Nightwood is happy to share the first episode of our Conversation Series! With a focus on sparking a dialogue that can be of use to theatre practitioners, emerging artists, and theatre enthusiasts, this series seeks to draw back the curtain on issues in theatre and feminism one conversation at a time.
For our very first episode we spoke with award winning actor, writer, director, and Common Boots‘s Co-Artistic Director, Alex Bulmer, about accessibility in theatre. Join us for this audio experiment!
A huge thank you to Paper Bag Records artist Laura Barrett for permission to use her song Stop Giving Your Children Standardized Tests for this project.
If there is a particular subject you would like to hear more about email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those who would like a full transcript of this conversation, please read below:
(Music – Stop Giving Your Children Standardized Tests by Laura Barrett)
Taylor Trowbridge: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Nightwood Theatre’s Podcast. My name is Taylor Trowbridge. Today we’re speaking with award winning actor, writer, director, and Common Boot’s Co-Artistic Director, Alex Bulmer. She’s currently in rehearsals as the accessibility dramaturge for Natasha Greenblatt and Yolanda Bonnell’s new play, The Election, running October 9th to 27th. We met in a bustling hallway outside of the rehearsal hall to talk about accessibility and theatre. At the start of our conversation, I asked Alex to tell us a bit about herself.
Alex Bulmer: My name is Alex Bulmer. I have been working in the performing arts since 1991. My original entrance into the field was as an actor. When I learned I was going to lose my sight, I changed focus to voice studies and voice teaching. And I think through that process, I really grew to respect the written word-the spoken word. And then, took my focus towards writing. And they have been all kept going. Both in Canada and in the United Kingdom. I spent 15 years in the UK as a performer, as a teacher, and as a writer. And while I was there, I had the great fortune to work with a company called Gaeae Theatre Company. Which is the UK’s leading disabled led theatre company. And that really changed everything. Both my practice and my personal politics.
AB: In terms of The Election, the accessibility initiatives include; integrated audio description, open captioning, relaxed performance, touch tours, onsite child care…. I’m missing something…I know that I’m missing one.
TT: Well I’m curious actually, I’ll ask you. ‘Cause I have been curious if you could go into a bit a description about touch tours.
AB: Touch tours provide blind audience members the opportunity to enter the performance space- this would be the basic “touch tours 101”. Blind people would be taken into a performance space by sighted describers who would give them access to as much of the space as possible without causing any worrying/concern to how to space is set up. So, in many instances, that means that if I go to a touch tour, I’m orientated to the set, I’m given permission to touch some props. Often actors are also participating and they let me touch their costumes. I have to tell you when Benedict Comberbatch played Frankenstein, he let me touch his scarf on his bare chest. (Laughs) We won’t be bare chested in The Election but we will be offering a touch tour. So, that will mean blind audiences will be invited into the space an hour before the show. And we will show them around the set, we probably give them samples of costumes. We will invite an actor to participate. Because we’re using the space as a whole and in the round, we will probably also give blind audience members a tour of the space. So they really understand what that means by being in the round.
TT: Brilliant. I’m curious, have you attended a production that really created a fantastic experience for you in terms of accessibility.
AD; Yes, I’m going to be shameless in saying that it was something I worked on with Jenny Sealey. Jenny Sealey is the artistic director for Graeae. I think a real turning point for me in terms of accessibility in theatre was a production of a show called Blasted. It’s a dark show, i won’t get into the contents of it. But we discovered by chance -if there is any such thing as chance. Jenny and I discovered the play was far more interesting- in terms of its artistic potential, I suppose interesting and intriguing in terms of its subject matter- when the actors spoke their own stage directions while performing in the scene. That was a discovery that was made when I was asked to create an audio play of the text for a blind woman who was studying at a local university. And they contacted Graeae and asked us if we would make a play text of Blasted for her so that she could have full access to the text. And by doing that we discovered this piece in particular had such potential to use the stage direction as part of the spoken word on stage. So we really pushed that idea. And we decided “Right!” All the description of what the actors are doing- drinking gin, you know, putting a gun under the pillow, That was coming through with words. So we didn’t have any props. There was no gun, there was no gin, there was no bottle, there were no glasses. It was two actors on stage with a bed. And that was so exciting for me because I could see how that decision to – that’s what I would call integrated audio description-that decision to work on the play in that way not only gave access to blind audiences but, for us, it deepened our artistic vision of the play. And a lot of people who saw the play who were sighted said it was an experience that they never had with that particular text before- people have seen it before. They’d preferred it because it – a bit like radio drama- their imagination was filling in these, let’s say, missing images. And some people said it was actually more profound because those images were actually in their head as opposed to something that there were looking at on stage. And in addition to that, we also had a big screen behind that had ASL/Deaf performers speaking BSL, because it was in Britain not ASL. Deaf performers dressed up as the characters that were on the stage. And they were performing the BSL on the screen with captioning underneath. And one of the reasons we chose to do that was because the lead character in the play, his name is Ian. He’s a journalist. Or one of the lead characters I should say. He is a news journalist. So, it fit. It really fit the idea that there was also this sort of media element to the play. So that to me, that was a turning point for me. I suddenly could see after doing that show. I really understood that access wasn’t an add on. It didn’t have to be something that was just tacked on after an entire creative process is finished or an artistic vision has been completed. That you can marry access and the integrity of access with artistic vision of a play. And when that happens, it’s exciting for everybody.
