Fringe theatre companies must step up to the challenge of accessibility – and be allowed to make mistakes

Helena Jackson, artistic director of Sleepless Theatre, explains how they put disabled access at the heart of their work

Helena Jackson
Wednesday 06 June 2018 15:44
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Sleepless Theatre company in rehearsals
Sleepless Theatre company in rehearsals

“A very traditional play doesn’t suit everyone.” Josh Hepple is a law graduate with severe cerebral palsy who acts as a disability equality trainer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “But then how do you make someone care about accessibility? You can’t teach empathy.”

We should care. There are 13.9 million people identifying as disabled (in one way or another) in the UK. The social model of disability states that this is society’s fault – society being organised in a way that can dis-able people with certain impairments to participate in modern life just as it en-ables others.

In these terms, theatres – especially small fringe theatres with the strict etiquette rules that accompany them – are some of the most inaccessible public spaces possible: small, dark rooms with one entrance and exit, filled with row upon row of people, all sitting quietly, all staring ahead.

As Matthew Gardner, a stage manager on the autistic spectrum, explains, “Suddenly you’re stuck in a room with 20 people, having a panic attack on your own thinking, ‘How can I get out of this situation without making myself feel awkward.’ Because if you feel awkward you’re causing a problem.”

Helena Jackson, artistic director of Sleepless Theatre

But if we follow the social model of disability, this feeling of awkwardness is the responsibility of theatre-makers. Working to change situations that provoke this is our responsibility as Fringe producers, directors, venue managers, audiences – accessibility is no longer something we can leave to the larger theatres.

These might have more resources, but it’s not good enough to simply clap politely when venues such as the Prince Edward Theatre win an award from the National Autistic Society, as they did recently for their autism-friendly performances of Aladdin. It’s wonderful that some larger theatres are embracing accessibility wholeheartedly (the Old Vic and the Royal Court in particular are streets ahead), but it’s still not the norm – and instead of scolding on Twitter or Facebook, we need to lead by example and thereby hold them accountable to their failings.

Art has always been driven by grassroots change, and grassroots change can push towards much broader changes in societal treatment and opinion. Fringe theatre should be leading the way on accessibility.

But the very idea of enacting simple grassroots accessibility measures can send young companies and venues running for the hills, leaving trails of apologetic emails in their wake.

Performances of ‘Aladdin’ at Prince Edward Theatre were autism-friendly 

And it’s not hard to see why; funding is already at an all-time low and, as Hepple concedes, “It’s such a competitive environment; there’s already so much to do, we’re just not a priority.

“Everyone wants to look like they care,” he continues. “I go to events and festivals where the manager mentions ‘access’ and everyone gets very excited, but then he tells them all to come and talk to me afterwards and not one company approaches me. People need to be willing to have these conversations, so that emerging companies know what to do.”

This, sadly, isn’t hugely surprising. Not only do 67 per cent of the public feel awkward around people who have impairments, but the cost of the more ‘well known’ access measures can be hugely daunting when you’re already struggling on a tiny budget.

BSL interpreters average at around £250 a day, audio description can seem intensely challenging, and access packs and relaxed performances (where the audience is allowed to be vocal, move around, and leave and enter the performance space as they wish) are so alien to neurotypical artists and audiences that it’s often easier to not even attempt them.

“If people I’m auditioning for find out I’m Deaf they always look sheepish and say they’re ‘sorry’,” says Alexandra James, a deaf drama school graduate. “I sit there and think ‘why are you sorry, you didn’t make me deaf’ – knowing that in their head they’re already thinking about the extra money and effort that captioning and interpreters will cost.”

But this is especially frustrating as it is actually a misconception: there are so many measures that can be taken, which cost no or little money, that can make someone feel more comfortable within a venue.

As Gardner points out, a lot of accessibility is simply giving clear information before someone enters theatre spaces. “The more you showcase information about the show online, the more there can be a discussion around how a person can engage with it. Accessibility doesn’t start at the theatre door, it’s about clarity of communication.”

This doesn’t just include access packs. Clear signage in terms of toilets, box office and bar can make an enormous difference. Projecting captions onto the back of a set is far cheaper than hiring a surtitle unit. Making sure ushers are briefed on how to talk to patrons that have impairments is one day’s work.

This treatment can stretch to auditions and rehearsals as well: not forcing someone to cold read, having auditions in buildings with lifts, casting someone identifying as D/deaf, disabled or neuro-diverse as a character that isn’t specified as such.

But such practical issues are not the only challenges facing emerging companies wanting to be accessible. There’s an innate anxiety at the thought of doing it wrong, of offending someone, and – of course – producing (as everyone does at some point in their lives) a bad piece of theatre.

And the stakes can feel even higher if there is the perceived burden of representation. DV8’s Lloyd Newson has stated that art produced by or including performers that identify as disabled “has to be good or it demeans the art form.”

But how can the theatre industry expect young companies of naïve twentysomethings in rooms behind pubs to produce accessible work when they then posit it as completely representative of the disabled community?

Hepple finds this attitude deeply disturbing: “It should be accessible whether it’s rubbish or fantastic; disabled people have the right to see all kinds of theatre.”

The wonderful thing about being young and emerging is that you should have the right to make mistakes and, in doing so, become better at your craft. That needs to go for approaches to inclusivity too.

Good, integrated accessibility measures take practice; you have to be free to create something utterly terrible and have the conversations with colleagues and audiences afterwards in order to be better next time.

Natalie Kimmerling and Paul O’Dea rehearse ‘Nine Foot Nine’, Sleepless Theatre’s next production

When starting out learning how to navigate many of these issues – from engaging with the Access to Work scheme, using creative assistants, the politics around BSL and the D/deaf distinction – the last thing you want to hear is that this piece of theatre that you’re trying desperately to pull together will be taken as representative of the disabled community as a whole.

I am currently directing an attempting-to-be-accessible show, Nine Foot Nine, at the Bunker, with my company Sleepless Theatre. We have been through ridiculous variations of success and failure.

Starting out with lofty dreams of an entirely audio-described, relaxed performance-d, BSL-interpreted and captioned beauty, we’ve had to adapt with logistics and funding, meaning that this run will settle with being fully captioned, offering accessibility packs, touch tours (audiences being able to come into the performance space before the show to feel the set and familiarise themselves with the environment), and with an auditorium space where people will be welcome to come and go throughout the performance.

It’s not perfect; indeed, it’s far from it. However, it’s also the first hour-long, feminist, sci-fi, dystopian play featuring a lead Deaf character to premiere in London, so I’ll settle with our disappointments and be ok with being 30 per cent closer to the fully-accessible dream...

But while I’ll fight to the death for my right to fail, it is also the responsibility of emerging companies to step up and accept the accessibility challenge in the first place. And they don’t have to do it alone: the first step is to learn not to be afraid of asking questions.

Throughout the last two years at the helm of a small, inclusive company, I’ve never experienced someone identifying as D/deaf, disabled or neuro-diverse turn down the request of a conversation to help me figure out what the hell I’m meant to be doing. Facing up to your ignorance is the first step towards getting it right.

“Why do people think we can’t talk to them?” says James, who would always rather have the conversation. “Just because I lost my hearing doesn’t mean I can’t do anything.”

Gardner is similarly to the point: “You know what? There are only misunderstandings when no one’s actually bothered to talk to anyone to find out how to help.”

‘Nine Foot Nine’ is running at the Bunker Theatre in London, Mondays and Thursdays, from 11 June-5 July (bunkertheatre.com) and at the Assembly Front Room in Edinburgh from 2-25 August (assemblyfestival.com)

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