Making the arts accessible during a pandemic

Want to hear something ironic? This year I’ve seen more theatre than I did last year. And no, I didn’t cram in lots of shows in January and February, in fact I didn’t see any shows in those months. So how when theatres and arts venues have been closed since March and many have not been able to re-open their doors to audiences is this possible?

In one word…

Access.

Last year I couldn’t see the majority of the shows I’d booked to see because of being unable to sit upright for that length of time and therefore couldn’t attend, which of course meant having to miss out and losing a lot of money.

This year, although theatres and theatre workers have been hit hard by the pandemic, many have also shown that “the show must go on” spirit and asked how do we adapt our art for these times? How do we continue to share that magic and serve our communities? And how can people still access the arts even when our doors are closed?

During the first UK wide lockdown we saw the great response to Andrew Lloyd Webber and National Theatre streaming recordings of their older productions and Hamilton being on Disney+ (still not seen it, don’t hate me MT fans. I will watch it soon.)  Many other companies have also uploaded their own past productions online and therein lies the answer to “how have I seen more theatre this year?” As well as some productions from those already mentioned I’ve enjoyed trying to keep up my Welsh with Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, Tourette’s Hero‘s Not I being re-shown on BBC iplayer, Crip Tales which have also also recently been on iplayer, Graeae‘s Reasons to be Cheerful and I’m really looking forward to seeing Emilia. By streaming this work it’s meant that people have still been able to access theatre, to see shows they never got to see (perhaps because of geography, cost or access reasons,) re-watch a favourite or to watch a show for the first time (again maybe because of cost or maybe not thinking theatre was their thing.)

But streaming older work has not been the only response. Theatre workers have been getting creative and exploring new ways to produce work, rehearse, perform and reach audiences within the confines of lockdown, shielding and social distancing. Whilst the main question has been how can an audience access this work, some companies have also focused on how they can make this work as accessible and inclusive as possible. I included a great example of this in my last post, The Power of The Arts- why the arts are important with Hot Coals Productions and ScoolPoet’s A New Kind of Normal and today I want to share some more new work that have born access and inclusion in mind.

First Three Drops logo. A fish made up of shapes drawn in black. From left to right. A circle with 3 arch shapes on the outside of the circle to look like the fish's tail. Inside the circle is a turquoise cauldron turned on its side and a red witch's symbol. Next an eye shape coloured in white with a rabbit's face, two long rabbit ears stick up from outside the eye shape. Then another oval shape coloured in yellow with a red line drawing of a fish, outside the oval shape are yellow blob like shapes that make it look like sun rays. Next is a sideways tear drop shape to make the head of the fish with a yellow eye. Inside the tear drop is a red circle with a line drawing of a baby curled up asleep. Outside the red circle is turquoise like it's surrounded by water. All this is on a blue background with first three drops written in white beneath the fish's head and Taking Flight and RCT Theatres logos in the top left corner of the image.

Over the Summer Taking Flight Theatre Company alongside RCT Theatres developed, rehearsed and performed first three drops directed and written for Zoom by Elise Davison, Artistic Director and joint CEO of Taking Flight, which will again take to the screen in a virtual tour through Zoom this November and December. First three drops brings to life the legend of Taliesin, a Welsh folk tale “with shape-shifting, sorcery and silliness galore…recommended for little ones aged 2-9 and their grown-ups. A brand-new play performed [live] over Zoom. Our actors will be bringing the show to life directly from their homes to yours.”

In keeping with Taking Flight’s vision “where the theatre we make understands audiences of all backgrounds and invites and welcomes them in; where the field is level and everyone has equal access” the show will include BSL, Sign Supported English, live captions and integrated audio description to ensure as many people as possible can enjoy the show. Beth House Taking Flight’s Development Director and joint CEO says “there has been a lot of content released online that has been completely inaccessible to so many people, we’re really proud to have a digital show with access at its heart.”

An image from the show being performed on zoom. On screen are 3 smaller screens showing the actors Paul, Steph and Sam. In the background of each actor on the wall in their homes there are strings hung up with photographs hung on them.

First three drops is also an interactive experience with “a real party atmosphere and you can be part of the action throughout by dressing up, making your best sound effects and generally joining in the fun.” If you want to really join in be sure to check out first three drops resources and download masks to decorate, learn a song from the show and how to make origami animals and a shaker.

As the tour is virtual you can even choose which date suits you best, simply select your preferred date and time from the dates available from 19th- 29th of November and 5th of December and book through the theatre taking the bookings for that date. For a full list of dates and more information, as well as a BSL and audio flyer visit first three drops.

