Beautiful sunset image of Mainz. A waterfront composed of buildings and spires is seen beyond a calm body of water in the foreground. The waterfront is lit up in golden tones, which are reflected in the water.

Learning in Germany: Reporting from Grenzenlos Kultur

Last week was the 21st Grenzenlos Kultur Festival, held at the StaatstheaterMainz. With a theme of ‘homeland’, this festival for inclusive work also held a symposium called Theater barrier-free where Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited gave a presentation. She tells us what she learnt across her three days in Mainz 

I love attending other organisations events and taking part at two levels simultaneously – as an active punter and an observer. This event has been running for many years, but only recently have disabled people been involved in curation and management and I wanted to know if that made a difference. I like to squeeze every ounce of learning out of things, and Mainz didn’t disappoint – so much to add to my internal filing cabinet of questions, theories and answers. So what exactly did I learn? 

About running events and symposia 

  • We were all allocated a festival volunteer – to meet us at the airport and help orientate us around, to tell us where things were we wanted to know (like where we could get chips) and generally mean we had a friendly face to link to without bothering the organisers. It worked really well especially as the organising team itself was small and very busy.
  • For the symposium, lunch breaks were 90 minutes long – allowing people to escape into the sunshine and both find and eat food without rushing. Nice. And the first day was a gentle sign in at 11am and a 12 noon start. Also nice.
  • If it can go wrong, it will. My session was in a space downstairs – so of course the lift broke. We were relocated to a foyer space, made a few adjustments and just carried on. The whole team was great, especially the translators. Everyone just kept calm and looked for alternatives – there was never any thought of continuing in the original space with some people excluded. The audience seemed pretty relaxed about the change too.

About what access was provided in Germany that I’ve not seen in the UK 

  • We are used to Easy English being a written form of communication to help people understand text that may be too complex; Simple German takes that into spoken conversation and has live re-speakers at events and in theatre shows, translating the spoken word into simpler to understand words and phrases. I wondered about whether it let speakers off the hook – and meant they didn’t have to try and keep pace with everyone in the room, but it worked brilliantly at performances where the language level, especially in translation, was high. Has this ever been done in England? 
  • Providing not just two types of bean bags (different sizes/shapes and textures) but also a full mattress for people who need to lie down and rest. And not just at the symposium but at one of the theatres too where an entire half row of seats were removed for bean bag and mattress provision. I got to rest on it. Game changer. (I think the Vacuum Cleaner used beds before at an event, and the Festival of Rest and Resistance may have used? So this might just be new to me.) 
  • The translation kit fitted my induction neck loop so instead of straining to lipread the translator or holding headphones up to my bone anchored hearing aid, I could whack the volume up and have the English translation in my head. The volume control was great so I could catch almost every word and best of all this meant I could tweet as well as listen. I don’t usually get to do that whilst watching captions or BSL so it was a much appreciated change for me.

About relaxed performances 

I attended Touretteshero’s session on relaxed performances which was fascinating – best thing I can do is link to their own resources: 

About audio description 

And I attended a session on audio description and sent lots of tweets about what I was learning. I won’t repeat them all (you can see them on my Twitter if you want to see them all) – my top three were: 

  • The tactile tour on stage where they needed to limit numbers after 50 people and 20 guide dogs all turned up at once.
  • The fact that for the theatre giving the workshop (Schauspiel Leipzig), the audio description translation process only starts once a play has opened so that audience reaction can be fed into the description
  • And the need for seating choice – some people like to be at the front to literally hear the breath of performers, others don’t want stigma of being ultra visible at the front. It’s the responsibility of Front of House to offer real choice rather than make assumptions.

And about my own personal travel needs… 

I was better than usual about managing my energy this time – as I knew I was coming on this trip tired after a slightly too full week the week before. I therefore decided in advance that I wasn’t going to be able to do the 9pm shows – sad but realistic. I still got to see the iconic Peelingby Taking Flight, written by Unlimited alumni Kaite O’Reilley, plus the stunning Into the Light byHijinx. Meant I missed our own commission This is Not a Safe Space, by Jackie Hagan and Diane for a Day. Sad, but necessary. I also rediscovered the joy of a bed-picnic at the end of busy day, rather than dealing with a meal out. 

I travel lots and like to book my own travel details where I can. And that also means when I make a mistake it’s all mine! I did the classic ‘book the flight and don’t think about the luggage’ thing and the outwards flight was with Ryanair who have recently changed their baggage allowance so even my teeny tiny rolling bag was too big and I’d left it too late to add baggage so I had to take a rucksack. That’s why, a few days after coming home, I’m laid up in bed with a neck I can’t move and shoulder pain that’s almost (but not quite) stopping me from typing.  

I get teased lots for my bags on wheels but I can’t carry bags anymore. Which I need to remember. And that means more attention when booking flights. All good learning!