16th June 2021
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How to Enable Access to Theatre for Everyone

enable theatre access
By Marcus Lilley

Theatre is for everyone. It doesn’t just take place inside the confines of a theatre or an arts centre. It takes place all around us and is presented in different forms. During the Covid-19 pandemic, venues across the world have been forced to close and re-evaluate how they choose to present work. The role of digital has captivated audiences and diversified theatre’s offering on a truly unprecedented scale.

It has offered more opportunities for inclusion and interaction than perhaps any time in history. We should use this opportunity for a fundamental change and shift in terms of giving people opportunities to see and enjoy theatre. This change will not happen overnight and we should do all we can to improve accessibility and inclusion for people to enjoy theatre. There are some fantastic services and platforms that help promote digital inclusivity to theatre and the wider arts.

The BBC is a national institution and although not free to use directly (you need to pay an annual license fee) it is available to the vast majority of people in the UK and globally across a range of platforms from television and radio to podcasts and news. I believe passionately that the BBC offers a critical role in the national life of the UK and it’s arts coverage certainly adheres to that. Quite some time before lockdown the Performance Live strand of programming was something that really caught my eye. It is a really exciting mix of performances, spaces and ideas and one might argue a little ahead of its time given the games that came afoot during 2020. It was home to a really eclectic mix of shows including; Taxi Tales, a tale of three taxi drivers from Middlesborough a town in the North East of England, Get a Round, a comedy set in a bar in Manchester which looks at the politics of a girls night out and Flood: To the Sea,  set in the apocalyptic aftermath of a flood. All three of these examples were from regions of England outside of London which was wonderful it its own right and gave more people the chance to see these fantastic pieces of work.

Where you live shouldn’t determine your access to cultural offerings, the fantastic role the BBC occupies in our lives in the UK should be used to decimate and share practice from all corners of the UK. The BBC’s output of arts commentary, criticism and documentaries are utterly absorbing and enable wider access to the sector.

At the beginning of the first lockdown in the UK, there was uncertainty as to how to navigate through this enforced period of shutdown. What should theatre do to respond? How should it respond? What are audiences looking for at this time and moment? The National Theatre at Home initiative which when launched premiered classic National Theatre shows on YouTube and then later a dedicated on-demand service was an early case study. Premiering sixteen shows on YouTube for a donation proved incredibly popular. It was a bold and decisive move by the National Theatre. As a viewer this felt as close to a theatre for everyone as we could make it. Making them accessible on YouTube without a paywall or having to set up an account ensured that people’s access to it was open and transparent. The range of shows available over the course of it’s run was eclectic and included amongst others: One Man, Two Guvnors, Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, Barber Shop Chronciles and Small Island. As an audience member being able to watch these shows was wonderful and what made it special was knowing that more and more people were able to be part of the viewing experience. It felt at a moment of immense uncertainty we had a truly national theatre for everyone.

There should also be a note of reference here to Audible, the audiobook company owned by Amazon.

During lockdown I have discovered a wide range of audiobooks and dramas available to listen to. Two particular highlights for me are the classic three part drama by British playwright Alan Ackybourn The Norman Conquests and J. B. Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls. The former is a three part drama set over a weekend at a British country house and the exploits of the aforementioned Norman and his extended family. The later is a thrilling murder-mystery set in the early part of the twentieth century. If you do want to explore Audible’s vast library of dramas, plays and specially commissioned theatre pieces I would highly recommended. You view Audible’s library here.

Theatre’s role has evolved into a digital offering due to Covid-19 with some wonderful discoveries and helping to bridge the gaps between audiences and the performance. We should not be under any illusions that is the same for everyone.

As our dependence on technology grows so does the divide between people who have access and people who do not. Technology is a fantastic enabler to foster deeper connections with our cultural output but if we do not work simultaneously to bridge the gap then we are only going to get so far. The future is full of opportunities for the sector and powered by technology we can achieve things few of us may have thought imaginable but we must never lose sight of keeping our audience connected.

Also by Marcus Lilley:

What Makes Theatre So Special?

The Role of Learning and Participation in a Theatre

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