Accessibility at Trafalgar Studios: Insanity at the Hothouse

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Last night I went to see a performance of ‘The Hothouse’ at the Trafalgar Studios in London with my wife Joanna, which had live captioning by STAGETEXT.

I found out that this play was going to be on a while ago, and I really wanted to see it. However, I saw that there wasn’t going to be a captioned performance of it, so I was really disappointed. I contacted STAGETEXT and told them, and they gave me the contact details of Laura, the Deputy Theatre Manager of the Trafalgar Studios. I contacted her to ask if they could put on a captioned performance. I told her how much I had really enjoyed seeing ‘Macbeth’ there a few months earlier by the same director Jamie Lloyd. To my great delight, she e-mailed me back recently to tell me that there would now be a captioned performance by STAGETEXT, so I booked two tickets straightaway.

I think that if you really want to see a particular play but you feel you can’t because you feel it’s not accessible to you, it’s definitely worth contacting the theatre directly and telling them. It’s only through letting them know that you want to see it that theatres around the country will take notice and make more of their performances accessible to other deaf/deafened and hard of hearing people like me.

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Before the performance, Joanna and I met Laura from Trafalgar Studios and had a chat at the bar. She was really friendly and welcoming. I thanked her for putting on the captioned performance and I told her that I really loved the Trafalgar Studios as it is cosy and intimate and lends itself to captioned performances brilliantly. She explained that they really wanted to make their theatres accessible to all, regardless of peoples’ hearing loss, visual impairment or other disabilities. She said that they want people to tell them if they have access problems so they can make their performances more accessible. She also said that they have ‘access champions’ to help promote greater accessibility and inclusion within all their theatres, which I thought was great.

Once inside the theatre, it was packed. We had really good seats in the middle and I could see the captioning unit clearly, which was above the stage.

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The play was written by Harold Pinter in the 1950s and is set in an unnamed state institution, referred to as a ‘rest home’, which is really a psychiatric unit. The patients have numbers instead of names and they are routinely abused and tortured by electronic shock treatments in appalling acts of cruelty and brutality. Despite this, the play is a very zany black comedy with constant moments of hilarity, and acting which reminded me of Monty Python or John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. The witty dialogue was so quick that at first I found it hard to keep up with the captioning, but I soon got used to it.

We met Alex, the captioner, during the interval and I told her that it must have been really difficult for her to keep up with the unbelievably quick dialogue, which was like a machine gun, but she was doing an amazing job.

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I thought the actors were brilliant, particularly since they were playing such neurotic, unhinged characters. Simon Russell Beale who played the main character Roote, the deranged ex-Colonel and tyrant who ran the institution, was superb. He seemed to become more psychotic and deluded as the story unfolded, while in contrast John Simm, who played his sidekick Gibbs, appeared cold, creepy and sinister.

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The supporting actors were equally brilliant. John Heffernan, who played the role of the cheeky, taunting subordinate Lush in his purple suit, was absolutely hilarious and reminded me of a sly Kenneth Williams. I couldn’t stop laughing in the scene where he was madly stuffing half a Christmas cake into his mouth after drinking copious amounts of whisky with Roote. This was one of the best scenes in the play.

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Behind all this mad farcical black humour, Pinter was trying to show that state-sanctioned torture and cruelty are inherently wrong and he was highlighting the dangers of uncontrolled authority, which is bound to come to a bitter end. He explained in an interview in 1982 that it was fantasy when he wrote it, but that it had become far more relevant as reality had overtaken it. It therefore has a deeply moral message.

The first captioned performance I saw since I lost my hearing was Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year. I was blown away by that experience. This is what encouraged me to go back to the theatre, as before, I wouldn’t have considered it as I thought it was no longer accessible to me. It is really great to go out and see these amazing plays. Trafalgar Studios is my favourite place to see plays in London. It is really unique as it is so intimate that you actually feel part of the action. It reminds me of another one of my passions, watching football, at an old smaller stadium such as West Ham’s Upton Park or Fulham’s Cottage, where you feel part of the game and the atmosphere is electric as you are so close to the players. This is totally different to the atmosphere in new big state-of-the art stadiums, where you feel like you are in a church.

