During lockdown, disability-led theatre companies DH Ensemble and Hot Coals Productions came together to create Strive Collective. For their first collaboration, they have produced The Green Room: a video podcast series with interviews from leading Deaf and disabled theatremakers. Actor Sophie Stone talks to Natasha Sutton Williams about how The Green Room is promoting the benefits of creative access and diversity in theatre.
Deaf actor Sophie Stone has performed in world-renowned TV shows including The Crown and Doctor Who, as well as acting at Shakespeare’s Globe and in the West End in the critically acclaimed Emilia. Just before the second lockdown, Stone performed in the Royal Court’s Living Newspaper project.
But that’s not all. Stone is a member of Strive, a collective constructed from two theatre companies: The DH Ensemble (which Stone co-runs) and Hot Coals Productions. Both theatre companies are led by Deaf, neurodiverse and disabled artists, who share the ethos of placing creative access at the heart of their artistic process. Together as Strive Collective, they are determined to build resilience and sustainability within a rapidly changing artistic landscape.
So how did the blending of these two theatre companies occur? “The DH Ensemble and Hot Coals Productions share similar audiences who are interested in innovative, next generation inclusive work but each company’s style is quite different,” says Stone. “The DH Ensemble creates devised work incorporating audio-visual elements, BSL and Spoken English. Hot Coals have produced a number of performances with no dialogue using mask work and clowning, and are now moving into film. We respect each other’s work, and realised we have a shared audience base and could cross-promote each other’s productions. We created STRIVE Collective as a way to share resources and collaborate in the current climate.”
Strive Collective’s inaugural project has been to create The Green Room, a video podcast series with interviews from esteemed Deaf and disabled theatremakers, and industry allies from across the globe. They have chosen a mix of acclaimed industry professionals, alongside up-and-coming artists who haven’t yet had the attention Strive Collective believes they deserve. They decided on a digital format for the series to allow as many people as possible to access the content. Every video episode is in British Sign Language (BSL) and English with captions and audio description on the Green Room website and YouTube channel. The interviews are also available in audio podcast with audio descriptions.
Throughout the series, these interviews celebrate best practice and provide practical tips on how to embed creative access and diversity into the heart of any theatre project. “We aim to inspire other theatremakers to have a go at incorporating creative access into their work as an aesthetic choice, considering it from the very start of the process of making a production,” says Stone. “We want to encourage people not to fear making mistakes as we believe it is better to try your best and learn from your experiences in order to do better in the future than not to try at all. Above all, we want to encourage theatremakers to work with Deaf and disabled talent. We hope to provide role models and inspiration for other Deaf and disabled people who already work in the arts or hope to one day.”
But The Green Room isn’t just for industry folk; it’s for anyone who loves theatre. “For those interested purely as audience members, we hope this series is entertaining and gives them some insight into all the work that goes on behind the scenes of the productions they enjoy,” says Stone. “We hope these audience members will become excited about seeing work made with Deaf and disabled artists and productions featuring creative forms of accessibility. In response, we hope this will encourage companies and venues to make more of this kind of work!”
There are different ways disabled and non-disabled theatre makers can start using access from the get-go of a project. One easy starting point is to engage with the individuals involved and ask what they need to help them make the best work possible. “It’s important to consider who is in the room and to make sure diverse and authentic voices are represented in any decision making process,” states Stone. “Unfortunately where considerations of access and diversity can go awry is when people with lived experience are not leading or participating in the discussions and planning.”
Stone continues, “In one of The Green Room interviews, one of our guests mentioned that people are more open minded and accepting when they are introduced to ideas of inclusivity and diversity from a young age. Educating and encouraging the younger generation of up-and-coming theatremakers to keep making these considerations an essential part of their practice will pave the way for a more inclusive future.”
So what exactly does that inclusive future look like for Stone? “It’s all about intersectionality and equality. Normalising the diversity of others, pre-thinking and preparing for inclusion as the status quo. Considering access in budgets and integrating artistic choices for accessible inclusion from the very start of a process, and not as an after-thought. Celebrating and utilising the skillsets that comes with difference.”
Mainstream attitudes surrounding access and diversity are changing, albeit slower than many would like to see. Stone has seen these changing tides with her own eyes. “More people seem to be open to conversations and putting things in place for better inclusion, but I think the pandemic has allowed things to slip back and we can’t let that happen. So many art forms have moved online, and there’s been a lack of considerations due to time, money and traffic. I hope the conversations continue and that there will be more integrated, easier, and cheaper methods to create work so people don’t fear it so much. I hope there will be more intersectionality at the ‘table’ so decision making can be better informed and richer in knowledge and confidence – that way, everyone wins.”
The pandemic has driven home the undeniable fact that change must occur throughout the arts to nurture more inclusive practises, both for artists and audiences. But for the theatre industry, what are the necessary changes needed to include and encourage disabled theatremakers and audiences?
“It’s vital to have more development spaces and opportunities, with support and mentors to uplift and spotlight new talent, and showcase work in more mainstream ways,” states Stone. “There needs to be adjustments and creative modifications to allow audiences of any disability or background to attend and access any show. With more theatre being filmed, there are more options for those who cannot get to a theatre to experience it in some form. There’s more technology and equipment that can be utilised for theatre and access, but those conversations aren’t happening enough yet.”
For Stone herself, the pandemic has highlighted that there is too much hate in the world. “We are a fearful species and we must try to see that what we don’t understand frightens us. The cure? To understand. Learning is growth. We need to connect and learn more about each other to see we’re not all that different, and where we are different, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating that if it harms no one. We need each other more than ever.”
The members of Strive Collective are no strangers to the concept that we need each other, not simply to move forward with thoughtfulness, but to communicate well. One of the Green Room episodes hosted by Deaf actor and director Stephen Collins illustrates this perfectly.
“There was this incredibly complex trilingual conversation in our American interview where there were seven people on screen, and three languages being juggled to ensure translations and crossover of languages were understood so that it was clear enough for our audiences,” says Stone. “Stephen handled it amazingly – it’s not an easy thing to do. But we showed it was possible. We have a habit of doing that.”