photo by Gwennan Mair Jones [image description: a group of people sat in a circle around some joined together tables with notepads and pens on it. Everyone is looking and listening to Stephanie Back who is dressed in a yellow Taking Flight t-shirt.]After talking about reasons why theatre can be inaccessible in my last post it’s great to be able to talk about a positive initiative that’s encouraging theatres across Wales to be more accessible and inclusive in this post. I was lucky enough to sit in on a training session with Taking Flight theatre company at Theatr Clwyd recently and learn more about how they are helping theatre staff become D/ deaf aware.
Taking Flight is a company who describe themselves as “challenging perceptions of disabled and sensory impaired people in and through the arts. Creating accessible, integrated, exciting theatre with and for all.” To give an example, their upcoming touring show peeling will be performed by a cast of D/ deaf and disabled women and created by an all-female creative team with integrated BSL interpretation, captions and use of audio description for all performances. Which is great for disabled performers, theatre workers, audiences and disabled people who long to see themselves represented on stage.
The training course was led by Stephanie Back a Deaf (and fabulous) actress and facilitator and Elise Davison Taking Flight’s Artistic Director who can communicate in BSL (currently level 3) together they make a great double act, both in the comedic and teamwork terms. Their friendship and understanding bond made for a relaxed environment where everyone could communicate and learn in an effective way.
The idea for these workshops stemmed from when Steph and Elise would socialise together and notice small things that could make the world a more accessible and D/ deaf aware place. They’ve now been running these workshops for around a year in 8 different theatres.
To start with we discussed why some people might be nervous or have apprehensions about communicating with a D/ deaf person. These included being worried they wouldn’t be able to really help, or communicate effectively. Not knowing any sign language or not wanting to mess up any signing they do know. Not knowing what means of communication to use from sign, Makaton or lip reading. Others worried they were naturally quite expressive with their hands when they spoke and didn’t want to cause confusion. Whilst some didn’t want to come across patronising or condescending. All perfectly natural concerns.
Steph helped put minds at rest by saying that trying is the most important thing. Trying to help and be welcoming will always mean more than not trying at all. Later on in the session, she described it “as like being on a bridge” if the two parties in the conversation can find a way to meet in the middle the better.
Because of my own disability, I was a bit nervous about whether I’d be able to pick up any sign language and make my hands and brain cooperate. However, everything that Steph and Elise introduced us to was done at a comfortable pace and in a relaxed way. With them checking and supporting everyone and everyone in the room helping each other. Admittedly, after a couple of hours, I was not as quick to remember but that’s probably more my brain.
As well as learning some sign language we were taught about how to make communicating through lip reading clearer. Becoming more aware of not over-enunciating our words, keeping our faces unobstructed and looking at the person we’re conversing with so they can clearly see what we’re saying. In a theatre setting this could be particularly valuable for box office staff, where there might be a tendency to look down at a computer screen and talk at the same time.
The irony was that the workshop was being held in a room where the lighting was quite dark and there was lots of background noise, which would have made it difficult for someone who is hard of hearing. Even with the use of hearing aids or cochlear implants as these don’t just amplify speech but any sound.
One of the main purposes of the session and reasons why I wanted to take part, was to learn and ask (hopefully valuable) questions about what theatres can do that’s more than being able to greet D/ deaf and hard of hearing audiences. The biggest thing is to have BSL interpreted and Captioned performances. Having a choice of both is also great because different people have different preferences.
Steph personally prefers BSL interpreted performances because that is her language and she enjoys watching the expression in the interpretation and storytelling that she can’t get from a caption box. The problem, however, can lie in the positioning of the interpreter on the stage. I’ve seen it described as like being at a tennis match because you can constantly be turning your head to follow the interpreter and the action on stage, leading to frustration, confusion and a sore neck. Minimising this, using shadow signing or integrated sign language can make for a more accessible experience. As well as clearly marked seating plans that allow D/ deaf people to book seats with the best views of the interpreter.
Other initiatives to aid communication in theatres include clear signage, seating plans clearly displayed at box office and online, staff in customer-facing roles having a pen and paper to hand so that they can use written communication if necessary. The use of lights and vibrations to communicate with larger groups. And specialist fire alarms.
Putting access information on marketing materials, displaying that a show will have accessible performances and including the name of the BSL interpreter can really make a big difference. And collecting honest feedback from accessible performances is also a great gauge of how accessible things really are.
Looking around the room I could tell that this workshop had been a beneficial experience and given the attendees much food for thought. Part of what made it such a success was because it adopted a phrase that as a disabled person I’m very fond of which is, nothing about us, without us. Having Steph there to share her personal experiences and knowledge made a difference in evoking positive change. Coupled with the fact that she’s also such a confident, funny person who can lead a workshop and put people at ease about communicating with disabled people. They could understand that although she wasn’t born Deaf she’s not asking for pity, she simply wants to live in a world that’s more welcoming, accessible and where she feels as equal as everyone else. By running these workshops and spreading the “access joy” she can help others make small but oh so big changes to make that happen.
I’m excited to be able to share that focusing on accessibility and being more D/ deaf aware Theatr Clwyd now have a text to reserve service to help D/ deaf, hard of hearing and audience members who have conditions that talk over the phone difficult text your request to 07707 098 902. Which will make such a big difference. You can find details of all accessible shows on there in my linked accessible listings post below.
A big thank you to Elise Davison, Stephanie Back and Gwennan Mair at Theatr Clwyd for letting me join in and write this post. Please do get to see peeling if you can when it tours Welsh theatres in March and April. You can find all the tour dates and an audio version of the flyer on Taking Flight’s website www.takingflighttheatre.co.uk/ For information on how to book accessible tickets for venues in North Wales details are in my post Accessible theatre listings for North Wales Jan- May 2019
I’ll leave you now with some quotes from Steph and Elise which perfectly sum up the message of these D/ deaf awareness workshops and accessibility as a whole; “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all” and “never apologise for trying to be accessible.”
You can read about a great example of integrated BSL interpretation in my post Me, my mouth and I and a discussion about accessible theatre
- this post is not sponsored or affiliated with Taking Flight or Theatr Clwyd, simply sharing the access joy.