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Word Festival 2017, now in its 6th year, is more ambitious, more brazen, and perhaps more foolhardy than the average festival. Instead of being entertained, by using words and literature in all its forms to celebrate reading, writing and freedom of expression, the public become the festival makers themselves.
Written, performed and presented over an astonishing 9 days, Chasing Shadows was the performance culmination of the Sound Minds workshop, which brought together 7 young performers, all of whom are NEET or have experienced homelessness. Inspired by their own experiences and by British rapper Little Simz’s Stillness in Wonderland album, the performers combined music and theatre to explore contemporary issues and attitudes towards mental health.
The content might have been disturbing or difficult, but the material and performances, moving and rich, displayed character and dynamism. Nirobi Vassell as The Catalyst, stood out as the narrative lead and the wonderfully confident voice of Sarah Browne-Emile might have overshadowed the quieter performances of some of the cast, if not for the fact that each of them brought real characterisation to their own role, which is credit to the standard of writing displayed. These performers needed a receptive audience to listen to them, and their hard work and perceptive analysis of the issue paid off, so that the audience was drawn into the story and became active listeners, eavesdropping on private thoughts and conversations.
SLAMbassadors displayed a different tone altogether. More riotous, but equally reflective, these young performers were from North Bridge School, and were also represented by winners from last year’s SLAMbassadors and Foyle Young Poet of the year competitions. These were intensely subjective performances and great fun as well.
There were so many good poems that it seems churlish to pick out only a few, but Aislinn Evans’ evocative poem about Grenfell Tower fire drew together four modest words that seemed to encapsulate the sorrow and the anger of it all: ‘Kensington is still beautiful.’ Maya Souri’s examination of her years in care was distilled into an extended metaphor where ‘they made paper of my family tree’, so that her life history becomes a file in the office of a child protection unit. And Natasha Lynch forensically explored the difficulties of relationships: ‘You want to be amongst, Rough hands in supermarket aisles.’
Poet and performer, Joelle Taylor, presented SLAMbassadors and talked about poetry and writing as giving people an opportunity to speak, to discharge those bottled up feelings and release the sediment. Certainly, Chasing Shadows and SLAMbassadors were able to do that, but it also provided the performers with an active and engaged audience. Little is ever heard of the audience. We buy our tickets, sit there like cabbages in a row, and then go home. But as Joelle says, the audience is the vital element in completing a poem, which demands to be spoken out loud and listened to.
**Chasing Shadows will be available as a free album download. Check here for updates**
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Susan Sheahan is the winner of the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism, and is on a six-month residency at Free Word.
As a writer and critic, she contributes to The Observer and The Guardian, exploring visual culture, novels, …