The Braille Legacy – a case for better communication with the disability arts sector

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The West End musical The Braille Legacy tells the story of Louis Braille, one of the world’s most famous blind people. Mik Scarlet asks can a missed opportunity leave a legacy in response to wide media comment on the show’s lack of blind or visually impaired actors as members of its cast?

Photo of cast of the musical The Braille Legacy showing two blindfolded children in the foregorund

The Braille Legacy. Photo by Scott Rylander

The theatrical press has been awash with comment around The Braille Legacy playing at the Charing Cross Theatre, panned for having cast no VI actors and for only having two audio described shows during it’s West End run. The actor’s union Equity’s Deaf and Disabled members committee, of which I am a member, received complaints about the show and contacted the producers to explore what went wrong. They were happy to meet with us, but asked that we saw the show before we met.

I should start by saying that the show fell into a few of the usual tropes when it comes to portraying blindness. The students at the school, all played by non-visually impaired cast members, demonstrated their blindness by wearing black fabric across their eyes and when Louis Braille dies he can see in heaven.

I was ready to be really let down, and possibly offended, but I actually found myself pleasantly surprised at the show on the whole. The tunes were great, the performances were fantastic and the costumes and staging worked brilliantly. What struck me was how the show demonstrated the social model of disability in song superbly. With it’s theme that by including disabled people in dialogue around what they require the outcome will work for all of society, and that difference is part of ‘normality’, from my observation the show clearly affected the audience.

Another darker part of the story was the subplot of experimentation of blind people for “their own good”, and what a crime this truly was. As the curtain went down I was struck by what a massive missed opportunity The Braille Legacy really was. If the show had such an effect on the non-disabled audience and on a bitter old campaigner like myself, how amazing would it have been if it had included visually impaired, or even other disabled, cast members?

It became clear that for the writer, Sébastien Lancrenon, and the producer, Steven Levy, The Braille Legacy was a passion project. Both men explained how they had personal experience with disability and this was the driving force behind the ethos of the show. Lancrenon explained the motivation behind his creation of the piece, “Louis Braille’s story will always be significant, because it is a story about difference, emancipation and tolerance. I wanted others to discover this epic story as well”.

Levy was equally frank about their search for disabled talent, admitting that very few disabled actors auditioned. He explained that by following industry norms and employing a casting director they had no clear idea of who was auditioning until it was under way. They did, however, see some visually impaired actors. Lancrenon explained “We did cast one such individual. Regrettably, the actor withdrew at the last minute due to unrelated health issues.” When we moved on to the audio description issue, both men seemed shocked. They felt they were going well beyond larger productions in their moves to have AD performances, and after taking advice from the RNIB had engaged the leading experts in audio description.

I left the meeting assured that all concerned with The Braille Legacy had no malice in their hearts that led to the issues around casting or AD. In fact I was a little sad that Equity had gotten involved at the end of the production process and not earlier on. Both Levy and Lancrenon asked Equity and the DDMC to maintain communication, requesting our help and advice if the show moves to a bigger theatre. They were intrigued by the concept of inclusive theatrical practice and both were keen to work with us to create a truly inclusive show in the future.

What The Braille Legacy shows is not a production purposely avoiding employing disabled talent or not appealing to a disabled audience, but a wider lack of knowledge and understanding with the entire mainstream theatrical industry. For many disabled theatre-goers, we’re used to the work of companies like Graeae and Ramps On The Moon. We can forget that these are industry leaders around inclusive creative practice, and how far behind their ground-breaking work most of the industry is. Those of us who work and campaign around better inclusion in the theatre and in the wider media should see The Braille Legacy as a turning point. It only makes the same mistakes as the rest of theatre land but while it made them with good intentions at it’s heart, alas mistakes were still made.

It might seem crass to make mistakes about inclusive casting and accessible creative practice in a show about one of the world’s most famous disabled people, but is it? Why aren’t we upset about the lack of disabled talent in Les Mis, or Wicked or any other West End musical? Why isn’t audio description, captioning and BSL interpretation an intrinsic part of all theatre shows, for every performance?

I know that The Braille Legacy feels like it made the same old mistakes, and to be honest it did, but I do know that after meeting with Steven Levy and Sébastien Lancrenon it might mark the start of real change. As well as promising to get more advice and expert input on creating an inclusive production as the show grows Lancrenon expressed his desire to help young visually impaired talent break through into musical theatre. I wonder how many other theatre creatives working in the West End would make that commitment?

The Braille Legacy should not be viewed as a failure. The show itself is superb, and with more thought about inclusion it would be outstanding. The fact that all concerned in the production seemed to have stumbled upon a way of demonstrating the Social Model is amazing.

If they’d just understood that the myth of a lack of disabled talent is just that, a myth, and fought to find more visually impaired or even disabled cast members they would have created a real legacy. As it is, they still might have. The Braille Legacy’s legacy may mark a point where disabled talent is no longer notable by it’s absence in West End Musicals.

The Braille Legacy runs until 24 June 2017 at Charing Cross Theatre.