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Artistic director Kasia Senyszyn: It’s time for action, not excuses, on inclusive theatre

A scene from Parrot Theatre Company’s production of Mark Wilson’s play Talk, which will be performed at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. A scene from Parrot Theatre Company’s production of Mark Wilson’s play Talk, which will be performed at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe
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As Kasia Senyszyn takes accessible show Talk to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, she argues that making theatre truly open access is achievable on any budget and explains why the focus should be on equity, not equality

Where to start on accessible theatre and taking an accessible show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe? As the artistic director of an inclusive theatre company, first of all, I should point out that I hate the word ‘accessible’. It has come to mean ‘for disabled people’, which is exactly the opposite of what was intended. Accessible should mean ‘for everyone’.

I also hate that the term forces people to identify as either disabled or non-disabled. A friend recently told me she didn’t attend a show that she wanted to see because she could only go on the night they had a sign language interpreter. She thought it was only for D/deaf people and she would be taking up a needed seat. This was in a 1,200-seat theatre.

Tagging things as ‘accessible’ in a programme also implies only that work is accessible to everyone, which is often not the case. For example, dance is often accessible for D/deaf people. A poetry reading is often accessible for visually impaired people. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to tag something as ‘accessible’ because everything would be. For now, I suppose, we need it. But in reality, it’s just about being more explicit about what our work includes.

Only three short years ago, Jess Thom wrote in The Stage that less than 1% of Edinburgh Fringe performances were captioned or audio-described. With more than 11 million people in the UK with hearing or sight loss and only 25% of theatres scheduling accessible (also known as ‘assisted’) performances, we must do more to open our doors and be more welcoming. After all, according to government figures published in 2016, disabled people in the UK have a £249 billion annual spending power. That’s a lot of potential missed opportunities. Imagine if just a fraction of that were invested in the arts because more people could actually go.

Jess Thom: The fringe still has some way to go before it is truly open access

As part of my PhD research into making theatre more accessible, I have been speaking to venues and theatre companies about opening themselves up to a wider audience. The two excuses I hear most are: “We don’t have the money to be accessible” and “We don’t have the time to make adjustments”. I don’t buy it. I’m taking Talk by Mark Wilson to the Edinburgh Fringe this month and every performance is captioned for D/deaf audiences and we have embedded audio description into the script. All we’ve paid for, access-wise, is the projector hire, so other companies taking shows up to the fringe can do it too.

What the theatre companies really mean is that they don’t have the expertise. It’s true that if you don’t have the knowledge, then you need to have the money to buy it in or the time to learn it yourself. But since when were we afraid of investing time into our theatre? Besides, a lot of ‘access strategies’ are really just marketing tools in disguise. A touch tour is not much different to a backstage tour. A captioned trailer is exactly what you would use to promote your show on Facebook to capture the attention of the scrollers.

There are real things that theatre companies can do, even those on a budget like many at the fringe. A projector and PowerPoint can be used to do captions in your show. YouTube can add automatic captions to videos (though check it first because it sometimes comes up with some weird versions of what was said). An audio brochure or programme can be done with you recording the written material yourself on SoundCloud. An iPhone can film the route from the car park to the venue, or to make character videos so visually impaired people can hear the actors’ voices and get a picture of their costumes and physique.

Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies used the set-design box as a tactile model so visually impaired people could get a sense of the set. It’s really not that difficult. You just need the time to think about and do it. It can be tricky to be accessible for everyone, true, especially when a company might have no control over things such as the venue or the festival’s marketing.

Caption Reuben Johnson and Rachel Denning in Cosmic Scallies at Summehall, Edinburgh
Reuben Johnson and Rachel Denning in Cosmic Scallies at Summehall, Edinburgh

Considering adjustments for D/deaf or hard of hearing people by making things more visual, for instance, might limit the experience of blind or visually impaired people. Edinburgh Fringe venues are often not very accessible to people with limited mobility, and so although Talk will be accessible to people with hearing and sight loss, the same can’t be said for everyone, unfortunately. The key here is to be explicit about access information so that people can make their own minds up about what will and will not work for them.

The fringe has become better at this, and it promotes accessible productions separately, which is great for exposure. It has also helped to talk to the people we’re trying to reach – inviting feedback at a locally produced preview, for example. As the saying goes: “Nothing about us without us”, so asking audiences what their barriers and concerns are has been very important to us. I’ve also been lucky enough to get advice from companies I admire and that have been doing it well for years, such as Fingersmiths, Graeae and Ramps on the Moon. People generally want to help and there’s no point reinventing the wheel.

A mistake I see more often than not is that theatremakers only think about making the show accessible. Audiences have three touch points that need to be considered: the information, the show and the space. How do audiences find out about the what, when and how of the performance, about booking tickets and getting into the venue? Where do they park? Do they need to sit in particular seats to see captions? Simple things like capitalising each word in a hashtag or using the alt-text function for images can help visually impaired people using screen-reading software understand social media posts.

Trying to make everyone have the same experience is futile. It may seem like an admirable quest, but the truth is, every single audience member will have a different experience. That’s what we love about theatre, isn’t it? It changes every night and we all take something unique away from the experience.

So it isn’t equality we should be shooting for; it’s equity. Equity is about fairness. It’s about everyone having the same opportunity to access something, rather than everyone having the same thing. Not everyone needs or wants the same thing anyway. The point is to try. Try, fail, improve – but stop making excuses. They won’t wash anymore.

Kasia Senyszyn is a PhD student at the University of Kent and an artistic director of the Parrot Theatre Company, which will be performing Mark Wilson’s Talk at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from August 11-17. Every performance will be captioned and includes embedded audio-description techniques. Visit: parrot-theatre.co.uk


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