Looking to the future Davison states that she’s “interested in looking at how we can use the digital findings of the last few months to improve access to arts events. For many of us it’s the first time we have had to self-isolate or work from home but for others this is a not a new thing and won’t be something that changes after lockdown. For many people getting to or being in a theatre isn’t a possibility. What this time has provided is the opportunity to be able to explore ways of providing an equality of experience that isn’t just streaming, that goes some way to create an immersive event that can be enjoyed on a physical or digital platform or through a mixture of both.” Opening up the arts to places they often feel locked out of and reaching people whose passion for the arts has not faded but goes unfulfilled.

Should you wish to make a donation to help support Taking Flight’s work you can do so via their donation page.

Which brings me onto the next company I want to talk about, Little Cog a disabled- led theatre company who seek “to put the hidden stories and experiences of disabled people centre- stage” and part of their Staging Our Futures programme. A series of artistic commissions using the Arts Council Emergency Response Fund to ensure “disabled artists remain visible, connected and able to practice” and “to create the best possible opportunities to come together, to share ideas and to learn together.” Which is all the more important at the moment when disabled people feel less connected, potentially more isolated and disabled artists future in the arts is at greater risk.

In partnership with ARC Stockton and Northern Stage they also created digital work that can be viewed online with Funny Peculiar written and directed by Vici Wreford- Smith Little Cog’s founder and Artistic Director. It’s a “collection of four powerful, touching and often hilarious monologues giving Disabled women the voice to shout.” It stars Liz Carr, Mandy Colleran, Bea Webster and Vici Wreford- Smith and once again is filmed from their own homes, with rehearsals and direction done via Zoom. It shares the experiences of Zsa Zsa, Raquelle, Blanche and Cuba during lockdown “four disabled women locked down, locked in, shut up and shouted down. While the rest of the nation is in meltdown, it takes a lot to phase this quartet. The new terrain is worrying and frustrating but these women are prepared- perhaps they have waited for a moment like this their whole lives… These women are myth- busters giving their all to expose the lie of vulnerability.”

It is an important piece of representation for disabled people and disabled women in particular, sharing the lived experience of being a disabled person in general and during this pandemic. Vici shared that “it feels more important than ever that we ensure we are visible, given that recent figures have been released showing that disabled women are 11.9 times more likely to die in the current pandemic than other people. Terms like ‘vulnerable’ and ‘underlying health conditions’ have led to thinking that the deaths of certain groups of people are inevitable. Expected and accepted. Little Cog decided to challenge that belief and develop work that celebrated disabled women in their rich and complex glory.” Funny Peculiar challenges preconceived ideas of “the vulnerable” and depicts complex and powerful women, women who are valued members of society and the heart of their community, women who would be sadly missed, women who have “a lot of living to do yet.”

As a disabled woman I implore you to watch it, I need you to hear these stories, I need you to be in our corner as allies. But also I want you to watch it because it’s a beautiful, witty and moving piece of art.

In terms of accessibility viewers can select to watch it with captions, BSL interpretation or with audio description. Simply select which version you need and you’ll be directed to the appropriate film. You can do this by visiting Little Cog’s Funny Peculiar page. Once again viewing is completely free but should you wish to donate to Little Cog to support the work they do you can do so through Little Cog Paypal

Find out more about the work Little Cog have been doing to support disabled artists through this time and other artistic commissions they’ve been able to support at Staging Our Futures Commissions Showcase.

Finally, I want to share the work of Bamboozle Theatre Company and all they’ve been doing to entertain and connect with disabled children and their families. Bamboozle whose tag line is “creating possibilities for disabled children,” aim to deliver “magical, memorable, multi-sensory experiences for children and young people with moderate to profound learning difficulties as well as those with emotional and behavioural difficulties.”

