Can creative use of access for disabled audiences become part of the mainstream theatre aesthetic? Jo Verrent explores…
Access – formerly to support the involvement of disabled people within audiences or disabled performers on stage – is quickly becomes something more creative and more vibrant – impacting on both the audience and the performance team and forming an essential part of the aesthetics of the work as a whole. Work by Graeae, Face Front, Tin Bath, Back to Back and Extant has pushed at the boundaries of this practice. The question now is whether or not these theatre companies are having an impact on others?
“We’re making access a sexy word! Exploring the aesthetics of access, we’re in a position to find things out creatively… We layer the work: words, music, visuals tell the story. It’s multi-sensory. There are so many ways to communicate and collaborate… It’s my ambition to create something 100 per cent accessible. It’s never going to happen but by God am I going to try! That’s the artistic ambition of Graeae. Never ever can we sit on our laurels. There’s always a new way of doing something.”
Jenny Sealey quoted from 'Making access sexy', Disability Now
Jenny Sealey and Graeae are perhaps the most well known exponents of a creative use of access. For them, the use of such elements is about creative experimentation, not just about access. Its about matching tools and techniques with the specific performance, the specific characters – building it from within to create a seamless product, stretching and enhancing the whole.
This is about taking the techniques used to provide access and weaving them into the very performances they themselves support. In these instances, what begins from the roots of access (to support the involvement of disabled people within audiences or disabled performers on stage), quickly becomes something more complex and more vibrant – impacting on both the audience and the performance team and forming an essential part of the aesthetics of the work as a whole.
This use of creative access stems from the work of disability-specific performance companies and it is beginning to influence the way in which many other performance companies approach access, reframing the concept from being a simple provision of support targeted at small niche audience segments to an essential embodied way of dramatically enhancing all performances whilst simultaneously widening audience appeal and visibly demonstrating a commitment to equality and diversity.
Face Front Inclusive Theatre presented Counting the Ways by Edward Albee in 2010, and their staging deliberately chose to highlight the aesthetic use of access. This wasn’t done to ensure access but instead to add another layer to the work. Edward Albee wrote the piece in the 1970s when he was exploring absurdist theatre – it’s a one act play originally written for 2 actors playing a couple known simply as ‘He’ and ‘She’. In their retelling, the two hander is performed by four; instead of one couple on stage, there are two - one couple speaking and one couple using British Sign Language. The piece didn’t have a simple line-by-line translation, some elements were spoken, some signed and some translated. Every important element was provided in both languages but not necessarily at the same time. The company was able to use sign language to extend and deepen the intension of the writer and highlight the absurd nature of human communication within a relationship.
Tin Bath Theatre, created by writer/performer Sophie Woolley and director Gemma Fairlie, is another company looking at how access tools can impact on the very nature of the work they produce. Their innovative use of captioning means that every aural reference onstage has a visual representation; it has quickly become a core part of their aesthetic:
"'Fight Face'... uses an open caption technique with three overhead projectors which fire out words and animations in time with the performers' delivery. In this way the captions become part of the fabric of the piece, an integral part of its look and feel. When a character's name is shouted repeatedly in anger, the word hits the screen again and again, bang, bang, bang, the letters growing bigger and fizzier each time. And while this obviously benefits deaf audience members, it allows everyone in the audience the chance to better appreciate the wonderful manglings of the language that many of the characters employ..."
Quoted from 'Why surtitles in an English play can work for everyone', The Guardian Blog, Sept 2008
How and why did they decide to embark upon this exploration? Firstly, Sophie is deaf herself and comes from a deaf family; secondly, Sophie’s work is intensely text rich and layered, building from character monologues. The use of captioning ensures her work can reach her audiences, and that all can appreciate the verbal gymnastics at play between her characters. But this was only the starting point. From here, the company was able to recognize the impact on audiences – all audiences – who enjoyed the visual spectacle and additional understanding that the immersive captioning experience brought, feeding in elements of popular culture such as comic style graphics, emotions, and descriptive fonts.
