When Cast opened its doors in Doncaster in 2013 it recognised that the audience it served in the town included a large Deaf community. It was working with that community from the start that enabled the theatre to put on its first British Sign Language (BSL) integrated pantomime in 2016 ensuring that Deaf children, young people and families could all enjoy an accessible festive trip to the theatre with any performance during the run.
Here, Deborah Rees – director at Cast, explores why this was an important step to take and how the integration of BSL in their annual pantomime is now a given:
As a new theatre in a busy market town, we knew the important role we could play in the community by really understanding our audience and working with them to remove barriers to visiting the theatre and engaging with the arts sector.
We wanted to respond to the large Deaf community in Doncaster by providing a show where BSL users could come to any performance they wished. This is not always the case and often entertainment from theatres to cinemas may only have one or two sessions or performances that are accessible to the Deaf community.
I also think that the BSL integration adds another layer of interpretation to the show - the expressiveness and gestures of BSL language adds a richness to the dynamics of the scene.
The feedback has been positive, we have groups visiting us from as far away as Scotland because they know they can come to any performance they wish. We also work closely with local Deaf groups during rehearsals to gain feedback about how the BSL integration is working. This year we have two deaf performers in the cast.
With our 2021 Aladdin production, we’ve done more preparation with the script, working with BSL consultant Daryl Jackson on making sure that the verbal gags and jokes translate well into BSL, and the team have added a few BSL jokes of their own. Our panto director, Madeleine O’Reilly, has been really committed to extending what we do and improving practice. It’s great to watch when there is BSL banter between the cast and the audience.
Theatres are on a journey
I think the theatre sector generally is on a journey to improve accessibility and inclusivity but I recognise that it’s slow progress. Initiatives like Ramps on the Moon, a consortium of six theatres/theatre companies in England, who make productions that normalise the presence of deaf and disabled people both on and off stage has been a game changer and personally I learned so much by watching their productions. Disabled led theatre company, Graeae, has pioneered work in this way for decades and place deaf and disabled artists centre stage in all their productions.
Realistically it’s not something that’s achieved overnight – there’s new thinking and developments that are happening all the time that will hopefully improve practice. Looking back over the last five years for example I’ve seen how our preparation and practice has improved, but I acknowledge there’s still work to be done.
Flexibility is key
As a theatre that mostly programmes shows made by other theatre companies, especially those that are here for usually just one or two nights, we are reliant on the theatre / production companies that we programme to have thought about accessibility and inclusivity for their shows. But we also choose companies that are committed to this too and who have thought about accessibility in their production. In the programme you will see that there are an increasing number of shows that are signed or captioned or have the needs of a particular audience at their heart.
When we produce our own shows at Cast, such as the pantomime, we can make our own specific choices. This Christmas (as well as the panto) we are producing a show for babies ages 3-18 months called WISH. This has been designed to be a baby’s first introduction to theatre. It is mostly non-verbal but we’ve integrated baby sign where there is speaking by the actors.
Next summer we are producing the large-scale community play DONCASTRIAN CHALK CIRCLE in the main house which will have full BSL integration, which will be brilliant! This is so much easier for us to deliver when we are in control of the show and can ensure that communication via BSL or baby sign in the case of WISH are included from the very start.
Watching the impact
Being accessible to as many people as possible is really important to Cast so that we can sit right at the heart of our communities. People have the right to expect to be able to go to the theatre and be able to watch shows and it’s our responsibility to remove the barriers that might prevent that happening.
Each year we strive to do more to encourage our Deaf community to visit the theatre and enjoy different performances. I know there is much more work we need to do around accessibility, and there is a long list of other things we need to address.
Our staff have just received refresher training in BSL. Even if we are able to say just a few sentences in BSL, it all helps. We are looking forward to Aladdin opening this week and to welcoming people from across the community to enjoy this fully integrated festive family fun.