Emily Howlett: I’m on an arty power trip, and I want your thoughts on Theatre Accessibility

Posted on August 24, 2015


Recently, I wrote for the Chicken about the trials and triumphs of setting up my own business. PAD Productions aims to change attitudes towards Deaf artists, and create work that is accessible to Deaf audiences. In short, we are bored of the massive divide between Deaf and mainstream arts.

We have grown tired of seeing hugely talented Deaf (and disabled) artists flourishing within their own community, but being sidelined and ignored by the mainstream sectors. So, we are doing something about it.

We have already completed several projects, and grown larger as a company than we ever expected to achieve in a mere 18 months. PAD are now Associate Artists of In Good Company, a professional development programme delivered jointly by three East Midlands theatres, and were awarded a bursary to attend the National Rural Touring Forum.

We have consulted on work both nationally and internationally, including projects commissioned by Derby Feste and a brand new musical. The team have devised and delivered workshops and corporate training sessions, and, basically, we need a holiday, dammit.

No, really. I’m having a holiday. But, you know… I don’t like sand. I’m not great with planes and if the temperature is much over freezing, I’m going to burn like a tyre fire; slowly but surely, with irreversible damage and a distinctive smell.

So, instead of jetting off to somewhere I will hate, to sit among people I will hate, and write to you guys about how much I hate all these things I hate, I have been to see some stuffs. I have seen some theatre, I have seen some films and I have seen, unfortunately, some late night, drunken treasure hunts. And I’ve also taken part in quite a few debates, both in person and online, regarding accessibility.

In some ways, accessibility as a topic bores me. I am a little bit weary of the repetition. But I also accept that, by living life as a Deaf person, I’m one of the few people who actually know what Deaf people might need. And I’m lucky enough to now be in a position that, when I decide to yell about it, the world generally has to listen to me.

It can feel like ‘same old same old’, but it’s important to remind myself that even though this might be the 2500th time I’ve said, “Yes, there IS a difference between BSL and SSE” or, “Yes, you will need to think about where you seat a Deaf audience member” or, “Yes, I can put my pants on by myself”, it’s likely to be the first time this other person has asked the question. And they’re asking because they’re interested, and they want to learn. Which is wonderful for all involved, if everyone can just keep their pants on.

I have a lot of people, companies and individuals, who are asking PAD for help with making work that is accessible to all. In particular, there seems to have been a noticeable, collective shift towards trying to make theatre performances a better experience for Deaf audiences.

Whether this is through captioning, side-of-stage interpreting or integrated BSL, there are a lot of open minds out there who want to encourage and support our community.

And I don’t want to be the only one teaching them. I don’t mind doing the yelling, because I’m pretty great at that, with my huge hands and my huge mouth. But I don’t want to just give my opinions; we all know that one size definitely doesn’t fit all when it comes to Deafness. You can never expect the perfect solution for one person to also work for the next.

So, tell me. Tell me what works for you when you go to the theatre; do you like to see BSL integrated on stage? Do you prefer captions? Do the caption box placements matter to you? Would seeing a script beforehand make it easier to follow the action? Does lighting make a difference? Do you need to sit somewhere specific? Do you change your mind depending on the show?

I’m not even going to try and pretend I can please all of you, all of the time. I was recently given feedback from two Deaf audience members who attended a preview together; they wanted to have a BSL interpreter, plus an SSE interpreter, and seats that vibrated with the music, with all the house lights on for the duration of the show. And preferably captions for anything they missed. And, would a few free beers be too much to ask? (Yes.)

It’s not that I think they were wrong to give this feedback – far from it! I want to know ALL THE THINGS that would be useful.

If you think a dragon doing visual re-enactments in the foyer would be helpful then, dammit, say so. Just understand that, although people really are ready to do their best, it’s a process. And it’s unfortunately very limited by Real World considerations, like time, money and, y’know, the fact dragons don’t exist.

OK. Tell me the things. I’ve got a coffee, two notepads and 15 different colours of Sharpie.


By Emily Howlett. Emily is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer and teacher. Emily is co-director of PAD Productions and makes an awful lot of tea. And mess. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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