February’s highlights: Access to the arts in action

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I’ve been to see some great plays and art exhibitions this month, which have proved to me once again how important great access to theatre and the arts is to deaf and disabled people.

At the beginning of February I saw a performance of Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming, which was captioned by STAGETEXT at the Trafalgar Studios in London. This is a Harold Pinter play and while I found the actual play pretty weird and disturbing (which I think it’s meant to be as it’s supposed to be shocking and thought-provoking), the access provided by the captioning was excellent.

We were seated close to the action on stage and I could read the captions really clearly as the caption unit was placed directly above the stage. I didn’t have to keep moving my head from side to side or up and down like watching tennis at Wimbledon to read the text and follow the action at the same time.

This is one of my favourite places to watch a play. The tickets are only £15 each on a Monday night, so it makes it accessible and inclusive to all. The audience is also quite diverse, with young and older people alike all sitting together in a cosy, informal atmosphere. There’s no elitism about the place. It was packed and everyone looked like they were having a good time.

It was a shame that the hearing loop didn’t work, even after I swapped it for another one during the interval. But it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the performance in any way as I could still hear most of it and I could read the captions very well from where I was sitting.

My experience of watching Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the National Theatre about a week later was completely different, though. This was also captioned by STAGETEXT. When I first took my seat, I saw that there was a very elaborate stage set, designed like a large modern office, complete with desks, chairs and computers.

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Two caption units were placed to the far left and right of the stage, instead of above the stage. At first, I wondered why they had been put there because it made it quite difficult to follow the captions and the action on stage at the same time when I had to keep moving my head from the caption units at the sides to the stage where the actors were.

It all became clear after a while though when suddenly, the whole set, complete with upside down chairs and tables was lifted and suspended in the air above the stage. The chairs and tables, which were hanging from the ceiling, had been transformed into a forest and they were now meant to be trees. The rest of the action took place in this atmospheric, misty half office/forest setting.

The effect it gave was really creative and different. I’d never seen office furniture transformed into a forest before, but it seemed to work somehow. From an access point of view though, it wasn’t ideal as although I could see how it would be impossible to have put the caption units above the stage with such an elaborate set, it meant that anyone relying on the captions would either have to follow the captions or watch the action on-stage, as it was impossible to do both at the same time.

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Thankfully, the hearing loop was crystal clear, so I still managed to follow the dialogue and enjoy the play. The acting was brilliant, the plot really funny and the set design amazing. I also think that putting it in such a modern setting with the actors dressed in modern clothes made Shakespeare seem much more accessible and relevant to today’s audiences.

It made me wonder, though, whether theatre set designers should incorporate decisions about access right from the start when they are planning their sets. Later, I asked STAGETEXT about this and they told me that it can be difficult to find the perfect placement for the caption units across a range of different venues and complex sets. They said that their Theatre Programme Manager works directly with venues to ensure that the units are as close to the action as possible. But with theatres that have their own captioning equipment, they have less of a say where the units are positioned than they do if they are captioning it themselves.

Also, with some of the West End shows, STAGETEXT has to mark out an allocation of caption user seats as soon as the dates go on sale and this is often before there is even a set design in place for the production. This explains why sometimes the caption units are not in the ideal position for the caption users. I have to say though, that the majority of times I’ve seen a captioned performance, the experience has been excellent and fully accessible to me.

The access was really good at the exhibition I went to with my wife yesterday at the National Gallery too: http://bit.ly/1P9yDQw. It was a major exhibition of the early 19th Century French artist Delacroix’s paintings, whose work inspired the younger Impressionists and modern artists who came after him.

Access in Action blog_Delacroix National Gallery

I asked for a hearing loop for the recorded audio guide of the exhibition. The staff there were really helpful and made sure that the loop worked before I went into the exhibition. It was crystal clear and easy to use.

I didn’t really know much about Delacroix before or how important an artist and influence he was. The exhibition describes him as ‘The Father of Modern Art’ with a quote from Cézanne saying “We all paint in Delacroix’s language”. In the exhibition we saw original paintings by Delacroix alongside others by such famous artists as Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet and Cézanne, who had all been inspired by his works.

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What I love about these Delacroix paintings is that they are very colourful and it’s obvious that he painted them with a lot of passion and energy. He was one of the first artists to unleash his imagination and express on canvas the powerful emotions and ferocious intensity that were building up inside him like a volcano, whether it was in a still life painting, landscape, portrait, historical battle or religious scene.

