Who Cries Wins // Martin O'Brien & Guests

This discussion of autobiographical performance and trauma explored a notional increase in artists making work engaging with these themes. Are there really more artists using personal stories as the basis for their work? Or is it simply that the particular qualities of this labour are now acknowledged more readily? That testimonies of trauma (particularly by artists of colour, disabled artists and those with lived experience of mental health issues) are now recognised as far more than mere self-indulgence? The artists Martin O’Brien, Mele Broomes and Amelia Stubberfield made up a panel presenting three very different but interrelated perspectives on these questions, refracting the central theme of the festival (Care & Destruction) back through their personal narratives and artistic practices.  

O’Brien is an artist whose exploration of his own status as someone with cystic fibrosis has pushed his body to the limits of endurance. Through his strategic deployment of SM techniques, medical ritual and pop-cultural mythologies (most recently the figure of the zombie, after passing his life expectancy of 30) his work challenges audience to witness the process of the body and the experience of sickness. This is very different to Broomes, whose work Grin was performed in excerpt at Care & Destruction. Broomes discussed her experience as a dancer of colour, someone whose very body troubles the overwhelmingly white spaces of institutional culture, and the pressure that goes with it. How even well-meaning attempts to engage with artists of colour can still leave the onus on them to both explain their experience and offer solutions for how it could be resolved. Stubberfield, whose piece Borderline was also part of the festival weekend, offered a very different perspective. Presenting a more narrative practice, an investement in stand-up as a form, which centres the notion of story more than either O’Brien or Broomes, they discussed how comedy might provide a vehicle for serious and honest discussion. 

Although very different practices, each artist arrived by their own route to a series of similar and related questions. Who is in the audience and does autobiography serve them? The presentation of personal testimony can be a powerful catharsis. Who gets to make the decisions around the work? How is performance dealing with the intensely personal presented, marketed, made public, and where? Each artist claimed their practice as a way to take responsibility for the work they wanted to make – the assertion of something important to each of them. And in that, perhaps, there is much for the audience, venues and cultural institutions to consider.  

-      Lewis Church

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Martin O’Brien - BBC Ouch Podcast

About V/DA - Mele Broomes

Amelia Stubberfield

Autobiography and Performance - Deirdre Heddon

Lyn Gardner: Theatre is embracing diversity, but it’s still not enough. - The Stage

Mental Health in the arts: Are we talking about it enough? - London Evening Standard


Every time I see Jamila Johnson Small dancing in Fury I remember how it feels to stand on a dance floor undulating, oscillating, swinging and wavering. 

I used to be a party girl, and as such have often lost track of many things going on around me whilst I was trying to lose myself. 

Every time I see Jamila Johnson Small dancing in Fury I can look for those things, trying to recognise me and the indistinct multitudes that trundle around a dance floor seeking for love. We are all falling, and slouching, and seeking for love.

- Camilla Carè

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Last Yearz Interesting Negro (Jamila Johnson-Small) - Fury1/FuryZ

Art in the Club - Crack Magazine

Dance Memory - Duke University

Clubbing, Dancing, Ecstasy, Vitality - Ben Malbon

Street Wisdom // Phillip Cowell

At the core of Street Wisdom is the idea that every moment is extraordinary, and each street full of inspiration. With an open mind, comfy shoes and clothes fit for the weather, the streets can provide answers to a myriad of questions. All we have to do is ask.

And that’s what we did at Normal? Festival of the Brain, expertly guided by the genial Street Guide Phillip Cowell in a fun and practical mix of psychology, cognitive science and mindfulness. 

We began with some ten-minute exercises. One asked us to notice 'what you’re drawn to' (and what you’re not attracted to) whilst another, tailored to each person, asked us to look for 'the patterns and what connects them' or, in my case, 'sense the story'. Stories, it turned out, were everywhere.

After the warm up, we set off with our own questions in mind, open to whatever answers the streets provided. These, Phillip explained, could come in any form: street signs, passers-by, shop windows, doors, windows, graffiti or overheard conversations…

We live in sped-up, switched-on times. Street Wisdom gave us permission to slow down and focus on the signs and signals all around us. This method is useful for anyone struggling with day-to-day personal stuff, tackling a challenge at work or seeking a creative breakthrough. Philip advised us to keep our questions manageable – not too big nor too small. In forty-five minutes, walking slowly and with purpose, each participant found the answers they sought.

