Following on from Unlimited’s packed few days at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Unlimited Trainee, Sarah Thewlis takes us through her experience and how it has informed her thinking about access.
It was with an essay about ableism at the Edinburgh Fringe with which I first applied to Unlimited a year ago. With applications currently open for the next Unlimited Traineeship, it seems fitting that I should revisit the topic now I have experienced the festival in this capacity and with 10 months working in disability arts behind me.
One thing that’s changed on a personal level, is an approach to my own access needs which is both more introspective and more imaginative. I found myself proactively self-monitoring and anticipating solutions, given the many and varied responsibilities up ahead – representing Unlimited at the British Council’s events, helping host our panels, seeing work and maybe at some point finding time to check emails despite the horror of having WiFi-less airbnb!
Discussions around the radical act of rest have had a profound effect on me since joining Unlimited, and so I felt comfortable asking about resting/quiet spaces (though, keeping in mind Raquel Meseguer’s tales of disabled people co-opting existing spaces, also having my National Library of Scotland card close to hand). And whilst taking hurried taxis across the city might be relatable for anyone who’s tried to cram in more shows than time and geography will allow – I now gave myself this option purely out of self-care. Another one of my Fringe-firsts was taking up the offer of audio-description on a day where absorbing dance piece, 111, visually was, though possible, not pain-free. It was something of a Eureka moment – the realisation that (so long as there’s enough to go around), specific access tools needn’t have just one target ‘disability demographic’.
Being Edinburgh and notoriously inaccessible, there was still the odd #AccessFail – It was empowering to feel able to ask whether there was a quiet space – but not ideal when the answer was ‘yes, but it’s currently being used to host a discussion event about accessibility’ or ‘yes, but it also doubles up as a garderobe and there’s some very wet coats in there’. Being excited about widening the target demographic for access provisions does not mean including coats!
‘If it’s already there, why not use it for a secondary purpose too?’ was a line of thinking which, though annoying in this context, did seem useful if flipped on its head in light of the shows I proceeded to see at the Fringe: If it’s already there, why not use it for access purposes?
From moving in disability arts circles, I’ve come to expect that if a projector/screen is in use, the show will be captioned (I’m often wrong, but there’s progress!), as in Jonny Cotsen‘s ‘Louder Is Not Always Clearer’, written to be entirely accessible to D/deaf audiences. With sections typed out, live, for us confessionally, his text created intimacy and togetherness, and I’ve still got his song-lyrics stuck in my head in sign language – another Fringe-first! In Birds of Paradise’s ‘Purposeless Movements’, again, the projection was integral for both the art and the access, leaving me wondering whether it was chicken, egg or all at once.
It was exciting then, that in fact the majority of shows I saw incorporated film and technology in a way that could feasibly do likewise or create other innovative access solutions. ‘Mr. Thing’s’ live chat show employed roving cameras and live snap-chat filter effects to splice footage of the audience into the show (as well as pre-recorded footage of a cannibalistic ‘Judi Dench’ ostensibly in the green-room – but it could have been a captioned Judi Dench!). Though there was one captioned performance listed, Bryony Kimmings’ ‘I’m a Phoenix Bitch!’ seemed primed for more extensive captioning – given how it already featured live vignettes and music videos, using ingeniously positioned props, projected on the back of the stage. Screens, projection and inventive ways of incorporating them were everywhere – and if they’re already there, why not use them for access?
Projected onto the back of the stage of Louise Orwin’s brilliant ‘OH YES OH NO’ was a live sex-show, albeit using Barbie and Ken dolls, and indeed this show was almost entirely captioned due to its central conceit of being a dialogue between the performer and the imagined collective voice of the audience (projected both literally and figuratively!) – one of a number of shows which had a ‘surprise’ integrated accessibility element. Another stand-out example was Richard Gadd’s ‘Baby Reindeer’ which, though not advertised as such, had what I would describe as some of the most creative captioning I’ve ever seen embedded within it. An autobiographical account of having an online (as well as offline) stalker, the perpetrator’s words flashed out angrily above our heads in Summerhall’s tent-like ‘Roundabout’ venue. Coming from on high, like a frustrated god’s, so much of the character was captured in text alone, with small details like the manual, misspelling of ‘Sent from my Iphone’ attesting to her uppity, deceptive yet unconvincing tone. Again, there was one captioned performance, but listed as closed captions on your own device – a shame when the capacity for integrated provisions was as good as inbuilt.
The most surprisingly accessible event I attended however came unexpectedly in the form of cult late-night boozy Fringe phenomenon ‘The Dark Room’ a live 80s choose-your-own adventure video-game with plenty of audience participation, enjoyable regardless of which of my impairments were flaring up. Played live by selected audience members, 8-bit captioned options appear on a black screen, none of which ultimately led anywhere. It ends up being almost entirely audio-described by outlandish gamesmaster, John Robertson, accompanied by the audience chanting the various catchphrases (eg. You Die! You Die! You Die!). It would be an interesting piece to analyse using Unlimited’s Cards for Inclusion access game – What? A Dark Room. Where? A Dark Room. Barrier? None aside from the fact we’re all in a Dark Room (not really, triggers surrounding claustrophobia obviously being the first barriers that leap to mind). It’s damning perhaps of the industry if that’s the only way we can co-experience work, but it was pure fun and featured many oddly rousing displays of unity.
I’m a fan of the various blogs and instagram accounts that reveal which mainstream food products are ‘accidentally vegan’, despite it not being overtly central to their mission or branding, and I wonder if some of that same thinking could apply here. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe website has a function that allows you to filter search results by what additional access requirements are provided, but not one that indicates who the shows are already default-accessible for.
With so many shows where the access provisions are part way there, or maybe fully there but not advertised as such, it is worth asking:
‘What is this? Who does it include/to what extent? How do I make this known?’