Graeae Theatre Company: The Aesthetics of Access

Daryl Beeton explains what is meant by Graeae’s ‘Aesthetics of Access’ and how embracing it can improve theatre for everyone.

By Natasha Raymond

At Spotlight’s last Open House, one of Graeae Theatre Company’s artists, Daryl Beeton, spoke about inclusive theatre. Everyone should have the access to enjoy theatre, regardless of their disabilities, and disabled actors should be able to participate in theatre production. However, this isn’t currently the case. Access is more commonly thought of as a service, and Daryl’s session sought to challenge this. Here’s our coverage of the session Daryl ran, to give you a greater insight into our Open House programme.

The Challenge

Daryl introduced his session by talking about an outdated view of disability - through the medical model, in which the disability itself is why an individual is deemed ‘disabled’. However, in the eyes of the more modern social model, an individual is not disabled because of their illness or condition. They’re disabled because of the society they live in – a world which has not been built or developed with them in mind.

The same can be said for theatre. Of course, it is more of a challenge to include Deaf and disabled actors and audience members, when the production has not been developed as inclusive and accessible, but Graeae Theatre Company embraces the challenge to rectify this. They seek to create inclusive theatre that can be enjoyed by all with Deaf and disabled actors centre-stage and creatively integrated British Sign Language, captioning and audio description. They achieve this through what is known as the ‘Aesthetics of Access’.

What are the ‘Aesthetics of Access’?

To help everyone understand what is meant by the ‘Aesthetics of Access’, Daryl used the example of a playground. Imagine the features you’d normally find in a children’s playground: swings, slides, climbing frames, tree houses, etc. Children won’t be able to play on this equipment if they are, for example, a wheelchair user. The equipment will need to be modified so that everyone can play on it.

But this needs to go beyond simply adding safety measures and ramps. Children go to playgrounds for fun, for thrills, to challenge themselves. Adding a ramp to get a child in a wheelchair to the top of a climbing frame isn’t quite the aim. Yes, they’ve made it onto the climbing frame, but they don’t get to enjoy the challenge of testing their strength or the thrill caused by the possibility of falling. The real aim is to make the playground equipment accessible without taking away the aim.

And so, the ‘Aesthetics of Access’ comes into play. Instead of adding last minute measures to make something accessible, accessibility should be taken into account right from the beginning of the development process. Viewing the limitations this might impose as a creative challenge will help to make something truly unique.

In a playground, this might result in a climbing frame which presents a non-strength-based challenge for children unable to climb. In a theatre production, this could include jokes that do not rely on visual or audio elements to work so that Deaf and disabled individuals in the audience can enjoy them too, or having a lead role specifically created for a neuro-divergent actor to play.

Why Should We Consider the ‘Aesthetics of Access’?

Taking this approach to theatre will mean that you end up with something different and unique, considering ideas that you might not have considered otherwise. Even if you’re not creating or developing a production from the very beginning, you can still use the ‘Aesthetics of Access’ to adapt and put a new twist on a well-known classic.

Juliet, from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, for example, is not explicitly specified as a hearing or non-disabled character, so why should she not be played by a Deaf or disabled actor? Graeae’s ‘Aesthetics of Access’ is a beautiful and creative tool, and everyone should be encouraged to use and have fun with it.

Thank you to Graeae and to Daryl for the fantastic workshop at our latest Open House. Take a look at more information on Open House sessions, on diversity and inclusivity, and if you have any questions, ask us on Twitter.