Liz Porter reflects on Improbable Theatre’s Devoted & Disgruntled Open Space event, inviting theatre practitioners and venues to talk about prioritising access at Unicorn Theatre in London, January 2013
Let’s Really Talk about Access was the overarching theme, contributed by disabled actress Lisa Hammond, at the Devoted & Disgruntled (D&D) Open Space event at London’s Unicorn Theatre in mid-January 2013 and organised by Improbable in partnership with Unicorn.
Rather than just talking about the issue of access in today’s theatre world, Lisa wanted people to really consider it, become more active, and provoke others into action. In her email invitation she talked about feeling tired of the same boring events and coming away feeling angry. Lisa was concerned that the same things were discussed without anything changing and that the issues were dominated by those with a particular agenda. Open Space (OS) was presented as having a different approach - a place where participants set the agenda and follow it through.
Access and representation
While invitations were sent to disabled and Deaf performers and those working in both the disability and mainstream theatre sectors, I had concerns about the extent of their circulation and the short notice for some people to arrange appropriate access support. I strongly recommend that Improbable and Unicorn reflect on prioritising full access support information in any future invitations. Deaf and disabled people need to know what’s on offer and have this stated clearly at an early stage.
I was looking forward to attending as the Open Space concept appeals to me and I’ve enjoyed great conversations at two previous events. However, these events are by no means easy to access for someone who is visually impaired. In fact, the whole experience can be a bit of a nightmare. Having worked with Improbable, I hoped that some of my previous suggestions around visual impairment access would be considered, but I was disappointed. A large room with loads of print on the wall and bright lighting in a dark theatre wasn’t a good start.
It was evident from the noise that a sizeable group had gathered, including usual suspects from Graeae, Big Lounge Collective (see www.sophiepartridge.com) and Deafinitely Theatre company, plus a few faces I was able to recognise from organisations such as Arts Council England, Turtle Key Arts and Ovalhouse. But it was generally very hard to tell who was in the room. In fact, about 50 individuals and organisations were represented, including a few big names such as the Shakespeare Globe, Royal Shakespeare Company and The Barbican. Impairment representation seemed limited and I wasn’t aware of anyone who was learning disabled – a key group who need to have their voices heard.
Buzzing around like bees
Improbable’s Lee Simpson warmly opened the space, formed in a largish circle, by introducing the format and welcoming questions from the floor. We could propose discussions on any issue, becoming become actively engaged with discussions and leaving them as we wished. We could buzz around like bumble bees, gleaning and contributing bits of information to other sessions.
When all the questions had been suggested they would be put up on the wall presenting a packed timetable of sessions taking place during the two-day event. Each person who convened a session was asked to write up a report. These are now posted on the Devoted and Disgruntled website. These reports include active actions and readers are encouraged to engage with comments.
This event offered opportunities for a thought-provoking, engaging experience, offering chances to meet people who share common interests and to nurture positive links. Some excellent topics for discussion were posted on the board – plus some of the usual rants too. Undoubtedly there were some great conversations.
Of course, I posed the question around access for visually impaired people. But I did get the feeling of constantly banging on the same drum, and then being labeled as aggressive. It’s difficult to find the right approach. We did have a good discussion in my session and I have a couple of actions to follow up. The Bush wants to explore creative description, while the Globe is exploring ways to provide more pre-show descriptions as a matter of course.
There was a general consensus about finding a an email group for people to talk though and share access thoughts, questions, projects and so on and I hope this happens. As an accessible computer wasn’t available, I typed up my report afterwards (which you can find here on the Devoted and Disgruntled website) and am still working on the other two.
Putting ideas into action
It’s frustrating when access gets in the way of creativity. We imagined the day when you don’t have to talk about it, but for now, without proper access in place, the perpetual wheel turns. I did have a good conversation with Lee Simpson of Improbable about VI access.
Open Space can be dynamic and I would definitely participate again as I valued discussing the issues and making new connections. I sense a genuine will at Improbable to push their commitment towards general access forwards. We must wait to see if Let’s Really Talk about Access proves to be just another talking-shop or if it provokes access. Let’s hope the energy in the room has galvanised a new sense of purpose.
The next Devoted and Disgruntled event: Opening The Door : East Asians in British Theatre is at The Young Vic, London on is on 11 February 2013. Go to http://www.devotedanddisgruntled.com to find out more.