“I think we’re at a real tipping point right now. In one sense there’s this seismic shift where we can really feel the need [for wider access], and at the other hand we’re at a point where disabled people’s support and benefits are still being hammered.” Rachel Bagshaw is pinpointing an irony that feels very real. A run of recent high-profile shows has incorporated disabled performers, and made disabled access key to their creative process: Bagshaw and her collaborator Chris Thorpe’s show, the currently-touring The Shape of the Pain, is one of them. At Shakespeare’s Globe last summer, Michelle Terry’s As You Like It incorporated British Sign Language-speaking performers into the show. At Bush Theatre, Going Through also incorporates BSL, and makes it key to its story. Jellyfish, which casts two learning disabled performers and where all performances are relaxed, is transferring to the National Theatre this summer. And the ongoing Ramps on the Moon project is making work where disabled artists and audiences are central. But their success comes against the backdrop of “a system of austerity and the cuts that come with that still keep disabled people in boxes, and that leads to a wider perception that the wider world is not accessible to us.”
Directed by Rachel Bagshaw, The Shape of the Pain has access built into its bones. As its central performer describes the physical pain she lives with, words stretch out and writhe across the set, making the production accessible to D/deaf audiences, as well as creating striking visuals. Bagshaw explains that “the captioning allows the audience to experience the full impact of the pain through seeing the text repeated, distorted, coloured and shaped in ways that tells its own story: there’s a whole narrative that had we not captioned it, we wouldn’t have had access to.”
Visually impaired theatregoers can use headphones to access the performance. But Bagshaw was reluctant to offer them an interrupted version of the performance’s soundscape: “There’s still a preamble at the top of the show, but we integrated the audio description almost completely into the sound design.”
Director Tamar Saphra’s work has taken a similar approach. She’s directing a show called The Noises, a lyrical narrative written by her mother, poet Jacqueline Saphra. She explains that “it’s a show made entirely from the perspective of a dog called Luna, who has been locked inside of a room in her family home, and is listening to the world outside as it descends into some kind of chaos. The central relationship it plays with the teenage Ellie who is the love of her life, who goes out at the start of the play and doesn’t return home. It’s her trying to work out who she is in relation to the noises and the world.” As a work that centres on sound, it naturally lent itself towards accommodating partially sighted audiences. Saphra explains that “I became interested in exploring how you can embed access into the work without having it as something extra you add on in the last minute. So we’ve actually changed some sections of text, to make them more descriptive, so you don’t necessarily need the audio description coming over the speakers.”
The Noises has been created in collaboration with access consultant Amelia Cavallo: Saphra says that “having someone who can directly support me as a non-disabled theatremaker and director has been really helpful.” Bagshaw agrees that “it is really important that we can get those audiences to see the work really early on, and to oversee the development in some way.” In a review for Exeunt, Amelia Cavallo talked about two shows that got integrated access right, saying that “they made disability a dominant, creative, exciting and political presence with an effortlessness that meant everything felt smoothly inclusive. Integrated access in particular can be clunky in some shows, especially if it is an add-on at the end of a process.” It’s an idea that makes me think of the growing use of sensitivity readers in fiction: the idea that creating work about and for certain audiences comes with a responsibility, and that dialogue is core to the process, not an optional extra.
Bagshaw and Saphra’s carefully crafted approach sits alongside other trends in the world of access. Earlier this year, the National Theatre launched its pioneering smart caption glasses, which mean that D/deaf theatregoers can access any show across the venue. So far, feedback seems to have been hugely positive. Sophie Woolley, a profoundly deaf artist and theatregoer has said that the trackpad options for text placement, colour, and size meant that ‘I felt as though I was writing graffiti on the set’. The NT’s speech-following software ‘listens’ to the words the actors say, and match it to prepared captions. The National Theatre’s smart caption glasses feel like part of a world where access issues are increasingly being solved through technology: like text-to-speech software, or navigation apps for blind people. The Japanese government is even working towards alleviating its adult social care crisis by developing bear-faced robots that can lift adults out of wheelchairs.
These technological advances feel like a double-edged sword. Innovations like smart caption glasses mean that (some) disabled users can access the theatregoing experience more easily than ever before. But technology can also potentially come with lessened visibility, and means that disabled people’s needs and voices aren’t necessarily at the forefront of the creative process.
Saphra and Bagshaw are both clear that their work is better because they’ve considered access a key part of it from the start. Saphra explains that crafting an accessible performance “opens up so many different creative pathways, and that is really challenging and exciting.” But it’s also something that’s full of paradoxes and difficulties. Although The Noises is accessible to partially sighted audiences, the Old Red Lion is an old-school pub theatre with no wheelchair access to its upstairs playing space. For Saphra, making accessible work at a fringe level means “starting from a point of going ‘I can’t do everything’, and then using my creative brain to work around that. Even with Arts Council funding, we were forced to do a more DIY approach, but sometimes that limitation can be really freeing and exciting.”
There’s an inevitable tension at play: when it comes to access, whose needs are put first? The creative process surrounding The Shape of the Pain is a complex one: as the show developed, disabled audience members’ pathways became more and more central to the show. Bagshaw explains that “There’s a show I’m working on in the future where I hope to play with that tension even more, and look at how we might disrupt the sound design with the audio description, so that hearing and sighted experience isn’t at the foremost of the audience experience.”
It’s a refreshing attitude in a world where the default audience member is still implicitly non-disabled. At Southwark Playhouse, All in A Row attracted criticism for telling the story of an autistic child in a way that wasn’t sufficiently accessible (or sensitive) to the needs of autistic audience members. And at most mainstream venues, accessible performances are often a one-off occurrence: a single captioned or audio-described performance during a show’s whole run. Even theatre made with disabled audiences at the forefront comes up against challenges: inclusive festivals like Unlimited work with a huge multiplicity of different needs to be accommodated and different communities to be reached. Sometimes, disabled access is talked about as though it’s something singular (and synonymous with wheelchair access) but the reality is much more complex, and multi-layered.
Bagshaw says that “people often people talk about bringing two audiences in, but actually from my perspective, we’re never bringing in two audiences, it’s always multiple audiences. So actually to make one homogenous show is, to me, increasingly nonsensical. We don’t have one path through a piece of work; everyone has a subjective experience of it. So being able to align creative layers of access and routes through a show that hopefully allow a much richer and more bespoke route through the show for an audience member feels much more exciting to me than making one piece of work. Massively more time-consuming and demanding but more fulfilling, I feel.”
Large portions of the theatre world are still inaccessible to disabled audiences, and I’m interested in how venues get the word out about the accessible shows the programme. Bagshaw says that “All we can do is keep persuading venues to keep pursuing these audiences, because they are out there and they will come to things. But when historically an audience is so used to something not being accessible to them, it takes time, and reassurance, and encouragement to get them to see the piece of work as something for them.”
It’s something that more venues are prioritising more than others. Bagshaw goes on to say that “I think regionally there are some real success stories. Derby Theatre’s currently doing some really good work, they’re part of the Ramps on the Moon consortium and Sarah Brigham has consistently championed work made by and for disabled people. The National Theatre are putting their money where their mouth is, and are able to champion and support work made by disabled artists. But I don’t know if there’s one single venue that’s really getting it right right now.”
Sapha agrees, saying that “non-disabled theatremakers need to be working harder. What can hold a lot of people back is nervousness. But for me, making accessible work comes from a place of curiosity as an artist, and going ‘I want to expand my practice by making it accessible’. There’s a real fear there. But it kind of feels really important to say; we have to try.”