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> > > Disability Arts Touring Network: The Why? Festival

Dao looks back at the Why? Festival, which ran from 21st – 28th November at the Forest Arts Centre, Walsall and The Glasshouse, Stourbridge highlighting the successes and learning curves of taking Disability Arts to places it rarely gets seen.

black and white photo of performer Robin Surgeoner sitting with his guitar on stage with a BSL interpreter behind him

Robin Surgeoner aka Angryfish performs at the Why? Festival

Organised by Robin Surgeoner with the Support of Black Country Touring and as a partner member of The Disability Arts Touring Network: Why? brought four days of top quality Disability Arts to The Black Country.

With two evening events mirrored across two venues, Forest Arts Centre in Walsall, and The Glasshouse Arts Centre in Stourbridge, and an afternoon screening at Forest Arts Centre, six different Disability Arts acts entertained with their own unique interpretations of the lived experience of contemporary society.

The whole event kicked of with a fabulous poetry performance by Donna ‘Deaf-firefly’ Williams from Bristol giving powerful renditions of her poetry either signing and speaking herself or through her own BSL and spoken through the sign language interpreter, with a particularly powerful piece, ‘What is the worth of my life?’ where she examines how much her existence has cost the NHS against the value her life. 

Her performance at The Glasshouse Arts Centre, which is housed within the amazing Ruskin College, was a favourite amongst some of the students who expressed they would have enjoyed ‘an evening with Donna’.

Whilst Mc’ing the festival Robin Surgeoner also the next act on, performed as Angryfish across the events, and his blend of witty observation through such songs as ‘Far Queue’ telling the tale of outdoor music festivals as a Disabled Patron, to such poignancy and tear welling as ‘The last time ever I saw your face’ took us back to the barricades of our fight for our rights, and served to underpin the entire festival with a palpable sense of Human Rights through Disability Arts.  

Angryfish also ran a song writing workshop which went down a storm, with participants creating and then performing a metaphor for life 'The Sausage Sandwich Blues'.

deaf dancer chris fonseca photographed during a dramatic move against a purple curtain

Chris Fonseca on stage at the Why? Festival

The first headline act of the festival was Krip Hop Nation.  A Hip Hop and poetry collective drawn from a worldwide membership, led by its founder and spiritual leader Leroy F Moore.

From the provocative poetry such as ‘Black Rose’ backed by beats from Rob Da’ Noize Temple through to the post industrial percussive beat boxing of Binki Woi Börries, to the laid back Ugandan based African rhythms of Ronnie Ronnie, Krip Hop Nation delivered evocative, rabble-rousing performances energizing audiences into joining in with great choruses, lead by the embracing figure of Sascha ‘Psychomatic’ Hummell

The third support act was Chris Fonseca, Deaf Dancer. Chris demonstrated why he is regarded as one of the best contemporary deaf dancers around.  Using big beats and heavy bass to dictate his timing Chris’s incredible physicality punctuated a frenetic and impressive routine with humor and thought fullness in pace with emotion and movement.  If need someone to run a dance workshop then Chris is your man.

the tall gareth berliner and the short kiruna stammel are pictured in a 'stand-offish' pose on stage at the Why? Festival

Gareth Berliner and Kiruna Stammel search for commitment on stage at the Why? Festival

The final act of the festival and their second appearance was A Little Commitment, otherwise known as Gareth Berliner and Kiruna Stamell. Both actor/comedians and both taking time out of London Theatre and TV filing schedules to perform their comedy show ‘One Of Us Will Die’

A show far, far, funnier than its name might suggest, is an absolute must for anyone questioning their position in society, or whether or not to engage in any sort of personal relationship. Deliberately challenging audiences’ sensibilities around language and representation, One of Us Will Die uses misperceptions of who Disabled People are to lampoon the way the medical world metaphorically amputates our impairments and body parts from our personalities and talks about them like you would viewing a second hand car, and to look at how relationships between Disabled People are not seen as lustful.

Performed within a loose structure allowing for hilarious ad-libs particularly based on audience reaction, Gareth and Kiruna deliver an incisive comedic yet politically savvy view on life as Disabled People, with as much affirmation as mirth, One of Us Will Die closed the festival with a raucous farewell

From a promoter’s perspective, and being part of The Disability Arts Touring Network, funded via the Arts Council Strategic Arts Touring Programme the Why? Festival was part of a programme to begin to address the incredibly low engagement with the Arts, and particularly Disability Arts in a number of localities, The Black Country, in the West Midlands being one of them.

Having both witnessed audience reaction and seen the post event evaluations, for those who attended the events there was unanimous agreement over the quality and enjoyment of all of the acts, and that a return to a mixed genre cabaret style engaged different people in differing ways and made the events great entertainment it nevertheless proved very hard indeed to muster or motivate audiences in to coming out and buying tickets to a Disability Arts event irrespective of the quality of the work on offer.

If we are to learn from the ‘Why?’ experience, in concert with the experiences of the other DATN partners, then we need to look at what needs to happen to re-mobilise Disabled People in to understanding that Disability Art is “about us, for us and by us”: That it can and should be considered as entertaining and engaging, celebratory and affirming, challenging and empowering, prophetic, cathartic and politically stimulating.

A quote form one of the festival-goers 

Esther Ball “it was seriously the most fun loving and provacative night out for ages”

Bring On The Dancing… I leave that to you