OPINION: Can anybody hear me? Theatre & the inclusivity of disabled performers

09 May
Posted in: Get Social
Author: Pippa Stacey
Image copyright David Monteith-Hodge / Photographise

Going to the theatre is an experience enjoyed and cherished by many families, especially during the festive season. However, like many other recreational activities, theatres and shows often fail to be wholly inclusive of disabled people. Although the accessibility of venues has now begun to increase, the content and suitability of productions for those with specific impairments continue to exclude disabled people from enjoying these shows for themselves. Guest blogger Pippa Stacey, one of this year's Olivier Awards Be Inspired Champions, explains...

However, one theatrical company with inclusivity at its heart is The Deaf and Hearing Ensemble. Featuring cast members with and without hearing impairments, the company’s latest creation, PEOPLE OF THE EYE, has been hailed a roaring success by both deaf and hearing audience members. Based on writer Erin Siobhan Hutching’s own experiences of growing up with her deaf sister, the play tells of the ‘complex love that binds families together’, as well as exploring the ‘idea of culture versus disability’. Not only does the show’s engaging storyline entertain the non-disabled audience, but the attention to special effects and stunning visuals creates an immersive experience that can be particularly enjoyed and appreciated by hearing-impaired audience members too.

The ensemble’s unique creative process sees accessibility put at the heart of the production, rather than falling into the trap of only addressing access issues as an afterthought. Writer Erin finds that this “makes the work so much more interesting, then it brings layers to the narrative… all of the decisions we make tie with access”. However, she is keen not to fall into the ‘tick-box’ approach to accessibility, where needs are only met to satisfy existing criteria for inclusiveness: “I think that’s not really exploring the depth of how we can make sure our theatrical environment and all aspects of our society are welcomed and welcoming for everybody”.

Whilst the show was primarily designed with hearing-impaired audiences in mind, universal accessibility is also of utmost importance to The DH Ensemble. Creative-visual lighting effects play an integral role in making People of The Eye such an immersive experience for the audience, and yet Erin recognises that these effects could act as a barrier to those with other conditions. The production team therefore take precautions to ensure audiences are aware of these effects beforehand, by sending out resources including descriptions of lighting effects and images of the projections used to those who request them. As well as this, measures are always taken to ensure venues where the show is performed are wheelchair-accessible.

As well as issues within creating shows accessible for disabled audiences, another pressing matter within the theatre world is ensuring the inclusion of disabled performers. As the ensemble is made up of both deaf and hearing actors, Erin acknowledges the thorough preparations made ahead of their recently concluded UK tour, and the need for meaningful communication with the performers.

“What one person wants or needs could be very different to another”, she says, “I think it’s important to make sure everybody in the team feels really comfortable”. One of the steps taken led to the inclusion of an interpreter, who also travelled as part of the creative team. “Her responsibility was to manage any volunteers we had. We’d try to get a couple for each venue who knew sign language for the bar and the box office, or if we didn’t she’d be out there herself, making sure everybody had a pleasant time and felt welcome when they got there”.

The isolation that disabled people continue to face in our society is something that Erin is all too aware of. “Deafness isn’t necessarily a disability that cuts you off physically or intellectually, but it’s isolation that can really affect people who have hearing loss, because it’s that inability to communicate in a social situation that can be really isolating”. The challenges raised by isolation have also led to this being one of the central themes of People of the Eye. “What I’d like people to take away is just a little bit of thought about the people that they meet and their experience”, Erin tells us, “a little bit of empathy about the way that other people live their lives”.

People of The Eye has received strongly positive feedback from theatre reviewers and audience members alike, and the ensemble have plenty of plans for developing their work in the future, namely in order to create works suitable and entertaining for deaf and disabled children. Although accessible theatre continues to slowly improve, it is the innovative work of companies such as The Deaf Hearing Ensemble that’s really making strides in helping to address isolation and ensure that theatre really is becoming more inclusive for all.

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Written By - Pippa Stacey (@lifeofpippa