On Monday 16th March 2020, Covid-19 took hold of the UK theatre industry and live performance as we know it came to a standstill. The livelihoods of many hung in the balance as theatre-makers, technicians and audiences alike awaited response and support from the government: who too, were uncertain about the future of the performance sector.
This is where live-streamed performance stepped in. Physically unable to frequent theatres in the same way, keen theatregoers were ushered into digital spaces. Despite many protesting that live-streamed theatre ‘just isn’t the same’: for many people with access requirements, live-streamed and online theatre might be the way forward.
Theatre livestreams, Zoom theatre and videos plucked from theatre archives (the most prominent example being the National Theatre collection), have brought resourcefulness, imagination and most importantly, ease of access to theatregoers from a wide range of backgrounds. This includes audiences who use a wheelchair, and D/deaf audiences. Online theatre provides a new form of connection which is simply too valuable to lose as audiences are invited back into studio spaces and auditoriums. For once, people with access requirements are not a side thought, their needs are incorporated into the experience.
On laptops, TV screens and mobile phones: the pandemic has unlocked opportunities for those who were unable to access theatre venues previously. One advantage to theatre moving online, is that disabled audiences such as wheelchair users, don’t have to worry about the physical barriers that have previously prevented their involvement in theatre and live performance. The magic of theatre is delivered straight to our screens. Popular live-streamed performances, like the Old Vic’s Lungs also have the option for live captioning, which enables the D/deaf and disabled community to be involved.
If the pandemic has highlighted anything, it is how much more venues and companies alike, can and should be doing to enable everyone to see their work. Is it really enough to stick one ‘accessible performance’ at the end of a run? Absolutely not. One or two accessible performances are not going to cut it anymore. Inclusion should be at the forefront of every theatre's ethos and values. All theatre should be accessible for everyone, full stop. Likewise, the move towards online performance should not merely be a placeholder before we can return to a ‘real’ theatre experience that enables only some to see and experience it.
Whilst theatre's move online might benefit some, everyone’s experiences are different. Online shows cannot cater for visually impaired people who have to navigate new online platforms, or for neurodivergent audiences who have lost out on touch tours.
I really hope we don’t abandon live-streamed events and Zoom theatre. It would be an incredible shame to lose something that for many, has been a lifeline in the pandemic. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that when the theatre doors swing open again, we need to hold them open for those with access needs, not shut them.