Adventures in Accessibility – Working with BSL
Back in March last year, I attended a workshop at Derby Theatre that totally changed the course of my year. The workshop was delivered by Jenny Sealey and Graeae Theatre Company and had a pretty simple aim: exploring how theatre practice can be accessible throughout the process. The solution isn’t complicated, and can be boiled down to making sure you keep accessibility in mind. Which sounds like common sense and, to be honest, that’s what most of my experience in the last year of working with accessibility has been.
Working with people with access needs, you can’t afford not to keep access in mind. But you need to be ready to accept you’re going to get it wrong sometimes, and keep an open mind and be ready to address your mistakes and move on. Keeping feeding back and being ready to alter your process and practice to meet the needs of everyone involved is a process that won’t stop, but will get easier as you keep at it. Like most things.
And a note on ‘common sense’: my common sense is going to be vastly different to that of someone who’s been living as a deaf person their whole life. I need to be prepared to unlearn things sometimes.
Making sure you’re not just thinking about providing accessibility, but actively making it part of the process has the effect that you can think about accessibility’s role in your piece as part of the piece. Rather than making a piece and trying to stick an interpreter at the edge of the stage at the end of it, perhaps there’s a deaf character, a blind character, a British Sign Language interpreter, who is part of the story.
In September I wrote and directed a series of pilot performances of Macbrew, as part of Derby Festé 2015. I’d been working on making this project happen for a while, with support from Ben Spiller and 1623 theatre company, but as a direct result of the Graeae workshop, I decided to incorporate accessibility into the piece. In Macbrew, one of the three characters is a deaf BSL user, another is a hearing BSL user, and the third is hearing with no BSL. The piece isn’t about deafness, but it benefits from incorporating BSL alongside English to tell its story. Macbrew is a roaming theatre piece for festivals, based on the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It incorporates sections of the incantation from the cauldron scene: ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ and all that.
Now Shakespearean English can be a foreign language at the best of times. When it gets into the particularly arcane language of the witches’ spell, it can really cryptic. Fortunately 1623 theatre company’s Artistic Director, Ben Spiller mentored me working on the project, and is a consummate expert on the words and works of Shakespeare. BSL is an entirely separate beast again. On hand though, I had the excellent interpreter, Sarah Gatford, to field my lack of knowledge and work with me and Ben to make sure the Shakespeare made (the right) sense.
BSL is beautiful, poetic. In the interview linked at the top of the page, Paula Garfield says ‘Shakespeare gave us an opportunity to show the poetry, richness and beauty of BSL,’ and the same applies to Macbrew. We had the supreme luck of casting deaf actress Vilma Jackson, who was exceptional in her capacity to accept the half-formed path we were on, largely figuring out the best way to shape our rehearsal process as we went along. Vilma and Sarah Gatford worked on translating the English to BSL between them and it ended up looking totally fantastic. Working on this project, I am humbled again and again by the levels of dedication on all sides in this project.
Collaboration has been a vital part of my ongoing journey towards making my creative practice and this project accessible. And I have encountered so much enthusiastic support. It’s daunting, it really is, venturing into a world and a way of making work that you have next to no knowledge of. But it has been infinitely worth it, and always welcoming. When I emailed Graeae to ask if any of their work was published, they offered to send me some DVDs of their shows in performance. Derby-based PAD Productions met with me and invited me to sit in on an accessible workshop they were running.
Creating accessible work, working within accessibility, is all about recognising each other’s needs, and supporting them. It was all mutual – I was in as much need of support in the process as anyone else. I’m no expert. But working with others means I learn every day.
Make your process accessible, and be prepared to challenge yourself, and the rest will follow. Creating accessible work isn’t easy – but neither is creating work to begin with, and I’m not in The Arts because it’s easy.