Disability in Theatre: Part III – The Theatre Improvements

If you’ve read Part I and Part II in this series, you’ll know that there are a lot of issues facing those with disabilities in the theatre industry. Interviewees have said that a number of changes are being made and help is being given to them through theatres increasing access, having staff allocated specifically to look after guests with physical disabilities, having specific wheelchair spaces and discounted prices.

This last post in this all-important series looks at the companies directly and what they are doing to help increase access. I was fortunate enough to have an interview with StageText who are responsible for producing audio captioning for those with hearing disabilities, as well as being able to attend a talk held at Wales Millennium Centre about increasing accessibility there too. The companies featured in this piece are not sponsored, but just something I put together to recognise the companies that are helping to improve access in theatres and the arts.

What Theatres are Doing toHelp

When sitting in on a talk atWales Millennium Centre regarding access, I learned a lot of new things from the theatre’s perspective, as well as more insight from disabled theatre-folk.

One issue that was raised by the audience was that there are often problems when it comes to looking disabled and identifying as someone with a disability. Not all disabilities are visual or visually obvious, and only if using some mobility aid do people get regarded as disabled. This was an issue raised by Kelly in Part I as she wasn’t treated as she should have been on account of this.

In terms of increasingly disabled actors on stage, one comment was that there is a lack of value when characters are categorised as disabled, actors receive the “sympathy vote” or that the disability is going to be part of the story. This also comes back around to “looking” disabled, as for example, a production titled Double Vision was put on at Wales Millennium Centre featured a blind actor in a blind character role and audiences assumed he was not visually impaired, when in fact he was. Maybe with a white stick, audiences would have been less critical. However, Jenny Sturt, the arts programming producer at Wales Millennium Centre, did not feel it was their duty to “out” the actor as blind, as this should not be part of the selling point of the show.

Double Vision

Following on from this, further panel speakers indicated that reviews on shows featuring disabled people often include the selling point “tragic but brave” or thereabouts, and focus on the inclusivity of the show, rather than the performance itself.

An overwhelming consensus from both the panel and the audience at this talk was the idea that nothing can be done to accommodate all needs for those with disabilities as all people are affected differently, even by the same disability. However, what audiences want to know is that there is an effort being made, and that they can raise issues to the theatre without being shut down.

Arts programming producer Jenny Sturt speaks for Wales Millennium Centre in saying that the Centre is trying but if we aren’t good enough, tell us. She says it is upsetting when you get something wrong for someone and they don’t have a good theatre experience, but the effort is there, as is the will to listen to those who know the issues best. There is only so much that theatres can do, she says, “no theatre can completely restructure itself to have amazing access, but small changes can go a long way”.

Wales Millennium Centre

Things that were agreed upon that would really make a difference to increasing access in the arts were cultural leaders who are disabled in some way who would be able to understand the need for change, a change in societal attitude and the representation of disabled people, increased funding in the UK for disabled artists and a genuine representation in the area.

This was a great panel and discussion to attend, and I canonly hope that the work being done at Wales Millennium Centre to increaseaccess is being done more nationally and globally too.


Stagetext

Stagetext is a company that provides arts access, specifically to the deaf community, through text and live subtitling.

I know it may seem slightly contradictory to include Stagetext where the previous two parts have mainly focused on lack of access for those with physical disabilities, but I thought their work was really important and still relevant to this topic.

The idea of Stagetext was born in 2003 and was greatly received by the deaf community, particularly in its first performance at The Barbican Theatre which sold out with a huge deaf audience. Stagetext works in a similar way to that of subtitles on TV and cinema screens: it is formatted to have 1 one or two lines displayed on large boxes at the front or sometimes on the stage for audience members to read the text while the physical performance still takes place. There are specific seats to book to ensure that audiences who need the screens can see them.

A lot of formatting goes into creating captioned performances and, again much like on TV, includes not only what is said but how it is said. ALL CAPITALS are used for loud speech, for example, and a captioner will sit in the auditorium to ensure that the text is in line with the show. If there was a pause for audience laughter or any other reason, the captioner would be able to adjust the text accordingly.

Audio captioning

What’s great about Stagetext is that they do not just operate for those who are deaf but also can accommodate elderly audiences. Over 40% of people over the age of 45 have some sort of hearing loss which may make the theatre a non-accessible medium, but being able to read the subtitles along with the show is a huge help.

Stagetext has developed over the years to accommodate new and changing theatre, with one of the most pressing challenges being shows such as Hamilton which offer a new style of theatre to audiences. The first audio captioned performance of Hamilton was on 4th October 2018 and it definitely came with its challenges, says Stagetext. However, it is all in the timing in getting captioning right and the company has been met with very little criticism since its start.