The session closed with a chance for us to share our stories of what the street has taught us. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The walk had given us an opportunity to get out of the autopilot mode we live in for so much of our time. Answers had come to us in the form of a poster in the window, or down by the beach. We were excited at how fluid and magical the streets became when we tuned in to their hidden messages and unexpected discoveries.

Street Wisdom has grown into a global movement, and it’s not hard to see why. With free public events, these immersive walking workshops teach participants that answers are everywhere. Just remember your waterproofs, and bring an open mind.

- Charlotte Forfieh


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

10 Good Reasons to Go for A Walk Street Wisdom

Go for A Walk – You Could Discover the Meaning of Life - Guardian

MindfulnessMind UK

Have You Heard About Walk and Talk Therapy? - Counselling Directory

Patterns of Trauma

It is an age-old question: where does the best art come from, happiness or melancholy? It is a hard question to answer, and Patterns of Trauma explored the role of trauma in an artist’s work from the perspective of three artists, covering a range of disciplines. 

Patterns of Trauma was an informative and candid talk drawing on experiences of neurological disorders, racism and mental health related traumas. Multidisciplinary artist Nwando Ebizie, musician and poet Arike Grant and poet Byron Vincent guided the audience openly and honestly through their experiences. Chaired by clinical psychiatrist and meditation teacher Gemma Beckley, they explored the differences and the similarities in their practice and experiences. All participants brought their own insights but found common ground in the way they use empathy. Empathy becomes an incredible vehicle for sharing the true impact of trauma and connecting to people, whether audiences have similar experiences or not. Vincent showed the power of connection and the change it can create when he mentioned the work of the violence reduction unit in Scotland. Interestingly, the talk examined areas of traumas in art not often considered, such as the impact of revisiting the trauma on the artist. Patterns of Trauma highlighted how personal trauma and the responses to it are. It also looked at the impact this might have on any performer revisiting this in their work, and offered ways they could stay emotionally safe. 

Patterns of Trauma was a different take on trauma and what it means in the production and performance of art. What do you say? What do you leave out? How do you take care of yourself? It is important to consider.

- Dave Horn


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Your Reality is Broken (Wellcome Collection) - Nwando Ebizie

Violence Reduction Unit

Emotional rescue: how personal trauma has been turned into art - Guardian

Art Can Heal PTSD’s Invisible Wounds – Melissa Walker (TED Talk)

Art and Trauma: Creativity As a Resiliency Factor - goodtherapy.org

Touch Laboratory 'Weight' // Aistė Jančiūtė

A blindfold applied before the start of any performance somewhat hampers the critical gaze. One minute you’re a potential audience member, the next you’re in Guantanamo. But it’s by the seaside. And gentle hands are touching yours, guiding you across a pebble and sand landscape as your own weight makes you stumble and slide. The noise comes at you from all sides and there’s a woman’s voice checking off body parts and their weights: brain 100 grams, upper lip 20 grams. Then blindfold off, headphones on, lie down, look up …there’s light above … blindfold on and you’re stumbling again and as you sit, the cold weight of the world on your shoulders.

Touch Laboratory 'Weight' is an immersive piece of work resulting from the artist's month-long residency at the Folkestone seaside. She offers participants the 'experience [of] the concept of weight from physical, artistic, psychological and philosophical perspectives'. The reality of this intense hour in a room is an immersion in the world of the senses and sense deprivation, that at times can be hard to take. 

With immersive theatre under scrutiny this experiment-installation-performance at one point made me feel like the coyote in Joseph Beuys' I Love America and America Loves Me. Was I performer, participant, part of the installation, or just an unwitting subject of an experiment I didn’t quite understand?

A previous day at the Normal? Festival was given over to discussing autism, a condition that is often accompanied by hypersensitivity. Weight‘s assault on the senses was introduction to the feelings of overload that unexpected touch can bring. Cold heavy objects were tied to our bodies whilst all the time we are being watched. With new research suggesting that there could be a relationship between a lack of a normal sense of touch and more complex behaviours resulting in anxiety, Weight created numerous opportunities for participants to experience how each of the five human senses can be overloaded.

The show’s link to the town around it was explicit, and the performers’ careful engagement with each of us was evident. It was an intense and moving experience. But the acute sensory assault of participating in Weight could be overwhelming for anyone unprepared for the vulnerability of the human condition that this work exposes.

