The National Theatre’s autumn press conference gave no indication as to the casting of disabled actors’ for large productions in the theatre’s 2018 program of work. Simon Startin concludes that the NT – the nation’s theatre flagship – is taking ‘baby steps’ in its approach to inclusion.
In the morning light of the October 2nd 2017, in the National Theatre Olivier foyer gathered the usual suspects for the National Theatre’s autumn press conference. The largely white, mostly middle aged, almost entirely able bodied and mainly gentlemen of the press nonchalantly dithered with their well honed pencils awaiting the announcement of cultural delights from the flagship of our nation’s theatre. Interestly, a captioning device flickered in the corner, in a welcoming inclusive nod to all the D/deaf theatre journalists who were not there. Artistic director Rufus Norris warily took to the stand with all the embattled reticence of a cage fighter with hives.
The 2018 National Theatre season is an exciting confection of what you’d expect. Norris directs Macbeth, Sam Mendes directs a trilogy about the Lehman family, Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in Antony and Cleopatra and so on and so forth. The key themes are taking their work out beyond the M25, diversity, engaging communities and theatre in education. All well and good and plenty for their usual audience to get out their mastercards for, continuing Norris’s stated aim of opening the door of the National a little wider. And then tucked in at the dog end of the press junket, was a little something for us disableds….
Firstly, the launch of ProFile – a resource for TV, film and theatre casting directors to address the underrepresentation of D/deaf and disabled actors, namely a database of the theatre criperati performing their audition monologues to camera. Like they would on an iphone but with better lighting. Like they would if theatre directors actually invited them in for an audition. Norris headlined that it would help disabled actors who found it difficult to travel, and perhaps it will. However, this isn’t real story here.
Four years ago after a weary email I wrote repeatedly to the then artistic director Nicholas Hytner about the National’s woeful record on casting disabled performers, they blessed us with the first general auditions in the National’s history, to redress the balance in that they were not seeing us in the places they looked, so please could we come in to the office.
In the ensuing four years 9 D/deaf or disabled actors have appeared in National Theatre productions (7 of those actors were cast in the past year). That’s nine among approximately 1200 enabled actors that are the National’s aesthetic bread and butter. So, presumably with ProFile and its four year old new found commitment to disabled diversity, the 2018 season at the Nash has a host of opportunities for us?
I quizzed Norris on what opportunities there would be and his reluctant response was ‘numerous’, a nice mathematically untestable figure. He recognised that the proof of the pudding would be in the casting and said that he would be directing a production where it was possible. From his ambiguous response I think we can safely assume, given that many actors names were being dropped at this announcement, that no high profile parts would be on offer, and that no disabled-led projects were being pencilled.
I drilled down into this with Charlotte Bevan, the head of the National’s Creative Diversity project, who has been instrumental in getting ProFile up and running. According Bevan, the casting department are encountering difficulties in persuading directors in the abstract that disabled actors have something to offer, and that ProFile is an attempt to give them a concrete catalyst to start ‘conversations’ with them.
My opinion is that ‘conversation’ is the most overused word in the arts, being an excellent placeholder whilst absolutely nothing happens. I am sure that National employees who were racist or sexist would not pass muster and yet ableism is something that is merely part of a ‘conversation’. I’ve had conversations with Mr Norris where the notion of ‘quality’ is used as an obstacle to engagement, but with the Ramps on the Moon project knocking these notions out of the park, I am beginning to suspect ‘quality’ is being used as another word for ‘able bodied’.
The second bone thrown is perhaps more promising, or will be once the glitches are ironed out. It is a pilot of Open Access Smart Capture; a new technology enabling access to closed captioning at any National Theatre production. Using a pair of hi-tech glasses (akin to the Google glass tech) captions are projected directly into the eye of the audience member whilst they watch the actors. This alleviates the split focus of captioning surtitles above the stage, and could be a welcome addition to the access toolkit.
As is often the way with these things, the kit I tested had several problems with positioning the text in a useful place in my field of vision, and the focal point of the text was closer than the actors, causing me discomfort as I kept trying to focus between the two planes of vision.
Once the text and performance are in the same depth of field, which I am sure beta testing will rectify, these caption glasses have real potential. However, the National may also discover the universal rule of access that one size never fits all. I am particularly thinking of caption users who are not yet ready to identify themselves as deaf, but have been attending captioned performances. Donning some odd specs maybe an ‘outing’ they may not care for. That said, the opportunity for engaging the National’s copious financial and digital resources to create access tech for performance seems to have a lot of promise.
The NT’s ‘New Work Department’ programmed some research and development work with ‘Extraordinary Bodies’, which took place last week and this coming Saturday, Inclusion Theatre Company and Theatre of Nations present In Touch in the Dorfman Theatre, exploring the life stories of Deafblind cast members from Russia and the UK.
In all, it is baby steps at the National. I hope 2018 will create these ‘numerous’ opportunities for disabled actors and theatre-makers, but at the moment there seems to be a timidity of leadership that will keep us in the waiting room of back office ‘conversation’.