Podcast: Transforming the Theatre Experience

The Disability Download

We chat to visually impaired actor and theatre maker Alice Christina-Corrigan about how creative captions can be used to make theatre more accessible and some of the cool things she’s seen on stage over the course of her career. 


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Alice Christina-Corrigan: I mean now, whenever I watch anything, anything like any kind of theatre, I'm like, well there's a way you could have made that creatively accessible. There's a way the captions could have appeared here and on those screens, and it's interesting.

Erin O’Reilly: Hello and welcome to The Disability Download, brought to you by pan-disability charity Leonard Cheshire. I’m Erin O’Reilly and on this podcast, we respond to current topics, share stories and open up conversations about disability.

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Hi everyone and thanks so much for tuning in to our first episode of 2023! And we’re kicking off the year with a really interesting interview with visually impaired actor and theatre maker Alice Christina-Corrigan!

Have you ever heard of creative captions? Well I know I hadn’t before I sat down with Alice for this chat. Alice’s work is all around accessible theatre and she’s particularly focused on using creative captioning and sound design to help create truly inclusive and accessible theatre. So we have a really interesting chat about the work she’s been doing, some of the cool things she’s seen within inclusive theatre and she also highlights some of the things that really need to change as well.

So, let’s hear from her!

So Alice thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. Really great to have you on. I just thought we could kind of get started with you just you know giving a bit of an introduction about yourself and your theatre career and everything that you've been up to lately as well!

Alice: Yeah, fab, thank you for having me. My name is Alice. I'm a visually impaired actor, theatre maker, creative captioner, know all around a little bit of everything creative in Manchester, based in Manchester. But I'm originally from Northampton but I've been up north now for 10 years. Literally a plastic northerner and I will wear that badge with honour.

My way into theatre and like into I guess where my career is now was definitely through acting, which is still like a massive part of my career, which I'm really grateful for. I think very often, we uh we get scared of like pigeonholing ourselves because it's so natural in this industry to happen. And now I'm at a point where I kind of look at my career and I'm more so a, I think whatever room I'm in I'm an advocate for disability inclusivity. And trying to kind of push for that change. So I write, I direct, I make captions and I think and I still act and I think all of those kind of eek to the same ethos.

But my career started in Liverpool. I was in Liverpool for 7 years and I worked for the Everyman Rep Company. I was in a couple of their productions. I've done a few tours and worked for motion capture on games, which is like really cool. Really an area I wanna like work in more. I love it. And then I went and done an MA and I think that was the where the shift I think changed from going, yeah, from who I was to who I am now. And a massive part of that is linked to my disability identity.

Up until I started my MA, which was really where I felt a lot of the access needs of my impairment kind of really come to fruition. Or come to the surface. I knew then during that I wanted to make a change and up until then I had no idea what the disabled art scene looked like, which I think is very telling of the higher education system and our exposure to the arts industry in general. But during that MA is where I began to write my first show, which was called Past Life. Which is a one person show, which I'm sure I'll talk about, but it's about questioning the normalisation of sexual assault and relationships.

And that came about in my thesis and during our masters you finish with a thesis, but you also create either a stage production or a short film, you can pick. And that is to aid what you're writing about or what you choose to like make a vlog about. And I wanted to focus in on how I make a show accessible for blind or visually impaired and deaf or hard of hearing audiences. And that was kind of the crux of where my career went from there.

I was really fortunate as I left my degree, I landed a DYCP, which was from funded by Arts Council to develop your creative practice and I focused mine around honing in on what my accessible storytelling practice looked like. That's kind of where I decided that the two communities I really wanted to focus on were the blind and deaf communities.

So I use that to RND my production and kind of be mentored by some people in the industry, and that's where my eyes were like open to all of these amazing people trying to kind of advocate for this change that I didn't realise subconsciously I was also like reaching for. Because I just didn't know where to even begin. A massive part of what Past Life was and was to create a show that had creative access. So I created all the creative captioning. Looked at making a rich audio descriptive language. How important sound design is to access and not only that, but looking at how access isn't just creative, it's in the rehearsal rooms and it starts from day one.

And so I finished my DYCP. I... Past Life itself went on to be performed at the Barbican Centre with Cryptic Arts. It then had its first full length run at Camden People’s Theatre in association with the Octagon, and most recently was on in Bloomsbury Festival, in association with EXTANT, which is a visually impaired theatre company. And I've been their associate artist this year which has been incredible. And that's, so that's Past Life in its nutshell. And then most recently I've just been working for the BBC and 20 Stories High and Grey Eye, which is just absolutely incredible. So it's, there's kind of I guess like two versions of where my career was and where it is now. And it's probably a very long winded way of telling you that, but that is me and where I'm at now, ish! [laughs]

Erin: Keeping busy, definitely.

