What can Devoted and Disgruntled do for the Edinburgh Fringe and performing arts in general?

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Devoted & Disgruntled is a nationwide conversation about theatre and the performing arts, run by theatre company Improbable. The year the Edinburgh Fringe brought Improbable to the festival to discuss what can be done to build a more sustainable fringe for everyone. Kirin Saeed sent DAO the following reflection to the accessibility – or lack of it – afforded to blind and visually impaired people at the Fringe.

Kirin Saaed standing in an empty theatre

Kirin Saaed

The Edinburgh Fringe is one of those events which you have to experience at least once in your lifetime. The atmosphere, the interaction between performers and audience, the delightful and sometimes not so delightful discoveries. The use of unusual venues, from shops to pop-up tents in a small capital city. Not to mention the daily fireworks of the Military Tattoo. Then, of course, there’s the unpredictable Scottish weather!

It’s my third year living in Edinburgh and the weather has been generally kind. Every year I’ve tried to work out how to navigate such a chaotic, yet organised, festival as a blind participant. I know that sounds wholly contradictory but it is true.

The main selling point for me is the noise, the everyday interactions and learning more about the city I live in. The chaos is the “free” Fringe. The street performers you just come across purely by chance. Then there’s the highly organised way audiences are herded in and out of many venues.

What strikes me, as a visually impaired patron is how to capture the atmosphere. There’s the discovery of accessible shows. I don’t mean the usual access – the shows that need no description only assistance to get in and out of the venue – but that of Audio Description, which to be honest was rather lacking this year.

I realise accessing the “essence of the Fringe” is extremely difficult to capture if you have very little or no useful vision. People, on the whole, are kind and helpful but you do need someone to describe those street performers!

For me, it is about safety in numbers. I had a visually impaired friend visit. We decided to attend an open mic evening. It’s something I wouldn’t have done on my own. After locating the venue, it turned out to be an amazing experience for all. The venue, a bookshop, meant we could negotiate our access needs. The event was totally accessible to us, as it was dialogue driven and participatory. I don’t even think the performers realised it! Perhaps that’s where the issue lies, people make access more complex than it really has to be!

Street perfomers lying on a cobbled street

Street performers at Edinburgh Fringe. Photograph by Byronv2 via Flickr used under (CC BY-NC 2.0)

These were one of the misconceptions highlighted at an event that I attended through the support of DAO. Devoted and Disgruntled run by Improbable Theatre in association with the Fringe. D&D uses the concept of ‘open space’ technology; the main topic of discussion was the cost of the Fringe.

My initial assistance request received a positive response from Improbable Theatre. The Fringe organisers were less hands-on. Their deputy manager Thea Walton offered to meet me prior to the start of the event and gave an access number to call. I was also informed that they used the Neatebox app which enables the visitor to send through assistance requests with photo ID. So meeting up was covered. Sadly due to technical issues, it didn’t work in the end.

Those present in the room proposed topics, which were written on post-it notes on a flipchart. Then participants go to a designated part of the room and an open discussion takes place. I found the process really fascinating and despite my concerns about it being reliant on handwritten flipchart notes, it was made accessible. Everyone in the group introduced themselves and during session changes I was offered support by fellow attendees.

The morning sessions had nine topics overall and the afternoon had five. I suggested a topic myself: ‘how to find, and hence attend and support, accessible performances/disabled artists at the Fringe’. There was no take-up. I decided to join several sessions and thus ensure there was a disabled presence.

The discussions I joined were “the cost of the Fringe” in all its forms, from financial to emotional and, “should few artists receive larger grants or more new artists receive smaller grants to attend the fringe” and finally “does audience attendance at performances depend on 5-star reviews”.

The interlink between the topics initially seems rather tenuous but after a while, I realised all have importance. If few artists receive funds does that enable high cost to remain and does it also mean less opportunities for critics to experience and therefore help support or compare a variety of shows and make the 5-star review really matter?

I discovered the complexities of the critics believing they were in the most privileged position of making or breaking a show, to those who use a more ethical and supportive process. Then the new way of acquiring grants such as Kick Starter. A statistic mentioned by one of their representatives Gemma Seltzer, was that 22,000 backers pledged more than £1,067,220 to help bring over 300 projects to the Fringe.

I particularly found the session on the “cost of the Fringe” most enlightening. Some salient points gathered from Claire Stone were: “There is a knock on impact of the last minute / “to the bone” culture of the Fringe on access: e.g. low budgets mean less support for disabled performers and audiences; back-to-back programming and 15 min get-ins/outs. How are you meant to do those as a wheelchair-user or as a visually impaired person (unless you have the money to pay for an additional member of staff)?

There are fantastic models happening all around us. Let’s share and celebrate and build on them:

Gig Buddies match audiences with learning disabilities with a gig buddy to help them see more shows. Birds of Paradise provide Disability Equality Training for organisations (including the Fringe Society this year!). Stopgap Dance Company who make ground-breaking performances with disabled and non-disabled dancers are regulars at the Fringe and worth looking out for. Ray Bradshaw performed comedy in English and sign language simultaneously for the first time this year. The Fringe Society provide an access booking service, and sensory backpacks for people with autism.

Lastly, I want to mention the fact I was the only visible Asian female disabled person present at Devoted and Disgruntled! There was no mention of visual impairment on the models of good practice discussed. It feels like I am left behind. So what CAN I do? Highlight the failures through magazines like DAO and perhaps start asking the important questions on access, promotion and representation. Answers on a postcard, please?