20 Jan 2020

Disability History Month: Our Journey


Image: Barry Avison performing with MerseySign Theatre at DaDaFest International 2005

Following on from Disability History Month in December, our newest recruit, Sarah, sat down with our longest-serving member of staff, Barry, to look back over our journey so far. It’s been eventful to say the least!

Hey Barry, what was starting at DaDaFest like for you?   
It was known as North West Disability Arts Forum when I started as a freelancer in November 1999. I was only supposed to be here for six months, but then I was asked to apply for the Finance Officer post and over 20 years later I’m still here!  

What kind of thing was NWDAF doing back then?
It was mainly Training and Development with the Workshop Leader’s Course in partnership with Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. I took part in this popular course which brought in Disabled and Deaf Artists from all over the North West and beyond. It was the first time an art course was that accessible and gave us an accredited qualification to lead workshops.

So you were an artist before you joined NWDAF?
Yes, I was a Performing Artist with Common Ground Sign Dance Theatre, an inclusive company of Deaf and Hearing performers. My main job was to reach out to the Deaf Community wherever we were touring and get them involved in workshops. I’d play an active role in the workshops which then lead to me performing alongside the main dancers. My other tasks within this company were dealing with the finances and fundraising.

Just a little secret … I also performed in the very first DaDaFest International in 2001 with MerseySign Deaf Theatre! We shared the same bill as Mat Fraser, Julie McNamara and …. Liz Carr, who was performing with The Nasty Girls!

Amazing! So did the festival not kick off until after you’d joined?
At the time we held seminars and an evening of cabaret acts but there was no actual week or festival on par with other festivals in Liverpool. Having met other Disabled and Deaf Artists though, we wanted to show our work rather just than talk about it.

I was pleased when Ruth Gould joined us as Creative Director because she had that same vision as me. Then, in 2001, we persuaded the Arts Council and Liverpool City Council to grant us £5,000 each to set up a pilot festival. We got other art venues to partner with us and lo and behold DaDaFest International was born.

The feedback from Disabled and Deaf People was enthusiastically positive, so much so that they let us do another one!

What performance or event has been the highlight for you?
Too numerous to pick one! … maybe the ones which I performed in (haha!). The standout in my mind was the 2008 Festival as part of Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture. We had what is now the Camp and Furnace for the whole weekend, with the road close next to it for street theatre performances. Inside was an art gallery, a café, and a theatre. The whole vibe and community spirit, the mingling of the artists and the audience - simply saying that I was there was mind-tingling! Being the go-to person for finance, I wore a pair of trousers with loads of pockets dishing out the petty cash!

Would you say DaDaFest has had an impact on Liverpool as a city?
I would like to think so because there is nothing similar in the UK outside of London. In fact, it’s London that has caught up with us! We have brought in high quality international artists, showing that we are in the mix when it comes to innovative festivals that can turn heads

How do you reckon attitudes to Disabled and Deaf Artists have changed since 1999?
I will need to go back in time like Dr Who ….. when we were known as the North West Disability Arts Forum, it was basically as it says on the tin; a collective of various Disabled and Deaf People meeting to devise awareness training, access audits and seminars to educate and inform mainstream arts venues. I was shocked by how little they would engage with us.

Gradually, perhaps through exposure in the media, especially through sport such as the Paralympics, people are recognising the impairments and more importantly, the people. The arts has played its part and there are quite a few outstanding individuals. But … there is a but …. we are not totally accepted by our peers yet. This may be down to lack of training opportunities at schools or the arts not being seen as a valid career option for us.

Lastly, do you have any advice for me starting at DaDaFest?
Enjoy the journey! … It can be like being on a roller-coaster during the festival but we have experienced staff to help you out.

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