Making live theatre accessible to all needs careful planning says Kathryn McAuley
There is clear and compelling evidence that experiencing live theatre can be beneficial to everyone, promoting a sense of community and belonging, giving a space in which to express one’s emotions and reflecting the world around us. This experience is one that many SEN children, and carers of those children, have been denied historically, because of the standard social conventions as to how people should behave in theatres.
Arts Council England, who provide much of the funding for our large venues, have made ‘Inclusivity and Relevance’ one of their four Investment Principles, so there is now a clear directive to address this, from the highest level.
Accessibility in its widest sense supports social inclusion, and includes addressing financial, physical, digital and emotional barriers.
Relaxed performances are carefully created so that everyone can enjoy the wonder of theatre in an environment that is comfortable and supportive. This means the main lights may be partially up throughout and chill-out areas available before, during and after a performance. Changes will often be made to the production, such as reducing loud noises or removing strobe lighting and pyrotechnics. People can leave their seats, take a break or walk around, so they feel at home.
The front of house staff should receive specialist training in dealing with neurodiverse people and easy-read visual stories provide key information about the show and the building to enhance their experience and reduce anxiety.
Enabling audience members to interact as they choose—physically or verbally—promotes the idea that theatre is a place where one can express oneself. Seeing others’ reactions through direct experience and live interaction as part of an audience, helps develop social skills and understanding, so they feel part of a larger experience.
Deaf, disabled and visually impaired people can access productions through various services such as British Sign Language interpreted performances while captioned performances are beneficial for those who are hard of hearing or deaf. Audio described performances include a live, verbal commentary providing an explanation of the visual information that blind or partially sighted people may need in order to understand and enjoy the show, via a personal headset. Touch Tours enable people to explore the stage, set, props and costumes before attending the show.
In addition to tailoring our in-house productions to people’s needs, our busy Participation department regularly works in the community, and we tour shows to schools and community venues. As part of a wide-ranging programme of almost 60 outreach projects and over 58,000 engagements with people every year, we create and provide workshops, educational packs, digital resources, visual stories and other support materials to enhance the learning experience and to make Nottingham Playhouse shows and themes as accessible as possible. Our ‘Shine’ programme specifically targets young people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers, young people in hospital and at risk, and those living in challenging circumstances.
Representation on stage of as diverse a range of people as possible is important in helping those who are neurodivergent feel seen and recognised. Our recent production of Village Idiot, produced in conjunction with the Ramps on the Moon project which spotlights deaf and disabled creatives, saw two autistic actors and one with Down’s Syndrome on stage, and the play addressed many of the ways society infantilizes disabled people because of assumptions about disability. Tackling these issues is part of the responsibility of theatre to tell stories that reflect and expose, and Nottingham Playhouse is determined to continue to be inclusive in every sense, enriching the experience of theatre for all. Perhaps that’s why we are one of three finalists in UK Theatre’s Most Welcoming Theatre Award for 2023. We’ll find out in October if we’ve won or not.