In-house audio description and captioning has made its mark at a newly refurbished theatre, writes Miranda Yates.
Access is at the heart of all of the Almeida Theatre Company’s activities. Artistic Director, Michael Attenborough declares, “full access to our productions for all members of the public is absolutely central to our artistic policy; indeed, as a theatre in receipt of public subsidy, I would argue it’s a basic human right. For us, it is as fundamental as that.”
In 2001 the Almeida Theatre closed for refurbishment. Its temporary home ‘Almeida, Kings Cross’ closed in August 2002. We used this time to embark upon a major project to look at the accessibility of the theatre in a wider context. Until then, assisted performances were limited to occasional British Sign Language (BSL)- interpreted performances. We looked at the physical aspects of the building for disabled, Deaf and hard of hearing audiences and investigated what types of assisted performances we could provide. We visited other theatres and consulted with organisations such as Graeae Theatre Company and Shape Arts. When the company returned to its home in May 2003, we began putting all that planning into action.
In 2003 we added audio-described and captioned performances to our existing BSL-interpreted performances. We engaged VocalEyes to provide audio-described performances and we continue to work with them today. STAGETEXT provided the captioned performances until early 2007. A successful funding bid from the Rose Foundation in 2006 meant we were able to embark upon training captioners in-house and purchasing our own captioning equipment. The STAGETEXT captioner training was completed late last year.
From the outset we had great input from both STAGETEXT and VocalEyes and set up a number of training sessions with box office and front of house staff to make sure we were ready. We realised then that having staff equipped with the necessary awareness and communication skills was key to our success.
In 2004 we set up an Access focus group. Its members offer their time free of charge and continue to be at the heart of our process. Their input and enthusiasm during sessions has enabled us really to engage with our Deaf, hard of hearing, disabled and visually impaired audiences. Initially we met quarterly; now Access within the company is established, we meet twice a year. I would advise any theatre embarking on a similar process to hold a focus group. The changes and adjustments we have made as a result of their input have had a significant, positive impact on the theatre and its audiences.
Often the changes made don’t require huge leaps at great expense, but are simple, practical and cost-free. I would also stress the importance of engaging with Deaf, hard of hearing, disabled and visually impaired audiences: their feedback fuels the argument to expand the provision of access and assisted performances across the industry. We strive to make all our work accessible and our access policy crosses all areas including our education and outreach work through Almeida Projects.
Since we began with Ibsen’s ‘The Lady from the Sea’ in 2003, the demand for assisted performances has steadily grown. For each of the upcoming captioned and audio-described performances of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’, we have 32 people booked – that’s 10% of the house. For us, access is a long-term commitment, a continuing process that changes and develops as our audience broadens. Everyone, regardless of their access needs, should be able to enjoy the theatre.