Mija Gwyn: Confessions of a Deaffest coordinator

Posted on August 8, 2012

What sort of job has you running around maniacally like a headless chicken working 14 hour days terrified by people who are making jokes about the possibility of your death?

The answer, dear readers, is the coordinator of a festival. To be precise, the Deaffest coordinator.

I was plunged in the deep end when I was offered the job at the end of January by Zebra Uno, the leading organiser of Deaffest. I had exactly four months to organise Deaffest with the other Deaffest coordinator, Jackie Law (I must stop now to say Jackie is an a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e legend). Four months to organise a festival may sound like a long time, but it actually isn’t, when you stop to think about how much there is involved in Deaffest.

To give an idea of the scale of the organisation process, close to 20 staff and volunteers from Zebra Uno, Light House, Wolverhampton University pitched in with hours of extra work in the lead up to the festival, and during the actual weekend we had 25 additional volunteers.

Why did we have so many people involved? Well, for starters there was the tech & media staff. Then there was the marketing & communications team. We also had the help of staff who organised the interpreters, exhibition stalls, catering, travel & accommodation for performers, and so on.

Now you’re probably thinking there wasn’t much for us coordinators to do when we had so many minions scuttling around, right?  Uh-oh…! There was the program and the films, the heart of Deaffest! We had to watch dozens of films and endure the ordeal of putting together the program for the Deaffest weekend. Imagine putting together a giant jigsaw where none of the pieces quite fit in together so you’re stuck sitting there re-arranging and arranging the pieces over and over again for hours trying to find the best fit.

(And even so, our efforts didn’t please everyone – as the adage says, it’s impossible to please everyone. Still, just so you know, readers, every scrap of feedback we received was taken on board, and we will be reviewing our processes next year in dream of attaining perfection.)

I had the principal responsibility for coordinating the Ben Steiner Bursary program which was a wonderful experience, working with such passionate and inspiring filmmakers. It broke my heart a little that only one winner could be selected.

My heart suffered a trauma of a different form when I was assigned the responsibility of counting the votes from the judge panel’s secret ballot, making me the only person to know who the recipient of the bursary would be.  It was then that the judge panel started to joke “What if Mija was to die before the winner was announced at Deaffest, what would we do?” while looking at me with what seemed to be sinister shark-like grins.

Luckily Jackie agreed to share the burden of the secret, which restored a tiny but vital fragment of my sanity.

(It wasn’t enough to stop me from hexing the cleaner at work when she threw out my water bottle at a critical moment. I’m sorry about that. Unavoidable consequence of the stress, and all that. I hope your boils have cleared up now.)

Hexing the cleaner…

 In the final few weeks I hardly slept because I was so pumped full of adrenalin. When I did sleep, the last thing I thought about before falling asleep was Deaffest, and the first thing I thought of when I woke up was Deaffest. I had a to-do list that was longer than me (I’m quite serious. If you tape together 8 sheets of A4 paper it’ll be almost 8 feet long. Even Australians aren’t that tall). Eating became an optional luxury and the contents of my fridge wouldn’t have sustained a chicken for one day.

As time drew closer to Deaffest, it became time to hand over to the Light House staff the box containing the films for Deaffest that we had spent hours and hours (weeks, to be precise) watching, categorising and scheduling. Letting go of the films made me feel like I was a mother bird (not a chicken, chickens haven’t evolved enough to be able to fly. All they can do is limp, which isn’t very impressive) squeezing her eyes tight shut as she pushes her chick out of the nest knowing that in its new independence the chick will either plummet downwards to become a feathery splatter, or soar upwards to take on a life of its own.

When the Deaffest weekend finally began I was running around like a border collie on crack trying to do a dozen different things at the same time. There were so many shee- erm, people milling around demanding my attention that I had to skulk away to hide on the fire escape stairs just to get a few precious minutes alone to read through my lines before going up on stage.

There were minor crises, such as when the interpreters, in an effort to slow down my signing before I went up on the stage, were too generous with the wine and I arrived in the cinema auditorium minutes before the launch of Deaffest giddy and giggling with bright red lipstick smeared all over my teeth, prompting a slightly panicked flurry from Jackie as she tried to return me to a more respectable condition. It must have worked, because we didn’t have any complaints that night about drunken Australians.

Deaffest, in short, was epic, and worth every single hour of the work from all the staff and volunteers involved. It was an amazing feeling to see our hours of hard work and planning become reality with the Deaf community enjoying themselves and participating to make it a wonderful weekend. It was worth even the experience of falling over on the stage in front of everyone…!

Mija Gwyn grew up in a tiny dusty dysfunctional Australian country town. Somehow she went from that to majoring in philosophy at the snootiest university in Australia. Confronted with a mid-20’s crisis while working for a strait-laced government department, she fled Australia to start a new life in the idyllic town of Wolverhampton… You can follow her on Twitter as @oxymoronia.

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, training and consultancy Deafworks, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.

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