Theatre is meant for all to enjoy, but what if you were unable to enjoy it to its fullest potential? The British Deaf Association estimates that around 87,000 people in the UK use British Sign Language as a first language, which suggests to us at The Badger just why accessibility should be so important. An interview with the University of Sussex’s John Walker, Senior Lecturer in the British Sign Language and Deaf Culture elective, unveils all that should be known about theatre accessibility for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities – specifically around the Brighton and Hove area.
Due to the advancements and increase in inclusive technologies, booking accessibility tickets for a theatre show is easier than ever before, “Most theatres provide online booking and it is quite easy to purchase a ticket. The problems occur when ticket purchases run into problems and there is no way to contact the booker,” John states. Instead of calling up theatres to amend bookings, unless the theatre has a contact point set up “with some of the major online interpreting companies such as Sign Video or Sign Live,” accessible shows begin to seem inaccessible for certain audiences. Despite this, when issues do not arise, John mentioned that Brighton creates good access to shows. Such shows as Flarewave Festival funded by Brighton Dome and Art Council celebrate deaf artists and performances from inspirational speakers, university doctors, and poets alike. John himself took to the stage to present a talk on Deaf-led Art. There are also regular interpreted performances in the Brighton Dome and Theatre Royal, in which they also employ a deaf usher who “helps us with bookings face to face, or guiding us to our seats. [On the usher] Farah is just brilliant at that”.
So, what can theatre companies do in order to sort out issues such as a lack of accessibility for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities? Interpreters translate spoken word into Sign Language, yet issues arise when the placement of them is incorrect on stage. John shares some insightful advice on what exactly theatre companies can do in order to address accessibility issues. “Don’t place the interpreter on the steps at the farthest corner of the stage… I miss most of the action.” John also mentions thinking less about action and more about inclusion culturally, where he suggests bringing “Sign Language into the theatre itself.” which would also increase show accessibility.
John further recommended Grounded by Deafinitely Theatre and Can I Start Again Please by Sue MacLaine. These plays have good accessibility and set a good example for other shows and venues to follow. Both of the shows left John feeling like he “saw the world very differently after each performance.” The Deafinitely Theatre company produces theatre for Deaf and hard of hearing communities as well as hearing audiences. It incorporates storytelling in British Sign Language with spoken English, making it the first professional theatre company within the UK launched and led by the Deaf community.
The Badger takes away from this insightful interview with John Walker that there are facilities being improved with accessibility for Deaf and hearing audiences. However, despite this, there are major issues that still need to be addressed such as communication between the theatres and the customers to make performances more accessible.