Features Festivals Published 1 July 2015

Re:Con: Sensored Festival

James Varney is deprived of his senses.
James Varney

In roughly two hours and ten minutes spent at Re:Con’s Sensored Festival of Art and Performance at Contact, I experienced about 25 minutes of theatre. I’ll talk about the clamour of the day’s organisation after I’ve talked about the pieces I saw, because I want to give them a fair whack. Sensored’s literature asks us: ‘What would it be like to experience the world without one of your five senses?’

Exposure – Jo Bannon

This is a fascinating interrogation into The Gaze, control, identity, medicalisation, intimacy, liveness, honesty. In the pitch darkness of a room, in the same way as in the meeting of a stranger, vision dictates what we make of Jo Bannon. And Jo Bannon controls when and how we access vision. Bannon’s voice speaks to us from the past, from security, and the physical Bannon shines a torch when we are allowed (made) to see.

The collision of spectral audio presence and actual dictator presence is bizarre in that it feels comforting. Maybe it’s something about inhabiting the continuum of past and present simultaneously, feeling like a form of escapism out of medicalised existence (Bannon tells us when she was younger both her and her mother were wrongly informed she would go blind as she got older. She hasn’t). Maybe I’ve just internalised a trust of one-on-one performances.

I’m a fan of anything that exposes/inverts mechanisms of power, and I’m a fan of anything that invokes the spectral. Maybe I’ve read myself into liking this piece. Maybe I’ve been manipulated into liking this piece. Maybe that’s all successful pieces do in the first place.

I want to see something using light (read: darkness) in this way on a massive scale. Note to self: how difficult would it be to black out Manchester Cathedral?


Empty Kitchen – iOrganic

Experiencing a meal without eating anything is a daft, gorgeous idea. The task of figuring out how exactly you’d go about it has been undertaken by iOrganic – Harry Jelley and Lenni Sanders.

Like any half-eventful evening out at a restaurant, Empty Kitchen feels like a sort of light-handed and well-meaning assault. Hyphenated words aside, it’s a mongrel of a piece, equal parts fine dining, Futurism, Dada, spoken word, exhibition, media installation.

Jelley and Sanders, as our waiters, narrate (dictate) our ‘evening’. The kitchen is out of food and so we are handed silver trays of textures to run our hands over, which, together with poetry recited by the double act, evoke our starter, main and dessert. Calamari is conjured by sandpaper and clay, jam roly-poly by a warm, furry pencil case.

Something easy and subversive in this madness. Because daft as it was, it felt a remarkably accurate distillation of dining out. Choicec (or the illusion of choice), consumption and regret, the whole experience of being tricked out of autonomy via the manipulation of our desires, being given what we ask for, and realising it’s neither what we want or need. I’m certain all this is in there.

Hiatus – Subtle Kraft Co. with Jose Puello

Pure dance doesn’t speak to me, not really. For this piece, the audience were given ear protectors and earplugs and instructed to wear both before the piece began. The idea being that we wouldn’t be able to hear the music, but I definitely could a little bit, along with all the sliding of the dancers across the floor, so it was a very selective deafening.

Coupled with the fact the deafening didn’t quite happen, I don’t know why the deafening happened. Aside from the piece taking place as part of Sensored, I can’t think of any reason. It felt arbitrary and distracted me from the dance to constantly hear just little bits of things; I couldn’t engage at all.

As much as I struggled with this piece, I’ve got to at least make an effort. I’m going to make the link between the deafening of the audience and the themes (possibly?) of relationship between individuals and barriers to forming those relationships. I was interested by the piece’s navigation of dancer Kimberley Harvey’s wheelchair use. At times co-dancer Robert Hesp lifted her out of her chair, and through Hiatus bodies were physical objects: heavy things, light things, the fact of their weight was present.

Perhaps there’s something more to be drawn out of this piece, but it came through too many filters to get to me.


Recently I have been particularly sensitive to considerations of accessibility in making and presenting theatre at the moment (which is another story), but it irks that two of the three pieces I saw assumed (and relied upon) their audiences possessing the ‘full set’ of senses. Regardless of the content of the pieces, the form of both Exposure and Hiatus depended on the audience having a specific sense that could be deprived them. Exposure’s reliance on both sight and hearing removed it from being accessed by blind and deaf audience members, Hiatus’s deafening of its audience would have been irrelevant to any deaf audience members. Empty Kitchen, though it would have been less so for non-hearing participants, was by far the most accessible piece I saw on the day (and, I think, not too difficult to insert surtitles/BSL into).

These are not criticisms I hold against the pieces which were programmed – whether all theatre should be accessible to all people would be a long argument. These are criticisms against Sensored’s curation. For an event which featured a panel discussion titled ‘How can we be creative about accessibility?’, I was surprised by the lack of exploration of sensory accessibility in the pieces I saw. Only one out of three actively investigated the multisensory possibilities in how the audience can experience work, the other two chose to limit the senses available to us. When your audience requires a specific combination of senses to experience a work, you limit your audience.

I wasn’t able to stay for the talk, so I don’t know what exactly was talked about. Optimistically, I hope they were open about the festival itself being not entirely accessible. I think Re:Con had great ambition with Sensored, and it should also be taken as an opportunity to learn. The presence of the talk suggests that is definitely what they are trying to do. Stumbling blocks, yes, definitely. But the existence of Sensored is a gesture towards a greater level of awareness of disability and access within the arts. This is definitely a positive thing.

Finally, on a more practical note, Sensored felt badly organised. I arrived early, but once I had my ticket and programme, was told to go away and decide what I wanted to see, then come back to the box office to book slots. The foyer got crowded and confused incredibly quickly, once I had queued to get back to the box office, most of the timeslots before 5 (when I had to leave) were taken. So I ended up just seeing three pieces. Seeing less than half an hour’s worth of pieces in over two hours was very frustrating and most of my time was spent sat waiting for my timeslot to come round on the next piece. Maybe I’m more optimistic than I ought to be, but I hope Re:Con take notice and learn from this. Hopefully next time will run more smoothly.

Photo credit: Jo Bannon


James Varney

James is a writer and theatre maker, based in the middle parts of England. He has created work with Daniel Bye, Josh Coates and Lenni Sanders and had work presented at Derby Theatre, The Royal Exchange, Manchester Literature Festival, Live at LICA and Camden People’s Theatre. James enjoys Peanut Butter, DIY Punk and Long Walks On The Beach.



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