I would recommend anyone to go and see a play at the brilliant Trafalgar Studios. I’m already looking forward to the next accessible play!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

War Horse well worth the wait

I had wanted to see War Horse since I first heard that it was being shown in the West End in 2009. It seemed like there were so many performances of it at the time that I never got round to seeing it as I thought that I could go and see it anytime.  Then in 2010 after I became deafened, I didn’t think that I would ever get to see it. I thought there would be no point going to see it as I wouldn’t be able to follow the story and it would no longer be accessible to me.

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I hadn’t really thought it about it again until I recently saw that there was to be a live captioned performance of it at the National Theatre by STAGETEXT, one of the few captioned performances there would be and I had to see it. I thought that finally, I would be able to see this play and enjoy it. I was very excited about this so when I tried to book tickets online via the National Theatre’s website, I was really disappointed to see that it was completely sold out apart from two seats available to the extreme left of the stalls, where I wouldn’t be able to see the captioning units.

Because I was so disappointed, I asked my wife to call the Box Office to double-check that there weren’t any other seats still available where we would be able to see the captioning. She spoke to the Box Office and they were very helpful. They told her that there was an NT access list for people like myself who may be deaf or hard of hearing, and that if I joined it, I would be able to buy tickets in the captioned area (which is in the stalls with excellent views of the captioning units) at reduced disabled rates. We filled in the form for the access list and waited to hear back from them.

A few days later, I was delighted to receive an email telling me that they had reserved me two tickets in the captioned area at the reduced rate, and they asked me to contact them to confirm and book the tickets. My wife called them back and booked the tickets over the phone. We were delighted. I’m lucky that my wife is hearing and that she can use the phone for me, otherwise it would be a lot harder to book the tickets as I don’t have a text phone and am heavily dependent on SMS messages and e-mails.

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We went to see the matinee performance this Saturday. When we arrived, we were really pleased to see that our seats were brilliant. They were in the stalls with an excellent view of the stage and both captioning units on either side of the stage. We noticed, however, that there were quite a few empty seats immediately beside us and in the row behind us. I thought that this was a shame because every other seat in the theatre was completely full, so I wondered if some people aren’t aware of the access list. To be honest, it is wonderful that people who are deaf or hard of hearing have the opportunity to see really brilliant plays in the capital like this at reduced rates via the access list, and I would recommend that more people get out and take advantage of this great opportunity to see really accessible plays.

It was truly amazing. The puppetry of the horses was absolutely incredible. It was so life-like and realistic. The story was really emotional. It was adapted from the original book by Michael Morpurgo, who was inspired by ‘a tarnished old oil painting of some unknown horse by a competent but anonymous artist’. The author had wanted to portray the horror and human tragedy of World War 1 through the eyes of a horse, as apart from the estimated 10 million people who had lost their lives in the War, there were also thousands of horses sent fighting in the Cavalry, who also lost their lives, but unlike their owners, they had no idea what was happening to them, and most of them were killed.

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The story is about the relationship between a boy, Albert Narracott, and his horse Joey, who he grows up with, becomes deeply attached to and trains. Then when the war starts in 1914, Albert’s father Ted sells Joey to the war and they become separated. Albert is heartbroken and runs away to France to find Joey.

During this time, Joey ends up being caught by the Germans and used by them to pull an ambulance cart and transport injured soldiers to hospital. There are many powerful scenes of Joey and other horses being used in battle and of the devastating impact of war and the tragic suffering and loss of thousands of human lives in the trenches at this time.

The horse puppets of Joey and Topthorn, the other puppet who works alongside Joey on the battlefields of France, are not only life-size but also incredibly realistic. Their bodies have skeletal bamboo frames and they are each operated by three people, who manage to show their emotions really well to make them believable. You can see them breathing and moving just like a real horse. For instance, their emotions are expressed through their ears twitching, their tails swishing and even their skin breathing. When they gallop and trot across the stage, you can almost believe that they are real as they are so expressive. This is because they have been painstakingly designed by the Handspring Puppet Company to seem as realistic and flexible as possible.

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The sets have also been very cleverly designed to capture the mood of the First World War and the visual imagery in the background of the stage was very creative and stimulating. It was inspired by artists from the First World War period, and it involved lots of drawings and images to illustrate the ideas of the story, from the rural Devon landscape at the beginning to the bloody battlefields of France.

