I’ll set the scene… It’s 2023, we’re fresh off the back of a global pandemic, heading straight into economic and financial ruin. Theatres closing down, entire drama schools shutting up shop (R.I.P ALRA), the elusive ACE funding application process becoming ever more… elusive. It’s hard to even see theatre at the moment, let alone make theatre!
As we have seen over the pandemic, when money and resources go low, disabled people are often the first to go (so much for ‘building back better…’). So when it costs so much even to get into a rehearsal space, we often find ourselves out of pocket when it comes to adding fancy bells and whistles such as BSL interpreters and providing audio description headsets. But don’t fear, for Access Worm is here! (That’s me, Emily Bold, I’m the Access Worm) And I’m here to spill the beans on a little something that I call ‘Guerilla Access’.
Oh, tell us access worm, what is ‘Guerilla Access’?
Well, I’m glad you asked! ‘Guerilla Access’ is a term I use to describe access done on the cheap. Fun fact: Access is never perfect, so don’t freak out thinking that it has to be! So Guerilla Access is about embracing the mess and trying things out, even if they feel clunky and you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Trying is at least better than not trying, and you’re never going to learn if you don’t try.
Great. But one small thing… What even is Access?
Sorry, I thought you already knew! Let’s backtrack… Access at its most basic level is permission. Access in theatre means allowing an audience to experience your work as fully as they can or wish to. For some audience members, this is already the case, but as theatre makers, it falls on us to make that the case for as many audience members as possible. It is at this point that I should also mention, that it is about the allowing the audience to experience as much as they can, not as much as you can. So don’t think you’re having to get d/Deaf audiences to hear the piece like a hearing audience, or visually impaired/blind audiences to see the piece like a sighted audience. That is not what access is, that’s just weird. Access is about working with your audience as they are!
Yes Mum. Sorry, didn’t mean to call you mum, Access Worm.
That’s okay, it kind of turned me on actually. :)
Have you got anything else you’d like to say about Access before you actually tell me what the things I can do are?
One more thing before we get into the list. Access is not just for audiences, it is for artists as well, but that can be a whole separate conversation if you like. Anyway, without further ado… here is the hotly anticipated list you’ve all been waiting for!
Google Slides for captioning.
Display on via a projector or monitor (your venue might already have the kit such as the monitor, or cables for this, so check with them before you ask to borrow from your mates)
Or, for a piece that’s in an unconventional space where a monitor or projector might not be possible, having someone operate captions over zoom and send a link for people to access a zoom call via their smart phone, for on-the-go Guerilla captioning. Just make sure you tell your audiences ahead of time so they can get the link and know to charge their devices well in advance. This also demands a good wifi connection.
Google Slides also affords you the opportunity to get jazzy with your captioning. Obviously keep to the basics, such as making sure your text is big, legible, with contrasting colours for ease of reading, but say for example you’re captioning a song, what can you do to capture the energy of the song in the captions? Do you want to add small drawings of the instruments playing instead of the instrumental? Do you want to use exciting colours? Allow yourself to play around with what you can do!
Integrated Audio Description
Rather than plainly telling your audience that your characters are stood outside, how can you give that impression creatively, without spoon feeding the audience with painfully on the nose Audio Description. There is definitely room for blunt audio description, there are also creative ways that you can use sound that help describe to an audience where the characters are without taking them out of the immersion. Get creative with your soundscapes! (Which you can record and edit on free software like Audacity, or even GarageBand for my Apple users)
An audio described introduction.
So some things are going to be difficult to get in creatively. For example it is hard to get the sound across of how a character may look, or what they might be wearing. This is where we utilise the ‘pre-show’ of it all. It only takes five minutes (if that) for your actors to come on and describe themselves and what they are wearing at the beginning of the show. This is also good, because it gives an audience a moment to be familiar with all of your voices. Again, this is also a creative opportunity, does it make sense for you to do this in character, or out of character? How would your character audio describe themselves?
Have about 30 minutes of time to kill before a show? Well, think about offering a touch tour! It might be difficult to get all of the audio description in at the top of the show, after all, we don’t go to the theatre to have a play described to us. However, if you’re wanting to keep the top of the show spoiler free for most of the audience, touch tours are a great opportunity to invite a smaller group of audience members to explore costume, props and set and also speak to the actors a little bit before the show. This means that the people who need to be in the know are in the know, but no one is subjected to spoilers.
Sensory Tours and Sensory Maps.
Similar to a touch tour, a sensory tour might invite audience members to meet the artists/performers and experience some of the sound/light cues before the show. This may help audiences understand whether they can comfortably engage with the show’s sensory aspects, but also may help calm any nerves about having a sensory overload during the performance.
Going to the theatre can be challenging for all sorts of reasons, after all, it can be overwhelming to sit in the dark with a group of strangers with actors behaving unpredictably. A sensory tour offers a chance for audiences to feel more settled as the house lights go down.
But what if an audience wants sensory information about the show with less spoilers? Well, that’s where Sensory Maps come in. Otherwise known as sonic/visual stories, these serve as a road guide as to where the sound or lighting levels peak at certain points in the show. Here is a link to an example of what a sonic (sound) story may look like:
Have a go at loosening up your performances a little. Theatre environments can feel socially pressured, with lots of unwritten rules that quite frankly, can be tiring. While many ‘relaxed performances’ vary from each other, the basic difference is that sound and lighting cues are toned down a notch, and also an understanding that the audience are free to leave and enter the space as they wish. You may want to have the house lights dimmed instead of turned off completely, you may have the doors open at all times, you might have a slightly longer interval.
Do keep in mind that the term ‘Relaxed Performance’ is used quite broadly to describe any sort of sensory adaptations added to a piece of theatre. I would advise talking to people who go to relaxed performances, see what they liked or disliked. Maybe even go to one yourself.
My personal advice also is to not think too narrowly as to why someone might choose to watch a relaxed performance. Don’t construct your access ideas around specific disabilities, but instead I’d encourage you to construct your access ideas around the needs of an audience, regardless of why that need might be.
Easy Read Documents.
Easy as it sounds. This is a document that gives a basic run down of what the audience is in for. You may explain certain themes, as well as providing short character bios, images and/or a plot breakdown. This can help an audience with being able to focus on and follow the work they are seeing.
A similar experience that you might be able to draw from, is if you see Shakespeare, or even ballet or opera. Often in the programme, there is information about the plot of the show and who the characters are, which is super helpful in allowing you to enjoy the show, while not having to constantly worry about understanding it, because if you are confused at something, you can refer back to the programme to get you up to speed with what is going on on stage.
That seems like a lot.
Yes. Also amazing work if you’ve read this far, it for sure is a lot of info. It seems like a lot, I’ll agree with you there. And the nature of making theatre means that even if we don’t have the money (which we often don’t) we don’t have the time to put all this into our show. So prioritise. Okay, captions are proving difficult to make, and you have no room in your budget for a BSL interpreter. Maybe an easy read document might help someone d/Deaf or hard of hearing to at least have a basic understanding of the story.
You don’t have time for both a sensory tour and a touch tour. Combine them? Maybe make an audio brochure going through in-depth what the set and costume looks like, for an audience to listen to before they arrive at theatre. Like I said at the beginning, trying to be accessible is better than not trying at all, and you won’t learn if you don’t try.
So be messy, be curious, be careful, and try your hand at Guerilla Access!
Article written by Emily Bold: Accessibility Consultant at Switch_MCR