Michelle Hedley, a long time caption user and supporter of Stagetext, discusses her experiences with online theatre, how the lockdown has affected her, and what the closure of theatres would mean to her.
My parents brought me up to appreciate theatre, and I particularly fell in love with musicals, but I would always have to sit as close to the stage as possible just to be able to follow the action. Despite the views from the stalls, being that close was never satisfactory, I always would leave the theatre not knowing the names of characters or having missed big chunks of the story. However, even as a child with limited hearing, I was always mesmerised by the wonders of the costumes, sets and choreography, as well as any of the music that I could actually hear.
I first discovered the magical world of Stagetext back in 2011 after seeing a tweet from an actor who was showing off the caption unit ahead of that night’s performance. I was enthralled by the idea and once I found a local performance, I instantly booked my tickets. You could say that my life was changed forever by that tweet as it opened up the world of theatre to me.
Fast forward nearly 10 years and I have been able to experience many captioned performances since then. More importantly though, I have been able to benefit socially, I now feel like I’m part of something, that I’m included. Sitting in the audience being able to watch the show with captions allows me to share the experience with family and friends, it’s allowed us to bond over our favourite shows. With captions I can understand the production and all its nuances, meaning I can join in with discussions and form opinions where I couldn’t before. It has given me the opportunity to explore the arts, expand my cultural knowledge and interact with others in ways I couldn’t before.
But we don’t live in a perfect world, access is still, on occasion seen as an afterthought. I live in the regions; my local theatre receives touring productions, and these are often not accessible to me. It is a sad fact that at my local theatre I am restricted to seeing just a handful of shows each year. I shouldn’t be expected to travel halfway across the country just to see a show.
In March, as the Covid 19 pandemic brought everything to a standstill, the arts community responded by bringing theatre into our homes. However, once again access was not considered and d/Deaf and hard of hearing audiences were excluded all over again. Not only were we isolated from our families, friends and colleagues; the arts had excluded and isolated us too. Despair set in seeing everyone band together and enjoying the arts while I was not being able to access it.
But then they started to listen.
As the calls for access began to spread with strong campaigns from audiences and charities like Stagetext we saw subtitles begin to appear. The weekly instalments of ‘The Shows Must Go On’ became accessible, the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe all released shows with subtitles, much to my delight! I was thought about, I was included, I was able to experience shows that had previously been inaccessible to me and it was a joy to at last see these, albeit years late!
Since then, many organisations have opened their archives, sorted out their subtitles and now my armchair has become my new theatre seat. I can honestly say that I have accessed more performances in these last few months than I have in a lifetime! In many ways the pandemic has provided me with more access to the arts, as I no longer needed to rely solely on my local theatre. On the downside, I do miss being part of the audience, I miss the atmosphere and I miss the thrill of live theatre.
The arts, particularly theatre, have helped me to feel a sense of inclusion throughout my life and have brought me joy while the world has been on lockdown. Without theatres, without musicals, without the arts as a whole, my life will once again change, but this time not for the better. I’m excited to see how theatres will learn from this pandemic, to see how they build on the knowledge that access has helped them reached new audiences and to level the playing field.
As the Cultural sector struggles with no sign of when it will fully reopen, I worry about the future. There are big battles and campaigns to ensure theatres open again but I urge everyone to consider access and its impact on wider society. Theatre and the arts bring people together and access is central to that – our own wellbeing depends on it.
If you’d like to join the call for the UK Government to ensure the survival of the arts, please join Stagetext and VocalEyes in supporting the Public Campaign for the Arts where you can add your voice, sign a petition or write to your MP.