PHD researcher Robin Craig explores how the National Theatre is committed to D/deaf and Disabled Access.
[Image above: Garry Robeson as Cleon in Pericles, 2018. Garry sits in a wheelchair with his arm around a woman, he is smiling and gesturing outwards.]
When it comes to disabled access, theatres have come a long way; captioned and audio-described performances are often par for the course in larger theatres. However, there is still a long way to go to make theatre possible for everyone, whether they’re on the stage or in the stalls, yet the National Theatre remains committed to creating diverse, welcoming and accessible spaces for everyone.
[Image: A row of audience members wearing smart caption glasses.]
The National Theatre has a range of access services for disabled patrons, which can be found on the website under ‘Access’. These services include ‘relaxed performances’, which allow audience members to make noise during the show and exit to chill-out spaces in the foyer, which benefits people with an autism-spectrum condition or learning disability. There are also free ‘touch tours’ before audio-described performances for visually impaired people, where audience members can feel the set, props and costumes. In addition to these, audiences can now book ‘smart caption glasses’ for any performance of most shows. When wearing the glasses, users see a customisable transcript of the dialogue and descriptions of sound displayed on the lenses.
[Image: Jamie Beddard as Matthias in Threepenny Opera. Jamie sits in a wheelchair and a woman is straddling him. The woman is holding up a sign that says ‘BROTHEL’.]
In 2016 the National Theatre’s production of Threepenny Opera featured wheelchair-user Jamie Beddard in the role of Matthias, directed by Director of the National Theatre Rufus Norris. Prior to this, actor with dwarfism Kiruna Stamell appeared in the 2014 production of Great Britain as cunning solicitor Wendy Klinkard. The National Theatre has also worked with Graeae Theatre, a company that centres D/deaf and disabled actors, and brought their production of The Secret Life of Sugar Water to the Temporary Theatre in 2016. The National Theatre is developing targets for featuring more disabled people on its stages over the next few years, and is currently consulting with colleagues from the D/deaf and disabled theatre community.
[Image: Kiruna Stamell as Wendy Klinkard in Great Britain, 2014. Kiruna has dwarfism and sits in a motorised wheelchair at a desk. She is looking at a man wearing cricket gear.]
The Future of Disability on Stage
In 2017 the National Theatre worked with casting website Spotlight to launch ProFile, a video database of D/deaf and disabled actors for use by casting directors across the UK film, theatre and television industries. The website was created as part of the National Theatre’s Creative Diversity Project, which includes addressing the under-representation of D/deaf and disabled actors on its stages. The site features over two hundred performers, and has already been used in casting processes for the National Theatre and numerous other UK theatres, as well as the BBC, Disney and Netflix.
The National Theatre is committed to representing diversity on its stages and welcoming D/deaf and disabled audience members.
*Robin’s placement with the National Theatre Archives is sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the TECHNE consortium, and took place over February and March 2019 as part of Robin’s PhD. The placement took Nicholas Hytner’s Great Britain (2014) as a case study to examine disability in performance using the National Theatre Archive material, with a focus on how the ‘accommodation model’ of disability can be utilised in theatre spaces. The exploration was conducted through archival research into the production and interviews with practitioners, tracking how, when and why actor Kiruna Stamell’s disability was accommodated through the production process. The outcome of the placement was a series of mini-essays published on the National Theatre blog on different models of disability, disability in performance at the National Theatre, and how Stamell’s disability was represented when performing in Great Britain. Robin has received ethical approval from the Ethic Board of the University of Roehampton to conduct interviews as part of his research and is experienced in leading interviews on sensitive subjects, including disability.