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SICK! Festival, Brighton, 2015

SICK! Lab, Manchester, 11th & 12th March 2016

SICK! is a multi-artform festival which dedicates itself to ‘revealing and debating our most urgent physical, mental and social challenges’, by bringing artists’ voices together with academics, medics, charities and campaigners. Curated by the team behind The Basement in Brighton annually since 2013, previous festivals have explored issues including pornography, rape and sexual abuse, masculine identity, sex and sexuality amongst the disabled and older adults, depression, suicide, mental illness.

The predominant artform in the festival is contemporary theatre and performance, including a significant amount of international work. All performances are contextualised with pre or post show discussions led by panels of professional experts, which is really important as it gives the audience the opportunity to work through what can be a very intense experience. I will never forget the evening last year that I saw Nirbhaya, a theatre piece which tells the story of the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus in 2012, alongside other harrowing real life stories of sexual assault suffered by the ensemble members. In the post-show Q&A one of the performers asked anyone in the audience with either first or second-hand (friends / family) experience of the issues to raise their hand. I expected to see maybe one in ten raised, but actually more or less everybody’s hands went up. One of the other panel members then went on to describe his role leading a local authority project which works with sex offenders to help them understand the causes and impact of their offenses, and the leader of the council was also present to underline the role politicians should play in tackling this issue. Sending the audience home with the knowledge that there are people in positions of power working to address such a devastating and widespread issue felt like a necessarily responsible way to round off an extremely challenging evening.

Another performance How to disappear completely told one man’s story of his mother’s horrific decline from brain tumours which led to her (possibly assisted) suicide. The post-show talk was given by the head of palliative care at Brighton & Sussex hospital whose opening remarks were to tell us when her ‘time is up’ she wants to die on a trolley in the A&E corridor at work. After seeing our shocked reactions, she explained that this was the place where the people, smells and sounds were most familiar and comforting, and that she longs for us to become a society where we can talk about death and dying as freely as we talk about marriage and parenthood. The combination of the show and her frank and humorous speech had a profound impact on me: It gave me a sense of urgency in talking to loved ones about what their wishes would be if they couldn’t make decisions for themselves any more (because, as the performance showed, you never know when this might happen), but also it gave me a way to broach such a sensitive subject - ‘I’ve just seen to this brilliant show about ...’

To my knowledge SICK! is the only festival of its kind that takes place in two locations (Brighton and Manchester) which is a great model for incoming international work and commissioned work because this work gets at least two outings in two locations, making it much better value for money for the festival and its funders, and giving audiences more opportunities to engage. Not surprisingly there is ever-increasing demand for the festival’s work from organisations in other locations – I believe there is a ‘micro’ version of it planned for London at some point next year. And last year SICK! was the only UK-based festival to win a prestigious European Festivals Association award.

In March this year I spent two days at SICK! Lab in Manchester. This new event was designed as a forum for debating some of the next festival’s themes and a testbed for presenting and discussing some of the new commissions in their earliest stages of development. It was bookended by two acclaimed recent productions – Fake it till you make it by Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn (which looks at clinical depression) and You are not alone by Kim Noble (which tackles ageing and loneliness).

Day one ‘On the Couch’ consisted of four panel discussions on the subject of What Makes me ‘Me’ - Identity and Trauma. The first panel, Chaired by Jackie Stacey (Professor of Media and Cultural Studies and co-director of the Centre for the Study of Sexuality and Culture at Manchester University), consisted of writer and broadcaster Lemm Sissay, artist Hetain Patel, and Alex Sharpe, a Law Professor and Trans woman working at Keele University. It was an inspiring and enlightening discussion about whether identity is fixed or fluid. On the subject of integration Lemm Sissay memorably pointed out that ‘I breathe therefore I integrate’, while Alex Sharpe observed that only aspects of identity that are not seen as a choice tend to gain protection in law, which is why other aspects of identity can be seen as fair game for prejudice and even violence. This can lead to aspects of identity being claimed as fixed when perhaps they are not – which then restricts the individual’s ability to change their identity at will.

The quality and range of speakers was replicated across the three panels that followed, and included a philosopher, a priest, a professor of emergency medicine and a campaigner for the rights of Syrian immigrants, debating issues such as how to be happily alone with ourselves, and how to be happy living among others who are different from us. Deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah provided one of the most entertaining moments when she showed us the British Sign Language for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson! What was interesting was that such a range of voices actually spoke with a strong degree of accord.  At one point I did wonder what might have been the impact of including some less liberal voices – would it have made for even more meaty discussion, or would it have descended into a fight, and an ‘unsafe space’?

Day two was an opportunity for delegates to discuss some of the issues in an Open Space event, and in the evening artists who are exploring some of the festival themes in their work presented early stage ideas and works in progress for feedback and discussion. I attended a round-table discussion by artist Sylvia Rimat where she presented her idea for an immersive sound piece which enables the audience to experience what it’s like to ‘hear voices’. As she spoke, those of us sitting around the table were invited to shout out (at random) sentences she had given us on slips of paper, and another woman to clash a pair of cymbals whenever she felt like it. It was entertaining and engaging as well as thoughtful, and I’m really looking forward to experiencing the finished work in next year’s festival.

Having recently moved into working more in theatre (from 20 years in dance), I find it so refreshing to be surrounded by work that has something to say about the urgent issues of our time. Life brings intense challenges for many people, more so at the moment as the world seems to be in crisis on so many levels. SICK! demonstrates that, far from being a luxury that provides beauty and comfort to the lives of the middle classes, art can and should bring marginalised voices and identities into the spotlight and enable us to speak about the ‘unspeakable’.

Sick Festival 2017 will take place in Brighton and Manchester next March. Check out the festival’s website where there is an archive of essays, discussions and debates from previous years

Catherine Willmore