Edited version 16/10/2017
Wakefield has worked hard over the past 6 years to create a diverse, vibrant and inclusive festival so it was with great anticipation I began to research both the paper leaflet and the web-site to plan what I was going to see. I was very aware that the Lit Fest had a much smaller budget this year and came on line later than normal due to the funding situation (believe me waiting for funding and working within this arts sector is a very frustrating process as so many great projects get ‘shelved’ because a funding body does not feel, for what ever reason, they ought to get funding to enable them to go ahead.) The challenges that go with this very much include working to both print and digital deadlines which can sometimes lead to things being left out. I have also had the privilege of working with Beam on the Words For Well Being project and have always found them to be open, fair and honest. In fact it has been a joy to work with them.
Let it be said right now that this blog was never written with any Arts Council reporting in mind. I have never been privy to the structuring of the festival and have had no clout in its programming. It was always an observation of how the Woman’s Voice was represented from the outset. My views are entirely my own.
Bearing in mind that the project I had been commissioned to deliver by the Well Women Centre called ‘Words For Well Being’ was feeding into the ‘Beautiful Minds’ day, a day dedicated to exploring Mental Health, as well as my passion for empowering the woman’s voice, I was keen to go to as many female focused events as possible.
It soon became clear that the male voice dominated the paper programme, which was disappointing. Men were mentioned by name or imaged on average 72 times as opposed to a mere average 43 times for women. There was one woman of colour mentioned and the ‘We Need to Talk About Music ‘ day had only one event representing women’s creativity. Fringe event information was available on the web-site, which was ‘interesting to navigate’ so as new events came on line the only way to find out about them was via the usual social media channels so that even though women were involved in a great many events, they remained hidden.
This all served to create the impression of a white male dominated based festival rooted in a local white male community which unfortunately, overall, does not represent the wide and diverse communities that make up Wakefield and who had engaged in events in previous years and was not, I believe the intention of the festival.
The perception and the reality of gender balance can be very different. Of course alot of behind the scenes work goes on to produce any kind of festival and until that information is collated and published the whole picture cannot be seen. The statistics here show a much more gendered balance which is great and I am pleased. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I have been told that my review is ’embarrassing’ and that I have written about ‘nothing positive’ and indeed what I have written is now redundant in the light of these statistics. I have also had an offer of a potential job (if funding had been secured) to direct a day dedicated to the woman’s voice at a City Festival next year, withdrawn as a direct result of speaking my truth. The irony is not lost on me. How do I feel about that? Sad. angry, resigned, frustrated, inspired, determined and resolved to continue being part of the strong movement that already exists and is continuing to grow in Wakefield, no matter what.
The figures speak for themselves. Women were represented extraordinarily well in the 2017 Lit Fest. Go us!
With all this in mind I stand by what I have written below. I am not embarrassed by my observations of the Festival, of my role in that, of the way I have articulated how I feel, nor of the women who performed in it. I am more than happy to have open and honest conversations with anyone who feels they want to respond or reply. Please, if you have something to say to me. Say it to me. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday 23rd September
I planned to go to the Breakfast Epiphany performance at Unity Works with Genevieve Walsh and Valerie Anderson Gaskill.
Genevieve is from the royal line, being an original member of The Firm and Valerie has been a voice to watch in Wakefield for some time. Their union produced some great electric, social commentary and well written, poignant pieces. Attended by about 25 people, not put off by the 10am start, the performances were initially hampered by technical hitches but once the microphone situation was sorted and the windows had steamed up, it began. It reminded me somewhat of Wednesday night Unity Words events I had attended over the past 16 months. Crackling with expectation and talent and a platform to showcase established and up and coming Northern Voices, Gen and Val had a mountain of audience expectation to climb. And climb it they did. Once at the top, they planted the flag for Women’s Voices in Wakefield and stood proud.
All photographs taken by and with huge thanks to to Jess Robottom
The difference between the Wednesday Unity Words evenings run by The Firm (which have finished now) and this event, was that the women had space to really explore themes of family and relationships and to paint pictures of colourful characters that we could all relate to. I have never seen Gen deliver her line: ‘as she turned to a small child, hunched by the door, and said, NO BRADLEY, I TOLD YER DOWN T’PARK, DON’T EAT OFF THE FUCKING FLOOR’ in her homage to women who are walking ‘Contradiction’s poem with such aplomb before. I felt as if I really knew Valerie’s mother by the end of her set. Both delivered with sincerity, warmth and authenticity and invited real empathy from an audience who already loved them.
