Accessible theatre improves choice for everyone

A guest blog post by Melanie Sharpe, StageTEXT CEO

Over the past year I’ve read numerous articles about how theatre is going to survive this pandemic, about how venues plan to reopen to smaller audiences, how shows will work with social distancing, and what the future of the arts will look like as a whole.  Only to have these plans and visions turned on their heads after a flurry of cancellations and lockdown changes. It’s enough to make you dizzy.

We all know that things have changed forever. we will not be going back to how things were, to do so would mean ignoring the emotional, financial, and physical hardships the cultural sector and people individually have been living with.

As a CEO of a small charity, we’ve always needed to be flexible, resilient, driven, and above all else, passionate about our work: it ensures that we offer the absolute highest service to our d/Deaf audiences. This has never been more important than over the last year, as it is these qualities that have helped us when making major decisions overnight and tackling an ever-changing landscape.

However, from all this chaos, inspiration can blossom, change can be liberating, and new ideas lead to new opportunities. 2020 for many will be known as a bleak year, but for us and our audience it also led to a year of greater choices.

Choice was something may people took for granted, and over the last three lockdowns everyone has had their choices reduced or restricted. A year ago, we had over 1000 theatres operating in the UK. Picking a show to watch was never easier, at least for most people. But for many d/Deaf and hard of hearing people, it didn’t matter how many theatres were open. If the shows they offered weren’t captioned, it wasn’t accessible to them. Their cultural choices were always very limited.

Stagetext, uses captions and subtitles to make the work of theatres, museums, and galleries accessible to people who are d/Deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing, and we’ve always been very aware that the ability to simply choose a show to watch isn’t straightforward for everyone. Despite the abundance of theatres across the UK, our users had a much smaller pool of accessible performances to pick from. We worked on hundreds of captioned and subtitled shows each year, but this was just a drop in the ocean compared to the number of productions available to people who don’t rely on captions.

When the first lockdown hit it seemed to level the playing field, as everyone had their choices limited. Though the thought of no productions was never an option, and venues across the country worked incredibly hard to find new ways to bring their work to their audiences at home. I think this opened people’s eyes to some of the barriers that d/Deaf people experience daily when wanting to watch a show.

As people moved their work online, we began connecting with theatres, galleries, and museums who had never provided digital subtitles before and it quickly became clear to them that having captions and subtitles was liberating – it enabled greater choice for everyone, which led to bigger audiences coming from anywhere in the world.

One of the many benefits of subtitles, is that not only does it provide access for d/Deaf audiences, it also provides access to people with English as an additional language, people who are neurodivergent, young people struggling with literacy, as well as those who just enjoy the experience of watching a performance with subtitles.

This whole new wave of online content, whether it’s talks on Zoom, productions on YouTube, or showcasing work on fantastic streaming platforms like Scenesaver, was being made available and accessible, something I really hope continues, as we all benefit from greater choice.

Stagetext caption users are no longer feeling so restricted, they don’t need to book a Tuesday afternoon off work to attend the one captioned performance that’s scheduled at their local theatre this month. With online access everyone across the country can sit down on a Friday night, from the comfort of their armchair and stream the latest offering from The National Theatre, or one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, or even that avant-garde art piece from their local fringe. Though we are apart, in different houses, nowhere near an auditorium, bringing theatre online with captions and subtitles had given our users more choice than they had ever had before, allowing us all to enjoys shows together and share in a collective.

Stagetext will continue to work hard providing access and promoting access throughout the cultural sector, no matter what the next few weeks, months, or years have to offer, as we know how important it is that everyone can experience the arts, whether that’s live in a venue or via online streaming.

So, when I read articles about how theatres and the arts will survive after the pandemic, what I hope is that no matter what path they go down, they don’t forget to include everyone in their planning. Whether you want to sit in the audience at the biggest theatre in the West End or turn on Scenesaver to stream a show online, captions and subtitles give people the ability to make that choice.

Watch captioned work on Scenesaver | Visit Stagetext to find out more

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