I originally started writing this blog to discuss a production of The Threepenny Opera that I was in a few years ago. It was a co-production between the New Wolsey, Nottingham Playhouse, Birmingham Rep, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Graeae Theatre company as an initiative to bring Deaf and Disabled artists into regional productions and integrated access to the forefront of not only audience enjoyment but creative aesthetic potential. Since this production, a further initiative called Ramps on the Moon has been put in place involving the companies named above as well as Theatre Royal Stratford East and Sheffield Theatres. Upon first hearing about Ramps, I found myself filled with both a sense of excited hope, and skepticism. This comes from the contrast of the extremely positive experience that was Threepenny both for me as a professional and in the overall artistic and inclusive merit of the piece, and the undeniable fact that like many other disabled creatives, I have seen many initiatives that look just like Ramps come and go with little to no effect. Having since seen the first production from Ramps, The Government Inspector as well as having had a chat with Sarah Holmes, chief executive at the New Wolsey which is currently heading this initiative, I can happily say that much of my skepticism has been replaced with more hopeful excitement, because it finally seems that there is a sense of people outside of the disabled community “getting it.”
The main goal of Ramps on the Moon is pretty simple. It seeks to instigate organizational change within creative teams of each regional theatre to promote employment of disabled practitioners and access and inclusion for disabled audience members. This access will be built aesthetically into the show, not as an add on or extra layer, but as an integral part of the overall aesthetic of each piece, which will in turn enrich the experience for all audience members, disabled or not. Currently Ramps has three years of funding with the goal and expectation of being able to continue for a further 6 years or more if needed. In this time, each partnering theatre will be in charge of heading a production that will tour each theatre, taking on the goals of hiring disabled talent and making accessible pieces. In Sarah Holmes’s words, “It is not a short project. It is a cultural shift. It is a learning project that will inform how organizations live, breath and work.” Sarah is well aware of past failed initiatives throughout the UK in both theatre and television, and knows the dangers of falling into this trap. However, she is clear that those working on Ramps understand the multiple barriers that exist for disabled people who want to become professionals, and/or to just go to and appreciate theatre. Each production that comes from this initiative seeks to combat and break down these barriers over an extended period of time. Alongside this, Ramps on the Moon hopes to instigate change not only in regional theatres but drama schools who are woefully behind in disability inclusion and access. The exact plans for this are still being made. However, it is worth noting that some of this may begin with work such as Graeae’s Ensemble training course which gave young disabled performers six months of training from various professionals in the industry. The ultimate goal is that drama schools take the mantel from Graeae to integrate, potentially with help from projects such as Ramps on the Moon.
The fact that this initiative clearly holds such high goals for itself, and it’s insistence on running for many years is enough to breed quite a bit of hope. Also, the clarity from Sarah that this is indeed a learning project and that with their current production of The Government Inspector they are still very much cutting their teeth on new ideas grounds the whole initiative in a bit of much appreciated pragmatism. I watched The Government Inspector when it was on at Stratford East, and for the most part, enjoyed it very much. I have heard some critique the piece because the two “main” roles were not played by disabled people. This didn’t bother me in the slightest. I find it hard to say that these two parts were “main” roles as the piece was very much an ensemble effort with disability dominating the stage in an overwhelmingly positive way. Also, some of the strongest individual performances were from the disabled actors. (Kiruna Stamell, Simon Startin and Stephen Collins, I’m looking at you!) There were also some beautiful moments of disability politics being woven into the fabric of the piece as well as some “in” jokes that were explained very well, but were definitely geared towards the crips in the audience.
My one beef with the show, and it is a big one, was the audio description. The main issue was that the audio describer Amanda Wright, who I thought in herself was wonderful and did a fantastic job, was using a traditional AD microphone which went to traditional AD headsets. This technology is designed for a stationary person who is removed from stage action to avoid sound bleed. In this instance, however, the describer was also playing a character and therefore was moving around on stage while describing. This created a lot of white noise and sound interference. All of this made her difficult to understand, and was honestly so frustrating at points that if I hadn’t been asked to review the AD I would have taken the headset off. Now, it is important to note that when talking to Sarah Holmes, before I gave any feedback on the show, she was adamantly clear that the AD was not good enough, and that everyone working on Ramps knows it and is keen on improving it, which again gives me hope. It is difficult to get everything right in the first go. I have a lot of thoughts on how to improve the AD, which I have sent to the important parties at Ramps. At least there was AD in every show, something that never normally happens.
Blind people often get apologies for having poorer access (or no access) to events that are presented as accessible. For example, The Unlimited Festival at the Southbank has often come under scrutiny for this. I am hopeful that Ramps does not become an initiative that constantly apologizes for something that it knows it should be doing better, and know from speaking with Sarah that this is definitely the last thing they want. I personally think the best course of action is to get rid of the headset all together. As an audience member, I find headsets extremely isolating and frustrating at the best of times. Also, at the risk of sounding blunt, it needs to be clear that if your describer is standing at the back of the stage speaking quietly into a microphone for the majority of the play (as was the case in this production), she and her description are not integrated into the piece. At all. I feel very doubtful that audience members at Stratford knew Audio Description was available or indeed what it was, let alone its creative potential as was exemplified by the woman next to me in the audience asking me why “the only black person in the cast was standing in the back doing nothing”. The minute I told her that Amanda was the most important person on the stage for me, the audience member changed her tune saying she wished she had known this information beforehand. The BSL and captioning was used so beautifully in this production. For Ramp’s next project, I have hope that AD can get a similar standing. Bring it to the forefront, translate images into spoken English and BSL. Let everyone know what a beautiful experience it is to have images made into words and words made into images, regardless of sensory make up. I am counting on you Ramps on the Moon, because I know you can do better.
The next production for Ramps on the Moon will be Tommy coming from Theatre Royal Stratford East, which I am more than a little excited about. Also, The Government inspector is still running! Go see it if you can, and please support these companies and this initiative for doing such wonderful work. At present, this initiative feels like one of the only ones outside of disability led art taking on goals of access, inclusion and cultural change in real time on a large scale. Disabled people always need allies. We have it in Ramps on the Moon, so here’s to the next three, six, nine or however many years to come. Let’s use this hope, keenness, community and creative strength to make some real societal change.
For more info on Ramps on the Moon and The Government Inspector please visit www.rampsonthemoon.co.uk.