When the pandemic began, we found we weren’t allowed into theatres and schools, or any of the places we normally perform. We couldn’t create close-up, interactive shows that used touch as a central technique, either. We quickly realised we needed to reimagine the entire format of how we usually work. We called this our ‘Uncancellable Programme’. Our priority was to make sure that audiences who have barriers to access were still being served during Covid-19 and did not become invisible. We took our shows onto doorsteps and into playgrounds, delivered performances through Zoom and posted packages. And, for the first time, we did an R&D to ask the question: how can sensory theatre translate into film work?
The project was called Something Love, and it was made for and with neurodivergent and Autistic young people. It was process-driven, rather than outcome-driven, to give us plenty of space to play without pressure, and to explore how to make the creative process accessible. Standard creative processes, even those with some access built in, can create barriers for disabled and chronically ill artists, including expected working hours, lack of flexibility, and physically inaccessible and / or non-relaxed spaces. Something Love stemmed from one of the artists reflecting that the creative solutions found for remote working when the pandemic hit did not feel wholly positive. He had not been able to work in the industry for a decade as it was deemed not possible to structure processes in a way that he could access; suddenly, working remotely enabled him and it became clear that there were approaches that could have worked all along.
We wanted to understand what creating remotely offered us, that we could take forward as accessible working practices when Covid is over. Here are some thoughts from the Something Love creative team, with thanks also to the many incredible companies and artists like Graeae, Access All Areas and Daryl Beeton who are so generous in sharing accessibility best practice.
Firstly, one of the biggest things that makes a creative process accessible is its structure. To understand what structure we needed to build, we sent access audits to the whole team at the very start (with the option to go through this together on the phone and / or have a follow up chat), and welcomed access riders (there’s more information about access riders and templates here and here). Whilst the creative team spoke at the beginning of the project about access being everyone’s responsibility, we also found it really helpful to have someone leading on access, whose role it was to ensure all access requirements were being supported. By having this person present, and their role reinforced at every meeting, they became the go-to person for the whole team for anything related to access. Some artists may also want to work with a Creative Enabler – a term coined by Graeae theatre company for a support worker who collaborates artistically with the creative.
Working remotely, it was important to find ways to keep the team connected. Before the first meeting, we sent everyone a red squishy heart (an image connected to the project) which we all had to hand in meetings and sessions. We set up a Slack channel where people could share footage, images and audio of what they’d been working on and keep in touch. And to mark the end of the process, we organised an online premiere, with a pack of goodies sent to each person as a thank you.
Agendas and plans were sent out a couple of days before any meeting or session. All meetings were held on Zoom, in a relaxed format – we started each session with a reminder that everyone was welcome to turn their camera and mic off and on, to move around and stand up, leave and come back as needed. We limited the length of meetings to an hour and a half, including a 20 minute rest break, and finished with a ‘soft ending’ – 15 minutes after the end of the meeting agenda for anyone who wanted to stay online to ask a question, give feedback, make a point or just have a chat.
It’s important to put as much in place to support mental health and wellbeing as you do any other illness or disability. We found that emotional support is required for this – a member of the team was a Mental Health First Aider and we also worked with an external artist wellbeing consultant. During this process, we had a wellbeing check-in mid-way through the creative process with each member of the creative team – just an informal phone call or Zoom to see how they were doing and whether there was any additional support we could put in place for the remainder of the project. This might be something you consider doing more than once during a creative process.
Of course, creating remotely might not be the most accessible format for everyone – that’s something the access audits and chats can help you to understand at the start – so as the world opens back up, you could consider a blended approach that allows for both ways of working.
It’s important to acknowledge that there were things we found hard, we got wrong, and we would do differently next time. It was difficult giving the clarity needed for timetabling and planning, for instance, in a devised process where the project was constantly shifting and the team was figuring it out as they went, creatively. Whilst having a range of ways to keep in touch was positive, in future we will have a focus for how each platform is used, and limit who from the organisation delivers information, to reduce communication becoming overwhelming or confusing. We also found it can be tricky to create budgets that balance supporting flexibility within the process, with having the widest reach and impact for the audience. And there are limitations on how flexible you can be as a small company, which is possibly why many organisations focus on access for either audience or artists. As part of an inclusive cultural recovery, we should all want to move towards projects being accessible for both.
Top Tips on working more accessibly from the Something Love team:
- Elements of the creative process, or the whole creative process, can be done online, which can really open up access for some artists. It allows for shorter bursts of activity where energy is focused purely on the project rather than travel etc.
- Do Access Audits and welcome Access Riders from the whole team at the beginning of the process to ensure you can put the right support in place, like working with Creative Enablers.
- Have a healthy access budget line so you can be responsive to access requirements that crop up.
- Slow the process down – allow plenty of time and be flexible to meetings needing to be rearranged last minute.
- Be mindful of language. Using phrases like ‘it will just take a minute’ or responding to requests for support with ‘Don’t worry, it shouldn’t take too long to do together’ can minimize the experience of artists who, for instance, have energy management conditions, and reinforces an expected speed of working that creates barriers.
- Listen. No one gets it right all the time – the most important thing is to really genuinely be trying to listen to the stuff that is difficult to hear.