.” But they’ve clearly made a real effort to hit many of the accessibility marks. Depending on the nature of the show, there’s BSL-interpretation, captioning and audio-description on offer, where appropriate. There will also be a relaxation quiet space and access workers on hand to guide or assist visitors in any way they can.

“Audiences should expect participation in different degrees, choosing to be passive receivers or instead actively join the discussions,” remark the pair. “They should expect a safe, bold and vibrant space for being themselves. A space to witness amusing, inspiring and reflective works. Meeting people, forging new collaborations.”

As anticipation and excitement build for the big weekend ahead, Counsell and Rocco are already thinking about the broader impact I’m Here, Where Are You might have. “We want things to change in the art sector, and by putting this together we want the industry to realise the feasibility of including more diverse artists and audiences in commissions and programmes. Diversity brings an invaluable degree of originality within the offer, which too often becomes exclusive, stagnant and elitist.”

I’m Here, Where Are You? comes to Cambridge Junction on 26 & 27 April. For further information on accessibility and where to buy tickets, please visit the website.