For those who don’t know her, ‘Creatif’ Kate probably hosts something like a third of the events that take place in Te Whanganui-a-Tara every week. Odds are, you’ve either been to one of her shows, or have a good half dozen sitting in your Facebook Events that you hit Interested on and forgot about. Across Femmes and Thems, Neurodiverse Comedy Night, various poetry nights, storytelling shows, and Sexy Sunday Shenanigan’s Cabaret’s, she’s almost certainly provided a stage for someone you know. She’s a producing machine.
The other co-director of DAFT (who is clearly every bit as important as Kate but unfortunately will show up less in this article as I unfortunately did not get to interview them) is Susan Williams. Susan Williams is a writer and performer, who you’ll likely be familiar with as well. Their show last year Illegally Blind had season’s both here and in Tāmaki Makaurau and they showed up in Summer Shakespeare’s rendition of The Tempest earlier this year as well.
Spencer and Williams are both very experienced creatives with a lot in common. They’re both queer, they’re both disabled, and they’re both neurodivergent. Spencer has hypermobile Ehlers Donlos Syndrome and chronic fatigue, while Williams is also chronically ill, autistic, and functionally blind. Spencer starts laughing when she tells me about this, remembering a joke Williams tells where they list off their diagnoses and describe themself as greedy.
The two co-directors are supported by a small team, who are also all disabled or neurodivergent. Jo Marsh, a similarly prolific producer and performer, is the festival coordinator, while Jamie Fenton is the accessibility coordinator. While essential, having a team fully made up of neurodivergent / disabled creatives is not without its complexities. As Spencer put’s it “it’s been flipping wild.”
“Last year, Susan and I were both roped into one meeting after another by two other people who wanted the festival to happen… We did it on a wing and a prayer.”
The two people dragging Susan and Kate into meetings were Bernadette McCartney of Silver Noodle Soup, and Jesse Alsop (then) of Barbarian Productions. Both organisations have continued to support DAFT into its second year. Crucially, so has Creative New Zealand, which has provided the festival with $50,000. This money has gone directly towards paying the festival organisers, and paying the artists for their time. The exception to this, is Five Slices of Another Life an ensemble show directed by Marsh, which acquired its own funding and is being platformed by DAFT.
Ticket sales are another story. DAFT is splitting its ticket and workshop revenue equally between its artists. Not just for each individual show, across the entire festival. Essentially, it’s like a co-op share model, but for an entire festival. “No performer is of any more value than any other performer,” says Spencer. “It’s all about equality, inclusion, and making sure everyone is valued equally. Very socialist of me, my dad would have a heart attack. He tried to raise a good Tory girl but he failed.”
This unapologetically socialist attitude carries over to ticket sales as well. DAFT tickets are pay what you want, starting at eight dollars. Companion tickets are free, and workshop entry is koha. However, the most exciting thing DAFT has put together for its audiences is the accessibility fund. Spencer is direct about its purpose. “We know that a lot of people with disabilities are also beneficiaries, and don’t have a lot of extra cash.” Audience members who can’t afford tickets, even at the 8 dollar threshold, or who can’t afford transport to get to the show, can reach out to DAFT directly and receive support from the accessibility fund.
Of course, getting audiences to your shows is only half the battle. They have to be able to experience it as well. In our interview, Spencer doesn’t mince words about how difficult it is to make accessible theatre in the windy city. Namely, our lack of accessible spaces. “So shit, they’re so fucking shit! We did things at the Fringe Bar last year. It’s got steps and the back alley is grimey if you want to use the wheelchair lift and there’s steps up to the stage! Which is inaccessible for wheelchair users or others with physical disabilities. It’s really hard work, so we said we’re not doing that this year.”
Luckily, BATS stepped up to support the festival, offering them the use of both The Stage and Lumen Bar. Thankfully, there’s not much doubling up on shows, so there’s no need to use The Dome or The Studio, which aren’t accessible. Alongside BATS, two/fiftyseven, a co-working and events space on Willis Street, has provided DAFT with use of their spaces for workshops and events. Upstairs (with elevator access) and otherwise flat, as well as being close to bus stops, it’s a great fit for the festival.
Once audiences are in the theatre, there’s still work to be done to make sure that everyone can enjoy the show. DAFT has been able to get audio description for every showing, and an NZSL interpreter for a good handful of them. They aimed to have NZSL for every show, and unfortunately timelines prevented this. This only goes to show how difficult it can be to get this kind of accessibility support, that is quickly (and necessarily) becoming a new theatre standard.