Following Stagetext in this area has been designer and manufacturer Epson who have invented Smart Caption Glasses, an idea adopted by the NationalTheatre. “They are a revolutionary new way for people with hearing loss to enjoy performances at the National Theatre”, says the NT website. “When wearing the glasses, users will see a transcript of the dialogue and descriptions of the sound from a performance displayed on the lenses of the glasses”.

Smart Caption Glasses

While Stagetext and Smart Caption Glasses don’t aid the issues raised in Parts I and II, there is still a huge effort being made to increase access in theatres for those with varying forms of disabilities. In accordance with this, Stagetext commented that increasing access is less about ticking boxes and improving access for the sake of it, but instead because people really care now. The main issue is awareness: awareness from deaf and hard of hearing audiences that these opportunities are out there, and from the general public to help increase funds to keep such businesses going.

Thanks to Alic from Stagetext for this interview. Find out more about Stagetext here.


Access All Areas

Access All Areas Theatre is a company that develops and supports the professional practice of learning disabled artists through a series of programmes and opportunities. Their performance company features an ensemble of twelve learning disabled and autistic actors who create performances either as part of Access All Areas or are supported in creating their own work. Access All Areas also provides training, workshops and consultancy by accredited, learning disabled and autistic facilitators across industries.

Access All Areas

In 2016/17 Access All Areas provided over 200 days of paid work to people with learning disabilities and autism, and in 2017/18, that went up to 556 days, an increase of over 100%.

Access All Areas is also in cohorts with the Living Wage movement. The company claims that the arts is an underpaid and overworked industry and they ensure that everyone they work with receives rates above the living wage. Cian Binchy, an Access All Areas performer has said:

Access All Areas has changed my life. A few years ago I was on benefits, never expecting to receive any form of work or make real progress in my life. Now I make a living as an artist. Is anyone else this happy to have to complete a self-assessment tax return?!

Imogen Roberts

Access All Areas have claimed that disabled people are the least represented in the media with only 6% of people on television having disabilities. They work to challenge this, and are succeeding.

Access All Areas is a multi-award winning theatre company, making urban disruptive performance by learning disabled artists. The Guardian described the company with “the power to change theatre.”

Find out more about Access All Areas here.


Hijinx

Hijinx

Hijinx is a theatre company based in Wales who tour small scale theatre throughout the UK and Europe. Hijinx cast’s for shows always include actors who have learning disabilities. It is referred to as inclusive theatre because it makes use of the “skills and raw talent of people who often get overlooked in today’s world and gives them a platform to make and perform stunning theatre”, they say.

Hijinx, as well as offering training and performance opportunities, also runs its Unity Festival which showcases the best inclusive and disability arts from around the world in Wales for one week each year.

This Christmas, Hijinx are putting on Hansel, Gedeon and the Grimms’Wood at Wales Millennium Centre. Check it out!

Find out more about Hijinx here.


Equity/Hynt

As already stated in Part I, there are opportunities for disabled people to receive reduced prices on tickets through organisations such as Equity Tickets or the Hynt card scheme. Both of which enable discounts or free seats for carers, depending on the show and theatre. These schemes increase access for disabled people by decreasing the price and allowing disabled people, who may have a lower income than able-bodied people due to potentially not being able to work, opportunities to go to the theatre.


Unlimited

Unlimited is an arts commissioning programme that enables new work by disabled artists to reach UK and international audiences. Projects include “theatre, dance, music, literature, performance, painting, sculpture, public artworks, photography, digital artworks, installations, films and more”.

Unlimited

As well as commissioning work, Unlimited wants to change perceptions of disabled people by allowing disabled artists in the UK and internationally to make new, ground-breaking and high-quality work.

From 2013 – 2016, Unlimited supported more than 2,300 days of performance and exhibitions by disabled artists, which were seen by over 130,000 people.

Find more about Unlimited here.


Whilst all these organisations are amazing for increasing access in theatres, and there are probably many that I have missed, as stated by Jenny Sturt from Wales Millennium Centre, there is only so much that theatres can do. The example given in Part I where Shona stated that she can’t see Wicked because her powerchair is too heavy for her lift, or where the disabled seats in the Phoenix Theatre to see Chicago have up to 50% of the performance restricted, demonstrates that not every issue for access can be easily solved.

Sure, theatres can go the extra mile, can place small manoeuvrable ramps over a few steps, but can’t do this for large staircases and only have lifts that hold a certain weight.

However, despite the negatives, it is important that we recognise the companies mentioned above that are working hard to improve access for disabled theatre-goers and performers and use this to move forward.

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