I recently read a piece on the BBC website that said half of teenagers had never been in a theatre. The article was talking about the annual free Shakespeare performances for schools at the Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank. A survey of the audiences for those special performances showed 44% had never been to a theatre before. If you add a young audience with any kind of disability I am sure that number would come down even further.
You may think, What does it matter? But I took my 12 year old for her first experience of Shakespeare and a London Theatre last year and she loved it. We saw Twelfth Night, she was thrilled, entertained, energized and excited. Because she is autistic and struggles with the theatre environment the relaxed performance with visual story was perfect for her. Not only did she have a taste of Shakespeare, she grew in confidence about what she could do and achieve. The trip was never just about going to the theatre, it was about so much more, so much unsaid, the unquantifiable that makes life fun and enjoyable. In fact she loved it so much she insisted we return this year to see Taming of the Shrew.
This Easter I have come for my first visit to the Almeida Theatre in North London. Andrew Scott, who has many admirers for his role as Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes, is starring in Hamlet. Not so unusual you may think, but the Almeida are putting on a free 4 day festival of events and performances for under 25s. This is a fantastic way to open up theatre which is often prohibitively expensive in London to a wider and younger audience.
As part of this festival the Hamlet I am seeing will be captioned with live subtitles for those who are hard of hearing, deaf and deafened. It will also be audio described by Vocal Eyes for those who are blind or have visual impairment. As part of this accessible performance I have come to take part in the touch tour before the show to experience for myself what goes on and how important it is for widening access to the theatre.
Before the tour starts I chat to a volunteer from the Royal Society for Blind Children who has brought a group of 13 with visual impairment and 10 volunteers who are assisting with the visit. She tells me how the free tickets are a huge help. The event for them is a social experience, they meet up beforehand and after, the RSBC are helping the group to often try something new and gain independence. Arriving early for the touch tour also allows them to experience the theatre environment, box office, bar, cafe and toilets at a quieter time. I notice a marked difference from when I first arrive to just before the performance where the queue snakes around the small space making getting around very difficult.
When the touch tour begins we enter the theatre space and take front row seats. It is a small and intimate venue with around 320 seats. Roz Chalmers from Vocal Eyes and Miranda Yates, who runs the access programme at the Almeida, lead us through the tour. They describe the theatre space, the stage size, which is 15-16 metres wide and about 8 metres deep. They include the stage design and set which is modern and minimalist, right down to the marble effect flooring and how the front of the stage steps down into the audience.
The actors come and join us, they sit along the front of the stage and introduce themselves and their characters. This not only allows the group to link characters to voices but also gives added context to the play. When Juliet Stevenson introduces herself as Hamlet’s mother there is a delightful ‘Wow!’ from one of the group and we all break into spontaneous applause as Juliet says ‘Let’s hear it for all the Mothers!’. It relaxes the group and when Jessica Brown Findlay announces she is Ophelia, Hamlet’s girlfriend, there is an appreciative general ‘Oooo’ that makes us all chuckle.
Questions come from the group, one wants to know how old Hamlet is, another wants to know how long have Rosencrantz and Hamlet have known each other. All this adds context and aids understanding. This will be the first time many are coming to the story of Hamlet and there is an interesting dilemma of how much to share and how much to leave to the performance.
Amaka Okafor, who plays a modern female version of Guildenstern, describes her costume and hair. She explains her previous relationship with Hamlet, how some of their physical closeness on stage may not be apparent in their words alone.
For David Rintoul it is even more important to explain his two roles as his deep sonorous voice will be heard not only as the ghost of Hamlet’s father but the Player King too. Stevenson goes on to describe the ambient musics from her wedding to Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius that will act as the back drop to the opening scenes.
The group is then invited up on the stage, not only to touch props and costumes but also to get a sense of the stage as a physical space. At the back of the stage there are white balloons and fairy lights that set the wedding party scene and there is a corridor made from large sliding glass doors. There is Yorik’s skull to handle and costumes including Ophelia’s gold, light and silky party dress, Hamlet’s glove and heavy cotton fencing clothes that will feature later in the play. The young man next to me tries on the glove and tells me it reminds him of an oven glove. Miranda describes the fencing face guard to a small group, she explains the elastic and how it attaches, they get a chance to feel how heavy it is. I pass it on to another member of the group, he lets his hands roam over the surface and tells me it makes him think of a bee-keepers hat.
Another member of the Almeida staff is describing in detail a delicate pansy to a young girl who is gently feeling the petals between her fingers. There is powder blue and a soft yellow in the centre. Ophelia will give this flower to Laertes in a later scene. There is also rosemary that can be rubbed between the fingers and smelt.
Too quickly the touch tour is over, the main event awaits. During the performance I benefit from the captions displayed on two screens at the left and right of the stage. For those who are hard of hearing, deaf or deafened it makes the actors speech more accessible. It also allows the audience the option of focusing on the language, sometimes I follow closely at other times I let the exact words wash over me.
