Vamos Theatre is on a journey as we work to integrate accessibility and diversity into our everyday practice and thinking. We want our reputation in terms of accessibility to precede us and for people to say, “Oh Vamos? Yeah they’re that theatre company that welcomes everyone at their shows.”
To this end we actively involved Deaf and partially Deaf groups in the planning, marketing and rehearsal phases of The Best Thing tour in 2016. We opened up our creation process: Deaf consultants fed back on the show during rehearsals, on the accessibility of marketing materials, and we invited them to attend a free mask workshop, where they learnt mask theatre skills, and we learnt how we needed to adjust our workshop content to be more accessible.
We also made a BSL trailer for the first time for the 2016 tour, and adjusted our marketing materials to help our venues to cultivate their own Deaf audiences. The general feedback from our Deaf consultants was that the content of Vamos’s shows wasn’t the issue - it is entirely accessible - rather it’s the venues themselves that need troubleshooting, to break down barriers to get new Deaf audiences through the door in the first place. I’m just in the process of bringing together our Arts Council evaluation for that project and am really proud of what we achieved.
We’re an ambitious company, always striving to do better and learn new things, so naturally when we were planning for our Spring 2017 re-tour of The Best Thing, we wanted to take our approach to accessibility that little bit further. So we thought, well, let’s throw in some relaxed performances! Now many months later, we know that it’s not quite that simple and this project has begun a huge, and ongoing, learning curve for us.
Importantly, we want people to know that all Vamos performances are open to everyone, but that relaxed performances offer a more laid-back environment, where the normal, unspoken rules and theatre-going etiquette don’t apply. I distinctly remember going to see a ballet with my mum as a child for the first time and having lots of questions during the show about what was happening - I was excited and enthusiastic. We got told off by a frustrated woman behind us for making too much noise and I still remember the feeling that I’d done something wrong, even though of course I hadn’t: I just didn’t know the ‘rules’ yet. If only there had been a relaxed version of that ballet show, where I could have asked my mum as many questions as I wanted to satisfy my young curiosity!
Relaxed performances are crucial for families who might struggle to enjoy a more regular theatre show together to access live performance. This could be because they are a new parent stuck at home with no-one to look after the baby, or people with sensory and communication disorders, a learning disability or autism spectrum condition. A description of relaxed performances which hits the nail on the head is that they are the opposite of a quiet carriage on the train, so you can make as much noise as you want, you can go in and out of the auditorium, you can go and sit in an alternative chill out area if you need to and normally you get to meet the performers at the end and take photos with them and ask questions.
One of the aspects of this project that I have most enjoyed is that I have been able to ask lots of questions and learn: often I spend a lot of time beavering away at my laptop just trying to get the next thing ticked off my to-do list, so it’s been refreshing to go out and about and talk with peers who I really respect. We have been meeting with a number of expert partners who have been really generous in offering us their time to advise us on running relaxed performances. These partners include New Wolsey Theatre, Town Hall Symphony Hall Birmingham, Richard Hayhow of Open Theatre and Sarah Gatford, BSL expert - thanks so much to you all for your invaluable input.
One of the questions we have grappled with is whether, artistically, The Best Thing is ‘suitable’ given that it’s quite hard-hitting emotionally. Having now chatted with our partners, in hindsight that statement makes a lot of patronising assumptions about what people with different needs might or might not be able to handle. As with our regular performances, what we can do is make sure families are fully aware of the show’s content and age guidance in advance, and then leave them to make that decision.
We’ve learnt also that the house lights - those that light the audience’s seating area - should remain on, albeit at a dimmed level, and that we may need to soften some of the more sudden or extreme lighting states and sounds/music. We’ve learnt that it’s crucial that everyone at the venue - from the technicians to box office staff, to senior management - are all trained up and fully on board: for many families it will have been a challenge just getting to the theatre on time, so if they have overcome that mountain we should be making their experience once they have arrived as positive and comfortable as possible.
The more work we do on relaxed performances, and accessibility in general, the more strongly I feel about it. We all know that engagement in the arts enriches our lives and helps us express who we are as human beings. Why should some people have greater access to art and culture just because they were born without any disabilities? Theatre should be for everyone and we all have a responsibility to take away as many barriers as possible.