Disability arts platform ‘Funky Llama’ have celebrated 10 years of community empowerment with an all-accessible bash. Plymouth Community Reporter, Holly Restrick, attended the event and chatted to those who have worked hard to grow it.
Funky Llama, the Theatre Royal Plymouth’s inclusive arts platform, puts the creative talents and lived experience of disabled people at centre stage.
Each year, Funky Llama offers a programme of workshops in music, dance, drama and backstage and large-scale, inclusive events for the Funky Llama community. To celebrate their tenth anniversary, they held 10 events, including an inclusive club event at PRYZM nightclub, an exciting evening of live music, DJs, cabaret and dancing.
“The Funky Llama Club Night has a level of access provision not available anywhere else,” said Clair Sargant, Director at Far Flung Dance Theatre and long-term Funky Llama collaborator. “There are BSL-interpreted performances, accessible toilets, party people who are volunteers helping everyone have a positive experience, a chill-out space and an area for assistance dogs.
“People can let their hair down. They can enjoy themselves and party, free from judgment and discrimination. It enables everyone to have an authentic club experience, and have everything they need to have a good time.”
Funky Llama began 10 years ago in response to a lack of high-quality, age-appropriate and accessible events for disabled people. They wanted to showcase high-quality acts, DJs and performers from the disabled and non-disabled communities at a professional event, where accessibility was at the forefront.
“It’s important to shout about and celebrate disabled artists and performers,” says Clair. “There is not yet equality in opportunities for disabled artists, so here we are 10 years on still ensuring there are opportunities like this for disabled people to showcase their work.”
So far, Funky Llama has showcased over 200 disabled artists at their festivals and club events, including the award-winning singer-songwriter Lizzie Emeh and the professional circus company, Extraordinary Bodies.
Uniquely, Funky Llama is led by a steering group of disabled adults who utilize their lived experience to tackle and solve issues around accessibility. They work closely with the Funky Llama producer, to discuss and make decisions around the design and delivery of their professional events.
“For many disabled, and non-disabled, people, ‘mainstream’ clubbing is entirely inaccessible. This could be due to a lack of wheelchair access, broken lifts, loud music/sounds, or not feeling as though it is for them.” said Jodie Paget, producer for Funky Llama.
“The Steering Group are committed and passionate about accessibility in the arts and ensuring that Theatre Royal and Funky Llama are inclusive and responsive to the community. They have bold, ambitious ideas with constant enthusiasm and laughter!”
Funky Llama has a special, long-standing collaboration with the inclusive dance company, Far Flung Dance Theatre, working together to create Dance and Theatre pieces for their events and festivals. They also run dance and drama workshops, as well as mentoring and training disabled artists.
For this year’s club night, Far Flung held a series of creative workshops with Funky Llama community groups to create a piece of performance art.
On the night, they performed alongside the spectacular Aerial Performer, Charlotte Evans, with an array of handcrafted, sea-creature puppets.
“My favourite memory of the last 10 years is dancing on the Hoe with Far Flung at the Funky Llama Festival,” Claire Sargant said. “The beaming faces, the sea in the background, the good vibes. When I think of Funky Llama I think of people being together, smiling and having a great time and experiencing high-quality performance.”
“When talking to people about their experience of Funky Llama over the years, there is a sense of people having their first moments. First work opportunity as a disabled artist, the first large crowd they’ve performed in front of, first time at a festival. It has this special impact on people, a feeling and energy I’ve never experienced anywhere else.”
Michael Brooks has been part of Funky Llama from the very beginning. Known on the circuit as ‘Spike’, he was first invited to be part of the Funky Llama Steering Group, when then-producer, Sara Rhodes visited Access Theatre’s community groups as part of the organisation’s outreach. It was there that Sara recognised Spike’s performance potential and ability to contribute to the arts.
“Being part of Funky Llama means everything to me. It helped boost my confidence and share my feelings and opinions,” Spike said. “When I was emerging as the MC, Funky Llama helped me to develop amazing stage work and to become a big artist. With the support of the Theatre Royal, I worked with writers and producers to create my own show which I performed at the beginning of September in the Lab at The Theatre Royal.”
Outside of MC-ing, Spike performs rock covers of pop and Disney songs in Kiss-style makeup, complete with air-guitar and screamo vocals.
“We want disabled people to be as included as everyone else. We all want to party. We all want to have a good time. We all want to see artists and bands. We all want to go to clubs, theatres and shows,” he said.
“We all want to have a memorable night and not have something stand in our way. We all want the chance to take part in a show and become a big act! Funky Llama is an example of what we can do when we all work together.”
After more than a decade of community joy and collaboration, Funky Llama continues to be a shining example of the level of accessibility, inclusion and diversity that is possible within the arts.
“Right from the beginning of the project we have placed lived experience at the heart of what we are doing. Our Steering Group, ‘Driving Force’ is the beating heart of Funky Llama and their diverse lived experience of disability and neurodiversity enables us to root our events in a needs-led approach.” says Sara Rhodes, Associate Director at Theatre Royal Plymouth.
“My advice for other arts organisations who would like to improve their accessibility would be to consult with the community. Engage in conversation and place those with lived experience as the experts. Don’t make any assumptions and know that it will take time, you won’t always get it right and it is a learning process.”