While planning on staying at The Other D Symposium at the University of Toronto for the entire day on Saturday, Antje sent me an email from Theatre Passe Muraille saying that there were two free tickets to see their show ELLE in the afternoon of Saturday, and it was their first relaxed performance so I might be interested. I was very interested and am so lucky to have been a part of this performance, not only for the beautiful, and powerful play, but for the integration of accommodative performances in Toronto. I want to explore this and make suggestions here.
First, this was a “Relaxed Performance” which was intriguing because I have heard of them before, but was curious as to how they would work. When we arrived we sat down beside the thrust stage on the left, close enough for me to see the intricate yet simple yet, and as the show was about to begin the artistic director Andy McKim and the director Christine Brubaker talked the audience through the lighting and sound cues, and the nature of the performance where we were encouraged to get up and walk around if need be. These Relaxed Performances are for any sensory disability, so that audience members do not feel confined in their seat, and can get up to walk around if they need to. I really appreciated this experience, after the performers were introduced, the entire piece was so powerful and captivating that I didn’t notice when the sound cues were less prominent, or the house lights were still up, if anything I was trying to imagine what the actress, Severn Thompson’s face would look like during her beautifully crafted scenes.
I was also thinking critically about Theatre Passe Muraille’s new accessibility initiative and how they have been advertising it and reaching out to different companies. Cahoots Theatre is putting on a new production called Ultrasound this spring, which I am very much looking forward to despite it being entirely ASL and for the deaf community, I am fascinated to know (and hopefully can write about in these journals!) my experience of a theatre piece created specifically for the deaf community, and alternatively try and create something similar for the blind community. I believe that a project of this nature helps accommodation but also outlines the work that we have to do as theatre artists to be inclusive at all.
I was thinking specifically during ELLE about audio-description, because I was speaking to Jivesh Parasram over email about an audio-description plan and my interest in pursuing a similar project to Ultrasound that would turn into a handbook for theatres to support creators and audience members with the targeted disability. That being said, I believe that there is a way that we can approach audio-described performances in a creative way that would engage the community, and respond specifically to a blind or partially sighted patron’s needs in order to erase barriers of intimidation to attend the theatre.
As a side note these suggestions are from my own personal perspective in order to give a starting off point, but also from conversation that I’ve had with other blind theatre patrons on the malleability needed for audio description and people with varying degrees of vision.
- The ushers at Toronto theatres are usually volunteers, who come for the show once for free and stand at the door for the others. I wonder if there is room to have volunteer audio-describers at performances. This would work in the context of a Relaxed Performance such as the one I attended on Saturday, January 23, because the environment was less strict on sound and movement, and the patron in need would feel more comfortable asking “what is happening?” “Is she standing/sitting/etc?” instead of involuntarily holding a headset and having to navigate the prescribed descriptions from there (which is my experience with the Stratford Festival’s audio-descriptions)
- If we are looking at further integrating and making this a common experience, I believe that we could establish a community of accommodators, of guides, of ASL-translaters, who are like a pool of ushers, who would attend the theatre and sit with the disabled patrons and translate/describe while needed. I believe that might be difficult for ASL (although I think that ASL is easier and cheaper to achieve than audio descriptions in a “regular” performance) but in particular, I have a hard time seeing people’s faces, but can see bigger set and body movement, if I had someone who was designated to sit with me at the theatre, and I could ask them questions such as “is she smiling?” then I would feel included in the performance, without feeling as though I am at a totally separate performance for “my people,” although those days can be empowering in their own right.
- To build on my first suggestion, I am aware that there are ASL performances, and at the Stratford Festival they have 3-4 Audio-Described prescribed performances, meaning that there are a limited amount of performances that people with these disabilities (and same with the limited number of Relaxed Performances as well) can attend comfortably. Is there an opportunity for the theatre community to cultivate and integrate these accommodations into their regular seasons? Sundays are usually Pay What You Can performances, why can’t something like Tuesdays be Accommodated Performances? If we are sticking to the designated segregated days for people with disabilities to feel comfortable in the theatre, that is.
- Finally, and maybe this is idealistic here (but I truly do not believe so) we as a community reach out to realms of disability when training, when looking for new work, when trying to sell tickets to shows, and when auditioning for shows. In my experience the barriers that exist between people of the blind community in particular and attending/getting involved with the theatre is that we feel there is a physical barrier. We have limited, low or no vision, but we have brains in our heads that are valuable and can consume theatre, we just need a little bit of a different approach.
While thinking about what I was going to write about I feel like I could’ve made some suggestions in the after-the-show talk, but I needed to think. These ideas are clearly in development, and I do believe there are more creative approaches to audio-description that are out there that haven’t been considered because no one takes the time. Audio-described performances on headsets are not compatible with everyone who needs things to be described to, and so I wonder if there needs to be more thought for people with low or no vision.
I will officially offer myself up, consider this my application!
Link to ELLE: http://passemuraille.ca/archives/current-season/elle
Link to Ultrasound: http://passemuraille.ca/archives/current-season/ultrasound