I listen to the audio description using the device provided, I begin to realise the process of audio description is a complicated business. Initial descriptions are hard to hear as there is a Bob Dylan song played very loudly at the start. I was told by Almeida staff not to turn the volume over 4 on my set as it can then be heard by the actors in quieter moments. The audio description has to fit around the dialogue but also not disrupt those moments of stillness that the artistic direction demands.
Listening to Roz and Miranda who take turns with the description, I realise it is a complex recipe where the actors enter and leave the stage are announced, actors actions with props are often included and lighting effects are all added together to bring the play to life.
There are moments where the audience laughs, it may be from Andrew Scott’s facial expressions as Hamlet or Jessica Brown Findlay raising a cheeky middle finger. How do you capture these quick throwaway physical embodiments of character in just a few words?
At the end of the play I am very grateful to Roz Chalmers from Vocal Eyes and Miranda Yates from the Almeida who sit down with me and explain the process and challenges of capturing 500 year old prose. They tell me of watching a DVD of the performance and press night, how the play evolves and the problems that can bring.
Introductory notes and often interviews are sent out before the performance and available from the Vocal Eyes website. Roz and Miranda are often editing on the hop, working flexibly with each audio described performance. Roz describes the touch tour not as an optional extra or an add on but as an absolute must. It is the one thing that brings the whole performance and description together. She draws up a wish list of props to be included, often unusual items, like fencing gear, which many people would not have come across before to aid later descriptions.
Having actors present is also crucial, placing voices with actors, particularly if they play more than one role can really help visually impaired theatre goers tune in to different voices.
We discuss how far accessibility in theatres has come but how very much further it has to go. Roz told me more directors are becoming aware of the needs of different audiences but their work as audio describers often begins at the end of the process which can make it very difficult to build in time to describe scenes. Some access to the creative process at an earlier stage would make a huge difference to their work.
We are both aware of how access officers in theatres are often combining their work part time with other roles which leaves a gap in dedicated provision and building on good practice over time.
We talk of their work with museums and the move to training more museums staff to give audio descriptive tours. There is spreading awareness that this gives visually impaired visitors more choice, not just saying this is the one tour on offer but giving staff the skills and confidence to welcome visitors to access all parts of the museum.
They explain how complex their job is, using different terminology in the description if a play is more modern or adapting language for a younger audience as well as thinking about visitors who may have learning difficulties. Ultimately we talk about welcoming an audience in their 20s who will then come back in their 30s and 40s and onwards.
When I sit in the cafe afterwards I see two 15 or 16 year olds come in. They look a little unsure, a little nervous, it may be free tickets that draw them in, it may be the lure of Andrew Scott, I doubt it is just Shakespeare’s words alone. I don’t know, it could have been their first ever visit, but what a wonderful thing for the Almeida to offer, that opportunity and experience. I may have been the only audience member over 25 but I have to say it was one of the best audiences I have been a part of, they were respectful, swept up in the performances, not eating or drinking, no phones went off and the applause at the end told me all I needed to know about what they thought of those few hours caught up in Shakespeare’s world.
The touch tour, audio description and captions are just a small part of this free programme for Hamlet but knowing as I do what a difference support has made to my daughter I have no doubts in expressing how important this opportunity is for visually impaired young people.
In the last interval I spoke to a young man eating his ice cream, he had only recently lost his sight, his passion was acting. He loved the tour tour, the play and the whole experience, he was thoroughly enjoying himself. But do you know what? He wanted more, he wanted workshops and classes to be able to act and to learn, and to be honest who can blame him. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, to see Andrew Scott and Juliet Stevenson, to see Luke Thompson and Jessica Brown Findlay take you to another place. But having the chance and opportunity to be inspired is even more wonderful, I just hope more theatres and museums take access on board as the life-changing gift it can be.
Half of teenagers ‘never been in a theatre’, BBC Website, 5th April 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39479035
The Almeida Theatre – https://almeida.co.uk/
Hamlet for free at the Almeida Theatre – https://almeida.co.uk/hamlet-festival
Vocal Eyes – http://vocaleyes.co.uk/
Vocal Eyes – Hamlet description and cast interviews http://vocaleyes.co.uk/events/hamlet/
The Globe – Playing Shakespeare schools performances http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/education/teachers/playing-shakespeare
With thanks to Susie Newbery at the Almeida for arranging my visit. Also to Roz Chalmers and Miranda Yates for being so generous with their time. Feature photo with thanks to Manuel Harlan. Any inaccuracies are purely my own.
I may be a tad over 25 but along with a lot of others visiting for Free Hamlet season it was my first trip to the Almeida and my first experience of Hamlet which made the day all the more special.