Sign Language and Audio Description in theatre

Robert Softley (artist), David Lan (Young Vic), Jenny Sealey (Graeae Theatre Company), Jean St Clair and Jeni Draper (Fingersmiths), Garry Robson (Fittings Multimedia Arts) and Maria Oshodi (Extant) discuss different ways in which artists, companies and venues are striving to make theatre truly accessible.

One of a series of five short films, capturing the thoughts and experiences of key people from the arts sector and exploring the framework that is enabling UK disabled artists to flourish. A film commissioned by the British Council. You can also download the complete transcript for this film as a PDF.

Visual description and transcript of the film

The film features a series of comments from the seven interviewees intercut with footage from a variety of performances, rehearsals and locations:

  • Robert Softley talking at the British Council’s London HQ during an Unlimited briefing
  • Robert performing If These Spasms Could Speak
  • Graeae and DaDaDa International’s The Threepenny Opera on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse
  • David Lan talking in a meeting space at the Young Vic featuring footage of the front of house and theatre exterior
  • Jenny Sealey at Graeae featuring a variety of books and artworks on display at the studios
  • Performance of Frozen by the Fingersmiths and Birmingham Rep
  • Jeni Draper talking in a rehearsal spaceGarry Robson talking on stage during rehearsals at the West Yorkshire Playhouse
  • Jean St Clair signing in a rehearsal space featuring footage of Fingersmiths rehearsing
  • Maria Oshodi at Extant’s office featuring footage from Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs and a Touch Tour of the show by Braunarts

Robert Softley Gale

Access is at the core of art. If I want to make a play and I perform it in my bedroom and nobody can get in to my bedroom then it’s not really art. The minute someone comes to see it, the minutes they access it, it becomes art. So putting disability into that doesn’t really change it.

David Lan

When we put on shows we want the widest possible audience for the show. We’re interested in every kind of person coming in to the theatre. The way I see it I guess is I want the people who walk past the theatre in this extremely diverse part of London to be the same as the audience who come in.

Jenny Sealey

In traditional theatre that’s out there at the moment you usually have one or two interpreted performances where the interpreter is on the corner of the stage and they sign everything that all the actors say.

Jeni Draper

Audio Description, traditionally, you never see the audio describer, they’re off stage watching the action and when there is no speaking on the stage the audio describer will fill in erm, information that’s visual.

Jenny Sealey

Captioning is usually with stage text box which is positioned, normally, millions of miles away from the main action and all the words come up on a screen.

Jeni Draper

We should be pushing how to make access more than just a little add on, because the three traditional ways are that, they’re an add on and, and they have value.

Garry Robson

The aesthetics of access, if you like, are not just about allowing more people to enjoy the show but enhances the product for everybody.

Jeni Draper

Fingersmiths we set up originally in 2006. We pioneered having an audio describer on stage as another character.

Jean St Clair (signing)

There are so many plays that don’t actually include Deaf or disabled artists. We wanted to make both languages equal in a dramatic setting.

Maria Oshodi

Extant’s the first, and only, as far as I know, performing arts company that has professional artists who are visually impaired, in the UK. We’ve just finished a preview tour of Eugene Ionesco’s ‘The Chairs’. So with this piece for instance, I thought what I might do is create within the sound design the inner voices of the two main characters so that you have this imagined physical space but you also hear almost the imagined auditory space as well. In all Extant’s work we try to think of how access can be running parallel or be integral.

David Lan

We’ve got a long way to go and it always takes the determination of a large number of people in order to make a shift.

Jenny Sealey

We’re proud that these are the things that we, we do and the more people who see that happening in action understand that theatre is for everyone. It’s real theatre; it’s theatre with a conscience, theatre with a heart. It’s not, you know, “Whatever”. It’s proper. Love it.

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