- Audrey Green Oakes


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Autism and Touch - Spectrum News

Immersive Theatre Growing Big Quickly - The Stage

I Love America and America Loves Me - Joseph Beuys

Senses Working Overtime - XTC

The Weight - The Band

Touch Laboratory 'Weight' by Aistė Jančiūtė

Dementia Friends

Before the Session:

Me: Nah! I really don’t think I should go to any of the dementia sessions.

Brave Me: Why not?

Me: I have my issues and I’m afraid I’ll freak out.

Brave Me: Wimp! Given everything you’ve been through, you should be able to deal with anything these days. Go! Keep quiet when you’re there and then find a corner afterwards to blub in.

The session was led by Dementia Friends, and they began by asking for words which come to mind when we hear the word ‘Dementia’. Failed memory, confusion, paranoia, losing things and personality changes came out. I thought it strange that nobody mentioned loss and fear.

The leaders gave us the five main messages which Dementia Friends want to get across:

  1. Dementia is not a natural part of old age. One in fourteen of over 65s have dementia but some are much younger.
  2. Dementia is a disease of the brain. It affects everyone differently. There are over 100 different types of dementia.
  3. Dementia is not just about losing memory. It also affects motor skills, sequencing, loss of inhibition, judging distance, perception.
  4. It is possible to live well with it.
  5. There is more to the person than the dementia.

As a description of dementia, Carole gave us the analogy of a person as a bookcase holding books from every memory of her life, with the most recent memories on the top shelf and her childhood ones at the bottom. As the bookcase begins to rock and topple, the books begin to fall off, those from the top shelf (recent events) dropping first. Imagine that most of the books have disappeared while the person could be living on the shelf containing the 50s.  What would she not know about? Not just microwaves, smart phones and videos. Would she know what a teabag is, or what it’s for? How would she make a cup of tea? Should you make it for her, or does this undermine her sense of independence? Perhaps the real way to help her is to buy tea rather than teabags.

One of the most heartening pieces of information for me, as a great believer in the power of language, was that it is no longer acceptable to refer to ‘dementia sufferers’. They are ‘people with dementia’. This reflects the way in which changing the term ‘rape victims’ to ‘rape survivors’ enlightens the public and gives strength to those who have been raped. It is entirely positive, as was this session. The exercises illustrated how perceptions of dementia vary as widely as the people who have these perceptions.

After the Session:

Other People: Are you ok?

Me: (sniff) Sure. 

Other People: No, you’re not. What happened? Was it bad? 

Me: No, it was bloody good. But I should have listened to myself. There were too many connections. Too many contacts. Too many familiar moments. I shouldn’t have gone. I was right. It was scary. I’ll get some wine and forget about it.

Other People: Not a good idea! 

Me: Tough!

- Joy Pascoe


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Dementia Friends

Symptoms of Dementia - Alzheimers Disease International

Support - Dementia UK

Quarter Life Crisis // Yolanda Mercy

This lyrical monologue documents the quarter-life crisis of its main character Alicia Adewale. It’s the crisis that comes about through that odd return to childhood forced on graduates and young people by unaffordable rents, casualisation and wealth inequality. The one of leaving home, achieving independence and then returning as though nothing has changed. This tension is at the heart of the performance, the comforting familiarity of being back in a parent’s house and slipping back into the childhood role that goes with it. Embracing unquestioning support, less as an alternative to independence as much as one of the only options available.

The performance is built out of teenage and twenty-something memories and reflections on nights out, with the changing lives of friends and potential new responsibilities looming into focus. And as much as Adewale, a young Londoner of Nigerian descent, measures herself against friends and their marriages, children and homes, she also compares her situation to the histories of parents and distant relatives. The age she is now the same age as her mother was when she had her. The same age as grandparents who left their homes for a better life, the same age as ancestors were elected king or stolen as slaves. Adults, independent and fully formed, with a strong sense of who they were, and yet she still relies on her mother for everything.

But what Quarter Life Crisis correctly implies is that this deferral of adulthood is not the fault of the young people it traps. The tabloid label of the ‘boomerang generation’ deemphasises the responsibilities of those gone before. The shift away from job security in favour of the gig economy, and the housing crisis that leaves flats unavailable and houses unattainable, was not initiated by Adewale’s generation. Nor was the wild variation between the pay of those at the top and those just starting out. The delay in independence is simply a consequence of late capitalism.