The DAFT team are already scheming ways to help solve this problem. Williams has been training new people in audio description (AD), which has been immensely popular. Alongside this, Spencer has some ideas on how to make AD accessible to the wider community. Ideally, she wants DAFT to become a charitable trust. “I asked Susan, are we allowed to dream big yet? Because what I see DAFT being is not just a festival that happens every year, but also a resource for Wellington theatre in general to have audio describers trained up for professional theatre shows.”
Supporting your Creators
With DAFT, accessibility can’t just be an afterthought. If you’re facilitating a space for disabled and neurodivergent performers to create work, the creative process needs to be framed with their needs and thought processes in mind. Earlier this year, I had a chat with Marsh about the development of Five Slices of Another Life and how their approach to producing it was different to other shows she’d created. Rehearsal lengths, writing conditions, lighting, expectations - all of these things had to be considered differently and communicated properly.
Williams and Spencer have integrated this same attitude into the festival itself. Spencer tells me “In my Creatif Kate productions that I do at Fringe Bar, it’s very easy just to say ‘Hey, can you do an act?’ Send me a photo, send me some information, and we’re done. Occasionally, I do need to prod people slightly more and say CAN YOU SEND ME THE THING?! But here, it’s very much, what do you need from us? How can we support you? What is the best way, what are your access needs, how are you going to be your best self on stage?”
An example of how the DAFT team have gone out of their way to support their artists, is with touring performer Melanie McKerchar. McKerchar is travelling up from Ōtautahi to perform her poetry show Body of Work. She is disabled, and experiences chronic fatigue. Unable to afford a hotel for McKerchar, Spencer has provided her with Spencer's own apartment. Having chronic fatigue herself, Spencer is able to be confident that the space will be sufficient for McKerchar. In the meantime, Spencer is staying next door with her neighbours. Everything that DAFT isn’t able to do with funding, they find a solution with a selfless and personal touch.
DAFT has also played an active hand in the development of new work. Last year, Dave Batten, a local creative living with cerebral palsy, performed a ten minute stand up set at DAFT’s cabaret. “It tore the audience apart, everyone loved him. I was super impressed. So we all agreed, Dave, Dave’s mum, me, Susan, that he needed to do a one hour show in the next festival. So, we’ve been like 'You writing your show, mate?' They’re in rehearsal right now, practising. Everything within his show is built around his capacity to be who he is. That’s what’s so special about these shows. Shows that people have offered to give to us, and shows we’re we’ve said 'go and do that please.' It’s about making sure that they are specifically catered for right from the very beginning of the process, in terms of access, in terms of support, in terms of how much joy can they bring to the thing that they’re doing. It’s about the foundation being there, so people can get on that stage and feel like they can just shine.”
This support for our artistic community is built into the festival itself, with its wide range of workshops. A core element since year one, I asked Spencer how the workshops were received last year. “People loved them, absolutely loved them. The joy in the pictures and videos that we have from the workshops is just ridiculous, it’s just beautiful seeing people… able to be. And express themselves. Learn new skills as well.”
This year, there are workshops on offer for dance, comedy, improv, writing, acting, and even drag. The drag workshop, provided by Willy Smackntush (Hannah Gordon), has Spencer particularly excited. The aim is for it to be the first in a series of workshops conducted by Smackntush around the Wellington region, teaching rangatahi, disabled people, and really anyone who wants to get involved, how to put on a face, become a character, and perform the basics of drag. Spencer has seed funded the makeup for these workshops, thrilled to see drag being made accessible and taken to the masses.
At the time of our interview, Spencer had recently got back from the festival launch (hosted at two/fifty seven). Designed to bring the wider disability whanau together, these kind of events are part of DAFT’s still evolving DNA. “Everything felt like a social event last year, in a really good way. It was all so focussed on building community, it was beautiful.” Spencer believes that right now, bringing people together is more important than ever.
“There are lots of discrete groups of disabled organisations that run in Wellington: Silver Noodle Soup, Starjam, Barbarian. They’re all discrete groups that meet with each other, but don’t go across each other necessarily. It’s about bringing together everyone under one roof and saying, we’re all doing this cool thing. For me the community aspect of life is vital. I go to church, I run comedy shows, poetry shows, and cabarets, and for me building community is at the heart of what I want to do. Capitalism has just created us to be individualistic as heck, and a lot of disabled people don’t fit into the capitalist working model of what society ‘should look like’. It’s a chance to hang out with people who look, sound, are similar to you, same as you, has a similar struggle to you and just… have fun? Because building community isn’t just about doing serious theatre. It’s about being together as humans, this is our group of humans who look and feel alike.”
