In our latest feature, Lindsey Huebner talks to Helen Bryer and Adam Smith of the brilliant company, Access All Areas about their new show, Still Here, moving forward with accessibility and much, much more.
I’m going to approach this feature a little differently to how I normally might. Erstwhile, I’d set the scene: making a witty quip about technological joys of Zoom interviewing, likely describe whatever caffeinated beverage I’m imbibing and then set out to make what I hope to be a well-constructed piece with a beginning, a middle and an end. For the purposes of this Zoom co-interview with Helen Bryer and Adam Smith of Access All Areas theatre company, and co-directors of the new piece Still, Here, I feel it appropriate to start approximately 30 minutes into our conversation as I believe what is said here is essential framing for all that is to come.
Visibility is important. Whether we are talking about disability, race, sexual orientation, gender expression, body composition, etc., there is no denying the power of seeing yourself reflected on stage and in art. However, not just as a writer but also as a human in this world, I am wary of reducing the entirety of a person and their abundance of potential to a singular category. On this, Smith says, “I want people to know about my Asperger’s so they know my background. I suppose it’s good for them to know my traits in terms of my anxiety and my more emotional side, but at the same time, I don’t want people to know me just for that. I want people to know me as an artist, musician performer and actor who is just as capable as any other artist. I want people to view me as a person like anyone else. No one’s normal. We all come from different backgrounds Everyone’s different. I don’t want people to think of me as just a name or condition.”
Bryer sums it up beautifully when she reflects on the experience of working with Smith and other member of the Access All Areas Professional Company, saying, “I think it’s about doing a bit of a balancing act. It’s about representation but it’s also about just going and doing the work.” Smith agrees emphatically and Bryer continues, “there’s doing the more mainstream work where you’re going and playing a part [perhaps at the National Theatre or on Holby City – as has been the case for some of the Professional Company], where it’s about being seen and having a diverse range of people on TV and on stage. But at the same time, there’s a whole other place for learning disabled-led work that is about identity and about that experience of being excluded – which gives a particular lense on the world that nobody else can have.”
So, it is with acknowledgment of this balancing act that I will attempt to frame the conversation. Now back to the beginning: Bryer is director of the Take Part and Train programmes at Access All Areas – a theatre company making work by learning-disabled and autistic artists. As such, she oversees all participation and training work with emerging nuerodiverse artists. Bryer is also the director of the Hackney-based Black Cab Company who are a collection of community artists, all of whom identify as learning disabled or autistic. Suffice to say, Bryer is a busy woman.
Smith describes himself as, “a musician, composer, actor, performer and emerging cabaret artist”. With a classical music degree and a Masters in composition from Goldsmiths University, Smith is part of Access All Areas Professional Company as well as a participant in their Transforming Leadership programme where emerging neurodiverse arts leaders are paired with arts professionals for a two-year creative partnership. Through this programme, Smith co-directs the work of numerous companies under the Access All Areas umbrella in collaboration with Bryer. Still, Here is the directorial debut for the pair.
Still, Here came about in the thick of the UK’s lockdown. Early on, Bryer and Smith instituted weekly Zoom check-ins for their programme’s participants in response to the gap created by social isolation. Bryer explains the genesis of the piece: “Through these check-ins, we heard some really interesting perspectives. For me, I was suddenly realising what peoples’ home lives were like – which you don’t necessarily get when you’re only seeing people in a workshop-setting every week. We started to wonder how we can make something that shows some of these perspectives and that tell some of these lockdown stories even though we couldn’t be in the same room together.” Adam goes on to explain the heart of the piece: “Even though we’ve had to go into lockdown, we still want to reach out to people, to communicate with people and help them be creative and be entertained at home. Even though we’re in lockdown we are still here to help you in any way we can.”
The show itself is an audio installation around Hackney. It’s free and available to everyone and boasts the utmost in accessibility – sub-titled, audio-described and wheelchair accessible, with all that is needed is a smart phone and a pair of your own headphones. The experience begins at Hackney Town Hall, where audiences scan a QR code and that takes you to your first bit of audio. There are 8 stops along the way and each stop is curated by a different artist or pair of artists from Black Cab Company on what they love and miss about Hackney. Smith describes the auditory experience by telling me that, “it really gets into what the artists are thinking or feeling. The voice can be such a powerful tool. I think there’s a lovely connection between the artists and the listeners and the whole world working, feeling and hoping together to go back to some sort of normality.”
Our conversation turns to notions of accessibility, a subject about which Bryer admits, “I could talk for two hours straight” and indeed delving into this layered issue could be an article on its own. Both Bryer and Smith admit there are many ways in which our spaces could be made accessible for all. Smith suggests, “giving people options in terms of how the material is distributed and preparing individuals for what images and lights they might see so they know what to expect”. One thing that Bryer flags is that, “in the mad scramble [for theatres] to get back to work, some of the great progress that has been made in terms of accessibility may be lost.” It is the responsibility of all of us to demand better of our institutions, and when the world of our theatres is eventually rebuilt, work like that of Access All Areas must be front and centre. With individuals like Bryer and Smith at the helm, I am optimistic.
Black Cab Theatre’s Still, Here is at various locations throughout Hackney. The audio installation goes live 13 September 2020 and plays until 31 October 2020. For more information, visit the Access All Areas website.