Do you have something you always wish you’d said? Ever thought about how death can inspire a more fulfilling life? Could a conversation with a space-geek change the way you see the world?

These and other big and provocative questions will be tackled head-on this week at SLAP – a new citywide festival of salacious, live, alternative performances set to shake-up the cultural scene in York – and it’s all happening thanks to a friendship formed by two York St John University graduates.


York St John has always prided itself on the mission to give educational opportunities to people from ‘all walks of life’.  Even so, performance graduates and founders and curators of the SLAP Festival, Sophie Unwin and Lydia Cottrell both followed a particularly winding path to University. Lydia explains:

“I came from a conservatoire background, I was dancing commercially and working on cruise ships. I had moved back from London to live with my parents after a throat operation and a friend mentioned that York St John did dance so I decided to stay and do the course and it totally changed my perception, I grew in confidence and learnt how not to be a dancing robot! University was never in my trajectory, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me”.

Sophie had been working abroad in Spain after completing school, but after moving back to Yorkshire had a strong desire to delve deeper into her love of dance by studying it academically. A longstanding affection for the city of York made York St John the obvious choice. “I applied, got in and fell in love with theory, research, writing and the study of dance”.


From these unconventional routes into Higher Education, it was perhaps fate that Sophie and Lydia found one another and discovered a common creative conscience. Both share a love of performance that is small in scale but big on ideas and imagination.

Since graduating, the pair’s work both together and separately has taken them to the Edinburgh Fringe, London, Europe and countless stages along the way, winning admirers and accolades as their bold ideas came to life.  Yet the pair has always proudly retained their links with York and with York St John, who provided ongoing support long after the course was over. Sophie explains:

“We actually first worked together when the University invited us back to produce something as part of their annual showcase of student work. Then we kept coming back because the University was so supportive, when we wrote our Arts Council bid they gave us a library login and space to work and we’ve also done outreach on behalf of York St John with schools and colleges. We want to maintain that connection to support and give back to current students”.


Now settled back in Yorkshire, the duo are excited about making their own unique contribution to the city where so much of their creative vision first took shape. The SLAP Festival gives them an opportunity to bring together work that has inspired them throughout their travels and add something fresh to the city’s cultural offering. Lydia describes their motivation.

“York has a really established arts scene and that’s great, but we want to put ourselves in a position where can take risks. We want to remove the barriers that might make people feel performance isn’t accessible to them and open it up.

So we’ve got more traditional sit down performances, but also cabaret, an exhibition called ‘the International Archive of Things Left Unsaid’ and we’re opening the show with a group of older ladies from the York area who we’ve only recruited to take part in the last couple of weeks! We wanted to include things that wouldn’t normally be possible on a conventional theatre programme”.

It was also particularly important to Sophie and Lydia to stage their programme at a variety of different venues across York, combining more conventional theatre spaces with open air street shows and even using the Crescent community venue for a Dryhump dance event! This range means that many of the performances are free to attend, including all those being hosted by York St John.


The SLAP Festival is only the start of the ongoing impact that Sophie and Lydia hope to make on the performance scene in York and beyond. With strong links to the world famous Yorkshire Dance Studios and a key role on the Board of the new regional York and North Yorkshire dance hub, these are two York St John alumni with a real passion for making a major community contribution on their own creative terms.

You never know what your time at University will spark – imagination, confidence, a creative voice, or life changing friendships. All of these things came together for Sophie and Lydia and at SLAP this week the results will be there for everyone to engage with and enjoy. These are two members of the YSJ Family who have grabbed their opportunities and are now giving something back.

The SLAP Festival runs from Thursday 21st – Saturday 23rd September at venues across York including the Theatre Royal and York St John University, the programme includes plays, comedy, dance and a variety of interactive performances. Full festival details are available at: 


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