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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Access all areas: the creatives opening theatre up to disabled audiences | Stage

‘Small changes do make a difference’
Shona Louise, access consultant

“I think a lot of people view me as just a bit of an angry disabled audience member,” says Shona Louise. “And that’s definitely not the case at all – we have something of value to give.” Louise’s lived experience of being a disabled person is at the heart of her work as an access consultant.

Working with theatres, Louise advises on everything from the information they provide on their websites – vital for allowing disabled people to make informed decisions about what a venue or show will be like – to checking their access and establishing whether wheelchair spaces have a proper view of the stage.

It was Louise’s own love of theatre that led to her freelance role, having experienced barriers first-hand. She started writing reviews on her blog about shows from an access perspective, and found her work grew from there. “When people are telling me their experiences, it was then taking on that fight as well, because there’s just really not enough people fighting for this issue,” she says.

Through her work, she is seeing some improvements. “I think there is such a lack of visibility for disabled people in the industry. And I find often if I can just sit down and have a conversation with someone, it makes a huge difference.

“If there are renovations going on, or a decision to be made, it’s just someone saying, ‘Hey, is this going to impact disabled people? And if so, how do we fix it?’ And often, it’s just making small changes along the way. We’re not going to overhaul the whole industry overnight, but it’s making those small changes that do make a difference in the end to a disabled person’s experience.”

Bea Webster, Zoë McWhinney and Fifi Garfield in Everyday by Deafinitely Theatre at the New Diorama, London, in 2022. Ben Glover was video programmer on the production.
Bea Webster, Zoë McWhinney and Fifi Garfield in Everyday by Deafinitely Theatre at the New Diorama, London, in 2022. Ben Glover was video programmer on the production. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

‘It’s no longer an add-on’
Ben Glover, creative captioner

Creative captioning integrates captions into the set, becoming accessible to deaf audiences as well as enhancing the play. Ben Glover has seen for himself the difference this makes.

Traditional captions are usually shown on a screen to the side of the stage, and aren’t available for every performance, meaning deaf audiences are restricted in when they can attend. With creative captioning, “because it’s part of the design process, and that creative process leading up to a production, it’s going to be integrated in every show,” says Glover. “So it’s no longer an add-on – it’s now always there. So for me as a deaf person, that means I can go to the theatre anytime and see the show.”

Glover is involved from the very start of a production, collaborating with set, sound and lighting design, working out where the captions are going to go. The concept and the visual theme for the play help him determine font choices and locations, and whether to incorporate a video element. With this, and the script, Glover plans whether different characters will have different fonts, or if it’s the scene that will determine the style. “It’s creative, so it should be exciting,” he says.

“I’m really interested in interactivity on stage,” he says. “And because I’m deaf myself, it’s something that I can be very passionate about and want to see happen in the theatre industry.”

Glover says more companies are now embracing creative captioning, benefiting both deaf and hearing audiences. He set up the Creative Captioning site to showcase its potential.

“It’s about changing people’s thinking,” he says, “that any access should be integrated and considered from the start of any process.”

‘They should feel it in exactly the same way as everyone else’
Nadine Beasley, audio describer

Beasley works alongside Kate Taylor-Davies as an audio describer with Talking Sense. This provides a spoken narration of the action on stage for visually impaired people.

It’s a long process, which includes viewing the show, making notes on the costumes and set, talking to the director and reading the programme notes. Beasley then writes the introductory notes, which visually impaired people can listen to beforehand to give them a grounding in the play. The theatre then sends a video of the show, “and we watch for bits of business that are important that visually impaired people won’t grasp,” says Beasley.

On the day, Beasley leads a touch tour so visually impaired people can feel the set and costumes, familiarising them with the stage layout. She then heads to a position – which could be a booth with a view of the stage or a changing room where she can follow the action on a screen – where she reads her script live during the play, delivered to audience members via headsets.

Allowing blind and partially sighted people to feel part of the shared experience of a show is key to Beasley’s work. “It’s very important that someone who has a visual impairment has a feeling of the play as organic as any other theatregoer. So that if there’s a laugh, you get them to laugh at the same time. They should feel it in exactly the same way as everyone else.”

Ultimately, it’s this belief that everyone should be able to enjoy watching a play which drives this work. That no matter who you are, theatre is a place for you.

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