Writer, performer and interpreter Sue MacLaine (creator of Can I Start Again Please) and Shelley Hastings (Senior Producer at Battersea Arts Centre) discuss holistic approaches to access, the importance of privacy when developing ideas and unlocking the topography of theatre buildings for Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Blind visitors.
What does access in theatre mean to you?
Sue: Words can carry many meanings dependent on context, dependent on use, dependent on intention. Access to me can mean ‘being allowed in’ or it can mean ‘engagement, involvement and being part of the rest of the world with the disabilities one has’.
Shelley: I agree with Sue that it depends on the context you are asking it, we have had lots of problems with physical access to our building as it is an old town hall, but as some of the capital works are coming to an end we are about to have a lot better physical access – a lift to all floors and better ramps into our building as well an accessible office, artist bedroom and bathroom. In order to improve access I think it is necessary to look holistically across everything we do and look at how people engage with us, from jobs in the organisation to making work here to experiencing the work.
What are some of the obstructions in theatre that need to be addressed?
Sue: The obstructions in theatre are dependent on how ‘access’ is defined within an organisation and how that definition is then used to create and support mission statements. If the first meaning (as given previously) is used then the obstructions (and solution ideas) will be based on physical space; ramps, hearing loops, low counters, lifts. If the second meaning is used then the obstructions may manifest through the (still) powerful influence of colonialism and patronage, so access becomes one-way with an assumption of who ‘access’ is for rather than a shared experience with shared benefit.
Shelley: I think one of the obstructions is that often access is just thought about in physical terms or conventional interpretation when actually it is about so much more than that. Access needs to be looked at throughout every area of an organisation so that good practice and learning becomes part of its makeup. At Battersea Arts Centre we have worked a lot with Jess Thom of Touretteshero, who is a brilliant leader in this area. We are currently working with Jess to think about how access can be part of our business planning on all levels.
How can integration and collaboration be better encouraged with deaf and hard of hearing performers, collaborators and audiences?
Sue: To answer the question about collaboration on a practical level; by taking into account that any conversation or communication that requires interpretation takes longer and that the organising of interpreters needs to happen well in advance of the project or conversation. That is British Sign Language users. I have less knowledge of people who are hard of hearing but I know that any environment where sound bounces makes it very difficult to utilise hearing aids and so booking Speech to Text operators or Lip speakers may be necessary. In both of these examples time is hugely important; time to plan, time to fail, time to allow conversations to emerge, time to allow the agenda to be set, time to have breaks, time to reflect, time to be able to adapt, time so that no one has to be ram-rollered.
Integration artistically and integration as a partner to ‘access’ are very different. I have a problem with the word integration due to its links with colonialism and therefore ‘integration’ is about eradication. I think it can be better encouraged by not encouraging it; allow artists, writers, actors who have been, and continue to be, excluded set their own terms of engagement and that may mean not integrating and it may mean that the host venue doesn’t gain any learning from the experience. Sometimes new partnerships, collaborations, ways of working are over-burdened with outcomes. Sometimes people need time and privacy and the supported right to be separate to enable a perspective to be discovered.
Shelley: I felt really inspired by the way Can I start Again Please works on so many levels and in different ways for its audience. When I saw it in Edinburgh I was part of a mix of deaf and hearing audience members and the energy and ripples of reaction as the complexities of what was being communicated were revealed was a unique experience for me in the theatre. Recently at the Genesis in Stepney Green I had a similar experience at The Deaf &Hearing Ensemble scratch night where the audiences and artists were a mix of BSL users, hard of hearing and hearing. It felt exciting to be with an audience where different interpretations to the work happen all around you. After programming this show and talking with Sue we are now working with The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble as part of a Freshly Scratched night happening on 6th July.
What do you think are some of the practical steps that need to be taken by Battersea Arts Centre to open up its building and its programme to more audiences with disabilities?
Sue: Having a room that is ‘soft’ would be helpful and by that I mean one that allows for the light to be more diffuse and therefore more restful on the eyes; sign language is a visual language and so eye tiredness and visual fatigue is an issue. One where there is material, be that curtains or carpet or lined walls that make the sound less bouncy but that is not visually noisy; no big patterns, no cacophony of art work or posters on the walls. Thinking about colour contrast throughout the building for people who are visually impaired and/or deafblind is important. Colour contrast can be hugely helpful in improving the capacity of someone who is visually impaired to orientate the topography of a building. Having a model version of the building available for looking and touching and exploring can provide a way into understanding the topography of the building.
What are some of the ways you think contemporary theatre needs to be opened up?
Sue: I think pre-show talks are excellent and can offer an opportunity for audiences to gain an insight into the conceptual thinking of the work which would include cultural norms embedded in the work that may be presumed (by the maker) to be universally shared and understood.
Shelley: At a scratch by Raymond Antrobus, a hard of hearing performer who is working with BSL interpreters and captioning in a creative way as part of his process, I spoke with his director about the lack of BSL users in the audience and how to reach them. She thought that there needed to be an app that lists all BSL interpreted performance on across a particular area and in real time. If this doesn’t exist already it should. I don’t have much knowledge about what is already out there but I think digital technology can help find ways of both reaching audiences and creative ways of captioning or audio describing.
Can I Start Again Please plays at Battersea Arts Centre from 6-18 June.