Alice: [laughs] Yeah!

Erin:You mentioned a bit about creative captioning, so can you tell me like what, what is that? What’s your work on that and what does it entail?

Alice: Wow, creative captioning. If anyone has gone to the theatre that is listening to this and has potentially seen or happened to go on one of the only days they potentially might have captioning on in a run, very often captions are put on the side of the stage. And use like a system that kind of just creates the captions kind of as we go. Which is, which is great in theory. We've got the captions. But what I and a load of others are, are kind of trying to advocate for is looking at how we can technologically advance how captions exist within a piece.

And for me, that is through the means of creative captioning and how captioning itself is just as important and integral to a theatres landscape as sound design and set and costume, and the words that we're saying on stage. When I created it for Past Life and I'm only now kind of looking at changing and kind of adapting my practice and kind of scaling up, but back then I mean I still think it's a massive grey area creative captioning in general, like how the hell do you even start? But it was about kind of radically going, ‘what is captions and how do they exist and what happens if they're a character’? And I kind of viewed it like that. The technological landscape of Past Life was very much a character and part of the rehearsal room, which is like, really, really cool. To really just create an immersive language within what the captions are.

And if we look, if we look at it logistically and why, why we're kind of advocating for creative captioning to be seen, to be seen as this, as this creative thing, it's because if you're watching a piece of theatre and being able to have the captions appear in certain places on stage, or react to the actors on stage, helps visually for the the deaf or hard of hearing community or anyone that doesn't maybe identify in that community but actually uses captions on a day-to-day basis, be able to kind of keep with the action on stage and have an element of storytelling happening alongside the story that can aid each other.

So that's the process in which I'm kind of advocating for and the more I mean now, whenever I watch anything, anything like any kind of theatre, I'm like, well there's a way you could have made that creatively accessible. There's a way the captions could have appeared here and on those screens, and it's interesting. A good example of someone that’s done it recently was the Solid Life of Sugar Water, which had captioning throughout the run. And it was, it was really, really accessible.

I'm visually impaired and I could see them, which was incredible. And in moments of high-stake emotion, the captions would alter their fonts and become quite chaotic just to aid what was going on on stage. So it's about creating a parallel between the captions and the action. So that's logistically why I want to be able to kind of look at that and why I think there is a need for it. But then the creative side of things is actually looking at how it can aid the design and the world that we're creating on stage.

Erin: That sounds really cool. So kind of like making the captions theatrical as well rather than it just being words on the sideline type thing?

Alice: Totally and weirdly, if you look, weirdly I say only because I find it mad because I’m visually impaired. But working in such a visual way, it's quite, it's quite interesting, quite common, but making those making them quite colourful and making them quite like bold can then ensure that people like myself in the audience are getting a part of it, like the colours are so important, which is which is another factor which is an interesting revelation I had.

Erin: Yeah, because I can imagine if the captions are always to the side then people are just having to look at the captions rather than actually what's going on stage and it takes away from the Whole thing.

Alice: Yeah, yeah yeah you don't come to sit and watch a piece of theatre and then have to look stage right every...ugh no.

Erin: Like do most shows, like offer captions like is that even common in itself? I was gonna say cause yeah is that, I imagine that's still probably not even a standard in theatre anyway?

Alice: Wow, yeah. God I’m trying to be diplomatic in my, in my response because it is it's really frustrating. I have friends who need who require captions. We wanted to come to a press night or just go to theatre on a random night and you look at the run and the captioned shows are a Saturday matinee, which also will become the one relaxed show, for example, and maybe a Tuesday evening. And it's [exhales] it it can just be really that, you just you just kind of exhale at this point because there really isn't a need for it.

And often what it comes down to, or at least what you're told by theatres, is the budget. And this, I think, is why I'm on a, I'm I'm really advocating for big intersectional changes within the theatre and the art sector in general, because it comes a lot down to money and I think people really need to reconsider what they're budgeting for. Technologically, we live in a very in a very technically apt world. And I think the more we lend ourselves to that, the more captions can just become industry standard and let alone making those as creative as possible like there's two very different kind of arguments there.

There is, I think the, the expectation that we should have captions at every show and then there is, how can we make that as creative and as integral to the design of the theatre. But to answer your question, I think for high scale, mid scale organisations, so really like big theatre organisations, it is happening and it's happening once, maybe or twice a run. And then the money is a side, is a factor into why small-scale theatres, independent fringe-esque shows are not able to put in captions for the most part because there is a financial need there, so my anger kind of comes from the organisations that have the big pots of money.