After the Epiphany I had a choice. Should I go to The Book Doctors (there was no mention as to who they were so I had no idea if I would be accessing the woman’s voice or not but have recently found out that Valerie was part of this event) followed by Wakefield’s Gudrun’s Sisters in Wakefield Library or should I go to an event at The Hepworth? The Hepworth event was an afternoon exploring how post war art and literature has helped to define national identity and was delivered by three women who held doctorates in this field. I chose the Hepworth.
I had been to see the exhibition, ‘Approaching Thunder’ the weekend before. Desperate to get out of the house after a bout of illness, it had not made an impact on me so I was glad to be able to re-visit it again. Gill Saunders from the V & A spoke briefly about the role of the ‘Recording Britain’ project which helped a post war torn Britain to idolise the pastoral ideology through a series of propaganda posters. This was followed by a ‘substitute’ speaker from The Hepworth who spoke about modernism in Britain post second world war as the original speaker had fallen ill. There was a flimsy link to literature. The third speaker, Sophie Hatchwell, from Bristol University, was fascinating in both the content and her delivery . She highlighted strong links in ‘Letters from the Home Front’ between Robert MacBryde and Keith Vaughan (who were life partners) which demonstrated how their passivism and social commentary was reflected in their art work. The panel discussion was also interesting and there was a good and balanced mix of questions from the audience which really helped to unpack the links between art and literature during that time.
Lively, knowledgeable, respectful and informative debate took place until a male member of staff from the Hepworth, who had summarised the three talks, interrupted and talked over the women numerous times. ‘Sigh.’
The Big Night Out at St Austin’s Church theatre was stupendous in its vibe, energy and charisma. It was a sell out. Billed as ‘The Firm’s Last Gig’ Dartford, Abbott, Darwin, Walsh and Stoppard were introduced by Marina Poppa, who delivered her legendary feminist piece about how women’s bodies are at the mercy of the beauty industry and how important it is to fight back against that by not botoxing, not shaving, not plucking and not generally giving a fuck. Marina is a favourite guest at the bi-monthly Women’s Voices Ring Out, and it was wonderful to see her grace the stage and to own it with such power. Genevieve Walsh was, once again, in her element. Like an inspiring dynamo she swept the whole theatre up in her black taffeta Gothic poetry, twirled us about and sat down with us, with a thump, with twigs in our hair, after a several breathless performances.
Other women who took to the stage that night were Wakefied’s Laura Potts, accompanied by a cellist, it was very other worldly. Becky Cherriman, who is another favourite of the WVRO events, held her space magnificently and told intimate and compelling stories. Kate Fox finished her set with a flash of her burlesque bra and made the wonderful observation that most women who get up and speak in public seem to be labelled as ‘unruly’ got lots of loud whoops and claps from an entertained audience and Zodwa Nyoni, absolutely bought the house down with her advice to her niece that came in the form of a list poem. The supportive yells and cries that came from the women in the audience as each wise point was made and delivered in a powerful, life affirming and vibrant spoken word performance raised the bar. I am delighted that Zodwa has agreed to perform at the WVRO event in December this year.
Sunday 24th September
This was a big day for me. I had been leading a writing course called ‘Words For Well Being’ with women who had been working up to performing at the Lit fest for 5 months. Going from never having written anything creative before to performing on a stage, in front of an audience, using a microphone and owning their space without either being sick, bursting into tears or having a nervous break down was an epic challenge. The afternoon was dedicated to their achievements in a celebration event. This was book ended by two discussion panels about issues to do with Mental Heath and how to break down those barriers within Wakefield. The woman’s voice was represented by Shannon Wishon from the Well Women Centre. She made compelling arguments for the benefits of women only spaces to enable women to recover from mental health using creativity at the core, but she also pointed out that men’s mental health needs are not being met at all by the NHS and that issues around mental health are not gender exclusive.
Several people who attended the first panel discussion event then came to support the women as they performed their poems. This celebration event had made it into the Lit Fest paper brochure so we were hoping for a good attendance and we got it. We started our event by showing a wonderful film made by Amy Charles which captured the very essence of the past 5 months and after both the film and the performance there were tears of relief, hugs of achievement and whoops of delight from both the audience and the women.
