When I was younger, the term ‘accessible theatre’ meant something far different to me than it does now. Being told that a show was ‘accessible’ conjured up images of actors spelling out Shakespeare’s bawdy puns in near-explicit mime, or classics hastily infused with pop culture references. In short, to make theatre ‘accessible’ was to, in some way, make it ‘easy to understand’. (I can’t define the boundaries of ‘easy to understand’, but at school there was a default assumption that all this olden-type-speech was certainly beyond them.)
Now, however, when hearing that a show – or a company’s work – is ‘accessible’, my first response is: in what way? Can wheelchair users physically get into the venue? Is there captioning or BSL interpretation for those with impaired hearing, or audio description and touch tours for those with impaired sight? Are audience members who struggle to sit still or be silent welcomed into the stalls? How likely is the ticket price to prevent people from being able to come?
There’s making the meaning of a play accessible to people, then there’s making the seemingly simple acts of buying a ticket, getting inside the venue, and watching it actually possible. What’s the point of performing open-heart surgery on a play so that its raw, striking truth lies bare, if no one’s there to witness it?
Of course, usually there are people watching. It’s just that, without physical, practical and financial accessibility addressed (my own hasty phrases – I welcome better terms if anyone has some ready), those in the stalls are a pretty narrow group. Some of these may seem like minor concerns, but when faced with statistics like one sixth of the UK population suffering some form of hearing loss, it’s apparent that thinking through all the potential meanings of the word ‘accessibility’ is important if we want to make theatre for more than a small slice of the population.
So, how? Some ways of making shows accessible pose the eternal problem: money. My own company is only able to offer a captioned performance during an upcoming run due to the immense generosity of those who donated to a crowd funder campaign dedicated to the cause. It’s for this reason I’m focusing on relaxed performances – not because accessibility for any other groups is any less worthy, but because, without the financial issue, I can’t think of any reason for companies not to stage them.
Some can think of reasons. I was surprised to read in The Stage recently that ATG’s head of learning and access said some productions were unsuitable for relaxed performances – specifically, ‘quiet dramas’. But deciding that certain plays don’t lend themselves to relaxed performances renders those texts off limits to those for whom relaxed performances are essential to attending the theatre. (If you’re not familiar with relaxed performances, I won’t define them here, simply as Jess Thom does a great job of doing so over at her blog.) Coincidentally, my company’s first relaxed performances will be of the kind of ‘quiet drama’ referenced, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which just makes me all the more excited for them.
This is the first time I’ve directed a show that’ll have relaxed performances – a decision that was spurred into action by a R&D discussion that showed me how few barriers stood between staging a ‘standard’ show and a relaxed one.
Ask your venue if you can stage a relaxed performance. (In my case, the brilliantly supportive Space, for whom this is a first as well). Have a clear explanation of what ‘relaxed performance’ means at the point of booking – whether online, on the phone or in person. Preface the show with a short speech reminding the audience they’re allowed to make noise, leave or re-enter at anytime. Talk to the ushers and box office staff, so everyone knows to deal with queries, helping people in and out of the show, and suchlike. See if you can have a quiet chill-out space somewhere in the venue. Adjust the lighting and sound if necessary (to avoid loud, sudden noises or brightly flashing lights), and leave the house lights slightly up. If possible, provide a contact email in case people want to ask about specific needs, or the show in general. That’s about it. Honestly.
The biggest step, really, is simply deciding to make relaxed performances a part of what you do – once you’ve committed to that, it all feels remarkably straightforward. Ultimately, any problems thrown up by the above paragraph can be put right by doing one thing: talk to someone who’s staged a relaxed performance (they’ll want to help support more of them).
Staging a relaxed performance costs nothing except a little time and thought, which is a pretty good price for opening your work up to more people, and welcoming an even wider audiences through theatres’ doors. That way, once it’s been figured out how to make that Shakespeare ‘maidenhead’ gag really land, an even wider range of people can have a giggle at the Bard’s sex jokes.
A Doll’s House takes place at The Space 3-13 June. Relaxed performances 10 & 13 June. Captioned performance is on 12 June. For more information click here.