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How Deaf And Disabled People Are Transforming Theatre

January 28, 2020

From yesterday’s Guardian.

Athena Stevens: ‘We should establish quotas’

More stories are being told on stage by artists with disabilities. But the biggest problem is the architecture of theatres. Even if you have the talent to perform in some of these venues, just getting in the building is impossible. Actors and writers are told they can earn their stripes at the fringe level. How do you do that when accessible rehearsal rooms are the most expensive and every pub theatre is up a flight of stairs? I ended up opening my own rehearsal space, run by my production company, Aegis Productions.

A huge step forward would be to establish quotas in West End ensembles. Ensembles, by definition, are meant to be everyone, so they should be inclusive. There is no reason why an ensemble for a musical can’t include a performer with a disability. These shows have the money and they should have the imagination. We need mainstream theatre organisations and producers to rise to the challenge of equal representation for disability.

My show at the Finborough, Scrounger, was inspired by a case of discrimination I experienced when I was about to fly from London to Glasgow but ended up being removed from the flight, directly because of my disability. When the airline returned my wheelchair, it was damaged. The fallout from that incident made me very aware of the everyday injustices that are perpetrated by ordinary people. People who mean well often stand in the way of progress, because they are afraid of conflict. You see a lot of micro-aggressions and silencing, people saying things like: “Oh, it will be fine, don’t make a fuss.”

And actually it won’t be fine, trying to get along and avoid conflict is how every political horror starts. This is a culture that prides itself on being progressive but also on avoiding conflict. I’m sorry, but you can’t have both. Progress and equality always mean confronting the status quo and that will always create conflict. I don’t like it, but I have to let go of the egotistical desire to be liked by everyone in order to not be complicit in the world’s injustice.

Sophie Woolley: ‘Get the experts in’

Venues need to employ deaf and disabled people – that is the best way to improve access. It’s about getting the experts in. Deaf people are really good at shouting and changing things because we have to be. We can’t be passive.

I’m a writer and actor, and since 2013 I’ve self-described as a deaf cyborg. After I got my cochlear implant, I felt proud and decided to own my new identity.

I didn’t train at drama college but started performing in nightclubs, pubs and galleries. I was going deaf when I made my early theatre work and I used interpreters in rehearsals, but I could not follow BSL-interpreted theatre. I preferred subtitles. I was conscious that I couldn’t enjoy the same cutting-edge productions that my peers could because of the lack of subtitled performances.

At this time – around 15 years ago – there weren’t many shows that integrated subtitles into the stage design. I didn’t want anyone to feel the same sense of exclusion so I modelled best practice and made sure my work was creatively captioned.

Even with my implant, I often need captions to properly engage with the performance. In big old theatre buildings such as the Old Vic, I can’t follow without captions; in mid-size theatres such as the New Wolsey in Ipswich, I can follow everything. It all depends on the acoustic.

In Augmented, my latest show, we have a really amazing lighting and projection designer, Joshua Pharo. He has the unique skillset of being able to do both lighting and video projection – that ensured our captioning was part of the show’s overall design. It’s exciting that more theatre-makers are playing with access as a theatrical form, like Midnight Movie did at the Royal Court. The Court now offers more than one captioned show per run, too. It just shows that we can change things. Access can be liberating and uplifting for everyone.

Amit Sharma: ‘Theatre changes perceptions’

Theatre is powerful and has a way of changing people’s perceptions. There is a social and civic responsibility here. As a director – and deputy artistic director of Birmingham Repertory theatre – I am passionate about representation, particularly those voices who have been marginalised historically.

Things are changing – slowly. There is deaf and disabled representation on primetime TV, whether for one-off series or recurring characters. Is it enough? Absolutely not, but 10 years ago you didn’t see such breadth of characters. It’s the same on our stages. But we need to do more than just talk about how well we are doing. Recently, the Stage released a report on leadership of the top 50 theatres – with people of colour at 8%, which is shocking. How many of the top 50 are being led by a deaf and disabled person? Or the top 100? Or top 150? There’s a phrase that disabled people often use, which is: “Nothing about us without us” and it is paramount we now put this into practice, starting with leadership.

The Rep is part of a consortium of six venues (including Nottingham Playhouse, Stratford East, Sheffield Theatres, New Wolsey in Ipswich and Leeds Playhouse) which, with the company Graeae, have collaborated on the Ramps on the Moon programme. This is a commitment to having one mainstage show each year which is predominantly cast with deaf and disabled performers, as part of their season. That kind of commitment makes a real impact – off and on stage. If you were to remove a Ramps production, you would see the gap in work being presented at that scale. When Ramps finishes, what then? It needs to be a catalyst for all our theatres to make a genuine commitment to deaf and disabled artists, and audiences, in our big spaces.

The next generation of deaf and disabled artists need to feel like there are opportunities for them to act, write, direct, design and produce just like their non-disabled counterparts. There’s much work to do. We can’t let them down.

Jenny Sealey: ‘Everyone can make shows accessible’

As the artistic director of Graeae I surround myself with tales from deaf and disabled artists who bring with them diverse communication and access requirements. Together, we weave this into a theatrical narrative so it becomes an aesthetic artform.

Graeae, along with other deaf and disabled-led companies, have been pushing the agenda for years. Since Reasons to be Cheerful (our Ian Dury-inspired musical by Paul Sirett) hit middle-scale stages, other directors have seen the richness of our aesthetic and the skill and talent within our community. This led to the Ramps on the Moon consortium. Things are moving on. Derby theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe and the National Theatre and are also casting more disabled actors and starting to work with disabled writers and directors.

It comes down to attitude and a concern that employing deaf and disabled actors, writers and directors is going to cost more. It does cost more, but that is when Access to Work comes in. This government scheme supports the cost of audio describers, access workers, creative enablers (a term coined by Graeae where the conversation between enabler and artist is a creative collaborative process) and sign-language interpreters – although there is a cap on how much is paid out, which is very limiting. I work with interpreters almost constantly, so I have to have a “dry period” when my allowance has run out.

To improve accessibility and representation throughout our industry, the answer is very simple – employ deaf and disabled people across the organisation (front of house, bar, marketing, senior management, board, etc) as well as on stage and backstage. Work with all creative teams to embed captioning, signing and audio description into the heart and design of all productions so that deaf and disabled audience members can enjoy any show they like rather than just on the “access night”. Graeae has been making every show accessible for more than 20 years and we are a small company. If we can do it, everyone can. Access is a human right – not a tag-on.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 28, 2020 1:13 am

    I think this amazing and support people with disabilities in the arts through the Arts Access program at matheny School in Peapack, NJ

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