LONDON – Before the pandemic hit the UK last year, Michelle Hedley could only go to her local theaters in the north of England if they happened to be playing a closed captioning performance.
It happened five times a year – at best, said Hedley, who is deaf.
But during the pandemic she could suddenly watch musicals day and night if she wanted, as shows were put online in closed theaters around the world, often with subtitles. “I started to see everything and everyone just because I could!” Hedley, 49, said in an email interview. “Even topics that bored me!”
“I’ve seen more theater than I’ve done in my life (it felt like this),” she added.
But for many disabled people who make up 22 percent of the English population and have different requirements – such as wheelchair access, audio description or for “relaxed” performances where the audience is allowed to make noise – this moment leads to more mixed reactions. Some fear that they will be forgotten and that the difficult venues will focus on producing in-person shows and foregoing online offers or cutting their personal services to disabled people.
There is little evidence of this so far, and some venues say they will continue to include disabled people, but the real impact of the venues’ reduced budgets only becomes clear after months.
“I’ll be forced to be thankful again for only five shows a year,” Hedley said. “It’s very frustrating.”
Others are concerned too. “I just feel like I’m left with people who are so euphoric that they can do things in the flesh again,” said Sonia Boué, an autistic artist, in a telephone interview.
Before the pandemic, 58-year-old Boué only visited museums when she was convinced that a show would be worth the tremendous energy the experience brought. Getting the train from her home in Oxford to London could be overwhelming, she said, as well as dealing with crowds in a crowded museum. “I’ve been in a situation where I just wanted to throw myself on a platform and lose it,” she said.
She could watch shows online whenever she wanted. Last year she kept coming back to one of painter Tracey Emin and photographer Jo Spence, both of whom influenced their own art. “The whole experience was so rich and wonderful,” said Boué.
Britain’s cultural sites have seen thousands of layoffs in the past 12 months. Many venues survived the pandemic only thanks to emergency government funding.
Some high profile venues have announced that they will continue to work to include disabled people as they reopen. Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of the Young Vic theater in London, told The Guardian in May that he wanted to live broadcast at least two performances of all future shows, with viewership limited to around 500 per stream, which is the capacity of the theater would imitate. Young Vic intends to guarantee some of those tickets for disabled people, a spokeswoman said in an email. On Friday, the Almeida, another London theater, announced that it would film the next season’s shows “where possible” and publish them digitally, but did not provide any further details.
For regional theaters that appear for a year with no ticket sales, streaming may not always be possible. “It’s a huge financial outlay to make films, so you really have to think about it from the start,” said Amy Leach, deputy director of Leeds Playhouse, in a telephone interview. She hoped her theater would do that for future work, she said.
People’s concerns aren’t just about streaming cuts. Jessica Thom, a performer and wheelchair user who has dealt with her Tourette syndrome, said in a telephone interview that she was concerned that some venues might watch online shows as an alternative to the relaxed performances she liked to go to where people goods move freely or make noise. “The fear of being advertised is real,” she said.
Last week, the English National Opera said it would double the number of laid-back performances it has for its next season, if only to two of one.
Leanna Benjamin, a wheelchair user with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and frequent pain, said in a telephone interview that she was concerned that venues could end online working methods that have flourished during the pandemic.
Last year Benjamin was commissioned to write three short plays – her first commissions as a playwright. “I’m like, ‘Thank you, Covid!'” She said. “You may have isolated me and made life very hard, but then again, you started my career.”
These assignments included work for Graeae, the UK’s leading theater company for the deaf and disabled, and The Unknown for Leeds Playhouse (streaming through June 5th).
She was helped with such work by being able to hold virtual meetings and rehearsals. “My experience has been incredibly comprehensive,” she said, “and I think many of us have the same concerns about“ Will we go back to old ways of working when told to be in space? ‘”
Leach of Leeds Playhouse said she didn’t think it would. Her theater wanted to continue using video technology to expand the work with disabled people in the industry.
Not all disabled people found the pandemic liberating for access to culture. Joanna Wood, who is blind in one eye and can only see blurry shapes with the other, said for her the pandemic was a disaster.
Before the pandemic, she had attended plays or art exhibitions at least once a week to capitalize on a boom in audio description (for a play where a descriptor explains what happens on stage between the gaps in dialogue).
But it was months before theaters started putting audio-written content online, she said. There were some high points, she added – the Old Vic in London made sure all livestream shows had an audio description – but she often felt like she went back to the moment five years ago when she started getting her eyesight to lose and had no access to culture at all. “It felt completely disabling,” she said of last year’s experience.
Some theaters, like the Globe in London, have started offering personal audio-description performances, Wood said. But she won’t be able to attend for months. “I was training the other day that I have to be guided by about 25 people to get from my home to a London theater,” she said. “I can’t tell if someone is wearing a mask or not, I can’t keep my distance so I don’t feel ready,” she added.
Many other disabled people are similarly concerned about attending events in person, as they are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. She feared theaters could cut back on their services provided there was no demand, even if the trend had not yet started.
Six UK museums and theaters said in emails that they wanted to maintain, not restrict, supplies for disabled viewers. Andrew Miller, an activist who was the UK Government’s Arts and Culture Disabled Champion until this spring, said many institutions would find it difficult to wriggle out of their obligations, even if for some reason they wanted to be since So much money available in the UK is a requirement to expand access. But future funding cuts could make the situation “chaotic,” he said. “There is a real concern that there will be significantly less investment,” he added.
Boué said she just hoped UK theaters and museums keep an eye on disabled people. It should be easier than ever to identify with disabled people, she said. When the first lock hit, “it was that breathtaking moment when everyone felt completely immobile and didn’t have the freedoms they had always taken for granted,” she said.
For once, “it was as if disability was really everyone’s problem,” she added.