Two very distinct moments.
My dad started to lose his hearing in his thirties. I was onstage in Richard the Third, and my parents were in the audience. I was having my big moment, in a death scene, and I looked out at my parents. My mum was leaning forward, really excited. My dad was also leaning forward, but he was straining to hear, with his hand cupped behind his ear. I thought that was so sad – he really wanted to be involved in the show.
My parents used to go to theatre all the time, but they hadn’t been in years. They’d lost something that they did together.
A few months later, a friend was performing in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. They had an integrated signer, who was a performer themselves, in costume, moving around with the actors. I thought it looked amazing, beautiful, that sign language was incredible.
I started investigating what other ways you could make theatre accessible.
I spent the first year of my PhD going to watch a lot of accessible theatre and talking to companies and theatres about accessibility, particularly in the West End.
Time and time again they said the reason they didn’t do more is because they couldn’t afford it, or didn’t have time. Smaller companies said there was no way they could do this.
I investigated it more, and I realised that what they were lacking was expertise. If you have the expertise and time to make your own resources, you don’t need money. Or, if you have money then you can buy in the expertise to create the resources, so you don’t need the time.
I’m part of an amateur theatre company, The Canterbury Players, as well. I want to bring more accessible resources to smaller-scale and amateur companies.
The business case for accessibility is pretty clear, so why are only 25% of theatres in the UK providing assisted performances? It’s because of the misconception they can’t do it because they don’t have the time or the money. They’re wrong, and I want to prove they can do it.
It came about because my friend Roanna Bond and I co-directed the play Talk by Mark Wilson at the Marlowe Theatre studio in 2017.
We enjoyed the process and really loved the play. Roanna’s a drama therapist and a psychotherapist and she understands the world the play’s set in [psychotherapy]. I’ve done more backstage work and understand the aesthetic, the movement and choreography and the accessibility side of things.
Life got in the way for a while but then we started talking about taking it to the Edinburgh Festival. We’re both very driven by the fact that theatre is a mirror to life. It gives you an opportunity to tell your story and understand other people’s stories. We wanted to help people who can be socially excluded from theatre, who don’t have a voice.
A lot of our associate artists are teachers so we talked about outreach and education. I’ve worked in business development, we talked about CPD workshops, training people to do more accessibility in their workplace.
We have a very talented musician in our company, and got excited about the possibilities of music as an access tool. We realised that we had something, so we formed the Parrot Theatre Company and registered it as a community interest company.
Part of my research is based on the belief that theatre isn’t just about the performance. It’s also the space, the information. There are three touch points at which the audience will interact with you: the marketing, the venue and the performance.
In Edinburgh, we have no control over our space, so we’re not claiming to be accessible for everybody. That’s why we’re focusing on hearing and sight loss. It’s just about knowing your audience and who you’re trying to reach.
With that in mind, we’re also doing things like character introduction videos, which are quite a standard thing that theatre companies create. If the characters give extra information about themselves, such as their height and what they’re wearing, the video is transformed from a marketing tool to an accessible marketing tool.
We also have a composer that we’re working with and he’s soundscaping the entire production. A visually impaired person can’t necessarily see that an actor’s facial expression has changed, or that the lighting has changed, that there’s more tension. A soundscape provides them with the opportunity to understand the atmosphere.
For now, we’re focusing on the deaf [with a lower case d] audience, generally people who consider themselves hard of hearing or hearing impaired. We didn’t have the budget to get a sign language interpreter for people who are Deaf [with a capital d], who are generally pre-lingually or profoundly deaf and use sign language as their main language. We want to get there eventually, and I’ve just completed my Level 1 sign language. It’s a beautiful, visual language with so much theatrical potential.
So we’re focusing on the deaf audience and will project captions above the actors at the venue. We have also worked with the playwright, Mark Wilson, to embed audio description techniques into the script, to provide more visual detail for blind or visually impaired audience members.
The main challenge has been the fundraising. We’ve calculated that we need around £8,000. We’re raised £3,500 through fundraising events and the Bank of Mum and Dad has been helping!
We also did a crowdfunding push through the University and we got matched funding through the Development Office. We also had a Kickstarter appeal. We’ll also get ticket sales but it’s difficult to know how many.
We’ve begged and borrowed to get everything that we need, while keeping the costs down. There’s been a lot of calling in favours in order to get things done. There’s a lot of goodwill – the actors aren’t being paid – and people want this to happen.
The company that runs the venue we’re performing in, C venues, upgraded us into their main, 55-seat venue for free. It’s in a good location right off the Royal Mile.
The access itself hasn’t cost us a penny, apart from the hire of the projector at the venue. We’ve done the captions ourselves and created a number of access resources for people to access from our website. We’re in the accessibility guide for Edinburgh Fringe, which will help in reaching more people.
Yes. My supervisors noticed I was taking time away from my PhD to focus on the play. So they suggested that I should make it count. This is the practical application of my ideas, which I can then reflect on.
I’d like it to be a starting point so I can dispel some myths, go to theatre companies and say here’s a shopping bag of solutions that you could use. Maybe that 25% [of theatre companies making accessible theatre] could just start to nudge up. If I could change some minds, that would be a big enough impact for me.
This is more about the audience impact.
What Roanna and I are most passionate about is getting people to tell their stories. Doing this show, we realised that being able to tell your story and seeing yourself represented onstage has such an impact on your wellbeing. It’s part of feeling included and having a touchpoint with someone, reducing the risk of social isolation.
We both wanted to tackle isolation with our different skill sets, from Roanna’s point of view mental health and from my point of view disability and accessibility. If people can’t, or don’t feel able to get to the performance spaces, then we take the theatre to them.