“It has been very different recently. Covid-19 meant that we had to do most things online and get used to being creative in different ways. Not being able to run our normal events meant we lost some of the energy and essence of being together. While no technology can replace that, we’ve being doing lots of other stuff to stay connected.”
So says Sarah Watson, Chair of Trustees, distilling Carousel’s pandemic response to the essentials; connection and creativity.
For an organisation whose main purpose is bringing people together to create art, 202-21 was a logistical and structural challenge. The regular Blue Camel Club nights for 300+ people at The Old Market? Gone. Our monthly gig at The Green Door Store? Sorry, no. Team meetings, events, skill sessions for learning disabled artists all suddenly wiped from the calendar.
Our first priority was to check in with the core team of artists. Their circumstances vary; some live at home with family, others in shared homes or with carers. An already marginalised group was about to become further detached from ‘normal’ life; as one of our artists put it “for us the isolation doesn’t end.”
Next, what can we make that interests and stretches artists and keeps everyone creative at home? We sent out iPads to those that use them and talked people through how to run computer platforms for meetings,
Working online allowed us to offer opportunities to people further afield. The music team launched the aptly named Remote Controllers project, working with nine young people from around the country to make electronic music online using accessible tools. You can hear the resulting piece, Tomorrow-ness, featuring the enchanting vocals of Flo Gordon aka F. Witch here:
The Oska Bright Film Festival tour gained several new national partners such as Aesthetica in York and Norwich Film Festival and an audience of 3,984 viewers for its screenings. It also produced Oska Bites, a series of curated Facebook live events with Q&As so that people could respond in real time. The Festival itself was pushed back and is happening in March 2022. You can read more about the world’s biggest and most impactful learning disability film festival here.
Brighton-based Parable Dance leapt in to help us fill the Blue Camel Club gap, teaching dance sessions online and encouraging viewers to dress up and go disco-crazy in their living rooms.
The resilient Carousel Radio crew, instead of meeting in a studio, had technology delivered to their homes and together broadcast 12 new shows on Radio Reverb. The podcast won a Silver Lovie Award in 2020; listen here on your favourite platform.
Keeping a band together during lockdown was a struggle for all musicians; it’s just not possible to replicate the live gig experience through a screen. We did our best to keep people playing and learning, with monthly online gigs in partnership with Gig Buddies Coronavirusfest. When guidelines permitted, we filmed a small, live show at the Unitarian Church with top entertainer Daniel Wakeford amongst others.
We also launched a new record label, FairGround, to promote learning disabled and autistic music makers, and have big plans to develop a representation for a diverse range of talented musicians in the City.
While the Carousel Chorus was happy to write and record new songs and video for online viewing, not everyone can access technology whether to make or to watch art.
To keep those people connected we produced the Carousel Zine, four editions of a quirky, illustrated newspaper compiling drawings, jokes, poems and stories contributed by artists and posted out.
And for children, a series of Pop-Up creative kits was sent to families, a playful box of surprises with a focus on our core artforms; film, music and radio and used with digital workshops developed by our learning disabled artists.
Most ambitious of all, and our response to the lockdown, is Carousel TV, a new quarterly TV show broadcast on Latest TV, freeview and hosted on our YouTube channel. With 8 media trainees, we have skilled personnel behind and in front of the camera. As opportunities for getting out and about increased, the TV team was able to capture the vibrancy of the City from the dance of starlings over the pier to walks in leafy Stanmer Woods.
Learning disabled people have suffered poor mental health during the pandemic and have suffered social isolation, cuts in care support and loss of confidence. They have been six times more likely to die from COVID than non-learning disabled people.* Carousel has played a part in addressing this inequality, keeping people engaged and creative.
Somehow we also found time to build a brand-new website, to better represent our work and its impact.
If it has been the biggest challenge of our 40 years working in the City, it’s one from which we have learned a lot. As Sarah Watson says “Having spent the first year of the 2020’s in lockdown, we’re ready to bloom, to boldly journey to new creative worlds.”
We have a range of celebratory events planned for 2022 and hope you’ll join us on that journey; inspiring learning disabled people to achieve their artistic ambitions.
Written by Lisa Wolfe for Carousel, November 2021
*Public Health England Nov 2020, figure adjusted for age and sex.