“People had warned me about Edinburgh. They’d said it’s really hilly. They’d said it’s really old. But those weren’t the things that I found were making my access difficult,” says Jess Thom, co-creator of last year’s surprise hit Backstage in Biscuit Land.
“What was difficult in terms of accessibility for me was a consistent way of knowing which shows were and weren’t accessible, because all the brochures detailed that in a different way,” says Thom. “Or the information might not have been included in the brochure but that didn’t mean that that venue was inaccessible, it just meant that the company hadn’t supplied the information.”
Backstage in Biscuit Land, about Thom’s experiences with Tourette’s Syndrome, returns to the Fringe this year as part of the British Council’s biennial Edinburgh showcase. As at last year’s festival, every performance will be ‘relaxed’, ensuring that audience members with a broad range of sensory or communication disorders are made to feel welcome. The show will also be audio-described, there will be two BSL-signed shows, and the venue is fully wheelchair accessible (Thom is a wheelchair user herself).
Disability access across Edinburgh’s festivals has improved considerably in recent years – particularly around step-free access – but there’s still a very long way to go in terms of welcoming a truly diverse audience.
The will is there. Fringe Society chief executive Kath Mainland, speaking at this year’s festival launch, described access as one of two key areas where her team’s work will be focusing in the next five years (the other being the Fringe’s international profile). Improving access is a challenge faced by all the Edinburgh festivals, but the very nature of the Fringe—its size and openness—makes it appropriate that attention should focus here first.
Though a search through the 3,429 events on sale via Edfringe's online box office yields 1,739 that are wheelchair accessible, there are only a couple of hundred that cater to more complex access needs. Twenty-four offer audio description, 28 are captioned, 107 are relaxed performances and 55 are BSL-interpreted – and bear in mind that the majority of these shows only offer one or two accessible performances during their runs. The Edinburgh Fringe may be the biggest arts festival in the world, but if you’re deaf or disabled, the pickings are pretty slim.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to greater provision of accessible work is financial. “The problem with [BSL interpreting and audio describing] is that it’s hugely expensive,” says Lou Rogers, a producer at Stopgap Dance Company and the programmer of the Integrated Fringe (IF) Platform, a new showcase bringing five disabled artists and integrated arts companies to the 2015 festival, including the acclaimed Marc Brew Company with For Now, I Am...
“That’s something that we’re going to have to work out, as an entire nation: how we get past the fact that that is just so phenomenally expensive. For small companies or emerging artists or small venues it’s just impossible for them to afford those costs.”
Deaf and disabled artists are on the frontline here, but it's a fight that everyone else should be taking on too. If we want the amazing smorgasbord of work on offer at Edinburgh to be available to everyone, a broader range of shows by non-disabled artists and companies need to be accessible to people with different needs.
It's not just about equality – it's good business sense too, says Thom, pointing out that as much as one fifth of the UK population identify as disabled. That's a lot of potential punters.
It’s a topic that David Byrne, artistic and executive director at the New Diorama Theatre, a London fringe venue that showcases the work of emerging companies, feels passionately about.
"The diet of [accessible] work [in Edinburgh] is not brilliant for people to go and enjoy a wide variety of stuff,” he says. With the help of public funding, Byrne has pioneered captioning for all productions at the New Diorama – including those with short runs that ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford it.
He wants to do something similar in Edinburgh, aiming to work with a number of emerging companies to increase the quota of captioned shows at the festivals. Captioned performances will be concentrated within an ‘access week’ to enable audiences to see as diverse a range of work as possible during their visit.
Byrne had hoped to launch the scheme at this year’s Fringe, but came up with the plan too late in the day to raise the £13,000 or so necessary to cover the costs of specialist staff, equipment and training. The New Diorama’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Down & Out in Paris and London will have one captioned performance this Fringe – Byrne’s more ambitious programme of captioned work will have to wait until next year.
Not all access-improving measures come with hefty price tags. A welcoming attitude costs nothing, says Jan-Bert van den Berg, director of Artlink, a charity that works to increase participation in the arts for disabled people in the east of Scotland. Just making audience members aware that staff can be called upon for information or assistance can be enormously beneficial.
Training is an important piece of the puzzle. Rather than hiring specialist staff to address access needs, the Fringe Society is “rolling out access information and training to all staff, allowing them to provide the correct information and to carry out tasks,” a spokesperson says.
The society is running a pilot project this year to provide accessible festival training online to all staff, as well as the staff and volunteers of all 300+ Fringe venues, if they want it. “It is our hope,” said Mainland in her launch speech, “that this online training can be rolled out to our sister festivals and ultimately grow into a resource for the whole city’s cultural sector.”
As far as artists are concerned, says Thom, “it’s about considering difference: creating work that accepts that people might need to access it in different ways is a basic principle. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing loads of special stuff, it just means considering that you might need to adjust your rules and thinking slightly.”
Edinburgh has always celebrated artistic diversity – now it’s time to expand that philosophy a little bit further and celebrate true diversity of audiences too.