‘Art and Access’: Needs versus Desires for audiences with profound learning disabilities

Relaxed performance imageIn this article, I want to interrogate what the term ‘accessible’ means in the context of theatre for children and adults who are disabled. Huge progress has been made in recent years in broadening access to performances in mainstream venues. However, we need to question whether improved access necessarily equates with meaningful artistic engagement.

To begin, let’s imagine we’re going to the theatre. Let’s say we’re seeing a play at the National Theatre. Which show we are going to see is not important; instead let’s focus on our expectations of the experience: The National is one of the country’s most respected dramatic institutions, so it is likely that whatever we’re seeing will fall into the category of ‘high art’; cerebral, story lines rich in subtext and symbolism; impressive sets; authentic costumes. In short, it will be ‘theatre of the mind’ – but whose mind?

As Lyn Gardner acknowledged in a recent article for The Guardian ‘Live Theatre needn’t be watched in respectful silence’, a dominant culture exists around the act of spectating. The theatre as an institution expects something of us, its audience, too. An unspoken set of rules exists, based on arguably elitist traditions of ‘how one behaves at the theatre’. These include: be quiet when the lights go down; don’t talk during the show; sit through the entirety of the piece, even if you find it, irrelevant, lifeless, or, (the worst of all theatre sins)- boring. These rules are policed by ushers who can remove us from the audience if we fail to behave accordingly.

It is easy to see how this behavioural contract often excludes people with certain disabilities – many of those on the autistic spectrum, for example, cannot necessarily guarantee silence for an imposed period of time.

In recent times, several UK theatres – including the National – have started to recognise that to enforce a blanket code of conduct, effectively constitutes discrimination. An alternative has therefore been created: the ‘relaxed performance’. These are stagings of productions in which audience members are relieved of the usual constraints, while attempts are made to make the theatre itself a less ‘stressful’ building. A ‘relaxed’ audience are not required to stay silent; people may be permitted to come and go as they please; ‘quiet spaces’ may be provided with a live feed of the performance being shown; the house lights may stay on. Venues go to significant lengths to create a non-judgmental atmosphere.

The ‘relaxed performance’ represents a clear step forward for modern theatre, the impact of which I do not underestimate. There should be more of them. They undeniably give the opportunity for large numbers of people with disabilities to enjoy spectacular mainstream productions.

Ironically, however, the prevailing relaxed performance model, risks becoming a limitation to real inclusion for some people with disabilities: It has emerged as the catch-all model; leading to a rather singular stereotype of what a person who is disabled ‘needs’. For example, some of the most invisible members of our society – those with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) – are in many ways, currently being artistically excluded.

Relaxed performances primarily focus on finding practical solutions to make theatre more accessible. Potentially negative emotional responses to effects such as loud noises and flashing lights are also taken into consideration. The artistic material of the performance – its script, narrative, staging, themes – is generally not altered. The issue of whether the content of a production might be made more relevant or creatively engaging for a wide variety of of people with certain disabilities is thus buried beneath the access question.

There is of course a counter-argument, and here I quote Ros Hayes, Head of Access at the National Theatre. Speaking of the institution’s first-ever relaxed performance, in 2012, she said:

‘Crucially, there is to be no change in the content. Why should an audience member be patronised or cheated on the drama simply because he or she has a learning disability?’

Of course, Ms Hayes is talking about a performance in which modifications to the theatre-going experience have been made for audiences with disabilities. But I would suggest that by not altering a performance’s content, we in fact neglect the creative needs and desires of those with severe intellectual disabilities.

Before getting further into this, we need to confront a wider cultural truth: that separating out and labelling groups, while controversial (particularly if one is not part of that group) is sometimes necessary. Society is so uncomfortable with disability in general that attempts to state difference within it – intellectually, or physically – can be interpreted as ghettoising. This can result in the classification of ‘disability’ as one thing, rather than a broad spectrum of varying needs. Michael Oliver argues (in Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice) that this has created a form of cultural disability:

“In fact society is disabled as it has been unsuccessful in providing appropriately for difference.”

Another cultural factor may be how we define ‘high art’. Through their introduction of relaxed performances mainstream theatres have acknowledged the voices of highly politicised individuals such as the prolific Jess Thom – a hugely creative artist, with a physical disability, who has tirelessly and effectively campaigned to theatres, stating: ‘we deserve to be treated the same’. This means the venue making whatever practical and attitudinal changes they need to, to enable people with disabilities access to enjoy the same work that the rest of society is regularly able to indulge in. Yet people with severe learning disabilities do not have such a representative voice. Problematically, this seems to translate into a belief within the mainstream theatre community that philanthropy is to give everyone access to ‘high art’ – as the non-intellectually disabled would define it.

What is generally overlooked is that people with PMLD have very different processing times and a wholly different way of relating to the world. With full respect to venues like the National Theatre, and the progress they have made in the area of audience diversity, these vibrant, fascinating and infinitely complex individuals, would get little-to-nothing from being ‘let in’ to watch a relaxed performance of a play by Harold Pinter or David Hare.

Professor Bree Hadley, (of Queensland University of Technology), provides an insight into this:

‘In most cases disabled people need to be closer to things, further from things, see things, touch things, translate things into different formats, to perceive and interpret their world.’

What their experience of the world often does not allow for, however, is an appreciation for language, plot or or a conventional understanding of the subtleties of dramatic performance – the standardised tropes of naturalistic theatre. I would suggest that for people with PMLD, the maxim of ‘we deserve to be treated the same’ simply doesn’t work. In effect, all it means is that their alternative intellectual and stylistic needs are being ignored. Instead, a new demand must be considered: ‘we deserve to be treated differently, with our very different needs met’.

Furthering this idea of needs versus desires; it is very easy to ‘park’ someone with PMLD in a theatre and simply assume that they are getting something from the experience. There is overwhelming research on the negative impact of ‘parking’ people and equating this with them being meaningfully engaged. For example, the fact that the majority of people with PMLD either cannot see, or can only discern action within their immediate proximity, is often not connected to the fact that the show they are ostensibly ‘watching’ is at least twenty feet in the distance. And of course, these are not people who can verbalise, or complain about, their non-experience. Professor Hadley explains:

‘Addressing needs without addressing interests or desires is considered ‘enough’. Many people – disabled and non-disabled alike – are so thoroughly indoctrinated into this that they would be mortified to think disabled people might complain about well-meaning attempts to ‘help’ them with special assistants, seating or sessions […] [and additionally] burden fellow spectators with requests for more.’

The current popularity of relaxed performances has gone some way towards meeting the needs and desires of people with physical disabilities, and high functioning individuals with learning disabilities. But it has also created an uncomfortable hierarchy in which these are placed over and above the desires and needs of people with PMLD. I hope that by drawing more attention to this issue, it will encourage a more in-depth consideration of the existing templates for relaxed performance, and the further development of additional performance models to cater more meaningfully for all.

I want to conclude by emphasising my respect and support for those working in this challenging and complex field. Although there is some way to go, we should celebrate the changes that are already being implemented and the huge impact these have. I’d therefore like to end on a quote from a parent who attended a relaxed performance with their children:

“Please put more shows on; they are the only way our family
can go out.”

In my next blog post I’ll be putting my money where my mouth is: drawing from the world of experimental theatre to offer a dynamic new approach to adapting shows for audiences with profound learning disabilities.

I would love to hear your thought so please comment on this article, or join the wider conversation at Upfront Performance Network (closed group) on facebook. (request to join).

Ellie Griffiths

Upfront Performance Network



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