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Enhance, Extant's effective and replicable lo-tech model for the creation and delivery of accessible programming, supports venues and theatre companies to create new work for all audiences. Despite many participating organisations not previously believing that making their work accessible was possible, the program has successfully introduced an embracive approach that visually impaired audiences say allows them to immerse themselves in performances they would previously have considered completely out of their reach.
Creating accessible theatrical experiences for visually impaired audiences, particularly using traditional audio description, has long been an expensive endeavour, beset by practical limitations. Because of this, venues understandably tend to focus their accessibility efforts on productions that are guaranteed to pull in a large audience and cover the costs of the exercise. The resultant offer tends to be quite restrictive in terms of the style, scale and scope of performing arts that visually impaired audiences can attend, with shorter runs and more experimental work being often inaccessible.
In 2016, building on over 20 years of creatively integrating access for visually impaired audiences into their own productions, Extant developed a 12-month Arts Council funded tour of Ionesco’s The Chairs to explore how visually impaired-led theatre could be strengthened, and visually impaired audiences nurtured and grown. The Chairs involved a wraparound program of venue training and audience development. It accompanied an experimental piece that integrated audio description into the production itself (rather than requiring audience members to wear headsets), to create a fully accessible, wholly shared theatrical experience for visually impaired and fully sighted audience members alike.
The Audience Agency was commissioned to evaluate both The Chairs pilot project and Extant’s subsequent Enhance program, devised in response to the evaluation's findings and recommendations. Enhance offers an affordable package of support for touring companies and receiving venues to ‘enhance’ access for their productions from the point of creation to post-production, including advising on integrated access, developing touch tours and tools, live program notes (available both before and after the performance), accessible marketing materials and promotion.
Extant commissioned The Audience Agency to evaluate all aspects of the Enhance program, including the organisational, experiential and accessibility impacts for the target audiences, venues, companies and Extant themselves. The Audience Agency team was able to combine decades of experience in adapting and refining research and evaluation methodologies to suit unique projects, with Extant’s unparalleled expertise in accessibility for visually impaired audiences. The process of ensuring that our evaluative tools and activities were appropriate and accessible was entirely collaborative and we at The Audience Agency have felt lucky to be able to develop and improve our own understanding and practices as a result of working alongside Extant.
As well as audience responders, volunteers and Extant staff also included people with visual impairment, so many of the data collection approaches that we often use had to be refined in order to make sure that they were fully accessible for everyone involved in the project – audiences and researchers alike – from fieldworker training to screen-readers and descriptions of charts and tables. In evaluating the Extant Enhance offer it was crucial to ensure that the product would work for the audience, the receiving venue and the producing company:
- The Audience. Through consultation with Extant, we set up an Audience Steering Group who attended a range of different performances and reported back about their experiences.
- The Venues and Companies. We arranged one-to-one telephone calls with the producing theatre companies (including the Lowry and Midlands Arts Centre) and with different members of the receiving venue staff, from front-of-house through to directors and operations managers.
- Extant. Extant’s Artistic Director responded to a series of before and after questions, while telephone interviews and self-completed questionnaires captured the experiences of the access workers involved, along with the company’s intern.
These responses came together in an evaluation report looking at which aspects of Enhance worked well for venues and theatre companies, and where improvements might be made to make it more practical, replicable and applicable to a wider range of different performances and artforms in their program.
The Audience Agency’s review informed the development of an offer that is now available in two different formats, depending on what sort of support the company or the venue is looking for and what guidance they need from Extant in order to make their work more accessible. Some key take-aways from the evaluation included that:
- Prior to taking part in the Enhance pilot, many of the participants felt that there were types of theatrical performance were not, and could not be, accessible to them. Following their experience of the program, most commented that they are now confident that, if it were ‘enhanced’, they could have a meaningful and enjoyable experience of attending any type of theatre.
- Even contemporary dance, which many attenders had previously felt was something they would never be welcomed at, because they thought of it as such a visual art form, was found to be a shared and embracive experience.
- Crucially, across all artforms, removing the need to wear a headset by building audio description into the performance fostered a sense of communality, which everyone agreed to be a key part of the theatrical experience.
- Whilst some producing companies had initial doubts about their ability to make work that is accessible to visually impaired audiences, feedback made clear that working in collaboration with Extant had made a profoundly positive difference. Moreover, participating venues and companies expressed an increased enthusiasm and motivations to prioritise accessibility.
The potential to make a much wider offer available to people with visual impairment and increase the confidence of producing companies in making their work meaningful and accessible to a much broader range of audiences is Enhance’s most exciting and evolving legacy. It’s a win win for both audiences and the venues that welcome them and we can’t wait to see the project continue to flourish.
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