The state of the Young Person’s Railcard, something referenced throughout the performance, reveals this truth. The recently announced extensions, the 26 to 30-year-old ‘Young Workers’ card, continues to move the goalposts of achieving full adulthood past your twenties entirely. Absent from the conversation is the idea that the current economy is unsustainable, that in a situation where 30 years old requires a discount simply to travel to work it might be a deeper, more structural problem that needs addressing.

-       Lewis Church 


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Yolanda Mercy  - Quarter Life Crisis

Is the New 25-30 Railcard Just An Attempt to Distract?The Badger

Boomerang Children - Guardian

Lack of Choice and Moving Back HomeThe DeBrief

Young People’s Changing Routes to Independence (2002) – Joseph Rowntree Foundation

YAYAYA AYAYAY // Ultimate Dancer and Robbie Thomson

Entering one by one through dark curtains, the start of this performance feels ritualistic. Inside: darkness. Ushers guide the audience using glow-in-the-dark gloves that gleam like palm pilots. The eye is drawn irresistibly to every scrap of phosphorescent tape and each tiny LED – the depth of the dark is disorientating. But rather than confuse, it seems designed only to gently remove our preoccupation with time and space. Darkness can do that, especially when coupled with isolation, like people who have spent weeks living in unlit caves, or five days in a darkness retreat in Berlin conceiving a show. Our eyes are given time to adapt to the dark, but even though the performance is just an hour, it is still hard to know how fast time is passing, if at all. 

The Greek meaning of ‘theatre’ was ‘the seeing place’. To perform in total darkness may seem counterproductive, yet it has been a rich source of experimentation since at least 1998, when Battersea Arts Centre put on a seminal programme of theatre, music, dinner, comedy and poetry, all consumed in the dark. This season's aim was to unleash the power of the spoken word. In YAYAYA AYAYAY, the few spoken words are slowed, stretched and repeated with the help of digital manipulation amid throbbing tones and waveforms from the mixing desk. The sounds that make up the words are isolated, distorted, reunited; new articulations emerge – mantras and roars – before revealing their original meaning.

Apparently tethered to the sound of the voice, lights encroach fleetingly and then start to dispel the darkness, moving through it, revealing something of the space around. Under the right conditions, the human eye can respond to a single photon of light. For most people, the light continually around us stops us ever seeing that sensitively. In the half-light, the tenth-light, the hundredth-light of this performance, the eye catches and latches on to glimpses, mirages, illusions; a primal body materialising from the shimmering gloom and fading back into darkness. The effect is mind-altering, magical, cathartic.

And whether it was seeing this performance or just the start of spring in the city, the light the following morning had a different, more magical quality.

- Michael Regnier


Links relevant to this diagnosis

YAYAYA AYAYAY - Ultimate Dancer

Ultimate Dancer - Exeunt

Performing Arts' Relationship with Ritual - UNESCO

Why Does It Take So Long for Our Eyes to Adjust to A Darkened Room?  - Scientific American 

The Caves of Forgotten Time – The Atlantic

BAC’s Playing in the Dark Programme,1998

Theatre in the Dark: Shadow, Gloom and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre (2017)

Life In the Dark – Neuroanthropology Blog 

What Are the Limits of Human Vision? - BBC Future

What Is the City But the People?




It has a good few names. Quite succinctly it is goosebumps. A frisson of fashion and fascination. Shudders of connectors and receptors. Born from changes and hormones.

Piccadilly Gardens grew a limb for MIF's opening ceremony. It was strong, white yellow and black, a suspended scaffolded catwalk bookended with gargantuan screens. Forcing us to face elevated people of hairs and muscles we wouldn't necessarily notice but need. 

Outcasts can find homes here and be heard. Happiness happens. Ageing graffiti is persistent proof on decayed tooth buildings. In love longing and loss, the people present made the same marks of defiance and delighted in difference. 

The community of Manchester is multicultural, multidimensional and multi-layered. Overhead city birds flew through bringing beats of Graham Massey, familiar yet distant and path-promising. The music drove the spirit. Instrumental expressions inspired individuality in absolute purity. Each person offered a preserved presence and prominent pride. Some were meditative and mindful. Moving with the same precision, simplicity, honesty and dignity of a Japanese Tea Ceremony. 

