Martin Wright: Cultural Value of Accessible Theatre

“For the first time I was able to attend a show and understand every word. Prior to that I would just sit there and understand nothing. You saved my social life.”

(Respondent, STAGETEXT survey)

Many people in society cannot benefit from the full value of cultural events if those events are not made available for them to access.

While we tend to think of barriers to access as being geographical (the production I wish to see isn’t touring to my part of the country) or financial (I’d love to see that production if I could afford the ticket price), people who have sensory impairments – either because of disability or ageing – may additionally experience barriers based on lack of support for their access needs. People who have difficulty hearing a theatre production may need captions. People who are deaf may need sign interpretation. People who have vision impairments may need audio description.

Responding to these needs, and prompted by legislation such as the Equality Act 2010, many cultural institutions have shown interest in making their cultural events accessible to the widest possible audience by making them inclusive.

The two organisations at the forefront of providing captioning and audio description services to theatres and live events in the UK to help them achieve this are STAGETEXT (http://www.stagetext.org) and VocalEyes (http://www.vocaleyes.co.uk).

As part of the AHRC Cultural Value Project, Prof Jonathan Hassell, Prof Martin Wright, and Owen Smith of London Metropolitan University partnered with STAGETEXT and Vocaleyes to examine the cultural value of accessible theatre to:

  • theatres that choose to schedule captioned or audio-described performances, through interviews with the National Theatre, Ambassador Theatre Group, The New Wolsey Theatre, and Society of London Theatre; and
  • the audiences to whom those performances are aimed, through focus groups and surveys of those audiences

Investigating the economic value of accessible performances to theatres, we found that, while the 2008 SOLT Access London Theatre project identified large potential audiences for accessible performances in the UK, and follow-up projects like See-A-Voice have since trained theatres in developing these audiences, the actual audience numbers attending are lower than anticipated. This doesn’t negate the need to schedule accessible performances, due to the remaining legal and ethical business cases. However, the current fragility in the economic business case constrains producers’ desire to hold accessible performances.

We identified many barriers to audiences booking for performances, and the possibility of a ‘Catch-22’: that return on investment requires enough accessible performances to be scheduled to enable disabled people to develop and maintain a ‘theatre habit’; but until enough develop this ‘habit’ accessible performances may actually lose the theatre money. In the current economic climate, without evidence that we are nearing this ‘tipping point’, progress towards it is stalling, as theatres ‘lose their nerve’ and fall back to levels of accessible performance provision that reflect a wish to prevent legal risk to the theatre rather than to develop these audiences.

This is disappointing because our in-depth investigation into the wider cultural value of accessible theatre found ample evidence that audiences who attend accessible theatre performances benefit greatly from many of AHRC’s components of cultural value. However, negative aspects of cultural value are also clear. AHRC’s ‘community dynamics’ component mentions urban demographics that can be included or excluded from the community participating in the nation’s cultural life. Our research found that Deaf, deafened, hard of hearing, blind and partially sighted people are in danger of being similarly disenfranchised if their needs are not considered. Theatres that don’t provide accessible performances have an adverse effect on community cohesion as disabled audiences feel excluded from seeing shows other people are coming together around.

So we believe that it is important that ‘inclusion’ is recognised as a component in AHRC’s cultural value model. Without inclusion, disabled or older audiences can’t access the positive benefits of any of the rest of the components; and will only get the negative aspects of cultural value. Which arguably leaves them worse-off than if theatre didn’t exist at all.

A video summary of our findings is available from: http://www.gamelabuk.com/?page_id=723

Back in 2006, STAGETEXT and VocalEye’s See a Voice project achieved a step-change in the level of provision of captioned and audio-described theatre in the UK. This established a model that, through current levels of funding, is enabling many deaf, deafened, hard of hearing, blind and partially sighted people to enjoy much of the cultural value of UK theatre.

However, pressures on the current model, from some frustrated users and potential users, theatres and producers, together with the potential of new technological and organisation interventions that our study identified might shift current ‘immovable barriers’, suggest that it may be time to search for ways to achieve a step-change again.

After all, the prize certainly seems worth it:

 “… the opportunity to return to a place that I love and re-engage with theatre performances has returned to me part of my life I thought was lost forever.”

(Survey Respondent, The Cultural Value of Accessible Theatre)

Blog by Professor Jonathan Hassell 

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Flora Samuel – The Cultural Value of Architecture: A Critical Review with specific reference to UK homes and neighbourhoods

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This nine month project, led by Sheffield University and supported by the Royal Institute of British Architects, has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of a wider Cultural Value of the Arts project. The project is already proving extremely timely. Our initial findings have already been submitted to the Call for Evidence for the government instigated Farrell Enquiry on architecture. It will also contribute to a three year project on the value of architecture recently launched by the new RIBA President Stephen Hodder. In these days of increasing austerity councils, housing associations and others are under real pressure to prove value and our project is already contributing to this debate, for example at a symposium for Registered Providers of housing led by the Homes and Communities Agency on value in housing later in November.

We really enjoy the richness and complexity of trying to pin down architectural value, a notoriously difficult and contentious task. Previous studies have generally focused on economic benefits or have been based on highly debatable assumptions, for example that it is always good to make as much community interaction as possible or that urban regeneration is always helpful. Our focus is on wellbeing.

The project has two very different workpackages. The first is a critical review of a very large range of reports and standards on housing written over the last decade in the UK by government. These are so numerous that we have to make a initial sift – the criteria being research rigour – before choosing the ones that we will subject to in depth analysis. The critical review has initially been divided into three components : Health and Ageing; Neighbourhood Cohesion; a as well as Identity, Belonging and Heritage, but these two are subject to revision. Our aim here is to reveal how others have tried to assess or evidence value and to use these findings to suggest possible future frameworks. The critical review will form the basis for a database accessible via the web, a report and a proposal for a new framework for the evidencing of architecture’s cultural value, to be published as a book Why Architecture Matters by Routledge in 2015. The project team benefits from an extensive, interdisciplinary advisory board of world experts who are themselves helping us to create a definition of value in this context.

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The second workpackage the public consultation on the value of architecture will take place in the Sheffield University based LiveLab, the city based outreach arm of the architecture school and is likely to take the form of a research by design project involving some twenty five Sheffield MArch students. This unprecedented piece of participatory action research will test the extent of public knowledge about the activities of architects, build public awareness of what architects really do and suggest new avenues for public engagement.

If you have any evidence of value that you think we should be taking into consideration please contact culturalvalueofarchitecture@sheffield.ac.uk , follow us on twitter @home_research