February’s highlights: Access to the arts in action

Access in Action blog_Trafalgar set

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.

Access in Action blog_National office set

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.

Access in Action blog_Forest

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.

Access in Action blog_Van Gogh flowers

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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