A couple of weeks ago I saw Daniel Kitson’s Tree at the Old Vic Theatre in London. Kitson is best known as a stand-up comedian, but in recent years he’s also written and performed live storytelling and theatre.
Tree is characteristically strange, funny and moving – the entire play consists of Kitson, sitting almost out of sight in the high branches of the eponymous plant, having a conversation with co-star Tim Key, whose character is standing at its base waiting for a date to arrive.
But possibly even more interesting than the play itself is the emphasis it places on accessibility. Alongside his artistic reputation, Kitson is known for prioritising the needs of his audience. In the past, that has meant limiting the cost of entry to his shows to make them affordable to everyone (I once paid just £3 for one of his stand-up gigs). For Tree it’s involved arranging a variety of accessible shows, including captioned and audio described performances, as well as a ‘relaxed performance’, for people with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).
But how does a theatre go about improving access? For a venue like the Old Vic, which opened in 1818, it does present some unique challenges.
“It's hard for us to be accessible, because the building isn't perfect for things like wheelchair access,” Alex Sayer, the Old Vic’s accessibility administrator, tells me. “So we’re trying to be accessible in other ways. We do everything we can outside of knocking bits of the building down to try to be accessible.”
But while accessible performances do entail some specific preparations, Alex is clear that the Old Vic doesn’t view them as an afterthought.
“It’s all voluntary, and there’s no government pressure,” she says. “We try to stay as much as possible ahead of the curve in what we’re offering people. We don't want to wait until we’ve had pressure from the public, especially because we’re in such an old building.”
Being ahead of the curve does often mean not knowing what to expect. When I spoke to Alex, she and her team were gearing up for the relaxed performance of Tree, which wasn’t simply the first such version of that show they’d put on, but their first ever relaxed performance at all. Yet despite the understandable bout of pre-first time nerves – “we’ll see how it goes!” – the Old Vic is enthusiastic about increasing the range and frequency of improved-access shows in future.
As the name suggests, relaxed performances create a more comfortable, less rigid viewing experience for audience members who have specific needs. This can be especially helpful for individuals with an ASD, some of whom may find the typical stay-in-your-seat experience stressful.
But others may appreciate a relaxed environment too, Alex suggests. “Now it’s stretched to anyone who would benefit. House lights are sometimes up a little bit so that it’s not too dark. The sound is reduced by about 20%. People come in and out of the auditorium. Really, though, it’s not much different to a regular performance. It’s just more relaxed.”
It’s great to see world-renowned venues like the Old Vic taking a lead on accessibility, and their ability to do so despite the odd practical obstacle shows that widening participation in the arts is achievable. At the same time it’s worth remembering that improving access to venues is just one part of the story. Companies like Graeae, Mind The Gap and Freewheelers are equally busy writing and producing shows that feature actors with deafness and disability. As both spheres continue to develop, hopefully in future we’ll see even greater diversity, both on stage and off.
Written by Martin Cornwell, Captioner