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Ten Feet Away festival

May 18 2009
Festival uses the arts to bring people, homeless and otherwise, together It may have seemed like just a festival, but the organisers of Ten Feet Away had high expectations for this event. First set up in 2004, the international team's aim is to confront the public oversimplification of homelessness through art. Julia Farrington, festival director, said: "This is all about people expressing themselves and using the creative arts to find a voice, contribute their ideas to the cultural scene and understand their own lives better so they can address and overcome isolation." Farrington's principle aim while planning the festival was to use the creative arts to bring people, homeless and otherwise, together to work towards a more integrated society. She worked on this year's festival programme alongside Billy Rippe, as festival coordinator, and organisations including the Novas Group and Thames Reach. Together they organised the event at St John's, Waterloo, held on 27th-29th July. And it was packed with theatre, live music, poetry, film screenings and dance, all created by people who have slept rough. Streets Alive, a community-based production company that draws on theatre to empower young people who have become homeless, headlined the launch party with their play Tricks and Games are not for Children. The performance, which showed how physical abuse and financial deprivation can cause a family to break down, gave viewers an insight into what some people suffer. World music artists brought the launch party to a close with a live performance from former rough sleeper Hanny, a Cuban guitarist who appeared with his other half, Tina. With eight different homeless organisations attending the festive weekend, Farrington's goal to create a forum for freedom of expression was definitely achieved. The first Ten Feet Away festival, three years ago, was just a local affair, put together following a joint decision by Farrington and the Union Chapel Project to offer homeless and vulnerably-housed people artistic methods of communicating. The festival brought performances from some of the 300 artists who are associated with homeless organisations to the chapel to an audience of 800 - three-quarters of whom were homeless or vulnerably housed. This year's festival introduced its audience, for the first time, to the talents of the international homeless community. People traveled from Japan, Spain, Holland, France and other countries to celebrate art and the creative expression of some homeless. With minimal English and an interpreter, Musubi, a small organisation that supports Japanese rough sleepers, journeyed from Kamagassaki, Japan. Using a combination of sound and symbolic images in their picture-card show, Kamishibai, Musubi showed their local problems, as a town home to many unskilled workers with an average age of 70-years-old. As a result of the yo-yoing economy and lack of housing, many people have been forced to live on the streets. Ten Feet Away 2007 also gave festival goers a taste of South American music through the samba band workshops, a snippet of long-standing festivities with its Spanish/Columbian juggling workshop and circus act. "I think the life of the event was remarkable. The Samba Band came all the way from Spain just for the festival. There were 18 people so their impact on the festival was amazing and the members performed really well," said Billy Rippe. Having squatted in London for two years after migrating from Columbia, Rippe made it one of his aims to bring people and organisations together to learn from one another and establish acts of inclusion. The festival ended with a late-night fire show performed by ex-circus act Billy Rippe and his Columbian comrades. "It is the power of art that excites me the most and the way that it really can bring about change in people's lives" said Farrington. "I am personally much more drawn to the way art happens in this informal way, because there is a sort of a life and death element to it, in that people really feel their lives can be transformed." This year's Ten Feet Away International festival was just a taster of what Farrington and Rippe want to achieve. Talk of expanding to future locations such as Hyde Park and developing a Ten Feet Away UK goes to show how serious the two take the festival, and believe in what can be achieved through the event. "I think there is definitely a good feeling about the festival. I would like the festival to grow and become something regular and strong - something people can look forward to" said Farrington.