How does Deaf and Disabled theatre attract a mainstream audience?

Convener(s): Martin McLean 

Participants: Susanna, Shawn, Kerry, Tim, Amanda, Jean, Emily, Kempson, Sharan Kean, Garry Housman (Theatre Venture), Lisa Hammond, Ali Tomkinson


Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

  • [We need to] speak in the language of the media.
  • Consider how to interest the press?
  • What language should we use to talk to the media?
  • As a disabled person, I get angry how I’m described – the physical is described first. If, at the end of a critique, serious consideration/criticism is made – then I am very pleased.
  • Language has changed from phrases formerly used: deaf and dumb, deaf mute, a world of silence. Now, a capital D is used for the word Deaf.
  • [When talking to the press] it’s silly not to say wheelchair user but how to do it so that it’s not twisted?
  • Infiltrate from the inside…
  • However much you try to write the killer press release, you’re stuck with whether or not the press will turn up. As soon as you say ‘disabled’ the press are off.
  • What if we don’t tell them [the press/audience] in advance?
  • Producers are starting to think of creative ways to attract particular audiences.
  • Why is disabled art hampered? Don’t perpetuate difficulties by producing bad work.
  • We’re all about accessibility but not all work can be accessible.
  • If it’s good work – then it is. Why keep saying it is?
  • Some work needs experimentation – it needs time. Do we need to decide when experimentation ends? 
  • With Counting the Ways, a research and development project, attempting to achieve inclusion almost damaged its ability to communicate. 
  • [With one production] with a cast of 2 (?), in terms of modes of communication, there was signing, audio description and speech – the resulting work was only partially successful. 
  • Sometimes watching signing can be a fixation [for hearing audiences?]
  • Nonetheless, if the work is good enough audiences’ attention will stay with the work itself. [It was noted when considering a French language film]  With Un Prophet, English speaking audiences will still go to see it because of its quality, despite the use of captions.
  • How do we meet the brief of making amazing theatre?
  • Investment in a piece so that it has the time to develop into being as good a piece as it can be.
  • Using audio description, signing and so on are artistic considerations that need to be addressed creatively (money is not always the issue).
  • Is the attempt to communicate – to speak – getting in the way of making theatre?
  • Working with Graeae [it was noted from experience] could be frustrating when working with a number of specialist support assistants in the same small space as [one’s] fellow actors. 
  • One research panel asked [of a theatre maker when assessing their experience of making work]: did you have a remit to prove yourself or be more accessible?


With regard to casting, is the same rigour applied in disabled contexts as it is in the mainstream?


It’s such a new area – people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing.

  • There was a situation in one play when a deaf actor was cast who wasn’t up to the job (which she subsequently acknowledged and the role was recast with a more skilled hearing actor).
  • There is a dilemma though: if deaf actors aren’t cast then how well they develop and improve, but where are the jobs? 
  • We [performer’s experience] can be stuck just with disability theatre – you end up caught within the same small circuit. 
  • With street-theatre, you can attract audiences with work on its own merit – the response is immediate. 
  • Whatever you say about Cast-offs, it did attract a mainstream audience.
  • However, it was in the wrong way. The remit was to produce a spoof documentary but due to the poor quality of the writing etc, the result was just a piece [lacking in irony] that resembled a Channel 5 thing.
  • Queer as Folk showed mainstream audiences aspects of gay life that challenged [perceptions]. Cast-offs didn’t meet expectation. It shot itself in the foot. From the start it marginalised its subject.



How do we help to develop the quality of our product?


(A programming specialist’s view] Book only quality – people of quality.

  • Commission work
  • [Martin asked] Why do hearing audiences attend work with Deaf / disabled / and or a particular focus? [Conversely] Why do they not attend? [He is] looking for ideas.
  • If you need a mainstream audience, can you cater for a deaf audience too?
  • Signed songs / signing as gestural language in dance theatre can be an appealing feature of the work for mainstream audiences [as well as disabled audiences], though not necessarily – depending upon taste. 
  • In Israel, Nalagat produced a piece – Not by bread alone with twelve (?) disabled actors. The work, always intended for a mainstream audience, has played to good houses for two years (the work will be coming to Britain this year).