I thought this play was absolutely incredible. Definitely one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time. The story was captivating and very emotional, the puppetry so realistic and life-like, and the live captioning by STAGETEXT was perfect. I’m so pleased I went to see it after all this time. It was well worth the wait. If you haven’t seen it yet, go and see it!

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/access/national-theatre-access-list

A Hearing Dog Day Afternoon

I have had a great day today. My wife Joanna and I spent a lovely afternoon at the Hearing Dogs Family Fun Day, held at their headquarters in the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside.

I was really looking forward to this event, and as we drove there with our Jack Russell terrier, Jake in the back, the sun was beating down on what was one of the hottest days of the year so far.

When we arrived at the event, I was really surprised at just how big their headquarters are. In addition to lots of fields, the site includes a farmhouse, puppy training facilities and training houses for the recipients of the hearing dogs to stay in and kennels.

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People is a charity, which was founded in 1982 by Dr Bruce Fogle MBE, a Canadian-born vet, (whose famous son is TV personality Ben Fogle) and Lady Wright of the RNID (now Action on Hearing Loss). They initially started training one dog, Lady, who was placed with recipient Eileen Sullivan. Demand for their services has grown every year, so in 1991 a second training centre was opened in the North of England and in 1992, Princess Anne accepted the invitation to become Patron. Since its beginning, Hearing Dogs has now created over 1,600 partnerships between hearing dogs and their recipients.

I chatted to lots of different people during the afternoon, who gave me further insights about Hearing Dogs and the amazing work that they do to help deaf people. I heard several people tell me how life-changing having a hearing dog was for them. I know myself from personal experience how isolated losing your hearing makes you feel, how you lose your confidence and how you don’t want to go out and socialise with other people.

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Hearing dogs receive a tremendous amount of specialised training from when they are puppies, until they are placed with a recipient, and even then, the recipient has to undergo further intensive training at Hearing Dogs’ headquarters with the dog to make sure the dog and owner are compatible.  There are only four breeds, which are selected to be suitable hearing dogs, and not every dog makes it through all the training. The dogs need to have the right temperament, balancing alertness and calmness. The ones that aren’t selected are found suitable homes with a member of the public. There are currently around 750 working dogs in the UK, but demand for them is much greater than the dogs available, so there is currently a five-year waiting list to receive one.

Hearing dogs are specially trained to alert deaf people to sounds such as the alarm clock, doorbell, telephone and smoke alarm going off. They are with their owners twenty-four hours a day, and provide them with life-changing help and support, so that they can carry on with their everyday lives feeling more confident and less isolated. Hearing dogs are also great companions.

I saw this in action during a demonstration involving a hearing dog and her trainer in the home. The demonstrator showed how when the alarm clock went off, the hearing dog woke up her owner, who was pretending to be asleep. Then they demonstrated how the dog alerted her owner when the timer on her cooker went off, and when the doorbell rang. Finally, they demonstrated how the dog lies down to signal potential danger when a smoke alarm went off, to tell her owner not to go into the kitchen as it could be dangerous. When I saw all this, I realised how incredibly well-trained these dogs really are.

ImageI don’t think my Jack Russell terrier would be any good at being a hearing dog, as he is far too excitable and feisty, but he has provided me with wonderful companionship and loyalty ever since I have had him. He also really helped me to rebuild my confidence and feel less isolated when I lost my hearing three years ago. It makes me feel happy just walking Jake everyday and I can appreciate how having a specially-trained hearing dog would feel like a real life-saver to many deaf people.

At the volunteers tent, my wife and I chatted to Victoria from Hearing Dogs, who spoke to us about the work that the volunteers do in helping to train the dogs. She was very helpful and delightful to meet. We also spoke to one of the Trustees of Hearing Dogs, who told us that he himself had a hearing dog , which had changed his life and made him feel more confident.  He also explained the application process to receive a hearing dog. Every effort is made to ensure that the recipient is matched with the right, compatible hearing dog, and the dog is trained to match the specific needs of their owner.

Later we met someone, who was a volunteer puppy trainer for Hearing Dogs. Her Labrador training puppy was adorable. She told us that training a puppy takes a lot of time and commitment, but that it was one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things she had ever done. Training the puppy had helped her immensely and it felt good to know that she was helping someone else, who really needed it.

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This event seemed to be really popular with lots of families wandering around taking part in the various activities and enjoying themselves in the warm sunshine.  There was face painting, ‘Doglympics’, a Roald Dahl museum in the marquee and a penalty shoot-out in the main field with some team members from Wycombe Wanderers. It also felt very quintessentially British, complete with fish and chips and ice cream vans and a beer tent.

