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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, (c) National Theatre

Accessible Theatre

13 July 2016

What do you think about when you come across the phrase ‘accessible theatre’? Cramped West End aisles and wheelchair ramps, perhaps? Although this is the first thing that’ll come to mind for many people, making theatre accessible is about more than providing step-free access to the auditorium. So, what else does it entail then? For anyone who’s ever wondered how to make a visit to the theatre easier and more enjoyable for themselves, a friend or family member, or for anyone who’s just curious what exactly ‘captioned performance’ means, we’ve tried to clarify what’s out there.

Captioned performances
For people who are deaf, deafened or hard of hearing, captioned performances are an excellent option. They enable people to follow the show just as well as their fellow audience members who don’t have hearing impairments. At a captioned performance, one or more captioning units are positioned next to or above the stage, or in the set. The actors’ lines appear on the unit as they are spoken, which requires excellent timing from the captioner. Although ‘regular’ surtitling, like in opera and foreign language productions, can be helpful for people with hearing impairments, captioning is better, because it also includes things like descriptions of sound effects and off-stage sounds, titles of songs that are played and the names of speakers.

Some theatres who offer captioned performances: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and the New Diorama Theatre
 
In Chickenshed's Peter Pan, Loren Jacobs (left) is an 'integrated' signer. He plays a part of a speaking character, as Pan's shadow.
 
BSL interpreted performances
A different option for theatre enthusiasts who are deaf or hard of hearing, and who are also sign language users, is to visit an interpreted performance. At these shows, a British Sign Language interpreter will stand either on or next to the stage, and interpret both the spoken text and other audio elements of the production, such as sound effects. While in most big productions BSL interpretation is an occasional extra, the fringe sometimes sees shows that integrate interpretation in the concept and make the interpreter a member of the cast.

Some theatres who offer BSL interpreted performances: the Chickenshed and the Lyric Hammersmith
 
Chickenshed's Globaleyes

Audio described performances
Blind and partially sighted theatre lovers might enjoy visiting audio described performances, where a live commentary supplements the spoken text. Patrons are equipped with a personal headset, and hear descriptions of the characters’ movements and expressions, the costumes and the set. These are given as unobtrusively as possible in between bits of dialogue or during scene changes, so, again, impeccable timing is key here!

Some theatres who offer audio described performances: the Almeida Theatre and the Old Vic
 

A Touch Tour at the National Theatre, for War Horse
 
Touch tours
Audio described performances are sometimes teamed with touch tours, which take place prior to the show. During a touch tour, visitors with visual impairments have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the set by feeling the various shapes and textures while hearing an audio description. Often the actors will also be present to talk about the characters they play and the costumes they wear.

Some theatres who offer touch tours: the Royal Court and the National Theatre
 

The Royal Court Theatre
 
Relaxed performances
Relaxed performances are especially accommodating to people who benefit from a more laid-back atmosphere in the theatre. This can include visitors with learning disabilities and theatre fans with an Autism Spectrum Condition. What a relaxed performance looks like varies between venues, but it might involve a description of what’s going to happen prior to the show, a tour of the set and changes to lighting and sound. Movement and noise from the auditorium during the show are not a problem.
Some theatres who offer relaxed performances: Shakespeare’s Globe and the Unicorn Theatre
 

A Touch Tour at the National Theatre, for wonder.land
 
Other facilities
Many theatres do their best to make visiting as easy and stress-free as possible for all their costumers. This often starts with providing the right information in the right format. Great examples we’ve come across are the Royal Court’s access guide podcast, which explains how to get to and around the building, and the Donmar Warehouse’s visual story, a presentation that explains to first-time visitors what they can expect. For West End shows, the Society of London Theatre has a handy page with all the information you could possibly want on their website. It’s true that a lot of venues still have some way to go, but even in that case, a call or email to the theatre will usually do the trick.
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