Making Theatre During the Pandemic: The Importance of Remaining Accessible

Written by Victoria Jones.
Edited by Francesca Lombardo.

Many studies discuss the benefits of social media engagement for businesses. Bree Hadley’s Theatre, Social Media, and Meaning Making offers an insightful analysis of theatre and social media. Social media provides an inexpensive and accessible way for theatre to reclaim its relevance to modern audiences, by making plays more innovative and less restricted to temporal, spatial, and medium limitations. Hadley finds that using social media enables the theatre to become more accessible to audiences that have been formerly denied access or marginalised due to their gender, ethnicity, or disability. 

Photo by Marcus Aurelius provided by Pexels

In the year 2018-2019, the Arts Council England reported that 12% of the National Portfolio Organisation audiences consisted of disabled people. However, due to the pandemic, most disabled people are shielding. According to the After the Interval Act 2 survey, conducted in July 2020, 77% of disabled audiences consider themselves to be “vulnerable to Coronavirus”, while only 28% of non-disabled people felt as such. Notably, 26% of disabled patrons ‘will not consider returning to venues at all’ before they have access to a vaccine for Coronavirus.

Since the Coronavirus outbreak, disabled artists have been scared of facing exclusion when the physical theatres reopen. According to Giverny Masso, many of them will ‘continue shielding until there is a Covid-19 vaccine’. The associate director of Graeae, Nickie-Miles Wildin, suggests that disabled artists should have the chance to engage with theatre digitally, to avoid returning to a white-dominant and non-accessible theatre. Thus, disabled people will not be able to attend theatres in the foreseeable future. For this reason, it is crucial to ensure that not only organisations are engaging digitally with the public, but also that their online content and presence remains accessible. 

Theatre organisations have been developing accessible performances for some time now, by cutting strobe lights, reducing sounds, and lowering house lights to 30%, or incorporating captioned and BSL interpreted performances. Yet, how can these practices survive in the online world? The responsibility to democratise access goes beyond creating an accessible code or interface. Online users are expected to conform to the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines, where information can be found on how to create accessible content. The alternative text needs to be implemented to provide different ways for users to access ‘non-text content’ and translate it into ‘large print’ or simpler language; captions need to be incorporated in videos for the conversation, other sound effects, or significant audio. Users can implement image description on their social media posts, especially on platforms such as Instagram, which rely heavily on images. Advocates of accessibility suggest that the text should begin with the words ‘Image Description’ and needs to appear as the first comment to a picture in brackets, so that screen reader users understand what the image is about without having to read unnecessary chatter out of context. The size of the description is subjective and depends on whether one has enough time. Bold text is recommended.

During the pandemic, many organisations have been engaging with the audience through discussions via webinars and continue to do so as we are now going through second and third waves of the pandemic. On the 29th of January, I attended a webinar on An Introduction to Audio Description with Daisy Higman. During the orientation in physical events, the presenter provides guidance in terms of the boundaries of the room and the location of the furniture. This could be adapted in the digital environment, where the speakers could explain their position in the online room. Daisy Higman recommends checking whether all participants feel comfortable to describe their physical appearance, defining the levels of detail, such as hair, eye colour and clothing that participants are expected to disclose. She emphasised the benefits that this would have for visually impaired patrons. During the webinar, we were asked to turn off our cameras and describe some physical movements. Then, see if the other participants in the break-out room would perform those physical movements accurately and follow our verbal guidance. 

Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash

Becoming responsible users online and ensuring culture and theatre are accessible does not need to be an anxious process. Rather, it could be a creative process with the support of accessibility gurus, and, of course, with advice from the disabled community itself. Creating accessible arts could be as simple as closing our eyes or turning our cameras off and using our imagination and other senses to accurately describe scenes and the world around us, through our words. Evidently, the pandemic has emphasised the need to find new ways to connect and communicate with other people, and in those new ways, I see a more inclusive and accessible future that carefully considers and includes as many people as possible. By unleashing the digital world, with all its potential to break temporal and spatial boundaries, cultural organisations and we as individuals can break accessibility boundaries and strive for a more equitable world.

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