28 September 2018

Accessible theatre: 5 amazing ways to enjoy a night out

Going to the theatre is special. Whether it’s to see a colourful musical, the latest smash-hit play or a festive family pantomime, these are treats that we should all be able to enjoy. Having a physical, sensory or mental disability does not mean you cannot experience the thrill of live performance. Did you know that theatres across the UK offer a selection of options to make their shows accessible to all? Here’s how it’s done…

photo of theatre interior

Please take your seats…Audio Description

As a blind or visually impaired patron, hearing the actors’ lines may only be half the picture. To truly appreciate the spectacle of a live performance you need to know more…to understand what the setting and costumes look like, to be able to follow who’s who on stage, and to be a party to subtleties like facial expressions or visual gags. Missing out on these important visual elements could diminish the overall meaning and enjoyment of a show. Audio Description fills in these blanks to provide a fuller and more satisfying experience. Trained describers with prior knowledge of the performance are placed in a suitable space in the theatre and talk through what is happening on stage. The blind or visually impaired patron is fitted with a headset or earpiece prior to curtain up, and can then enjoy the live speech on stage along with the added dialogue to ensure they don’t miss a thing.

Enter stage right…BSL Interpreting and Captioning

We are probably all familiar with the idea of a BSL (British Sign Language) interpreter as this is something we may have seen live ourselves or sometimes noted in the corner of our TV screens. For a deaf, deafened or hard of hearing patron who uses sign language, a BSL performance offers a way to add dialogue to the action, with a trained professional side of the stage working in harmony with the actors to physically perform words, lyrics, and actions.

Captioning is another option, where a screen displays dialogue as it’s spoken or sung, much like subtitles at the cinema, as well as adding any extra information like sound effects on or off-stage, who is speaking, and other important audible cues. Two great ways to add sound to vision!

Enter stage left…Relaxed Performance

So, what if you have a disability or disorder that makes you sensitive to light or noise? Or makes it hard for you to sit and concentrate for long periods of time? Or means you want to enjoy the theatre but need a less formal setting? Well, Relaxed Performances address all of these issues and more. Designed to be mindful of and sensitive to people with autistic spectrum conditions and those who are learning disabled, whilst encouraging inclusivity (relaxed shows are often open for all so families can come together with small children etc.) these performances take the experience of visiting the theatre down a notch.

On-stage lighting may be more moderate and the house lights can be on; the sound is toned down and loud bangs or crashes are removed; the formal atmosphere of a traditional theatre experience is lessened with patrons being free to come and go as they please; talking is permitted throughout; staff are trained to be aware of the audience’s needs, and actors may interact more freely with the audience. A truly wonderful way to make theatre available for a wider audience.

Take a bow….Dementia Friendly Performance

Facts surrounding dementia in our society are startling, Statistics from the Alzheimers Society state that there are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today with that figure set to rise dramatically in the decades to come. Many theatres are addressing this issue to ensure they are ‘dementia friendly’ and can include this ever-growing population in their customer base. In some cases ‘dementia friendly’ comes under the Relaxed Performance umbrella but there are also theatres out there offering whole programmes of workshops, events, and shows specifically designed for dementia sufferers and their families or carers. What a wonderful way to bring some much-needed respite and joy to this section of our community.

It’s behind you!…and finally…

I’m going to cheat a bit here and have a selection of items as number 5 because I don’t want to leave anything out! Aside from the 4 fantastic ways to experience a show listed above, there are a number of other things theatres can do to make themselves accessible to their customers. These include; Touch Tours – where blind or visually impaired people have the opportunity to visit the stage and sets before the performance to bring to life what they are about to see; hearing enhancement headsets and induction loops (for people using a hearing aid) may be available to amplify sound in the auditorium; guide dogs are often welcome with prior arrangement; carers sometimes go free or receive concessionary prices; plus, in terms of building access, theatres can offer a range of adjustments to ensure their space meets all of their patrons needs.

Here at A2i, we work for several wonderful theatres up and down the country, producing Braille, large print, and audio versions of their brochures for their print disabled audience members. It is inspiring to see the great work they do around accessibility. We’d like to give them all a standing ovation!

Photo by Vlah Dumitru on Unsplash

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