Circus-theatre artist Ruby Burgess shares some thoughts on the topic of access in performance
I want to start off with a disclaimer, because I am not an expert on accessibility in performance work. There are some actual experts who you can hire for their help and consultation. This piece is just intended to provoke some initial thoughts and maybe give some guidance on how to get started, from one novice to another. Think of it as a tasting menu, giving you a little nibble on some of the many delicious ways you can include access in your work. Hopefully, one or more of the flavours will pique your interest and you can go looking for the full recipe, or find a chef that specialises in that area. Feel free to skip through, miss things out and choose the juiciest bits for you.
First things first: What do I mean when I say access or accessibility? Essentially I’m talking about practices that make it possible for people to be able to access your work. We often think of access in relation to disability and although this is crucial, it isn’t the only element to consider. Access (or lack thereof) could be physical, sensory, financial, social, intellectual and more. This also intersects with oppression, as people from different marginalised groups can encounter more access barriers because of this.
Accessibility is in the zeitgeist of the creative industry, perhaps partially because of D/deaf actress Rose Ayling-Ellis winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2021. Since her win, there has reportedly been an increased interest in learning British Sign Language (BSL) and a private members bill which, if it passes will finally provide better legal recognition and protection of the language. (Editor’s note: since this article was written, that bill passed through its final stages in the House of Commons and House of Lords, and received Royal Assent on 28 April 2022.)
At the same time, some arts organisations and funding bodies are prioritising accessibility as a focus. This is of course a positive move, but it has contributed to it becoming a bit of a buzzword and people may use it hastily or in order to tick a box. If you are going to include access, it is best to take the time to do it properly. You might be new to the concept or feel a bit overwhelmed about where to start or how to get it right. I aim to give you some starting points: some prompts and questions that will hopefully point you in the right direction and help you find your own answers.
My personal background is in circus theatre, as an emerging performer, a journalist and a teacher. As a student at Circomedia circus school, I focused on creative access for circus in my ‘practice as research’ module in the third year of the BA course. In this module we were encouraged to examine and develop our practice through conducting practical experiments. For me this included gaffer-taping various instruments to myself and trying to translate trapeze moves into a music box melody. Since graduating I have attended seminars, workshops and courses and learned from companies such as Quiplash and Extraordinary Bodies. There are so many different techniques and I continue to enjoy discovering approaches across artforms.
When looking into access I find it important to look at the political backdrop both in society and in your specific artform. So here are a couple of points that I think are key to know about in relation to disability activism:
With regard to the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful for service providers to treat disabled people less favourably because they are disabled. Anyone providing a service to the public must make reasonable adjustments to make sure disabled people can access these services. As many will testify, this rule is often ignored, but it is there. Is art a public service? I would argue that it can be and should be.
I have also found it useful to look at access through the framework of the social model of disability. The social model of disability was developed in opposition to the medical model. The medical model says that people are disabled by their differences and focuses on what is ‘wrong’ with the individual. The social model on the other hand was developed by disabled activists in the 1980s and argues that people are disabled by the barriers created by society. A simple example of this would be someone in a wheelchair not being able to access a building. The problem is not that they are in a wheelchair (medical model) but that the building doesn’t have ramps (social model). These barriers can be physical, like the example given, but they can also be organisational or attitudinal. The response to Covid has highlighted how easily large sections of society can be disregarded. So, thinking about implementing accessible practices in your work could be a great place to start in pushing against that for positive change. As far as I’m concerned, everything is political, so even if you are not making work about politics there is no such thing as a neutral performance. Thinking about access can be a useful entry point to thinking about what is inherent within your work. What messages are you sending? What ideas are you perpetuating? What is the situation you are performing in? and how do you want to respond to that?
When it comes to circus, there can often be a deluded romanticism around its perceived inclusivity. It can be positioned as an alternative artform that sits outside of the mainstream and welcomes in all types of people. While I do believe circus has this potential, and that this is true in some cases, it has a long way to go. Circus can often be a spectacle of virtuosity, displaying cis/heteoro-normative narratives, and can be just as guilty of perpetuating stereotypes as any other artform. In circus dramaturg Bauke Lievens’ open letters to circus, she references it as ‘a parade of perfectly trained, disciplined bodies that conform with the norm of what is considered beautiful, useful, virile or sexy’. While this may seem harmless to some, I believe that by conforming and not questioning the tropes of circus, we are complicit in allowing our artform to fail large demographics of people. Instead of displaying the superhuman, I prefer circus that reveals the very human elements of the craft: risk, failure, struggle and connection. Live performance that engages us through shared experience.
Ideally, I think it is good to include thinking about access from the beginning of the process. Let’s use the example of the building again. If you build in access from the foundations – accessible non-gender-specific bathrooms, ramps, lifts, etc. – then it is much more efficient than taking an existing old building and trying to adapt and add on to what already exists. The same goes for a performance. Integrating access into your process can add an exciting new dimension, whereas trying to fit it in at the end can feel clunky. It’s important to remember that access doesn’t start and end when the show does, so think about who will hear about it and feel welcome. Who will be able to get there, be able to afford it, and be able to engage with your marketing materials? Once you have figured these things out try to be transparent about what you find. Make information available about the accessibility of your venue, including the parking and transport links, and be clear about what can be expected in the show. This way people can make informed decisions about whether they want to come. One way you can do this is by using familiarisation tours or introductory videos so that people know what to expect. An example of this is the videos introducing performers and their characters by Can’t Sit Still Theatre, for the show Oh No, George!
The approaches you can include of course depend on the form or content that you are working within. For example, circus is often a very visual artform, so it may already be suited to D/deaf or hard-of-hearing audiences, or only need small adjustments. If you perform outdoors, then it may be free to watch and people who might not feel welcome in a theatre setting could be more likely to see it. One easy way to tweak the format is by having all or some of your shows as a relaxed performance, where house lights are up and people know they can make noise or move around without judgement. You could have BSL interpretation or audio description included. You could also offer services like touch tours, where audience members can come and familiarise themselves with the set, characters and costumes. This is primarily for blind or visually impaired people but could also be useful and interesting for anyone for a variety of reasons. One technique which I thought was effective and relatively straightforward to implement is having a sensory book to explore before you go in to watch a show. I saw this used by Spare Tyre Theatre in their show Nights At The Circus. They had samples of the characters’ costumes on each page so that you could experience textures that supported the imagery we were about to be presented with.
It is worth researching different methodologies, as there can be varied approaches to the same type of access. For example audio description can range from more traditional, where a script that factually describes what’s happening is delivered through headsets, to an integrated approach where the describer is a character in the performance. A show might have a BSL interpreter at the side of a stage, or as in the case of Deafinitely Theatre company, they produce bilingual shows using BSL and English. None of these are necessarily the ‘right’ way of doing it, but investigate the preferences of your audience and think about what works with what you want to create. With a more literal translation of action sometimes the less tangible elements of creative expression can be lost. However when trying to convey a more emotive or complex reading of a performance, it is important not to dictate the interpretation of the audience member. This is an intricate balance, but I think the key lies in not expecting everyone to come away with the exact same experience. No one should come away feeling like they missed out on something because of access, instead your audience should have a full experience with equal effort put into the different means of communication.
When attending the Serious Circus Symposium run by Stumble Dance Circus at Jacksons Lane, an event ‘dedicated to socially engaged physical performance’ I spoke to an audio description advisor, Chloë Clarke, who was able to give me a lot of insight into different methods and why they tend to work or be ineffective. I spoke to her about feeling uncomfortable about the seemingly self-centred nature of exploring all the ways that an audience could access me and my performance. I was particularly aware of this as someone who is white and non-disabled. She gave me some incredibly useful advice, which was in essence to ‘get over myself’. No one can do everything and it is essential to work within your area of knowledge.
It should not have to be a radical act to consider access, but in the current climate it often is. Taking an intersectional approach to creativity acknowledges that everyone’s liberation is tied up together. Taking into account the needs of artists, audiences and anyone else involved in the process could help revolutionise the approach you take to making. Creating with accessibility in mind can also help you find ways to enrich your work with more depth of expression. It can result in a more thorough and multi-dimensional performance and open you up to a wealth of possibilities. It may take some time to get it right, but exercising patience and consideration for others is a good practice to engage with anyway.
Featured image (top pf page): Extraordinary Bodies: Human. Photo by Ali Wright .
Image Description: Two performers next to each other on a stage. A man wearing a grey tshirt is on the floor in front of a wheelchair. His hands are resting on the floor in front of him. A woman in a red jacket sits on a wooden chair and hugs a brown leather bag into her chest. They are both looking at each other.
Ruby Burgess is a circus and physical theatre artist based in Bristol. She is a graduate of the Circomedia BA course where she specialised in static and swinging trapeze, and now teaches. She is interested in creative accessibility and making absurd comedy about socio-political subjects. She also runs a circus podcast which you can find at notmymonkeyspodcast.com
Ruby Burgess took part in the Total Theatre Artists as Writers programme 2021-2022
Nights at the Circus spare tyre https://www.sparetyre.org/
Deafinitely Theatre company https://www.deafinitelytheatre.co.uk/
Can’t Sit Still: Oh No George https://www.cantsitstill.net/oh-no-george.html
Bauke Lievens Between being and imagining research project (2013-17) – the myth called circus http://sideshow-circusmagazine.com/being-imaging/letter-myth
Quiplash – https://www.quiplash.co.uk/
Book recommendation: Louise Fryer and Amelia Cavallo: Integrated Access in Live Performance (Routledge, 2021) https://www.routledge.com/Integrated-Access-in-Live-Performance/Fryer-Cavallo/p/book/9780367190729
Extraordinary Bodies: Circus for everybody – the trainers toolkit https://www.extraordinarybodies.org.uk/our-work/the-future-of-circus/circus-for-everybody-the-trainers-toolkit/