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Susan Elkin: Accessible training in the industry has come a long way

Jenny Sealey. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, is patron of the RCS course. Photo: Cetti Roberts
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Our industry should be open to everyone with talent, irrespective of any disabilities. Access must also be available to people of all abilities as audience and community participants.

Many years ago, I saw a very low-budget theatre in education production of Hamlet, in which Polonius was played by a wheelchair user. It worked well, especially when it came to Hamlet’s “lug the guts” line, and he simply wheeled the dead man off. At the time, it felt like edgy and innovative casting. Today, it would hardly be commented on, because the industry really does seem to have marched positively towards equality of opportunity in a relatively short time. Of course, the job will probably never be done, but we’ve come a long way.

Last week I spoke to Claire Lamont, course leader for Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s new BA in performance in British Sign Language and English. It launched last autumn with eight students, all deaf or hard of hearing. Every class has a BSL interpreter in the room. Several of the five tutors, including Lamont, are fluent in BSL, and, where they aren’t, an interpreter works alongside them. Graduates plan to be performers, arts producers and creators of work, probably with portfolio careers.

Lamont tells me the new course is already changing the culture at RCS, where more and more students from all courses are attending optional classes in BSL. There will also be a module in it on other BA courses from this September. “We’re now seeing a huge increase in collaboration between students from different courses,” says Lamont, adding that there is also a ripple effect across Glasgow, where real inclusion is improving rapidly.

The course, unusually, will recruit on a three-year cycle, so the next group won’t start until September 2018. That gives Lamont and her colleagues plenty of time to work with the course partner, Solar Bear, to find and develop the right students. Of the present class, six have previously worked with Solar Bear, one comes from Ireland and one from Romania.

Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, is patron of the RCS course. Remember the Paralympics opening ceremony in 2012 that she co-directed with Bradley Hemmings and which spectacularly propelled disabled awareness forward? In this context, ‘enlightenment’ meant a great deal more than an 18th-century intellectual movement. A billion people around the world watched 73 deaf and disabled professional performers stun their audience. “This is our chance not to be hidden away any more,” said Sealey, deaf herself, before the ceremony.

I have also recently interviewed Tim Webb of Oily Cart, which specialises in imaginative, multi-sensory work for children with severe and multiple learning difficulties, and for those on the autistic spectrum. “Many of them don’t use speech,” says Webb, who shares his carefully developed methodology in the US and across Europe. “We have to train our actors to use other senses and sensations to engage the participating children. That’s why we do a lot of rocking in hammocks and trampoline work, for instance,” he says.

Then there’s Chickenshed, which has upheld its vision of a “society that celebrates diversity and enables every individual to flourish” for more than 40 years. No one is excluded from its youth theatre work and there is a well-established, inclusive degree course. This week, it entered a new phase, as new director Lou Stein – founder of London’s Gate Theatre – has plans to increase outreach and training. There is already a network of Chickensheds across the UK and two in Russia.

Accessibility is a bit of a weasel word. It means a great deal more than wheelchair ramps and parking space in theatre auditoriums, important as that is. It means doing everything possible to involve everyone at every level.

Training has to be the starting point. So let’s see more disabled-led and totally inclusive courses, projects and action very soon. We’ve progressed since I saw that Hamlet, but there’s still work to be done.

For the first time in many years, I did not attend Move It last month, despite The Stage being one of its sponsors. It used to be a useful networking event for people from all aspects of the performing arts, including schools, to meet the public. Now, the focus is almost entirely on dance – which is fine, but it isn’t the totality of performing arts.

I have lost count of the number of people from training and other organisations who, like me, opted out this year – or went, and now tell me they will not bother next time.

What we need is a really good trade show relating to drama, acting – including musical theatre – and screen training. Music Education Expo (at Olympia London in February) would do well to further develop this aspect of its event next year.

Read more from Susan Elkin

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