Reigning Women - Naiomi Wood - by Paul Winter Photography
Reigning Women - Naiomi Wood - by Paul Winter Photography

Reigning Women festival at The Old Market

The Old Market unleashes bold and brilliant season

“It’s a platform for kickass women to be heard and championed, and there’s no shortage of them…” Helen Jewell, Creative Director at The Old Market, is certain about how the Hove venue’s Reigning Women mini festival nurtures emerging talent. “This year’s season is very much about Brighton artists. “We launched it as a jubilant celebration of women’s voices from across the arts.”

Programmed to run alongside International Women’s Day, Reigning Women features many artists who’ve maintained a connection with TOM throughout their careers. This includes Naomi Wood, who brings her show Gobbess to TOM on Thurs 22 Feb. A compelling blend of aerial performance and spoken word, it revolves around physical wellbeing and recognising its inexorable links to mental health.

Reigning Women – Naiomi Wood – by Paul Winter Photography

“It’s about realising if you’re going through life scared of dying, then you’re also scared of living and not really taking any risks,” Woods tells me. “It’s tracking my journey of taking life by the balls and doing the things I really want to do… and risking being vulnerable.” The work also looks at wellbeing in a more abstract sense, particularly around relationships, consent, moving towards what you desire and how society treats women – particularly those who put themselves out there. “They might appear fearless, but there is a lot of judgement.”

The core of Gobbess is about Wood’s creative journey, and how it all began. After a health scare in 2010, she realised she wanted to do more things which ‘scared her.’ “I was fascinated by the circus. It embodies childhood glee and the limits of what is possible. It’s so much to do with fearlessness and fantasy. That tapped into something I was already leaning towards.” Initially learning performance skills for fun, she started putting herself out there more and more. 

“I’ve always written poetry and short stories,” she says. “Gradually, over time, the two worlds started to meet in the middle. By no means would I say I’m an exceptional circus artist, I’m just a very enthusiastic one. It’s a beautiful thing to lose yourself in. A lot of it is to do with the body and the limits of what is possible.”

The two seemingly disparate disciplines began to bleed into each other when Wood performed on one of TOM’s livestreams a couple of years ago. “I had a poetry film projected as a background, with me doing aerial in front of it. I realised a lot of the movements were reflected in the words. There was a synergy going on.”

Reigning Women – Aflo the Poet – by Paul Winter Photography

Back at TOM, Jewell tells me many of the performers on the Reigning Women programme have been on some kind of journey with the venue. “Naiomi was in a show called Wilder Stories, which we made into a podcast. So, we’ve seen her work grow, and she’s been able to test things on our stage. It’s been lovely to see her come back with a fully-formed work.” She describes it as a privilege to have such a progressive and nurturing relationship with so many artists and theatre makers across the city. Women like Scarlett Fae and AFLO The Poet have featured in the venue’s Vivid showcase of new talent, subsequently returned in support slots for other shows and now developed their own headline work. “It’s beautiful to see these wonderful talents grow.”

Reigning Women – Scarlett Fae – by Paul Winter Photography

While most of the season is based around performance, Reigning Women is also hoping to inspire and empower the next generation of creators with a programme of workshops, building connections and mentoring. “We’re trying to offer as many opportunities as possible for new voices and emerging talents,” Jewell says. “We’re doing it in a very grassroots way. We want people to come together and share their loves, hopes and vulnerabilities, and remind everyone of our shared humanity.”

So, is there still a need for a safe space in the 21st century where people can take in female-led work and voices? Wood points out that we only need to look at certain attitudes on social media to realise there’s a double standard regarding women who make themselves heard. “Whether these women are putting themselves out there, like Carol Vorderman with her opinions, or with their intelligence, or even if it is with their body… there is a sense of ‘how dare she do that?’ It’s a really interesting thing to explore. Women’s sexuality has to be packaged just right to be appealing. But what does that rob from them?” Wood highlights female comedians as a good example. They might joke about being the token women on any line-up, but many are still viewed as a particular kind of comedy for a particular section of the audience.

“People think: ‘Oh, they’re just for the women.’ It’s so not true. I can relate to that in terms of poetry. There are spaces where you might be heckled, or you feel like your stuff might not be landing.” She describes Reigning Women as offering an environment where a woman can feel safe and supported, and you can really ‘go there’ and have ‘that’ conversation.

Wood admits much of her work has been quite outspoken about feminist issues and sexuality but is adamant that if people are reacting then you’re probably saying something. “I’m not a believer in being inflammatory for the sake of it. A couple of months ago, a really drunk man was heckling me. But it fed into the narrative of the poem I was doing so perfectly. He actually embodied the thing I was talking about. There’s a pressure in wellness culture for women to be very holy and healthy, slim and spiritual. So, my poem was asking why it’s not enough to just, as a woman or any person, be a pig rolling around in the mud of life. You want to get your hands dirty and experience stuff. This guy was shouting at me: ‘You’re a pig!’ I was like: ‘Yeah. That’s what I want.’ I don’t want to be some beautiful deity. I want to be a messy goblin who’s flawed and imperfect, and that’s OK.”

She says that Gobbess is a celebration of those imperfections. It’s about doing the things you love, because of how they feel to you, and not worrying about how the world receives them. “It is messy, but joyful. But that’s an accurate depiction of my relationship to the circus. I’m so in love with it, but it is hard. For me, it celebrates differences. The world wants us to be exceptionally good at one thing. But that doesn’t reflect how I feel about myself. A lot of people are a mass of all sorts of weird fascinations and interests.”

It’s an important thread for what The Old Market and Reigning Women are doing. It embodies a sense of freedom. “I see them as such innovators and supporters of artists. They’ve been so supportive to me. I remember reading a poem on a Sunday night. It’s quite interesting to feel like I’ve come full circle all these years later with a whole show.”

Now in its fifth year, Reigning Women also stands to nurture and develop the headline acts of the future. Jewell tells me that finding funding for arts projects is incredibly difficult. “There’s a multi-pronged attack on an industry which is huge at the top, but still needs this landscape at the bottom. It’s going to dry up if something drastic doesn’t happen.” It’s currently a troubling time for all small to medium venues. Tightening overheads, the cost-of-living crisis and staff shortages have had an undeniable impact on the industry. “We’re losing ‘pipeline spaces’ at a rate of knots. The Music Venue Trust announced that we lost 125 small grassroots venues last year. But this is where the talent grows.”

Reigning Women – Rosy Carrick – by Paul Winter Photography

With 300 seats (or 500 standing for gigs), TOM hosts an eclectic programme of live music, performance, comedy and workshops throughout the year. “It straddles the mid-scale to small scale. We’ve had Fatboy Slim in at the end of last year, who’s been an amazing champion of TOM. He’s donated a lot of time and effort to us. We also have a lot of school and small theatre-makers. There’s BIMM coming in and emerging artists playing here. It’s a lovely mix of the commercial and new talent. There are not many spaces like that.”

She describes her role as all-encompassing. “It is amazing and hugely privileged. I feel very lucky.” Originally helping global percussion sensation STOMP acquire the Hove venue in 2011, growing TOM from scratch to where it is now has been a genuine passion project. And now, with projects like Reigning Women, they’ve begun to grow a scene around them which inspires and entertains. “We’re all in a strange environment right now, where people are fractured and polarised. Spaces like ours are so important for our sense of wellbeing and community. I just want audiences to feel safe, inspired and that things are possible.”

Hove’s The Old Market presents Reigning Women on Sun 11 Feb – Tues 23 April, with Naomi Wood’s Gobbess being staged on Thurs 22 Feb.

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