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In my last post I alluded to the difficulties we have sometimes had with attending cultural performances, despite their advertised accessibility in whatever form. Some of these are a product of their times several years ago and our complaints have resulted in improvements, but in general there is far more choice and accessibility than there was 10 years ago. That said, I still think it’s worth sharing our trials and tribulations on that score – and we have enjoyed many more experiences than we have documented here, such as the ballet, where the visual interpretation of the dance is not only beautiful in itself but is a means of accessing the music.

I’m only naming the organisations who have given me great experiences: I’m not necessarily shaming the rest, because sometimes I’ve subsequently enjoyed something they’ve put on.

So, to start off with, the GOOD – no, let’s call them the TOTALLY BRILLIANT: stand-out cultural experiences making for shared enjoyment on an equal basis. Handel’s Messiah a couple of weeks ago was one of those.

We caught Graeae‘s production of Iron Man at one of their summer performances in 2011 – an innovative retelling of a children’s classic as an example of the integrated productions for which Graeae is famous. BSL is fully incorporated as an essential element of the performance alongside the spoken word, with characters either signing their role or reprising the words of other actors in BSL.

Still with BSL, around 2004, I found out through SPIT (Signed Performances in Theatre) about a performance of Twelfth Night at Bristol Old Vic that is one of my stand-out experiences. It was beautifully signed: the famous Shakespearean set-pieces were reproduced in BSL which was fluid, yet retained eminently recognisable elements of their arrangement, rhythm and meaning. In this context, I do think that full accessibility comes in allowing the deaf audience to recognise the derivation of common phrases originating with Shakespeare, and which have since become embedded in our language and our cultural life.

This leads me to an example of the BAD, a BSL interpretation of The Rivals, whose humour is based so much on whimsical English wordplay that it ended up much diluted in BSL. A character, Mrs Malaprop, has near-misses in her choice of words make her appear silly rather than clever: from the French mal à propos, ‘inappropriate’. The play’s humour derives, therefore, from her incongruous utterances, such as the well-known ‘headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile’, instead of ‘alligator’. The interpreter was largely unable to create visual equivalents of almost-the-right-signs in BSL, sacrificing the famous words and concentrating instead on the farce, which didn’t really need translating. In this case I felt that accessibility would have been better served by a subtitled performance – or a very skilled interpreter undertaking not just an interpreting but a translation task of cultural equivalence. (Cultural equivalence is the task of finding suitable metaphors in the target language, such as a substitute for the whiteness of snow where the speakers of that language may live in the tropics or the desert.)

The same theatre company was responsible for an event which I can only describe as an exceptionally upsetting example of the UGLY. We booked for an outdoor youth performance of a musical, and were naturally allocated seats in the front row in order to see the interpreter. The summer sunshine boded well as we settled into our seats, but the performance was quickly rained off for us by the missing interpreter. We both felt very distressed and exposed – unable to slip out discreetly from the front row without giving the young people grounds for interpreting our disappearance as disapproval of their performance, which was in no way the case – it was just a fact that I could not understand any of it.

Eventually a suitable lull for scene-shifting came up, permitting a swift exit to demand answers. We received the outrageous response that the interpreter had turned up and looked at the audience, and declared that there were no deaf people there, and gone. Hello . . . a sign language interpreter should know better than ANYBODY that deafness is an invisible disability. What the interpreter based his or her assumption on, I have no idea. Maybe they were expecting to see people signing away in the audience to each other – erm, what about people on their own, or with a hearing friend or partner? Maybe they were expecting to see the ‘usual suspects’ from the local deaf community – not everyone who uses BSL is necessarily ‘in’ the local deaf community, and it could well have been, as was the case with us, that people had travelled from further afield.

Much of this issue, I think, stemmed from inexperience on the parts both of the theatre and of the interpreter concerned, and lack of understanding of their roles, but it was sufficient to trigger a cascade of correspondence and a meeting with the management. Sadly cancellations have occurred frequently enough to make us wary – another theatre unilaterally decided to cancel a captioned performance, much to our distress, that of other deaf patrons, and Stagetext, who do fabulous work in making theatre and arts events accessible, including pre- or post-show talks. (I’ve attended one or two of these, and it is really fantastic to be able to take part in discussions or to ask questions.)

The theatre’s reasoning was that no deaf people had ‘apparently’ booked specifically for the performance, which aside from similarly making assumptions about deafness, made us despair about their common sense – the concessionary rate for deaf patrons which we and others had paid should have basically identified potential deaf ‘bums on seats’. Stagetext were as furious as we were, and arranged for us to receive free tickets for the next captioned performance at another town, which was lovely of them, as it was not their fault at all, and we enjoyed it very much. The performance in question was Camille, based on the story of La Dame aux Camélias, but more familiar to theatre audiences as the opera La Traviata, from which, of course, I would have got nothing. To see it in another format, therefore, made it doubly accessible.

On another occasion, technical problems at a cinema caused delays to the advertised running times and a last-minute cancellation of the subtitled showing. I’m not quite sure what the problem was, since a subtitled reel couldn’t possibly have taken any longer to load than any other reel . . ! At that time there were fewer subtitled films than there are now (thanks to the campaigning of Your Local Cinema), and we’d travelled quite a long way for this one. I asked to meet the manager and challenged him to justify his decision to pull the showing. He said I could see it somewhere else just as well. “Where?” I said. “We’ve travelled some distance to catch this show and we won’t be able to see it anywhere else relatively nearby. I might just as well wait for the subtitled DVD to come out.” At that point, I could see a lightbulb go on above his head, his eyes lit up, he paused for dramatic effect, and said, “It’s back on, just wait 10 minutes.”

Oh, and then there was the time we booked for a BSL performance, only to find that there had been a last-minute switch for the interpreter to the other side of the stage. Brilliant – not. By contrast, the integration of the captioning unit into the stage design of the Railway Children at the unique venue of Waterloo station in 2010, utilising the defunct Eurostar platforms, was perfect, without distracting or detracting from the actors and the special effects.

The GOOD and the BRILLIANT are just that because successful, well-thought out access solutions allowed me to enjoy the performance on its merits. By contrast, the only thing I could comment on at the BAD and the UGLY experiences was the accessibility, or lack thereof, because I had no tools to access, assess or enjoy the actors and the atmosphere.

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