Access to all spaces: the creatives who open theater to people with disabilities | Phase

‘Small changes make the difference’
Shona Louise, Access Consultant

“I think a lot of people see me as an angry, disabled audience member,” says Shona Louise. “And that’s definitely not the case – we have something of value to give.” Louise’s experience as a disabled person is central to her work as an access consultant.

Louise works with theaters and advises on everything from the information they provide on their websites – vital to empowering people with disabilities to make informed decisions about what a venue or show will look like – to checking their access and determining whether wheelchair spaces have a good view of the stage.

It was Louise’s own love of theater that led to her freelance role, where she had experienced barriers first hand. She started writing reviews on her blog about shows from an access perspective and found that her work grew from there. “When people tell me about their experiences, then it also went into battle, because there just really aren’t enough people fighting for this problem,” she says.

She sees some improvements through her work. “I think there is such a lack of visibility for people with disabilities in the sector. And I often find that if I can just sit down and have a conversation with someone, it makes a huge difference.

“When renovations are underway, or a decision has to be made, it’s just someone saying, ‘Hey, does this affect people with disabilities? And if so, how do we solve that?’ And often it only makes minor changes along the way. We’re not going to overhaul the entire industry overnight, but it’s making those little changes that ultimately make a difference to the experience of a person with a disability.”

Bea Webster, Zoë McWhinney and Fifi Garfield at Everyday by Deafinitely Theater at the New Diorama, London, in 2022. Ben Glover was a video programmer on the production. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

‘It is no longer an addition’
Ben Glover, Creative Subtitler

Creative Subtitles integrates subtitles into the set, making it accessible to the deaf and improving the game. Ben Glover himself has seen the difference this makes.

Traditional closed captions are usually displayed on a screen at the side of the stage and are not available for every performance, meaning that deaf audiences are limited in when they can attend. With creative captioning, “because it’s part of the design process and that creative process that leads to a production, it’s going to be integrated into every show,” Glover says. “So it’s no longer an add-on – it’s always there now. So for me as a deaf person that means I can go to the theater anytime and see the show.”

Glover has been involved in a production from the very beginning, collaborating with set, sound and lighting design and figuring out where the captions go. The concept and visual theme for the piece help him determine font choices and locations, and whether to include a video element. With this, and the script, Glover plans whether different characters will have different fonts, or whether it’s the scene that will determine the style. “It’s creative, so it has to be exciting,” he says.

“I’m very interested in interactivity on stage,” he says. “And being deaf myself, it’s something I can be very passionate about and want to see happen in the theater industry.”

Glover says more companies are now embracing creative captioning, benefiting both deaf and hearing audiences. He set up the Creative Captioning site to showcase its potential.

“It’s about changing people’s thinking,” he says, “that every access should be integrated and considered from the start of every process.”

‘They should feel it exactly the same way as everyone else’
Nadine Beasley, Audio Writer

Beasley works with Kate Taylor-Davies as an audio description at Talking Sense. This provides a spoken narration of the action on stage for the visually impaired.

It’s a long process, including watching the show, taking notes about the costumes and set, talking to the director, and reading the program notes. Beasley then writes the introductory notes, which people with visual impairments can preview to give them a foundation in the piece. The theater then sends a video of the show, “and we pay attention to bits of things that are important that people with visual impairments won’t understand,” Beasley says.

On the day, Beasley will lead a touch tour so that those with visual impairments can feel the set and costumes, so that they become familiar with the stage layout. She then moves to a position – which could be a booth overlooking the stage or a dressing room where she can watch the action on a screen – where she reads her script live during the piece, which is delivered to the audience via headsets.

Making the blind and partially sighted feel part of the shared experience of a show is key to Beasley’s work. “It is very important that someone with a visual impairment experiences the play as organically as any other theater visitor. So that when they laugh, you make them laugh at the same time. They should feel it exactly the same way everyone else does.”

Ultimately, it is this belief that everyone should be able to enjoy watching a play that drives this work. That it doesn’t matter who you are, theater is a place for you.

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