Editor's Note: I asked Hayden to write me this article as I feel that some public discussion around issues of accessibility in the Queensland theatre industry is both highly necessary and overdue. As an able bodied , university educated, white, (more or less) middle class theatre goer and professional I realize the position of benefit and inherent power and privilege that I have and that I bring to any discussion of political issues that relate to the theatre industry.
As a qualitative researcher and ethically minded journalist I champion an emancipatory ideology in giving people whom are effected personally by issues the opportunity to speak for themselves. It is no good for an editor, writer, researcher or journalist who is in a position of power and influence to somehow speak for people who do not share the same privileges of access, education and limit from public and professional biases. The article you are about to read is composed of Hayden's words, words that are his own and not added to or interfered with by me and based on his experiences and perceptions of the issues of accessibility in Queensland's theatre industry which he is far more qualified to speak of than I am. – Brent
Theatre in a Darker Shade: By Hayden Smith
There's a certain sense of excitement when you walk into the atrium of a theatre isn't there?
That humming undertone, the tense anticipation almost electric in the air. For some theatre goers, this is all that they can bear witness to. Oh sure, the decor is still there filled with posters and artworks and picturesque views, but for some theatre goers, all of this is lost. I direct your attention to people with a vision impairment.
Have you ever considered the experience of attending the theatre and not being able to see the catharsis on stage? For most, this is somewhat of an absurd proposition. However, for select few audience members, theatre is an experience that relies on senses other than sight. Feelings of the audience reactions around them, special effects used on stage, the music, the dialogue and so on are how one can understand what is happening without being able to "see" it. This is what makes up their limited experience with theatre. This is not the case in other parts of Australia, or even internationally. For in Queensland, we present what could be considered the most limiting theatre experience for patrons. Elsewhere, theatre goers with a vision impairment can be provided with a pre-recorded descriptive dialogue which assists their viewing of the production they attend. With the description, which is usually provided to them through an earpiece, the gaps in significant dialogue on stage are filled with descriptions of actions, costuming, set design and other details that they would've been otherwise unaware of. Is this available in Queensland? No. Does it pose a gap in equality of the theatre experience? Yes it does.
Even more so, theatre companies fail to provide a measure of equality in regards to associated materials to their productions. More often than not you find production websites are written in such a way that theatre attendees with vision impairments are unable to interact with them on a basic level. Programs which are provided at theatres do not have any accessible mediums either in braille, large print or electronic; for the electronic copies are usually in inaccessible formats along with their websites. Although not an exclusive issue with attendees to the theatre, digital accessibility is an ongoing point which continuously provides restrictive measures for visually impaired persons to access content. Are there alternatives? Definitely so. Are they being explored to develop the notion of information equality? No.
There's also the other side of the curtain, where aspiring actors and creatives alike make their living in the world. With one important difference; None of them are visually impaired. More often than not, directors are interested in actors that can get the job done efficiently an independently. In the case of actors with vision impairments, a degree of support is required to access the materials necessary to perform their roll. Even so, after the exhaustively restrictive amounts of red-tape have been jumped over to get the visually impaired actor his or her materials, can they actually perform the roll they've been cast? Therein looms the second bane of a visually impaired actors existence: workplace Health and Safety requirements. In the legal sense, a visually impaired actor is a severe liability with an ever-changing set and the different props in and around the stage area, which most theatres consider too much of a risk and disallow it.
This is not to say that there are no opportunities for aspiring disabled actors, just that such opportunities need to be sifted through – like finding a needle in a haystack. Two prominent productions which offer a degree of success for otherwise disadvantaged actors are Avenue Q and Little Shop of Horrors. In these two productions, key characters are portrayed by puppetry on stage and therefore, do not actually require the voice actor's physical presence. To this end, they are able to engage with the production on an intrinsic level without being relegated to a minor or support role or disregarded altogether.
So in a nutshell: the theatre industry certainly has a way to go on both sides of the curtain to provide an equal opportunity platform for actors to work on a production together. Definitely not an impossibility by any stretch of the imagination and as technology evolves to create new and dynamic theatre experiences, so to will the way in which actors interact with the theatre experience.