A photo taken of Bamboozle's Down to Earth show. A woman and a little girl in an electric wheelchair sit outside in, in front of a wooden box full of vegetables as 2 land girls and the allotment owner perform. The land girls also have a tray of vegetables and the allotment owner is playing a guitar.
Photo credit: Matt Robinson 2020 photo used with permission
An image from Bamboozle's Down to Earth performed outdoors. There is a girl in an electric wheelchair sat between 2 adults, a man and a woman are helping the girl hold branches with big green leaves. They are sat in front of a wooden tray of vegetables. A land girl is also holding out a branch showing how to move the branches.
Photo credit: Matt Robinson 2020 photo used with permission

In late August and September they did a pilot socially distanced outdoor project called Down to Earth which evoked “the atmosphere of a WWII allotment site using multi-sensory mix of live music, puppetry, and movement.” Participants got to help the land girls pack food parcels, dance, shelter in a magical forest, taste honey made by the bees and even bury their hands and feet in the compost should they wish. Each performance was performed to 2 to 3 family bubbles to ensure social distancing and making the event as safe as possible. The cast also social distanced from one another and the audience. Other safety measures included, individually packaged props for each family bubble, regular cleaning and sanitising, using poles to move things closer to the audience. As well as using locations with facilities for disabled people and setting up a changing station with a bed and hoist, an important consideration which can often mean the difference between disabled people being able to attend somewhere or not. One parent said it was “unique, uplifting and entertaining. I think the way things were adapted was spot on and despite the social distancing was fully engaging.” And another said that it was “a lovely experience to bring us together in such strange times- safe, inclusive and such a pleasure.”

A photo from Bamboozle's Front of House performance. A group of 3 musicians are standing in front of microphones on stands singing and playing instruments while a child in a blue coat and ear defenders is holding hands with a lady in a green top and dancing together in front of the musicians.
Photo credit: Matt Robinson 2020 photo used with permission
The back of a man playing the guitar and singing into a microphone outside in a garden while a girl in a wheelchair covered in a blanket sits between a man and a woman indoors with the patio doors open watching the show.
Photo credit: Matt Robinson 2020 photo used with permission

Following on from this they went on to their Front of House project delivering 30 minute outdoor and socially distanced musical performances for learning disabled children and their families to their homes around Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. Allowing children and families “who might not have had access to such experiences during this difficult time, with many families confined to their homes, isolating and shielding while following the government’s guidelines.” Families got to work with the team to best plan the set up and what would work best and safest for their family and home. One parent said “my daughter absolutely loved the performance, which was truly unique and something she hadn’t experienced before. She loved the fact that the performance was taking place in her garden and so she didn’t have the anxiety she would normally experience going out to a venue.” Whilst another stated “it was something extremely special for my daughter as she has been shielding. It was a way of keeping connected to the things she loves through this tricky time. Her visual difficulties mean she struggles to access things via a screen so this was perfect for her.” Bamboozle hope to continue their Front of House project in the Spring.

With the Autumn weather setting in and further lockdowns these sessions are now taking place on Zoom and as it’s online it means they can cater to children from other areas of the country. There are limited places available for performances on the 28th November and 12th December. To find out more information and how to book go to their Musical Zooms page. Once again these are free but should you wish to support Bamboozle’s work you can do so on Bamboozle’s donate page.

The work that Bamboozle do producing theatre for disabled children, their families, carers and groups of disabled children is significant and precious because they make the arts accessible for those who often find traditional theatre inaccessible not just at present but in so called “normality” too. Whether that be due to lack of relaxed performances, no access to a changing places toilet or clean, private space to safely toilet and change, not enough room in a theatre for an electric or reclining wheelchair or other mobility or medical aid just to name a few reasons. Constantly shut out of places and told this isn’t for you or you can’t do that. Bamboozle and other companies like them defy that belief and say the arts are for you and they can bring such joy and be such a benefit.

Of course, there’s nothing quite like the magic of live theatre, or any other live arts. That sense of each performance being unique, for that audience only, something that cannot be repeated no matter how many shows there are in a run. The communion of an audience experiencing something play out before their eyes, laughing together, crying together. Something that cannot quite translate through a screen or by streaming. Being part of an audience is a privilege and one I’m sure many of us greatly miss or have taken for granted in the past. It’s a privilege not afforded to everyone.

So a big thank you to all the companies mentioned and the many other venues, companies and artists who have streamed past shows or experimented/ are experimenting with live or recorded digital work, outdoor performances and attempted indoor socially distanced performances when the guidelines allowed for giving us access to the arts by bringing them into our homes and lives during these unconventional times. Allowing us to still experience something together. An even bigger thank you to those striving to make this work accessible and ensuring disabled people continue to be represented, seen and heard in the arts, both now and in the near future.

Even in such difficult times the arts have shown how adaptable and resilient they are. However, it’s important that in the rush to get back and ensure audiences can access the arts once again that accessibility does not get cast aside. Access always needs to be included in these plans from the beginning. If being shut out from the arts this year has upset you and made you feel at a loss, imagine having that issue all or most of the time.

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