The use of projected text within performance isn’t new, and in an access sense, isn’t just linked to reaching deaf audiences. Australian company Back to Back often uses captioning to ensure that their performers can be clearly understood. They work with learning disabled actors, some of whom have distinctive speech patterns. Seeing one of their pieces - Food Court - on the huge stage at the Barbican, the beautiful and stylised captioning perfectly matched the performance, adding to the emotional power of the work. It also had the added benefit of proving the professionalism and caliber of the learning disabled performers involved to those who might question their validity; not a line was missed or incorrect unless intentionally so. The technique added a new dimension to the final stages of the piece - where an actor tries to recite a piece under great emotional stress:
"Finally, as The Necks build in intensity and waves of sound patterns shake the stage, she struggles alone as she speaks an excerpt from The Tempest being projected onto the front screen, Caliban: The isle is full of noises…
At first trying to catch up with the scrambling letters, then overtaking them and making them her own. It is an extraordinary and cathartic finish..."
Quote from a review from The Perf, June 2009
Theatre is primarily about communication, and in this piece the use of captions is simply one more tool through which the story is told, the message reinforced.
This kind of creative exploration is not simply a new phenomena. When I was undertaking research in the mid 1980’s, I came across an example of deaf theatre from the 1950's. In this piece, performed by deaf actors using American sign language, the voice over’s were provided on stage from hearing actors camouflaged as parts of the scenery - one was a portrait, one the standard lamp and another the bear skin rug on the floor. At the time I commented that this approach made perfect sense to me. As someone who is hearing impaired and loves theatre, it delighted me that such a witty and theatrical approach was being utilised. The difference then to now is about scope and scale. Back then, this piece was produced for audiences known to a single, local deaf club. Now, the audience enjoying such explorations is no longer so tightly defined.
What other companies have begun exploring this rich vein of creative expression? Red Ladder Theatre Company included sign language interpretation within all performances both a means of communication and a theatrical tool for a period under Artistic Director Rachel Feldburg (1988: The Best, Mike Kenny, 1989: Who's Breaking by Philip Osment, 1990: Breaking the Silence by Kate O’Reilly, 1992: Listen by Philip Osment) and also with her successor, Kully Thiarai (2006: Worlds Apart by Mick Martin) which considered ‘life, love, communication and difference’ and used multi-media, illustration, original sound and light design to express an autistic character.
And in 2006 OTTC (Oxfordshire Touring Theatre Company) toured a production of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood with a cast including Tim Gebbels and David Ellington - a blind actor and a deaf actor. Their employment, particularly David’s, impacted profoundly on the way in which the piece was developed, adding a new layer of language to the whole piece through the use of sign language interpretation on both stage and screen. Under Milk Wood is about language, about the how words feel and sound. Through adding sign into the mix, the director Brendan Murray was also able to explore how the words look when shown visually, deepening and revealing the work still further. For him as a director, the addition of sign was a rich seam of artistic exploration, expanding and enhancing the meaning, layering the theatricality of the piece and proving an inescapable part of the aesthetic of the production – enjoyed as much by hearing as deaf audience members.
Following in OTTC’s footsteps, in 2011 Forest Forge Theatre Company toured peeling. This piece, written by Kaite O'Reilly for Graeae interweaves live theatre, audio description and sign language within the script itself. Like OTTC, Forest Forge is a professional small scale company that focuses on rural touring; not the expected location for a piece focusing on three disabled actresses who are waiting backstage to appear in a version of The Trojan Women.
It is clear that the aesthetic use of access techniques is spreading out – deepening, adding, enhancing both meaning and form. It has moved on from being simply about access, to something that is much more central, more vital, more theatrical. Performance is about communication – and the creative integration of elements such as audio description, sign language and captioning provide fantastic opportunities to extend the impact of both visual and auditory elements on stage in a multitude of ways.
It will be interesting to see how this develops from this point in time onwards – will the current financial pressure on the arts sector see more co-productions – where one company can learn from another in relation to the ways in which creative access is used? Or will the new pressure on the bottom line see audience access marginalized, and with it, a stemming of further developments in creatively meeting that need whilst simultaneously developing access as a theatrical form?