Two women standing on stage with their arms raised

Poor accessibility can lead to isolation, but this theatre company is changing that

Pippa works on Scope’s online community and is also an accessible theatre blogger. The festive season seems to be filled with activities but when they aren’t accessible, disabled people and families are often left out. This can be very isolating. For our What I Need to Say campaign, Pippa spoke to Erin, whose company DH Ensemble is leading the way in accessible theatre.  

Going to the theatre is an experience enjoyed and cherished by many families, especially during the festive season. However, like many other activities, theatres and shows often fail to be wholly inclusive of disabled people.

Although the accessibility of venues is improving, content isn’t always suitable for people with specific disabilities. However, one theatrical company with inclusivity at its heart is The DH Ensemble (previously called The Deaf & Hearing Ensemble). I talked to Erin Siobhan Hutchings about their new show.

Based on Erin’s own experiences of growing up with her deaf sister, ‘People of the Eye’ features Deaf and hearing cast members and uses stunning visuals to create an immersive experience for all.

Accessibility is a forethought, not an afterthought

Accessibility is built into the aesthetic, so deaf and hearing audiences can enjoy the show on an equal basis. For example, we use integrated sign-language as well as creative captioning, so whether you’re relying on that to access a performance or not, it brings so much more to your understanding of the world and the characters. I think that makes the work so much more interesting. It adds layers to the narrative and the way that you tell the story and connect with the audience.

Whilst the show was primarily designed with D/deaf and hearing audiences in mind, we also strive to ensure that venues where the show are performed are wheelchair-accessible. The production team also take precautions to ensure that audiences are aware of the visual effects beforehand, by sending out resources including descriptions of lighting effects and images of the projections used to those who request them.

Two women on a stage in front of the words '2 player mode'

Being excluded can be really isolating

The story is about myself and my sister growing up but it could easily be replaced with many other disabled people’s stories. The crux of the story is about families, relationships and isolation, and how important it is that we accept each other.

Deafness isn’t necessarily a disability that cuts you off physically or intellectually, but it’s isolation that can really affect people who have hearing loss. It’s that inability to communicate in a social situation that can be really isolating and that’s something that I noticed with my sister growing up.

We’ve tried to really show that in a way that puts the audience in that position, so some feedback we’ve had from audience members is that maybe a hearing person might not understand everything that happens in the play but that’s an important experience for them to have, they get some insight into that feeling of isolation themselves.

What I would really like people to take away is a little bit of empathy about the way that other people live their lives, and some idea about isolation and communication and how important that is. Then hopefully they’ll take that out with them into the world and influence the other spaces they go into.

Making theatre more accessible

It’s important that we’re all realistic about the diverse world that we live in. We’re a co-led deaf and hearing company and we strive to maintain that.

People understand that it may not be possible to make every single show accessible for everybody, but if you’re open to discovering what can make your work accessible, that’s a start. It’s better to ask people who really live the experience and get their feedback. I went to an interesting discussion with deaf and disabled artists recently where this was addressed.

Accessibility shouldn’t just be a tick-box exercise – put on a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted show and do one relaxed performance and that’s it. That’s not really exploring the depth of how we can make sure our theatrical environment and all aspects of our society are welcoming for everybody, and that people can feel equal to everybody else.

As accessible theatre continues to slowly improve, it is the innovative work of companies such as The DH Ensemble that are really making strides in helping to address isolation and ensure that theatre really is becoming more inclusive for all.

The DH Ensemble is led by Jennifer K. Bates, Stephen Collins, Sophie Stone and Erin Siobhan Hutching. You can see People of the Eye in 2018:

  • 23 March Harlow Playhouse
  • 26 March Arlington Arts Centre
  • 7 April Nottingham Playhouse

Find out more about DH Ensemble and People of the Eye and get involved with our What I Need to Say Campaign.

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