I really loved his North African paintings in the exhibition, which showed scenes of rich luxuriant landscapes and architecture, bright colours, brilliant sunlight and exotic animals such as lions and tigers. These were all new and fascinating to a man such as him coming from Paris. The Delacroix exhibition is on until 22nd May so if you haven’t seen it yet, I would highly recommend you go and check it out!

Access in Action blog_Delacroix lion

 

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Shakespeare meets Two-Tone at the Chickenshed

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I recently went to see a brilliant, totally unique captioned performance of Shakespeare’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at the Chickenshed theatre in North London.

I’ve seen quite a few different productions of Shakespeare plays over the last couple of years, but this was unlike any other I’ve seen. It was set in the late 70s/early 80s period of Two-Tone British Ska music. The actors were dressed in black and white suits with porkpie hats and kept breaking into songs by The Specials and Madness, while hurling themselves frenetically and dancing across the stage.

Listening to the cast singing songs I knew well from when I was at school, such as ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Too Much Too Young’ took me back to the days of cheesy school discos or spinning around in a fairground Waltzer car singing my heart out to the sound of the Ska music being played in the background. Happy days!

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As soon as we arrived in the studio theatre, we were met with the cast walking around the small stage in front of us, shouting and demonstrating, holding up placards and protesting really noisily. They were interacting with the audience and seemed really fired up. I knew we would be in for something totally different that evening.

The studio theatre itself is really small and intimate. Being “in the round” and only seating about 40-50 people, it meant that I could see the faces of the audience clearly. They all looked delighted and surprised at the liveliness and energy of the actors running around the stage in a very physical way as the plot unfolded before them. Both the audience and the actors looked like they were having a lot of fun.

The plot is all about mistaken identity and the chaos and hilarity that results from that. It is a light Shakespearian comedy with the plot centred on two sets of twins separated at birth, who people confuse for the other one, and just to make it even more confusing, they each have manservants, who are also twins.

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There is also a merchant who has come in search of his son, who’s looking for his brother and mother, who were both lost at sea many years ago. To cut a long story short, the whole town called Ephesus ends up mistaking each for the other, but it all gets resolved in the end when the two sets of twins become reunited and the merchant finds his sons.

I was really grateful for the captioning done by the STAGETEXT captioner Bev so that I could follow the dialogue. I was there with my wife and some deaf and hard of hearing friends. We had great seats for reading the captions, which were directly opposite us. Even though there was a good hearing loop there I needed to read the captions too, especially because the dialogue was in old Shakespearian English and also because some of the characters had strong Caribbean accents, which were difficult to follow.

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My wife told me that she was following the captions too, because even though she can hear, she would have struggled to understand the language without the captions. I think many people in the audience found them helpful too.

The very young cast all gave brilliant performances. There were some great moments, such as the scene when the rather feisty, cherubic-looking Luciana, played by Sarah Connolly, was talking to her sister Adriana, played by Tessa Ryan, while doing her aerobics routine dressed in a 1980s Jane Fonda style leotard, tights and leg warmers with the song ‘Fame’ blaring out in the background.

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I love the friendly, relaxed atmosphere and the inclusive ethos at the Chickenshed. They train and support children and adults of all abilities and backgrounds to get involved in their company and productions. They don’t turn anyone down to become a part of their theatre company, which is totally inclusive to all, regardless of their ability. They also have a lot of volunteers, who willingly give up their time to help out and be part of the whole experience.

I have some deaf friends, who have been involved in the Chickenshed since they were small children. They have grown up with it playing a big role in their lives. It is like being part of a large extended family, which welcomes them and offers them hope and encouragement in a friendly, warm environment. It is theatre, which changes people’s lives by giving them the confidence and tools they need to go out into the world and pursue their dreams without being afraid of rejection or discrimination.

I left the theatre that night with a big smile on my face against the sound of the cast singing “Enjoy yourself” by The Specials ringing in my ears. Even the ushers were singing along to the catchy tune. It was brilliant that they had made Shakespeare so fun and accessible to all through this lively, Two-Tone production. It makes me want to dig out my old Specials and Madness albums and start reliving the soundtrack of my youth!

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