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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Miriam Bernard: Ages and Stages

‘Cultural value can mean what you want it to mean and can mean nothing’

‘Cultural value? You can’t put a price on it, but you can buy a ticket for it although you don’t know what you’ll get!’

These are just two very preliminary thoughts expressed by a couple of participants in our ‘Ages and Stages’ project. We are delighted to have two awards under the Cultural Value Project: one exploring the cultural value of older people’s experiences of theatre making, and the other, a linked critical review on ‘Ageing, Drama and Creativity’. Both have been inspired by the continuing collaboration between researchers at Keele University and practitioners at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Their roots stretch back to 2004/5 when, with local funding, we mounted a small project which brought older people together with members of the New Vic’s Youth Theatre to explore what life was like for both groups. The resulting intergenerational performance piece – ‘Stages’ – was performed at two conferences and, ever since then, we had been looking for a suitable opportunity to do further work together.

However, it wasn’t until we received funding in 2009 under the national cross-council New Dynamics of Ageing programme (see: www.newdynamics.group.shef.ac.uk/), that we were able to realise this opportunity. Between October 2009 and July 2012, our interdisciplinary team explored historical representations of ageing within the Vic’s well known social documentaries and interviewed 95 older people who had been involved with the theatre as volunteers, actors and employees, audience members, and sources for the documentaries. That initial research was drawn together to create a new hour-long documentary drama called Our Age, Our Stage and the associated Ages and Stages Exhibition. This was followed by a year of knowledge translation activities in which we were able to establish the Ages & Stages Company; devise and tour a new interactive forum theatre piece: Happy Returns; develop, deliver and evaluate a pilot inter-professional training course; and scope out, with a range of partners, the potential for a Creative Age Festival in Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire.

But what has all of this been like for the older people who have participated, since 2009, in what is now the Ages and Stages Company? What do they make of their experiences of theatre making – especially given the fact that, for many of them, this was the first time in their lives they had ever been on stage? And what meaning, if any, does that phrase ‘cultural value’ have for them? This is what our small ‘case study’ of ‘Ages and Stages’ is trying to uncover. We have also been going back to our original interviews with Company members and – this is the new and exciting bit – ‘training’ and supporting them to interview each other about their experiences. By the time you read this, Company members – who by the way are aged from their sixties to their mid-nineties – will have completed a series of recorded research discussions exploring the impact ‘Ages and Stages’ has had on themselves, and on others (e.g. their families; friends; the younger people they have performed with). In the New Year, the Company will be back together to co-evaluate the research process with us; to look at the transcribed interviews and begin to select and agree the issues to be developed into a new piece – or pieces – designed to show, through live performance, the cultural value of what they have been involved in.

We are setting these explorations in the wider context of a critical review which will examine both the published and ‘grey’ literature in this area. What, we are asking, does the research and literature tell us about the cultural value older people derive from their involvement with theatre in general and theatre-making in particular? What conceptual and theoretical frameworks, if any, have been used to research older people’s experiences of theatre/theatre-making? And, what methodologies and research designs have been employed in existing studies?

We are approaching both the review and the empirical work from our roots in critical gerontology and in participatory drama-based practice, and from a shared commitment to what colleagues Meredith Minkler and Martha Holstein in the United States have termed ‘passionate scholarship’. This provides an important corrective to the negative and ageist assumptions which pervade our society and which, more often than not, frame older people as a ‘problem to be solved’ rather than recognising, acknowledging and building on their skills, abilities, contributions and life experiences. Our ongoing work is, we hope, a small contribution to challenging stereotypical views and existing deficit models of old age and the ageing process. We will be showcasing the results at a workshop/symposium at the New Vic on May 9th 2014 as a stimulus to further discussions with an invited audience of older people, practitioners, policy makers and academic colleagues. If you’d like to find out more about what we have done so far, you can go to our website (www.keele.ac.uk/agesandstages/) and/or we can send you packs which include DVDs of our productions to date. If you’d like to be put on the invitation list for the symposium, please contact our Administrator Tracey Harrison on t.l.harrison@keele.ac.uk

