Limited opportunities are preventing the authentic voices of disabled directors and writers from being heard. The sector needs to stop talking and take action, says Nicola Miles-Wildin.
For the last 14 months I’ve been Resident Assistant Director at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, part of the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme (RTYDS). It’s providing me with many opportunities to assist directors on some big shows such as Guys and Dolls and Mother Courage. I’ve also worked with the theatre’s young company directing The Tempest, a summer, site-specific production, which I also adapted. And recently, I directed Contact Theatre’s Christmas show The Forest of Forgotten Discos. So, you may be thinking: what are you complaining about?
I am a director in training and eventually my RTYDS placement will be over. I still have things to learn, and I want access to opportunities to do that. Let’s start with the lack of access into theatres, particularly pub and fringe venues. These are spaces where, if I was able to see work as my non-disabled peers do, I could absorb new ideas, put work on and learn my craft.
I often feel that I’m ten years behind my non-disabled colleagues due to such minimal training and practical opportunities
There are some accessible spaces, some making an attempt to be (such as 53two in Manchester, Trinity Centre in Bristol and Oran Mor in Glasgow), but very few. As frustrating as this is, what is more shocking is that it doesn’t stop there. I can’t access some of the finest theatres in the West End and elsewhere in the country. Or if I can, then the wheelchair spaces are so high up in the theatre I miss a lot of the action. I also often have to send proof that I am disabled, call a different line to book my ‘special place’, sometimes leaving a message, with the call returned weeks later when the show has finished.
Theatre is my job, it’s my passion - and I’d like to be spontaneous, have access to a variety of traditional and non-traditional theatre spaces, see a wide range of work, understand the potential of theatre, do basic research, direct new work, make mistakes, make bad work, make it better. For me what I am experiencing is a lack of access to my workplace, and its impact on my creative development is very real. It’s like asking a heart surgeon to do an operation after only watching a couple of surgeries on a DVD.
My fellow practitioners with hearing or visual impairments fare no better. One signed performance on a Wednesday afternoon in the final week of a run, or the audio-described performance on the final Saturday matinee. Limited times, limited access. How will we ever support the next generation of diverse theatre-makers if they can’t go to the theatre?
It can be done. Amplified Theatre caption all their work and it’s simply done using a projector and PowerPoint. It also offers familiarisation tours of the set for visually impaired audience members.
In addition to these issues around access, there’s a lack of training opportunities throughout related sectors, including educational institutions, for disabled and deaf aspiring theatre practitioners and writers. Consequently, the majority of us learn as we go, on the job and from one another. I often feel that I’m ten years behind my non-disabled colleagues due to such minimal training and practical opportunities. It can sometimes feel that the work we produce is not given equal value.
On a more positive note, by working with various deaf and disabled creatives we are developing unique skillsets and leading the way in combining creativity with access. For instance, in the recent Christmas show for Contact theatre, we spent a fair amount of time working out how to make a character’s farts accessible for young deaf audiences. Honestly, there’s never a dull moment.
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What strikes me is that this lack of access limits who we meet and who meets us. This leads to the true disabled narrative missing from the mainstream world. At the moment it’s very much the non-disabled inspirational slant. And believe me, we don’t all want to be inspirational. Our stories are full of true grit. Give our narrative the stage and audiences it deserves.
Provide access into your buildings and more training opportunities for creatives. Value our stories and host fringe nights – a mix of work by various disabled and non-disabled artists to showcase it on a level playing field. Programme work by disabled creatives in your season.
Today, using everything at my disposal and standing on the shoulders of giants, I can work towards shaping the cultural landscape, help to wedge open doors, start to change perspectives and provide the next generation of deaf and disabled theatre-makers with the world as their stage. You can too. Whatever your role is in the British arts scene, the responsibility to enrich the sector belongs to us all - and it’s time to stop talking, take action and literally let us in.
Nicola Miles-Wildin is Resident Assistant Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre.