Challenging Work in Accessible Spaces

Almost a year ago I took part in a writers group at the Royal Court Theatre. One of the highlights was meeting other writers and theatre makers. Among them was Jessica Latowicki, one half of the theatre company Made In China. We’ve stayed in touch and Jess has been to see our show Backstage In Biscuit Land a couple of times. Excitingly Made In China are committed to making their work accessible to more people through relaxed performances.

Jess writes here about making challenging work, ideas, and experiences, inclusive for diverse audiences.

Main Promo

The theatre should be a space anyone feels comfortable being in. It should not be limiting and it should not be exclusive.

This is very different from saying that the work that is put on inside theatres should be easy on its audience, lack rigour and be formally bland. There’s been a trend recently towards conflating true accessibility with what I’d call faux accessibility. True accessibility has to do with space and who feels permitted to be there; faux accessibility tends to involve unchallenging work made specifically to be easier to digest, intellectually and emotionally.

Faux accessibility can produce very popular, entertaining work, sometimes to the extent that I’d call its identity as ‘art’ into question. This might sound snobbish, but I think it’s the opposite. The oversimplification of art is what seems snobbish (and condescending). It implies that audiences can’t handle experimental or unfamiliar forms, difficult questions or complex uncomfortable feelings.

It’s important to say here that I absolutely don’t think that popularity equals oversimplification. On the contrary, I’ve seen some really excellent, artistically valuable, hugely difficult, very entertaining shows in the past couple of years that deserve every single accolade, beaming audience vox-pop, good review and sell-out performance.

These pieces were popular because they were really good! I’m also not making the point that the desire to be popular by venues and artists alike discredits artistic merit – I happen to think that’s total bullshit. I, like many artists I know, want my work to reach a really wide audience. I want lots of different people to engage with it. However, I want them to engage with it on my terms, at least when it comes to form and content. I hope that the shows I make challenge people to ask questions of themselves, their fellow audience members, the society they live in, and of theatre and performance itself. Whether I always fully achieve that is a different question! But it’s what I aim for.

I’m not a fan of exclusivity. I don’t think that certain types of shows are only for certain types of people. This is what access is about. There are a lot of cultural spaces, spaces which are supposedly public, that have an invisible fence around them. If you happen to find yourself with the right equipment, you’ll have vaulted the fence repeatedly and with ease, to the point you don’t even notice it’s there (after all, it’s invisible). But factors like access requirements, income, class, education, race and gender (to name a few) mean that there are loads of people who don’t feel like they can just breeze into these spaces.

This afflicts theatres of all kinds, which is bad for lots of reasons. One reason, for me, is that theatre provides the opportunity for people to come together in a group, in a single physical space, to go through something focused and unique. There aren’t all that many of these sorts of spaces around in contemporary society. The events that unfold there won’t ever be repeated in exactly the same way; the people present will forever be the only ones who experienced that particular unfolding.

This is an amazing thing, but it’s all the more amazing if a) the opportunity is genuinely given to everyone and b) the events that unfold aren’t dumbed down. It’s not as simple as it being unfair to implicitly exclude people, and patronising to only include them in the context of dumbed down work. I mean, it obviously is that, but it’s more than that too. It’s about how good, interesting and vital it feels to go to the theatre, whether you’re someone who’s been vaulting the invisible fence forever or someone who’s never crossed it before.

The theatre should be a place where we’re interacting with people who are different from us, with different backgrounds, experiences, outlooks and tastes. But people with whom, for the length of the performance, we share a common identity, as audience members who are equally clueless or curious or excited about what’s going to happen. In this way, the theatre event is a leveller.

If we come together in this way with all kinds of people, and then experience work that is challenging, all sorts of things might happen. At one end of the scale, we’ll react to the performance in all sorts of different ways, from delight to disgust and everything in between. With all the differences amongst us, this is bound to happen to some extent – maybe in extremity.

We might express our reactions differently too: some with silence throughout and polite applause at the end, some by laughing at every opportunity, some by vocalising a response whether deliberately or impulsively, some by crying, some by taking to their feet whether to show extreme appreciation (at the end) or extreme disinterest (walking out halfway through!)

At the other end of the scale, we might, despite our differences, have a relatively unified reaction as an audience. We might find the sense of being the only people to ever experience this particular unfolding of events, and the sense that we’ve been part of something challenging, overwhelms our differences. Either outcome is great, and liable to get new people talking to each other and more people engaging with the performance beyond it’s duration, whether that’s a conversation on the way out, or a drink in the bar, or continuing to talk about it for days afterwards, or coming back again.

Faux Access is tricksy, because, as its DNA commands, it does a pretty good impression of true access. Faux Access rides on the back of existing theatre convention, which means it tends to draw a far more homogenous audience than I sketch as my ideal audience above (I say ideal, but how sad that an audience that simply suggests the breadth of people there are in our society has to be qualified as ideal).

Faux Access decides that certain shows present good access opportunities: the classic love story that will draw West End audiences into a non-West End venue, the black show that will draw a black audience, the disability show that will draw a disabled audience, etc. I make this sound callous, even offensive, because that’s what I think it is. Yes, it’s good to get ‘different’ people into the theatre – but not in this way! This is just substituting the dominant homogenous audience for another homogenous audience, and implicitly says that all the other shows in the programme that you didn’t push to the ‘different’ group ‘aren’t for them’.

And the whole theatre culture suffers. Night after night, homogenous audiences are led by dumbed-down work through a familiar story arc that gets them feeling emotional at the end, because their values (they’re homogenous, so they have more or less the same values) have been affirmed.

When they applaud and give standing ovations they are partly patting themselves on the back: well done us, we think this, we are moved by that. When they chat about the show they’ve seen on the way out of the theatre, in the bar, at work the next day, it’s often to admire the technicality of the performance or the production values of the show, and usually to check and clarify that their existing values have been affirmed. The sense that comes from this – for audiences but also for programmers who think that happy, untroubled audiences and one ‘access’ show in twenty means a job well done – is cathartic and tends to reassure people that everything is ok.

But everything is not ok. The world is not really ok, the homogeneity of the audience is not really ok, the invisible fence is not really ok, and the safety and security but terrible lack of vibrancy that comes from all this patting on the back reverberates out from the theatre and builds the invisible fence up higher.

We’ve been hearing a lot (arguably, ever since cinema was invented!) that theatre is in crisis. Audience numbers, at least for work not considered ‘mainstream’ are often low and necessary funding is being cut. Meanwhile there are whole groups of people who would love to come to the theatre and bump up those audience numbers, shake up the scene, but feel excluded. The solution to theatre’s ‘crisis’ could be partially solved by ending the exclusion of these groups from the whole breadth of work being made. It seems pretty simple to me: make theatre spaces more accessible, make better theatre.

This is why we have decided to make all of our performances on our upcoming tour for Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me relaxed performances. We hope this decision will make more people feel included and welcome in our shows. People may not like our shows. They may find them too obtuse, or too self-indulgent, or perhaps to theatrey. That’s for the audience to decide for themselves. By making our performances relaxed, we are hoping to encourage a more diverse audience into the theatre, which is going to be the thing that makes us all better audience members, better artists and better members of society.

To make sure everyone is comfortable in the theatre space, we have made a visual story that will describe the action and the environment of the pieces. We will have an announcement at the start of every show inviting people to move around or make noise if they want. We welcome people to be in touch with us if they have questions about what is going to happen during the performance.

There is a misconception that relaxed performances will make it more difficult for the typical theatre audience. We think that’s ridiculous. If anything, we hope having a more diverse audience in cultural spaces will allow people to break out of what they believe is good and proper behaviour and actually begin to rise to the challenge that good and interesting art presents.

Made In China’s show ‘Tonight I’m Going To Be The New Me’ is currently on tour across the UK – a full list of dates can be found here.

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