This misplaced MIF limb shone an examination light on the pulse of Manchester, linking lives and the humbling cure of courage people can bring. That's how the city sings its sounds. They echo against minimalist movement in a microcosm magnified. 

We are all blood cells moving through concrete capillaries, veins and arteries. The buildings house pains and electric brains. Without our power our city's complexion would wither to the wan of winter.  There would be no ideas. A computer not operated, not invented even.

We consider a baby's first breath. Nature and inherent beauty. A mother's love and another mother's duty.

Beautifully beaming brothers burst out. One romancing with adrenaline fuelled break-dancing. We all feel it. It happens again. We smile. We are related in bird skin. We rub our arms but we are not cold. In that collective moment we're reminding each other of our fragile mortality through silent screened stories and broken open emotion. Undoubtedly, those of us who were not elevated, were raised in other ways.  

A counterbalance of contemplation and cognition came curling round cogs of memory, giving mind to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. A medical tool based in subjectivity and judgement, stuck in me from my nursing history. The individuals we saw seemed to present in Maslow’s self-actualisation. It gave a great faith for fruitful futures in friendship. We surely shouldn't take our time or significant others for granted. That is a given. Each moment is a gift into learning about ourselves and others. Promoting our purpose. But entrenched medical models are archaic and here in Manchester we face forward. Or at least we try to. 

Ahead on my own path I look to a person lying on the floor. Amongst bags and cans and covers. Somewhere else on the scale of self-actualisation. I judge. I do not want to but I do. I've already assigned him a gender. I wonder about this life story. How he see's the city. How he saw the runway? I imagine his goosebumps are from other places. I hand him some money from a guilt-lined purse. 

- Clare McNulty


Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Womanchester Poem - Ella Otomewo

Why Do We Get Goosebumps?

808 State – Pacific State

Baby Delivered Inside Amniotic Sac Takes First Breath

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Simply Psychology

Party Skills for the End of the World

As part of MIF 2017, the Centenary Building in Salford plays host to Party Skills for the End of the World. This hands-on immersive experience showcased survival crafts in a post-apocalyptic setting. There was a greenhouse brimming with herbs, vegetables grown in wine glasses and old beakers, sessions on making lava lamps, and blow darts. Participants were also shown how to make martinis, dance and play the guitar (these are party skills after all). 

The style of performance feels reminiscent of a new wave of interactive experiences that are growing in popularity. The first European escape rooms appeared in Budapest in 2011, a city which now has over 60 game-operating companies. These ideas have since spread widely throughout Europe, although the thrill of solving fiendish puzzles to a time limit with a team of friends has always been a winning formula. The Crystal Maze recently re-launched after a Kickstarter appeal and both Manchester and London now have live Crystal Maze experiences. They even share something in common with the classic murder-mystery night, where participants try to discover who killed the host while enjoying drinks and a hearty meal. These events are run by actors who stay strictly in character, speaking to participants to drop subtle hints about motives and give alibis. Pop-up cinemas like The Secret Cinema and The Jameson Cult Film Club also use atmospheric venues and live actors to enhance the experience of watching a film. 

Research from Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich found that people generally value experience-based purchases over material ones. Positive anticipation is associated with experiences, and even when an experience doesn’t go as planned it can often still provide a funny story. Experiences are a move away from material goods and consumption. Given that in the UK alone we use an estimated 275,000 tonnes of plastic every year, such a move would undoubtedly benefit the environment as much as our general happiness. There are only so many gadgets that we need, many of which have already been amalgamated into smartphones. A radio, camera, music player and map can now all be contained within a small portable device. Of course, there are material costs involved in creating and hosting activities. Party Skills for the End of the World used a large amount of oranges, curved needles, paper hats, print-outs and craft props. 

Possessions are only as valuable as the positive experience that they give you, and living or working in cluttered spaces has been linked to increased stress. So, next time you have the choice between buying a new gimmick or choosing a new experience, something that challenges or excites you, choose the experience. You can never lose an experience or break it or upgrade it, you will always have the memory and that’s where its true value lies. (TP)

- Tom Patterson

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

Hungary’s Escape Games Craze

The Masterpiece of a Simple Life

What do we truly need in our lives?

Does that object ‘spark joy’? The Japanese Art of Decluttering - Washington Post

Buy Experiences, Not Things - The Atlantic

UK Recycling and Rubbish Facts

Great Pacific Garbage Patch - Guardian