What a Ball!

I woke up this morning to feelings I haven’t experienced in almost three years. It’s the unique mix of tiredness, contentment, and relief that follows any largescale activity we’ve ever organised. Last night the Touretteshero team held our first big event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Jess Thom a white wheelchair using person and Ruth Ojadi a black person with locs are photographed side by side hosting the Masked Ball. They are dressed in bright colours and look out on the audience photo: Rosin Murphy

The Masked Ball at Southbank Centre was part of Unlimited, a brilliant biannual Disability Arts Festival. Our event was a socially distanced celebration of mask-wearing, cabaret, and disability culture. We wanted to acknowledge that COVID-19 is now a long-term issue and as such, there’s a shared responsibility to develop access practices that address the requirements of Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) artists and audiences. The ball was a creative experiment in access, centring the requirements of those of us at higher risk from COVID-19.

For several months I’ve been struggling with feelings of isolation, being left behind, and forgotten about. While I was excited by the idea of being back in a room with lots of people, I wasn’t at all sure how it would feel in practice.

The run-up to the event was complicated by the Queen’s death which led to some uncertainty about whether it would go ahead or not. It did though, and I felt extremely relieved and grateful to be back in a creative space that gave me the direct connection to disability culture that I’ve been missing. There were incredible performances from disabled and neurodivergent artists – some joyful, others more reflective – it felt like the perfect balance to me. We also had a playful and brilliant mask making activity and a photobooth area where people could show off their new creations.

Several times during the night I thought of our friend David who died from COVID at the start of last year. This was the first Touretteshero event in many years that he hadn’t been part of. While I missed him immensely, I also felt his presence throughout the evening.

I thought it might be useful to share some of the things we did to make sure the Masked Ball was as safe as possible for CEV people:

Two people are photographed striking a pose in front of a backdrop of a grand room. They are both wearing face masks and iridescent visors. photo: Rosin Murphy

COVID Related Access Provisions

1. Capacity: We had a reduced audience capacity to help maintain social distancing, access to the building was also restricted to ticket holders only

2. Clear Information: The details of our COVID safety measures were provided in advance along with info on air quality and filtration systems. We also shared photos of the event spaces so people could decide if the event would work for them.

3. Cleaning & Ventilation: The building was closed two hours before the event so it could be thoroughly cleaned and ventilated before welcoming our audience

4. Seating: A range of seating options were available including beanbags, mats, chairs and tables – everything was spaced at least 2 metres apart, some quieter seating areas were also available. We used additional screens and speakers to ensure the performances could be enjoyed further away from the main stage

5. Programming: We programmed some roaming performances that would come to audience members if they wanted to get involved. The programme included pre-recorded videos from artists as well as live performances – this allowed contributions from artists who were unable to attend in person

6. Eating & Drinking: Table service was available, and attendees were welcome to bring their own food and soft drinks as well

7. Mask Wearing: Audience and staff wore face masks if they could, free masks and mask-exemption stickers were also available for anyone who needed them

8. Activities: Activity materials were sanitised and single use, they were packaged a week before the event and were labelled with the date they were packed

9. Clear Routes: Clear access routes in and out of the space were maintained. We had a relaxed start and finish time to avoid everyone arriving and leaving at the same time

10. Contracts & Culture: All staff and artists tested for COVID prior to event. Contracts made it clear that anyone who was unwell for any reason should not attend but that they would still get paid

We’d hoped to live stream the event to ensure that anyone unable to be there in person could still enjoy the performances, but on this occasion a live stream wasn’t possible, so the plan is to make a recorded version available online.

I really hope this event will be the first of many. It was a call to action, showing by example how arts organisations can use their profile and resources to ensure that CEV artists, audiences and staff can safely participate in our shared cultural life.

A photograph of Blink Dance Theatre's roaming art work Hugdemic - Two people stand close together encircled by a giant wipe clean pair of arms. They are both wearing face masks

A photograph of the Southbank Centre's ballroom lit with soft pink light, a socialy distanced audience sits and lies at tables and on bean bags watching performances

Three people sit at a table talking, they wear colourful eye and face masks

The Tourettes Bipolar Alliance on stage at the Masked Ball. They are all white people. Mimi O'Malley is on the left with her clarinet. Touretteshero is in the middle wearing her blue and white superhero costume. On the right is Captain Hotknives strumming his guitar. A screen at the back reads - Touretteshero's Masked Ballphotos: Rosin Murphy

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