Accessibility Week!

Access is a basic right and requirement, a continually evolving methodology that enhances the theatrical and professional landscape; accessibility enables theatre practitioners and audiences to create, engage with and enjoy our work.”

–  Graeae Theatre Company

When we founded Helicon Storytelling, our mission statement included a commitment that stories are for everyone and storytelling should be too. We believe that all our shows should be as accessible as we can possibly make them (i.e. within the limitations of our abilities, knowledge and finances). We are definitely not the experts. But we did want to share our experience as a young company trying to make accessible our debut show, The Battle of Frogs and Mice. We are still learning about accessibility and we welcome any feedback, questions or suggestions you might have – contact us here! We’ve also included some links to our favourite accessibility resources at the end of this post.

Our biggest inspirations were Graeae and Birds of Paradise, theatre companies leading the charge for accessible arts. Birds of Paradise define creative access as:

…work that imaginatively embeds a range of tools, such as audio description, captioning and sign language from the very beginning of the artistic process.

This is a definition that really appeals to us. When we decided that accessibility would be a priority in all our shows, we also decided that we needed to go about it in the right way. It could never just be a tick in a box; we needed to do the research and think through our artistic and practical decisions with access considerations in mind. This made access an integral part of our creative process, incorporated from day one.

Inspired by seeing a brilliant BSL Captioned performance of Stolen by The Devils Violin in Cardiff in late 2017, we were initially very keen to make The Battle of Frogs and Mice fully BSL captioned; this seemed an obvious way to make the show more inclusive. But after doing the research and speaking to people with the knowledge and experience we were missing, we realised we did not have the skillset, time, or funding to make that feasible. Rather than give up, we began to look at other ways to make the show accessible.

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An excerpt of our Easy-Read Guide

We opted for relaxed performances with an Easy Read Guide, and a quiet-zone away from the action. Looking back, we could have done more, and really simple things could have made a big difference. We should have asked our actors for their accessibility requirements as part of our audition process. We could have made the guide available to download from our website and venue listing in advance (it is now here: Easy-Read Guide). We could have also made a fully captioned video summary of the show; and another explaining the easiest accessible route to our performance venue. These are all things we will do for future runs of The Battle of Frogs and Mice, as well as any new shows.

We do have an advantage: Storytelling is an inherently flexible medium. Since we are improvising our story anew with each performance, we can adapt the show to each audience’s needs. It’s also a medium that suits unconventional performance spaces. We performed at Assembly Roxy’s Snug Bar at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2018. The space is primarily used as an overspill bar, so it had more than enough room for a quiet-zone away from the stage. It also already had a relaxed vibe with comfy seating. We chose this space in particular because it did not have any technical facilities; we had already decided not to use any lighting or blackouts in the show, which can be distracting for people with sensory impairments. Instead, we ensured that scenes could move smoothly into different settings using the language and structure of the show itself. These choices were born out of our commitment to considering accessibility at every stage of the artistic process.

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The Snug – our performance space at the 2018 EdFringe – you can just about see the sofas and other comfy seating!

Of course, much of what is possible comes down to your venue. We were one of only two shows in The Snug, which meant (unusually for the Edinburgh Fringe), we had a long ‘get-in’ time. We let members of the audience sit in the space as we set up and prepared for our performance. This allowed them to get used the volume of the music, our appearances and the room; however, this particular space had drawbacks too – it wasn’t wheelchair accessible.

More and more venues are making themselves accessible, and this can be easily included in your considerations when choosing a venue. By making accessibility a priority, there are many things even young theatre companies like us can do to enable everyone to enjoy the arts.

We make sure all our videos are captioned: check out this video of Hayley, Director & Co-Founder, talking about Accessibility!

Some of our accessibility choices related to the company itself rather than our artistic creations. We use a sans serif font on all our documentation – even this website – because it’s easier for dyslexic readers to differentiate between characters. We caption any videos we put out on our social media feeds. In future, we want to include image descriptions as well!

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The Social Model of Disability vs the Medical Model

There is a lot more we could say on this topic, but the last thing we want to talk about on this blog post is the social model of disability. This is the idea that a person is disabled by society rather than their individual impairment or condition. Graeae offer the following example of the Social Model of Disability:

A train station with information boards but no audio announcements prevents a blind passenger from receiving information that everyone else can access. This situation disables that passenger, not the fact that they’re blind.

We believe that theatre shows are capable of being accessible to everyone, and every theatre company can do at least one small thing to make their performances more accessible. If you’re interested in accessibility, we would recommend checking out the following websites and companies for more information!

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