ONE-IN-SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION
15.06.2012 / The Word / 0 Comments
One in six of us is hard of hearing. Richard Lee, director of Jerwood Space and chair of Stagetext, takes to task the theatres and producers that ignore them
I once came out of an absolutely thrilling piece of opera but I had no idea what was said or sung. I asked the director why it wasn't surtitled, why the headsets weren't working clearly, why there was no libretto available. He tried to get answers from the front-of-house and technical staff. Eventually, he responded: "Richard, you're not dis- abled. Theatres disable you".
I've been in love with theatre since I can't remember. I'm a vacuum clean- er for it, trying to take in all kinds of work (including dance and opera), partly because I work in the field but mainly because I don't know a more thrilling enterprise than people's imagination "bodying forth".
So when my hearing started to fade about ten years ago, and what was coming off the stage was increasingly like aural mush, I thought it would be impossible to continue. Sure, hearing-aids help, but try sitting through a couple of hours of text which is really loud but still indistinct. Losing your hearing isn't (just) about increasing silence. Trust me, there's plenty of noise - what you can't perceive is the "shape of words".
Captioning brings it all back into focus. The text appears, as it's spoken, clarifying what you're hearing. And it's not just a few of us that benefit. Every time audiences are surveyed -
"Did you find the captions useful?" - the "yes" response is often up to half the audience, which far exceeds the number of people who actually book for captioned performances.
What puzzles me is that while a whole range of theatres do it, provision remains inconsistent. Everyone I mention it to agrees it's a great idea or knows someone who could benefit. There are some fantastically committed organisations that do, from the purely commercial big-hitters to smaller-scale independent producers and one or two fringe venues. There are, of course, publicly subsidised providers at national and regional level, smaller-scale venues and some touring companies who ensure acces- sibility to their work.
But what there isn't is a consistency, a normality of approach that makes access as normal as the programmes you buy or the seats you sit in. There are significant pro- ducers and venues, both commercial and subsidised, that make no effort, who are shirking their responsibility to audiences.
This is not about the Disability Act and the requirement to make reason- able (sic) provision (though heaven knows, one day someone's going to be driven to litigation and it won't be pretty). This is about engaging and
improving your audiences. Yes, it costs to provide captioning:
but it also costs to have a 50 per cent empty house in a west-end J.B. Priestley revival when you could've brought in many more of the older audience who are the target for that kind of work. When captioning's done regularly, the audience grows.
And let's be clear: theatres should stop blaming producers who don't programme it, and producers should stop blaming theatres for excessive rents. You're both responsible to the audience that pays your rent. Deal with it.
There are around 10m - 1-in-6 of the population - with some degree of hearing loss, but many (perhaps most of them) don't see themselves as part of "the deaf community" or even as "disabled" and wouldn't dream of connecting to "disability access web- sites". They want to walk into the theatre and get what everyone gets. After all, we are the most-word-based theatre culture in the world!
So often, the response from providers, legislators, etc is "We do signed performances/lots of work by deaf artists". I don't sign because it's not my language. When I go to the theatre I want the text that's spoken, not an interpretation, however beautiful or apt in its own right. I have every respect for the work made by artists
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