Sign language interpreters, subtitles, and audio descriptions are now a staple of media consumption in the modern world. They provide a crucial means of accessibility to those with hearing or visual impairments, opening up television and cinema to a wide and inclusive audience.
With this, people are increasingly in control of their content, and with a growing range of options, can adapt their media for their comfort and benefit with a single click. Some media, such as podcasts, do not have official accessibility options created and made available by the producers. Yet it is not uncommon to see teams of volunteers transcribe the original content and upload the scripts, complete with both the dialogue and descriptions of sounds, to independent blogs for people to access and follow along with, demonstrating the power of effort and empathy as they make their interests open to as many people as possible despite the apparent initial boundary.
Transcripts added to Instagram stories and Youtube videos are more common so that the deaf and hard of hearing can still interact with and understand videos, and image descriptions for people with visual disabilities can also be found on Instagram and Twitter, proving that users of social media are treating the creation of accessible media as integral to the creation of content in general.
We have a responsibility to make sure that our theatre spaces, front and back of house, are accessible and welcoming places to work, play and learn.
However, a lot of these previously mentioned forms of entertainment are created and edited some time before they are broadcast or posted to the internet, meaning that the process of ensuring that content is accessible can be done in advance and revised.
Therefore, how are live entertainment spaces making their shows inclusive for their audience in real time? With the rise of awareness around the need to adapt public spaces to be more accessible (and consequently normalise this), the theatre space must also be accessible and welcoming to patrons with disabilities. Nowadays, it seems as though the cultural concept of theatre is thankfully, although gradually, evolving away from old-fashioned, exclusive ideas regarding its audience demographic, and becoming a more open space in which stories from all across society are being represented and enjoyed by many. Alongside this developing attitude towards inclusivity it is reasonable to expect the theatre space to be simultaneously adapted so that anyone and everyone can engage with the latest performances, and that those who have similar experiences represented on stage are also able to take part as audience members.
I spoke with Kim McKenna from Capital Theatres in Edinburgh to find out more about how front of house and backstage teams ensure that their shows are accessible to disabled audience members.
YP: Hello! Could you please detail your responsibilities as part of ensuring accessibility at Capital Theatres Edinburgh?
KIM: My job tile is Front of House and Customer Service Manager. Within my job, my main duty is customer access. I liaise with the touring companies to provide Audio Describer, Interpreted and captioned performance, I also organise all the access providers to provide this service. I train the FOH staff in Disability Awareness.
YP: How do you collaborate with people from disabled communities in order to make sure that your methods are effective?
KIM: We work closely with Capital Theatre Group, Deaf Action and RNIB, we also welcome feedback from all organisations.
YP: The disabled community is diverse. How do you respond to the range of different requirements and make sure that as many people are as comfortable and catered to as possible?
KIM: We send out audio CDs of the brochure as well as large print and braille copies. We work closely with the Capital Theatre Group as well as RNIB and Deaf Action. We hold regular open mornings for hard of hearing patrons to attend to try out our infra-red system. We offer a box in the dress circle for anyone who requires extra space or anyone with addition requirements.
YP: What opportunities for outreach do you have in place for educating others on accessibility in theatre (for example: workshops or courses)?
KIM: We are part of a number of networks including UK Theatre that work to share knowledge and improve access facilities so that everyone can enjoy the same quality of experience when making a visit to the theatre. We also host regular Disabled Access Days where we invite visitors in to learn more about the access services we provide.
YP: What are your thoughts on how theatrical spaces are opening up opportunities for disabled communities to take part in performance or backstage work, not just as audience members?
KIM: We have a responsibility to make sure that our theatre spaces, front and back of house, are accessible and welcoming places to work, play and learn. We support all areas of equal opportunities, and work closely with producers of mixed arts and disability arts to ensure that our theatre programmes reflect the vibrancy and diversity of our audiences. In 2016, the Festival Theatre staged ‘The Awfey Huge Variety Show’, a performance created and performed by pupils at Edinburgh’s Special Schools. This is an example of how we are working to help create opportunities for artists of all backgrounds, ages and abilities to develop their work.
YP: What kind of improvements do you aim to work towards in the future in terms of accessibility?
KIM: We are always looking for ways to improve and we involved different people with different needs and always take on board their feedback. The King’s refurbishment in 2020 will really improve access and make the King’s Theatre accessible for everyone.
YP: What do you hope the experience of accessible theatre provides?
KIM: I hope it provides a theatre that people with accessible requirements feel comfortable to attend and if they have an additional need we would be able to support them. I hope they leave the theatre after experiencing a welcoming visit and would look forward to coming back too.
With the care and attention from Capital Theatres providing more audience members the opportunity to get involved in theatre, the future looks bright for increasing inclusivity in the world of performing arts!
PHOTOS: Greg Macvean, from Festival Theatre’s 2016 Open Access Day where people are given a tour of the different areas in the theatre.