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I really enjoyed this event today and I met some really amazing people. The best part was finding out first-hand about how having a hearing dog really does change peoples’ lives. This must be so rewarding and inspiring to anyone involved with this fantastic charity.

If you’d like to find out more about Hearing Dogs, follow this link to their website:

http://www.hearingdogs.org.uk/

Kite Runner accessibility flying high at the Liverpool Playhouse

I was really pleased to see that the Kite Runner had been adapted into a play by Matthew Spangler from the original novel written by Khaled Hosseini. It was being shown at the Liverpool Playhouse with live in-house captioning at the weekend. This has been one of my wife Joanna’s favourite books since she read it when it was first published in 2003, and I really enjoyed watching the film when it was released in 2007.

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We were going up to visit my mother for the weekend, who lives not far away in Cheshire, so we thought it would be a great opportunity to see this play while we were there. It is on its first UK tour and it has received really good reviews. It would also be the first time that I had seen a captioned theatre performance outside of London. I was curious to find out how the story could be translated onto the stage, as it is such an epic ‘emotional rollercoaster’ of a novel, spanning three decades of the characters’ lives. The action takes place not only in Afghanistan but also the US, where the main character Amir and his father fled to as refugees.

Joanna and I arrived in Liverpool off the train on a warm Saturday afternoon. It felt like a breath of fresh air to get out of the humidity of London for a while. As we approached the Playhouse in the city centre, the sun was shining brightly on the billboard outside this iconic-looking theatre advertising the Kite Runner in large red letters.

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The theatre was fairly small and cosy inside. As we made our way to our seats in the dress circle, we noticed the  captioner at the back. We introduced ourselves, had a brief chat and she told us her name was Marion. We told her how much we were looking forward to it.

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We had really good seats in the front row of the dress circle with an excellent view of the captioning units on both sides of the stage. I’m now getting better at glancing at the captions while watching the actors move across the stage. The live captioning was perfect, particularly since there were lots of Afghan names and the dialogue was sometimes in Farsi or even Russian as well as English. I have to pay tribute to the skill and experience of Marion here. Joanna told me that reading the captioning made it easier for her to follow too as she had difficulty understanding some of the dialogue.

There was an Afghan drummer onstage before the performance began. He evoked the atmosphere of Afghanistan and he continued to beat his drums in the background throughout the play. The story of the Kite Runner is complex, with several interweaving stories and themes being played out over a period of thirty years. It begins in the Afghanistan of the mid-1970s, which had been peaceful for forty years, and moves through the time of the Soviet War from 1979-1989, then the time of the rebel Mujahideens, and more recently, the infamous Taliban.  The main story though, is all about guilt and redemption, and this message is developed throughout the play.

There were many powerful, emotional scenes, which I found harrowing to watch and heartbreaking, so they must have been very difficult to act. Despite this, I felt that the actors managed to play their characters in a very convincing and deeply moving way.

The main actor, Ben Turner, who played the central character Amir, had a really difficult role to play as he had to narrate the story and act the role of Amir as both a child and an adult. He never left the stage throughout the entire play. The role of his angelic, self-sacrificing best friend and servant, Hassan, was also brilliantly played by Farshid Rokey.

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There were also some wonderful scenes, which were beautiful to watch such as the kite flying scenes in Afghanistan, which were magical, and a really funny scene where Amir and his father were in San Francisco, having recently arrived from Afghanistan, and they were confronted by a huge culture shock of being surrounded by laid-back Californian hippies dancing and singing all around them.

I thought that this adaptation worked really well and it managed to convey a sense of gritty realism and powerful emotion on the stage. At the end, the cast received a warm northern reception as there was a full standing ovation from the audience, something not often seen in the theatres of London.

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We both really enjoyed seeing this performance in Liverpool and I hope that there will be more choice of captioned performances across the country in the future, so that many more deaf and hard of hearing people living outside of London can enjoy live captioned performances at the theatre. I am looking to find a captioned performance on soon in Manchester, so that I can go with my stepfather, who uses a hearing aid. He has never seen a live captioned performance before and was unaware of them until recently. I know that it would really improve his experience of going to the theatre, which he really loves.