In 2018, we brought Sirens to the Edinburgh Fringe. Performed by a Deaf and hearing cast, we used spoken English, British Sign Language, and creative captioning. We had lots of d/Deaf audience members, which was really exciting, and the feedback on accessibility was broadly positive. Not everyone does accessibility the same way so I can only speak from our experience. What I will say, is that this approach felt very DIY, but did require a lot of thought and planning. And a bit of budget. However, there are incredible companies delivering access on a totally DIY budget (you could use a much, much less expensive projector for starters!). Money isn’t the issue, but it helps.
Our sign language was integrated meaning it was used by the cast. We didn’t have an interpreter onstage because the d/Deaf community told us this can be alienating – it’s tricky to watch the action and look at an interpreter simultaneously. We also used creative captioning which, for us, meant the captions were built into our projection design and were near the action. The hearing audience also had to use the captions during the scenes in BSL, making the experience equitable for d/Deaf audiences and challenging hearing audiences.
I’ve seen cheaper captioning done via PowerPoint, caption units, handwritten, TV screens buried in piles of clothes on stage… as long as the words are really clear and legible (StageText has AWESOME advice on this) it needn’t be pricey.
We also interrogated the show throughout the making process, asking ‘how can we say that without words/more visually’. We are a very visually led company, and we enjoyed the challenge of not relying on words. It’s important to ask why you think your show is interesting for d/Deaf audiences – is it visual or static? Is it entirely text based? These aren’t necessarily barriers, but it might help you to scale your expectations of how many people your access provisions are likely to really engage.
In order to be able to have BSL conversations on stage and whilst devising, we put the hearing team members through intensive deaf awareness and BSL training before rehearsals – we did about 60 hours of learning together as a team including our assistant producer and production manager (and lots of homework, too), and we could have done more. We worked with Rupal Chandi, an incredible BSL tutor. The days were intense and as I walked home after the first session, I wondered if we’d bitten off more than we could collectively chew – my brain hurt. It got easier as the training went on, and of course, being fully immersed in a five-week devising process, touring, the Fringe and a London run helped our sign develop through exposure. It’s important to say here that learning BSL is like learning any other language – it takes a long, long time. We are by no means fluent, it takes many years to reach that level – we are literally beginner level – and our characters were devised to be new signers so that we didn’t misrepresent the language and pretend we were fluent – at times I’m sure that showed, but the captions served to ensure there was a backup. To me, training in this way was the bare minimum we could do to ensure we could work in an inclusive, integrated, personal way.
Rupal was also our Deaf consultant – checking the sign was clear, discussing representation of a Deaf character and offering vital input on how we could make the show more visual from their perspective as a Deaf person. It can be isolating to be the only person from a marginalised group in a rehearsal space, and we didn’t want to put pressure on one actor to be the spokesperson for an entire, diverse community.
We also worked with two BSL interpreters throughout, paid for by Access to Work and Arts Council. Before we started, we expected our BSL training to be very basic – ‘how are you’ and ‘do you want a cup of tea?’, and that we would rely heavily on the interpreters for the devising. Actually, as we got to know each other, we built our BSL skills, and found that being able to communicate directly was much more productive. We still absolutely needed interpreters, and I do not advocate any company to try to operate without them, but the training meant we could develop stronger creative relationships.
When we got to Edinburgh, full of all that weird nervous hope you have at the start of a Fringe run, we found out that Jamal was one of only three BSL using d/Deaf actors at the Fringe (that we know of). We were a bit shell-shocked – in our naivety, we had assumed there would be more. We’d spoken about the feeling of real revolution in the industry, and how we felt Fringe access provisions have changed radically even in the five years we’ve been visiting. Whilst huge leaps are being made, especially due to the championship of accessibility from the Fringe Society themselves, there is still a long way to go before the Fringe can be fully accessible for d/Deaf (and disabled) artists. Jamal found it funny that we hoped for more, rolling his eyes at our disappointment – and that’s fair. I think we hear folks assume there’s more d/Deaf accessibility in the world than there actually is, because when we see it, it’s new and unusual. We notice it. And we tot it up as ‘job done’. Jamal served us the vital reminder: the job, is most certainly, not done.
As much as I love the Fringe and owe it my career, I now know that a model that rides on a low-pay no-pay model for artists, really does exclude d/Deaf or disabled artists who need access support that costs money. Access to Work applications are ineligible for jobs that pay under minimum wage. Arts Council can’t support work in Scotland. We’re lucky to be in a place where we do pay our artists a fair wage for the Fringe, but that’s not always the case.
One of the first things Jamal asked me at his interview was ‘so are you doing audio descriptions too?’. And he’s totally right to point this out (we aren’t… yet). If we are to make the arts accessible, we have to consider everybody. I’ve come to terms with not being able to do everything at once, but we should always be asking these questions. I strongly believe emerging companies must be allowed the space and perhaps forgiveness to make attempts at creating inclusive work, and maybe to mess it up a bit sometimes – to learn from audience feedback and do better next time. It helps hugely that we had d/Deaf artists with us for the entire process, and mentors to ask questions (Graeae, Deafinitely Theatre, Deaf Explorer, Improbable – thank you all). There’s a common phrase in the disability rights movement ‘nothing about us without us’. I stand by that, and rely on reaching out to our d/Deaf colleagues when I think I should already know all of the answers.
I wonder if actually, emerging Fringe theatre-makers might be the key-holders of an access revolution. We arrive with no preconceptions about ‘an easy life’ (let’s be clear, I mean ‘an exclusive life’ where we pretend things are fine as they have always been), and we don’t have the big budgets to simply pay our way into making work accessible as an add on. We interrogate our processes and we don’t yet have rigid structures about what can and cannot work on stage. We don’t come with the baggage of ‘theatre pomp’, the etiquette older and more established artists have come to feel safe and comfortable in, without realising how many people that can exclude. And we’re really bloody resilient. Because look at the world around us. It is crumbling. And we’re still marching along, trying to make good theatre in the rubble, in spite of it all.
Florence O'Mahony is an actor and artistic director at Zoo Co Theatre Company