THERE ARE a number of reasons why Sick! Festival feels timely.

The event’s central focuses, wellbeing and identity, feel pertinent to this particular moment, with mental health diagnoses on the rise all the time – particularly among young people – and many feeling alienated or unstable after social and political upheaval.

In a sense the agenda for Sick! is intimidatingly broad. As artistic director Helen Medland puts it, the festival is based around “the stuff of being human”, including sexuality, mental suffering and ageing. “All too often, this stuff is hidden away from public view,” she adds. “Sick! Festival exists to change that.” The name itself hints at the desire to challenge the stigma of physical and mental illness and dysfunction. Laura McDermott, creative director of Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts – one of the hosts of the festival – points out that the term has another modern meaning.

“It’s that cool word people say when you do the finger snap thing,” she says, referring to the way sick has been turned into a positive thing by younger generations. “The whole festival has that loud and proud element to it. You can self-identify by reclaiming that word.” Her view ties in with Medland’s motivation to shine a light on health; it’s about coming to terms with an ailment and its impact, but not necessarily letting it define you as a person.

Empathy and connectivity are central to Sick!’s ethos and to this end there are discussions after many of the shows. This not only breaks down barriers between performers and audience but also between spectators; the aim is to get people talking about issues that may have previously remained private matters. McDermott believes this kind of communication is more vital now than ever.

“The kind of speech being used by politicians and Donald Trump particularly is the language of division and hatred. It’s become the norm. This is a programme that articulates difference and the importance of understanding. It emphasises the huge range of lived experience of humans in the world.”

One art piece in the festival that provides a platform for connection and empathy has been evident in Jubilee Square for the past few days. You might have seen a big slab with the words Before I Die...etched onto it. The “public art project” was designed by American artist Candy Chang. After suffering heartbreak, she entered a period of grief and depression. By way of channelling these feelings, she covered a crumbling house with chalkboard paint and encouraged local people to open up and write on its exterior.

Chang wanted to prompt her audience into self-examination in a public space, to reassure them they weren’t alone in their worries or ambitions. The project has been copied in more than 70 countries and, as Sick! creative director Tim Harrison says, the results have been uplifting. “People write really beautiful stuff about what they want for themselves, their children and their society.”

Harrison is all for the kind of self-reflection that Chang’s piece brings out in people. “We wanted to look at the question ‘what makes me, me?’ It’s a ridiculously broad question, but it opens up all kinds of other questions. How do we come to be who we are?

“We all have illnesses, we all die, we all have issues with our identity and our relationship to the world. We try and tap into those things.” He says that the quest to de-stigmatise illness has been a long one but the festival uses that journey for its own agenda. “Sick! has always been a term for things society pushes away from itself – for example, in the past sexual identity was considered a sickness. We’re tying to think about why we have pushed these things away through the ages.”

The festival was launched by Harrison and Medland in 2013. The duo had previously worked at Brighton venue The Basement but, partly through a desire to reach more people with art, they decided to establish Sick! Since its foundation, the festival has presented more than 200 events featuring more than 300 artists across 25 locations in Brighton and Manchester.

The last instalment of Sick! in 2015 was stretched over a three-week period but Harrison thought hosting more events in a shorter time would “make more of a festival feel”. The events are held in various locations on the University of Sussex campus – most prominently the Attenborough Centre – and Jubilee Square. While the programme encourages supportiveness, it doesn’t pull any punches at times.

Theatre director Milo Rau presents Five Easy Pieces, for instance, a piece in which he worked with seven children to explore “the emotional and political absurdities and bottomless pits of the adult world”. Yikes. By redirecting loss, subjection, trauma and old age though young eyes, Rau allows his audience to witness these themes from a fresh perspective. Elsewhere, Daughters of the Curry Revolution is Afreena Islam’s second-hand story of her father’s past, present and future as she reflects on his journey to the UK. All of this is told in the context of the anti-immigration rhetoric of the modern day.

Needless to say, it’s powerful stuff that reflects one woman’s struggle with identity. Again, Sick! merges the personal with the universal. Islam’s story is related to a specific kind of trauma (intertwined with discrimination in her case), but, as McDermott says, “everyone’s feeling the stress. The government’s austerity brief is making employment really hard to come by, the cost of higher education is putting a massive burden on people and housing benefits are being ripped away. I don’t think it’s a surprise people are experiencing anxiety.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. McDermott is right to point out that “it’s a positive thing that people are seeking help rather than going unsupported.” Sick! goes a long way towards providing this support. By “getting the conversation started”, as Harrison puts it, festivalgoers are able to empathise and relate to each other and their issues.

