As Ramps on the Moon’s latest show Oliver Twist prepares to open at Leeds Playhouse, director Amy Leach tells Fergus Morgan how starting from scratch was key to making the production accessible to all
Amy Leach has some advice for her fellow directors: at some point in your career, make sure you stage a show for D/deaf and disabled audiences. It’s hard work, she says, but the challenges it poses will ensure you develop as a director.
“I’m a little bit addicted to this way of working now,” Leach says. “It’s definitely pushed me, trying to think whether every single moment of a show is clear for D/deaf people, whether it’s clear for blind people. The things that it brings out are extraordinary and my practice has been changed forever.”
Leach is currently in rehearsals for Oliver Twist at Leeds Playhouse, where she has been an associate director since 2017. The show is the latest to come out of Ramps on the Moon, a six-year scheme developed by a consortium of theatres that is attempting to affect a sea-change in access and opportunity for D/deaf and disabled artists and audiences.
At the heart of the project, Leach says, are the shows. The consortium is made up of six theatres – Leeds Playhouse, Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre, Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Sheffield Theatres – plus D/deaf and disabled company Graeae, and every year one theatre takes the lead in producing a show.
There have been three since the scheme started in 2014: The Government Inspector at Birmingham Rep in 2016, The Who’s Tommy at the New Wolsey in 2017, and Our Country’s Good at Nottingham Playhouse in 2018. Each show is wildly different, but they all have two things in common – they employ an integrated cast of disabled and non-disabled performers, and they are staged with a creative combination of audio description, captioning and British Sign Language that ensures they are accessible for all audiences.
‘Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Oliver and Bill Sikes are all deaf characters, so BSL is the dominant language of their gang’
“I remember watching Our Country’s Good at Nottingham Playhouse two years ago and thinking that I would love to have a go at directing something like that,” Leach says. “And I thought Oliver Twist would be a great story to tell because it’s a real ensemble piece with lots of brilliant characters. And everyone agreed.”
Leach knew that she had to start from scratch if she was going to make the show truly accessible to all. She commissioned playwright Bryony Lavery to produce a new adaptation that re-imagined characters with specific disabilities and wove sign-language and audio description throughout the script so D/deaf and visually impaired spectators could follow the story without resorting to texts or headsets.
“Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Oliver and Bill Sikes – they are all deaf characters,” Leach explains, “So BSL is the dominant language of their gang, and that’s really added a new flavour to the story that we all know and love.”
She continues: “The design of the set has also been thought about. It’s been designed in a strong, bold monochrome, so there is a stark, black-and-white contrast that we hope gives visually impaired audiences some sort of visual experience.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Stock control assistant at Tesco Metro in Blackburn.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Youth theatre assistant facilitator at Octagon Theatre Bolton.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s not a race. Take your time finding out what makes you unique as an artist, why you make what you make, and, most importantly, who you make it for. Try not to compare yourself to other people.
What is your next job?
I work full time at Leeds Playhouse, so once I’ve opened Oliver Twist I’ll be prepping new shows alongside planning, strategy and delivery of Furnace, our artistic development programme, as well as contributing to overall business planning.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mum, my youth theatre director Sue Reddish, and a production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Complicite I watched as a teenager in a freezing cold tent on the docks in Liverpool.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have done?
I think I might have been a teacher, or gone into psychology.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
When it came to the rehearsal room, Leach made sure she knew everyone’s access requirements early on. That was crucial, she says, in establishing an effective and enjoyable working environment.
“All that involves is asking the question: what are the conditions that you need to give your best?” she says. “And we’ve all got access needs, actually. We just aren’t always asked about them. I encouraged everyone, regardless of whether they identified as D/deaf and disabled or not, to think about what they needed. And it could be anything – something to sit on, something to project their lines so they don’t have to hold their script, whatever.”
The production has ended up with a lot of people in the room, she says. “We have a cast of 13. We have three BSL interpreters here all the time. We also have a BSL consultant who comes into help with the visual storytelling. We have an audio-description consultant to check everything makes sense for blind people. We have an associate director and two assistant directors. And we’ve got an access dog – Ronny the whippet. He’s in there as well, sleeping all day.”
‘Integrated access is just another layer of paints in our paint box as directors, and you can do a lot with them’
Leach says that the access considerations do not result in artistic compromise. In fact, the opposite is true: incorporating BSL, audio description and other access elements stretches a show creatively, and often results in deeper, more daring work.
“I’ve stopped thinking about integrated access as an add-on tool and started to think about it as a creative layer,” she says. “It’s just another layer of paints in our paint box as directors, and you can do a lot with them.”
The ultimate aim of Ramps on the Moon is to extend that attitude across the entire theatre industry. That doesn’t mean making every show as accessible as Oliver Twist, it just means opening people’s eyes to the creative potential of incorporating access. And, as Leach points out, it’s really not that hard.
“As directors and theatremakers, it just involves taking a step back and thinking,” she says. “Perhaps a show is already super-visual. Or perhaps it’s a really aural show already. Maybe it’s not such a massive change to tweak it so that it is totally accessible, visually or aurally.
“And even if you’re not going to go the whole hog like we are, there are little things you can change. Have you, as a director, ever listened to the audio description of your show? Is it in the right accent? Does it have the right tone?”
Thanks to shows such as Oliver Twist and initiatives like Ramps on the Moon, these conversations are starting to take place more regularly, which is hugely encouraging, according to Leach. There’s a long way to go, she says, but the tide is turning.
“I was having a conversation with Caroline Parker, the absolutely legendary deaf actress playing Fagin, and she was saying that it feels like the itch is starting to be scratched,” says Leach. “There’s more and more work being created with integrated access, more and more D/deaf and disabled actors are being cast in shows, and that’s just fantastic.”
Born: Blackburn, 1981
Training: Bolton Octagon Youth Theatre; English literature degree, Durham University; National Theatre Directors Course
• The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Unicorn Theatre, London (2015)
• Romeo and Juliet, Leeds Playhouse (2017)
• Hamlet, Leeds Playhouse (2019)
• There Are No Beginnings, Leeds Playhouse (2019)
Oliver Twist runs at Leeds Playhouse from February 28 to March 21, with press night on March 4