At the launch, there were a variety of Stimulation (Stim) Toys spread around for those who wanted to use them. Spencer describes to me how one of the performers in the DAFT Cabaret took such a liking to one of the toys, that they took it home with them. She then begins to laugh as she tells me: “My current stim toy, thank fuck it isn’t in the room, is a vibrator! It’s really bendy, it’s just so tactile, this isn’t its intended purpose, but I think I’m enjoying it more this way.”
The most accessible form of theatre of course, is theatre you can watch from home. This year, DAFT is platforming a digital theatre piece by Emma Maguire (Tempest) called Your Body is a Wasteland. Fully accessible thanks to V/O and subtitles, Wasteland is a post-apocalyptic story engaging with themes of chronic illness. Spencer describes her thrill over Maguire reaching out to her with the show, which has just been featured in both Melbourne, Brighton, and Edinburgh Fringe. “It’s really beautiful, intriguing, and exciting. That’s what theatre should be. It’s accessible. I went out Saturday to do too many things, and it destroyed me, so I was horizontal for all of yesterday. I’m basically overlord of the couch right now because my health has declined so much this year, so having accessible theatre online for me is a god send. It’s really nice to see something that’s been created by disabled people for disabled people to enjoy, as much as people who are allies.
Creatif Kate Online
This transition online, initially presented to many theatre creators as an option during COVID, is continuing to be explored by those interested in reaching disabled audiences and by disabled creators themselves. As her fatigue is getting worse, Spencer is looking at making this migration online herself. “I am actually looking at pivoting from being a stage performer, to being a couch performer, and I’m going to apply for CNZ funding for a show called LoLing on the couch, A Night of Sit Down Comedy.”
Unfortunately, Spencer is becoming unable to MC many of her shows. The "Creatif” Kate empire of theatre ranges wide and far, and she has her work cut out for her finding people to help take over each individual show. “One of my friends suggested, have you considered hiring just one person to do some work for you? Five. Five people…”
These five people (Spencer’s self described dream team) are a thrilling mix of talent. Keegan Thomas is stepping up to MC the Neurodiverse Comedy Night, Booth the Clown is taking on Femmes and Thems, Hadley Wilson is picking up the storytelling shows, Emily Gilchrist is taking over poetry, and the ever charming Jak Mitchell is stepping in for Cabaret. As thrilling as it is to see these voices step into these shows, I can’t help but think about how remarkable it is that Spencer kept all of these plates spinning by herself, let alone co-directing a festival at the same time.
Still, Spencer is buzzing about the potential of LOLing on the Couch, and all it might hold. “It’s very exciting, I have so many ideas for it as well. I’m known for my stage presence, but it’s too much for my body now to do that. So, yeah DAFT is showing me that slowing down and stopping is not an option. Whatever capacity I have, I use it to create. I think that’s the beauty of DAFT. Whatever capacity people have, they create, and it’s worthy. It’s a good thought, innit!”
Do be DAFT
When I ask Spencer what she really wants to promote, she’s quick to yell “Scratch Night!” According to her it’ll be the “most chaotic open mic you’ll ever see. A cacophony of chaos, I can’t wait to see the videos of it. Raw, unpolished, people trying new things, finding an audience, doing comedy for the first time - because it’s a safe space to play.”
The Scratch Night takes place at BATS on the 26th of September, with a classic ‘Creatif’ Kate Cabaret closing out the Festival on the 30th. Spencer will be MCing it herself, from a “horizontalish position”. At the time of writing this article, Williams is midway through performing in Five Slices, and has an upcoming improv workshop to run. You can’t keep the co-dictators off their stages.
Art is personal. We can shroud it in all the craft, process, and time we want, but ultimately we’re always putting ourselves into it. The team at DAFT are making the administrative act of running a festival the most personal art. With relentless creativity, ingenuity, and a refusal to cut corners or compromise what matters, DAFT is fighting to ensure that everyone has the space to both create and observe. For Spencer, it’s all about giving audiences the opportunity to see themselves on stage. “Audiences seeing disabled performers is vital, because there’s representation. If you don’t have representation, if you don’t see yourself represented, you don’t get encouraged to go, oh i could do that too.” With DAFT, it’s been proven that the stage is open for those who need it. If you’re the person who realises oh I could do that too, chances are you’ll be up there next year.
Daft is still on for another week. Check out what's on here daftnz.com