TT: For smaller companies, indie companies, do you have a sense of what some first steps you might suggest they take to become more accessible, how to start?
AB: I think one of the challenges, and it’s a real challenge, is how do small companies with small budgets, limited resources, how do they bring accessibility into their work? And, I guess, the first thing that I tell people who ask that question is- I just say- “Okay, the first thing to do is to imagine audiences beyond the assumed.” Just start to imagine audiences engaging in a different way. Audiences engaging in a way that is different than when I say the assumed, than seeing, hearing, able to or comfortable with sitting through an entire hour and a half, able to sit in a complete blackout, able to stay completely quiet. You know, there are a lot of reasons why audiences don’t and can’t engage in the way that we, I suppose, traditionally consider audience engagement. So, I think, if you can just ask yourself that question that sort of “Let’s imagine that different way of engagement.” There’s a lot of creative…There are creative solutions that don’t have to cost lots and lots of money. The traditional forms do cost money. Audio description, if it’s done in its most traditional way where you’re hiring an external company that comes in and writes a script and then has consultants and sits in a booth and speaks down a microphone into a headset. You know, you got the equipment cost, you got the labour. And I’m not saying in any way, shape or form that that is not a worthwhile investment for your audiences. I think it is. But I also think there are other alternatives. And, I suppose, to make those alternative work one does need to have some exposure to the skill involved in making those alternatives work. But, you know, for example, you can build a little model box. You can make model box and a lot of designers make a lot of model boxes anyways to introduce in a rehearsals. But you can have a model box in the lobby. And that in of itself can give blind people and people who have also- there may be other reasons that that can help such as dyspraxia or dyslexia. Just that ability to make physical contact with the space, that can be very helpful. Storyboards that you put on your website that give- it’s called a social story or visual story- that enables people who, for a variety of reasons, would find it very difficult to go into a space without ever seeing what that space looks like and having no information about what it is they’re walking into. So, visual stories can make it more possible for audiences who have different needs. These things are not that costly. They take time but they’re not that expensive. And then, of course, there’s the other side which is come up with some really strategic/innovative/creative fundraising. So, that you are raising money specifically for hearing accessibility initiatives. And maybe we need to advocate our politicians and our government to also invest more money in accessibility across the board. Because, I can tell you from living in other countries, Canada is so so so behind in terms of giving access to life and access to quality of life and culture. We can do so much better. But I guess my sort of simple answer, if there ever is one, it’s the low hanging fruit. Ask yourself the questions “Let’s imagine our audiences beyond the assumed. What can we do in order to make it more engaging for them.”
TT: I know that you’re working on putting together a panel about disability in politics. Could you speak a little about that?
AB: We will be bringing a group of really smart, really community engaged and politically astute people from the disability community together for an evening of discussion after October 25th’s show. Which is both…will both have a touch tour and will be open captioned. So it will be one of the most accessible shows we have on offer. And, you know, I think one of the things we’re probably going to be talking about is “how come nobody is talking about disability?” It’s hardly mentioned in campaigns, it’s hardly mentioned in the news. I think it probably got its most prominence around the whole issue of assisted dying. But in no way to the complexity of that question. It was so simplified and rather heartbreaking for many of us who care about that subject and care about the complexity of that topic and the nuances. But, you know, we don’t talk about access to work, hardly at all. We don’t talk… “we” as in the political discourse, rarely talks about how can we support disabled people to be more gainfully employed. How can we ensure that disabled people have assisted living at a time when we’re also talking about assisted dying. There’s so much work to be done.
AB: Yes, I think the other thing that I would like to say is, you know, this great conversation has been about audience engagement and accessibility for audiences. But we need to also imagine and make possible space for disabled artists to be more participatory in the creative process as writers, as actors, as directors. It will probably take some skill development and mentorship. But to say “well, there’s no one out there who has the skills” is certainly, in no way, a step in the right direction. So, if there’s a gap between the skill level and the requirements of the work then it’s such an obvious solution and that is let’s start skill level. Give people some apprenticeship, give people mentorships. I would love to see the theatre schools step up to the plate because their excuse is always “well, people who auditioned for us who are people with disabilities, they just seem so behind everybody else.” Well probably, because probably in high school, they were never encouraged. I was speaking to a blind woman the other day who said she wished that someone had encouraged her to be in the arts because she loved the arts. But there was no way a blind person was going to have any chance of a career in any kind of art form. So, if fundamental skills are what’s missing to get into these colleges, let’s start an access program that offers fundamental skills and bring these people up to a place where they are, I guess, more able to enter at the levels that the colleges want them to enter. Or, the other solution is: bring them in and we’ll work it out. We will work it out But more people have to be allowed into those schools. More people have to be graduating from those schools. And more disabled people have to be given opportunities to work professionally as artists.
AB: Do you think you’re gonna use that funny clip about Benedict Cumberbatch?
AB: Because if you do, I just need to rephrase.
TT: For sure!
AB: He was playing- he was in Frankenstein playing the monster. It won’t make any sense if people think he was playing Frankenstein, that’s the professor dude.
(End of episode)