“A lot of our audiences say that the opportunity to have a voice is really valuable and empowering,” he says. “That’s what we do it for.”

More events at Sick! Festival

Asteroids RK1

Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA), University of Sussex, Falmer, March 22, 6.30pm, £5

This 30 minute show was developed with men who have slept on Manchester’s streets and the city’s Mustard Tree charity. Jamil Keating presents a performance that brings together outer-space and inner-city streets; asteroids and addictions, meteorites and human rights, comets in the night sky and care in the city. He balances an infectious enthusiasm for the absurdities of life with a profound enquiry into social problems. Jamil Keating is an emerging writer and performer from Manchester. 


ACCA, Friday, March 24, 9pm, £12

Daniel Hellmann is a sex worker. In this solo performance, he reports on his experiences as a male prostitute. Without shame, honestly and interactively, he questions the double standards of our hypersexualized society. He slips in to the different roles he plays for his customers.
Spectators are challenged to scrutinise their sexual ideals and to take a close look at the sexual being that they consider themselves to be.
There is a post-show discussion featuring the Sex Workers’ Open University.

Fractured Memory

ACCA, Saturday, March 25, 7pm, £12

How can one deal with an inherited history that is full of complexity? Weaving together literary text, video and storytelling, Ogutu Muraya reimagines the congress of Afro-intellectuals at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1956, described in James Baldwin’s essay, Princes and Powers. 
Ogutu explores a multiplicity of voices, historical archive material and personal experience. Examining the legacy of the congress, the performance shifts perspectives, seeking a new vocabulary for dealing with uncomfortable truths.

The Game

ACCA, Friday, March 24, 7pm, £12

The Game explores the act of buying sex and the subculture of prostitution; its rules, its language and its power structures. 
It is a play that’s also a real-life game. Five men from Brighton have volunteered. These men have never played The Game before. They’ve no idea what they’re about to do, they won’t be given a script. 
They are doing this to be part of an event that calls us all to consider. 
The Game will give audiences an insight into a world that sits uncomfortably beneath the surface of our day-to-day lives. 

Guide Gods

Meeting House, University of Sussex, March 20, 7pm, and March 21, 2.15pm, £12

Claire Cunningham is disabled. Is it the will of a higher power? Is she paying for the mistakes of a past life? Is it a test for her, or a punishment for her parents? Could she, should she, be healed? Is she welcomed by all faiths or will it all prove just too inaccessible?
Using dance, live music and interviews with religious leaders, academics, deaf and disabled people, Claire goes on a perilous quest to explore how the major world faiths view deafness and disability in this witty and illuminating production. A discussion based around Claire’s show will follow the performance.

American Man

ACCA, Saturday, March 25, 9pm, £12

Visual artist and performance maker Hetain Patel presents his fifth show for the stage. American Man imagines a not too distant future where celebrity power and political correctness have reached new heights; where Barack Obama’s post Presidential job is the new head of Apple computers and where Stephen Hawking provides live translation for political speeches and rap concerts. Combining vocal and physical impressions with wit and humour, Hetain presents a personal, sometimes dark, outlook on a world that bombards us with contradicting ideas about who and how we should be, and where freedom walks hand in hand with guilt.


Creativity Zone, University of Sussex, Wednesday, March 22, 9.15pm, £12

This show examines the erotic fear associated with black bodies inside the context of the contemporary American project. 
Revealing contradictory feelings of desire and fear, #negrophobia references issues related to grief, misogyny, trans identity, and black patriarchal constructs of masculinity. Written and performed by Jaamil Olawale Kosoko.

To Belong

ACCA, Monday, March 20, 9pm, £12

To Belong is a dance performance about solidarity, about what it means to be part of a group. What brings people together, what connects them? What causes people to care about one another? 


ACCA, Monday, March 20, to Saturday, March 25, 3.30pm, £12

HUMAN is a collection of stories and images of our world, cutting to the core of what it means to be human. 

For full programme and tickets call 01273 699733 or visit