View of Torch Theatre from the audience showing an empty, blue-lit stage and many people in the seats holding what appear to be white paper programmes.
Image Credit - Alex Lloyd, Marketing Manager, Torch Theatre

Focusing on the local at Torch Theatre Wales

Unlimited Connects Wales arrived at Milford Haven last week. The new Executive Director, Ben Lloyd, and Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, take us through their notes from the day. Following an exceptionally lush lunch for networking, the group took to the task with honesty, ease and humour. It was Ben’s 10th day as Executive Director of the Torch Theatre, following five years at the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse theatres, but that didn’t stop him diving in, showing both a knowledge of the Torch and also best practice gleaned from Liverpool. With Sara Beer from Disability Arts Cymru and Chris Ryan from Arts Care on the panel, and an audience including representatives from Taking Flight, National Theatre Wales, Arts Council of Wales, Arts Care, plus a Pembrokeshire County Councillor, the discussion was rich and vibrant.

(Click here to read this information in Welsh)

So what exactly did we talk about? The focus was on the local; specifically, local disabled people who may attend venues or activities during the day but aren’t always part of the main audiences for events in theatres, or activities run by arts organisations. Here are some of the issues – and solutions – that were discussed.

Across Wales, public transport is an issue for many, not just for disabled people. Many disabled people can access public transport, especially with travel training, but if the times offered by companies don’t fit with performances or events, there is little they can do. Suggestions included working directly with bus companies, using minibuses as alternatives, making the journey part of the performance or event and funding taxis as an access provision.

Not all disabled people can access public transport, and some who can still require 1-1 care and support. Using volunteer networks and schemes such as Gig Buddies (and extending it to Theatre) were suggested, as well as campaigns such as Stay Up Late, which is pushing for changes to care support hours based on what the individual wants to do. Direct Payments should, in theory, give people more choice over the activities they undertake, although there was a mixed response to how these worked in practice.

The HYNT access card is now leading change in England too, providing one way for disabled people to ensure they get the access they need (and the CEA card), and increasing programmes of audio described, captioned and BSL interpreted work all make a difference when partnered with the extensive audience development activity they need to ensure an audience.

Relaxed performances and dementia friendly performances were talked about – with some also recognising the need to also hold ‘uptight performances’ for those with other access needs which relaxed performances might trigger (such as hearing aid users who may prefer a quieter auditorium). There is an event on 28 Feb on Relaxed Performances at the Park and Dare Theatre for those who want to find out more.

Access apps were also touched on – such as the UCAN GO app – and the increasing role technology has to play in increasing access.

Welcoming all
The importance of customer service came up again and again – the need to both welcome and also think deeply about extending that welcome into an introduction to new activities.

Handing out fliers can be useful,  but to whom? Who do you need to convince? Often there are ‘gatekeepers’ involved who may control the degree of choice an individual has.

Creu Cymru’s audience experience process was mentioned as a good way to really build up empathy with audiences, and ‘mystery shopper’ style activities also praised for giving people an insight into what they can’t always see.

Open days, backstage tours (including those offered online) pre and post event activities, familiarisation tours, touch tours, workshops… there were many examples of things organisations could offer to help people find out more and potentially make that change from participant in a single activity into someone who really feels at home in a venue and more likely to attend other things, especially if the building itself is formal in design, which can be off putting. It was mentioned that workshops linked to events could be extended to wider target groups, and some groups may even wish to link their activities to the programmes of theatres and build in cross overs.

Hate crime against disabled people is on the rise, and there was a plea to ‘call it out’ and  not to be a bystander to negative and abusing behaviour or language, but instead be part of making arts buildings places of safety for disabled people.

Shifting theatres
There were questions about theatre rules and etiquette – why is it like it is? The suggestion of twilight shows at 5.30pm was a revelation to many, and the example of Battersea Arts Centre was discussed – BAC coincidentally became the world’s first relaxed venue on the same day as we held this meeting.

It was acknowledged that we need to shift the perception of all theatre goers and both develop and publicise an inclusive ethos – to both performers and audiences. But how best to change mindsets? We talked about representation – the importance of seeing disabled people on stages and not just in audiences, and the success of the Ramps on the Moon initiative in England and a performance of Midsummers Nights Dream where a local learning disabled company became the Mechanicals. The big question was how to ensure everyone bought into the values of a theatre or arts organisation, rather than just some staff. Here training was mentioned – for staff and also for volunteers.

Professional progression
Hijinx Academy was praise for providing skills to disabled actors, but the next steps remained unclear – perhaps we all can do more to ensure that jobs and opportunities are provided for disabled performers, workshop leaders, technicians and more. Disabled people shouldn’t just be seen as prospective audiences, but should be represented at all levels within organisations. Unlimited has many artists in its alumni, including those based in Wales and many performances, exhibitions and activities that are touring – there is no shortage of high quality work out there, and Disability Arts Cymru has a wide membership of disabled artists (and it was recommended more people join to get their excellent newsletter). The Agent for Change model was discussed as an option, with particular reference to Caroline Bowditch’s role at Scottish Dance Company.

Money, money, money
The difficult subject of money was discussed. Theatres have a mixed economy often with their own productions, hires and shows brought in on box office splits meaning that they can’t always offer the same discounts for every show – something that appears inconsistent from the outside as audience members get told a different message for each show rather than a consistent offer across all. How can venues open up this dialogue with audiences and also with those who hire or perform in their spaces? If the aim of Hynt, for example, is to get more and more disabled people (potentially with free companion tickets) into theatres, what’s the implication of success on the bottom line? In the current financial climate, no arts venue can afford to either ignore financial consequences nor disability access – but what happens when the two butt up against each other?

At the end of the day, the clear message for us all was about respect and responsibility – to everyone. Disabled people aren’t a homogeneous group, but varied individuals with varied needs. How can we all best offer maximum choice and consistency to equalise access to all? Local venues should be for all local people, not just some local people – and to genuinely make this a reality takes time, planning and a real commitment to change.

Ben and the team from The Torch reflected on how useful it has been to take stock of all that The Torch does at present in a frank and supportive environment and with the help of colleagues from across the region, to be able to place this in the wider context of access and provision for disabled people in Pembrokeshire and West Wales, as Ben says: ‘It has been inspiring and encouraging to share experiences and knowledge as we look to identify and negotiate the barriers still in place to full and equal access to, and participation in the arts for disabled people in our community.’

There are five Unlimited Connects Wales events still to come – why not join in and be part of the conversation?

28 February 2020, 11am-4pm: Making Space – The art of curating disabled artists at Tŷ Pawb in Wrexham.

More information here.

5 March 2020, 10.30am-4.30pm: Making it mainstream, making it ours at Ffwrnes in Llanelli

Book your place here.

12 March 2020: Whose art is it anyway? at Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon

Search for Unlimited on their website.

2 April 2020: The Young Ones ­at Aberystwyth Arts Centre

More information here.

27 April: What’s next? Innovation and the future of disability arts at Taliesin Arts

More information here.