 

Janelle Reinelt: Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution

What do people ‘do’ with their experiences? How do they process them? ‘Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’ approaches the challenging call of the Cultural Value Project by searching for the network of associations that audiences activate when they attend the theatre. Partnering with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, and the Plymouth Drum, we set out to trace the pattern of connections established by spectators after seeing a show. We ask what they remember shortly afterward, and in two months’ time, as well as asking some subjects about a show they saw over a year ago. We also ask whether they communicated about their experience to anybody, and if so, to whom and using what medium (face-to-face? Facebook? Phone?). We ask if the shows connect to anything going on in the world or in their private lives. And we ask what value such experiences have to our subjects, and why.

Nine productions have been chosen for the study ranging from a classic, Hamlet, to a new adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall (both at the RSC); from a new play such as David Greig’s The Events (at the Young Vic) to an experimental work from the 1927 company called The Animals and Children Took to the Streets (at the Plymouth Drum). These evenings in the theatre are rich and variegated enough to provoke a panoply of reactions from research subjects. They respond to questionnaires and interviews, and participate in creative workshops that go beyond fact-finding to stimulate imaginative associations between shows and the people who have seen them.

While this research is well underway (in October and into early November, seven of the shows have been surveyed and some interviews and workshops have taken place), we are not yet in a position to predict substantive outcomes. What we have seen is that many of our subjects (self-selected in response to an invitation to participate) are passionate about their theatre experiences and often extremely clear about assigning value to this activity. After viewing Mark Ravenhill’s Candide, one subject wrote: ‘I like musical comedies, but I also like the big subjects to be tackled and not shirked, and they don’t get much bigger than the ones mentioned [in Candide]—life choices, genetic manipulation etc.’ Many subjects communicate with partners or other family members, friends or bartenders; often face-to-face, but using social media as well. The project intends to harvest additional data from social media through establishing Twitter searches and Google Alerts to capture blog and comment-box mentions of our performances, and to use Facebook’s search facilities to capture interactions on the social network. These will provide an additional data base for our analyses.

Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution also hopes to illuminate the role of memory and time-based processes in cultural value. To ask, for example, how people remember—in images? key lines? themes or story-lines?—is to begin to understand what we retain from experiences. In asking subjects about shows they saw a year ago, we are hoping to follow the traces of theatrical experience as they become amalgamated into an individual’s life, and to query what, if anything, remains in consciousness.

In undertaking this project, the British Theatre Consortium is following up on previous research into audiences and spectatorship. Working always with both the artistic and academic communities, BTC has run four sector-wide conferences and conducted a study of new writing 2003-2009 for Arts Council England (2010). In response to John Knell and Matthew Taylor’s RSA pamphlet, ‘Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society’, we partnered with The Royal Society of Arts (2012) for a round table entitled ‘From Spectatorship to Engagement’ comprising 25 invited artists, scholars, and public figures to discuss different models of capturing public value. BTC has also recently partnered with Manchester Metropolitan University and The Library Theatre in a study titled ‘The Spirit of Theatre’. Focusing on a production of Mother Courage, and on the associations and memories of audiences about The Library Theatre, we investigated and analysed the meaning and effect of the work of the Library Theatre in Manchester, using oral history and creative research techniques in addition to surveys and interviews. This study has been a kind of pilot project for ‘Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’ with which it shares the emphasis on memory and processual analysis.

As we move into the analytic phase of our project, we are especially interested in the way the micro-practices of everyday life generate or negate cultural value. We seek evidence of value attribution at the corpuscular level of individual activity within a public context.

Our research team has started a blog of personal memories and observations triggered by working on the project. See our posts and more about BTC at http://britishtheatreconference.co.uk/