Words For Well Being VideoWords For Well Being Video
The evening event was also something special. We had been missed off the publicity despite the evening being named after our project but we had rehearsed and rehearsed on the stage, had taken excellent advice and practiced with microphones and were ready. The nerves were stretched tight in the green room and the rescue remedy was flowing. My pep talk was different this time, this was not a performance for an audience it was an opportunity to experience something new, to share something unique we had created and so we were inviting people to join us in that moment. It was up to them if they wanted to be with us or not but WE were with us. We had one another’s backs. The lighting was just right, the mood was electric and each of the women took their place at the front with confidence, looked their fears in the eye and told their truth with no apology through the medium of spoken word. They were magnificent and the audience thought so too and gave us a standing ovation.
The only other female voice that evening was Hannah Chutzpah who went on immediately after us. We were in the bar, drinking gin and generally being amazed that we had achieved what we had. I was sorry to miss Hannah as I understand she is really very good.
In between the weekends.
The five days between the two main weekends of the festival were peppered with different events during the days and evenings. This was an opportunity for local groups who, with or without seed funding to provide events and celebrate their contributions to the cultural landscape of Wakefield. Only three events represented the women’s voice so as I was unable to attend the Women’s Poetry Group workshop run by Jasmine King on the Tuesday morning I went to the launch of Kit Eyre’s book ‘Valerie’ in the evening. I had been asked to perform alongside poets Halima Mayat and Susan Darlington. It was a lovely hour with the author reading the first chapter from her novel, participating in an informal performance and sharing a cup of tea and a bun afterwards. Wednesday morning saw Kath Padgett at the Library but I was working and unable to go.
My mother’s 74th birthday prevented me from seeing the two women led events that day. The first was with, Zoe Howe and Celeste Bell in conversation at Unity Works. This had been advertised in the paper brochure. The second, not readily advertised, was the Labour MP Rachel Reeves talk about Dame Alice Bacon based on a book she has recently published. Apparently the talk was fascinating. Dame Alice Bacon is the first woman my next project ‘Forgotten Women of Wakefield’ is focusing on so even though I was not able to go I have met with Rachel Reeves to talk about both Alice, and the project, and now have the book.
I made it back in time, however to catch the One day After School commission performance of Simon Armitage’s poetry collection, ‘The Dead Sea Poems’ at The Mechanics Theatre. A little known and I hope, soon to be more used theatre in the old Museum on Wood Street. Dean Freeman and his band produced an incredible musical piece which was accompanied by several well-known local spoken word artists reading the poems out loud against different back drops of pictures, lighting and sound. The whole performance was really innovative. I would have liked to have seen more female spoken word artists involved as it was, once again white male dominated.
Sunday 1st October
Based at The Cluntegate Centre in Horbury, there were two events dedicated to the woman’s voice. The first, The Merry West Collective, which was not highlighted as being a woman’s voice event, so I missed it, and the second, a musical ending to the festival, Ruby Mackintosh, a local singer song writer. I have seen Ruby before, and can say with some authority that she is magnificent in both her songstress skills and her performance. I did not, however, get to see her this time due to prior commitments.
I did catch ‘Welcome to the Mad’ which was a partner collaboration between Valerie Anderson Gaskill and William Anderson Gaskill. This was the fifth time Valerie had appeared at the Lit Fest but not once had her name appeared on any programme. They were both extra ordinarily good. So much so that at the end of their piece, William had to announce it was ‘over’. The whole audience were all so hooked we just did not want it to end and were waiting to hear more.
That Sunday demonstrated just how talented the drama collective Cuckoos Egg is. Their piece was interactive and immersive, in that the audience was invited to attend an official press conference outlining the reasons why culture and art could only now be accepted if it were set within the framework of being economically profitable and that all other types of ‘art’ had been de commissioned. (Including songs by Robbie Williams) Art for art’s sake had become unpopular and indeed, something to be laughed at and ridiculed. The piece slipped in and out of different scenarios and took a dark turn when it turned out that the young people ( beautifully acted by younger members of the cast) were being persecuted by what can only be described as an ‘arts hunter’ for being creative. The whole piece was challenging, thought provoking and clever. For me, this was the highlight of this year’s Festival. It was inter-generational, tackled diverse and relevant topics and showcased an incredibly talented group of writers, artists, actors and social commentators.
If I had only gone to see events that empowered and enabled the woman’s voice I would have had a very thin experience indeed. As it was I feel I was able to engage in a good amount of different experiences which showed Wakefield’s white creative community in a strong, confident and creative light.
I do however, feel uncomfortable and some what embarrassed that, as many of my Asian friends, Polish friends, friends from the asylum seeking community and LGBT friends who had been represented in the past in events I had put on, have asked of me this year, ‘Where was my place in this festival? Where was our voice?’