Erin: Yeah, not taking the opportunity when it could just be as standard.

Alice: Yeah totally yeah.

Erin: And so you know on the topic of like accessible theatre, kind of beyond the creative captioning side of things, can you tell me a bit about what that means to you? What are some of the other things that you’re working on or good examples of things that you've seen that you've felt made something really accessible?

Alice: The first thing I saw that really inspired me was an Ad Infinitum show, The Extraordinary Wall of Silence. This was back in, I think it was 2019 or 2020, which was about the history of BSL. And they used captions, and it was, you know, looking back like that to me was just a wow. I like that. That's cool. I wanna do stuff like that and I wanna make it even more accessible. For me I want to be able to create work that just happens to be accessible.

I think a lot of it comes down to exposure to it, like from audience perspective. And once you've once you've been exposed to it, it's really hard not to imagine that every show wouldn't be the same. Accessible theatre to me is being able to tell the same stories you want to be able to tell, but being able to immerse in a more accessible world, and I think it's really important to preface everything I'm saying with it cannot be accessible to everyone, which can be really frustrating, but is something I learned early on.

And it's quite reassuring I think when you when you start to make accessible work that you really do put yourself in a very vulnerable position. Instant critique, right? Because what's accessible for one might not be accessible for the other, so being really clear and concise in your audience. Which is why I, I don't shy away from saying I focus on two very specific communities, at the minute anyway.

Accessible theatre to me is looking at taking simplistic formats, utilising them to a professional standard and then being able to broadcast beautiful storytelling on a stage. And a massive factor in that is audio description and looking at how that can be integrated, I think very, very often audio description is one of the last things that anyone thinks about. And very, very often is the most simplest thing to be able to interject into the linguistics you use when you're writing a script.

If somebody passes a present, instead of assuming that the audience know why don't we just add a line? And it doesn't negate from the storytelling. It doesn't, it doesn't negate from the the language that you're using. It's being able to incorporate that into your own language as a writer. For me I'm quite poetic with it, or at least I have been thus far, for example, which for someone else it that wouldn't work.

So it's really, it's taking those simplistic formats and playing with them and exploring them in a professional way to make theatre that is accessible. Ramps on the Moon is an incredible example and has been for the last few years. They make, they make great work with disabled people. Hire, every actor on stage is disabled and they've, they're an organisation that been working with a few theatres over the last five years. And the most recent one was Much Ado About Mothing and I caught it at Birmingham Rep and it like made me cry at the beginning because it was so wonderful what they've done. And they began the piece by having everyone audio describe themselves on stage as characters, explain the space and kind of set up the relaxed atmosphere of the show. And none of that felt additional and weird. It didn't, it didn't, you know, juxtapose with Shakespeare.

You know, one of the most classical formats of theatre. But what that what that did was just open up the audience to relax and chill, and know where we're, know where we're at. And what was beautiful about actually the day I went to see it, there was a load of school kids in and you can hear, I could hear them questioning and talking to each other and sometimes maybe feeling a bit uncomfortable during the show, and it's about that exposure. It's about them leaving questioning and being able to have seen something like that to move forward in their life and their and their knowledge. So that's a really, Ramps on the Moon in general are a really good example of an organisation working with disabled people to create big changes.

For me, I want that to be, to go further than the disabled community advocating for disability. It needs to be happening at a level where we're not being advertised, quote unquote as accessible theatre or disabled led work, or these, these subconscious subgenres, that often our work gets put in and then we don't get the recognition it always deserves. So, yeah, accessible theatre to me is is a lot more simple than I think people think from the outside, which I can understand. But actually it's just, it’s really exciting, but it's just asking yourself, how can I make this accessible?

Erin: Yeah, and it's like you say, just even just small things in the script that just would really help with that like description, which actually takes nothing but almost feels like every show needs some kind of like advisor or expert or something so that they have that knowledge. And because you know, not everyone does think about it, especially if they've not been exposed to it or they're not involved in those conversations. But it feels like everyone needs to be on that journey, really don't they?

Alice: Yeah and that's where I, that's where exposure comes from. And I and I've worked a lot, I work a lot with companies that aren't disabled led, and they're trying to advocate for change, and you can kind of sometimes sense the fear. And I absolutely understand the fear of messing up right, because it can be quite scary and you know, from an outside perspective, the disabled community, we're angry and we're advocating for change. And it, look it can be quite intimidating.

But actually it's about that exposure and it's about asking the questions, and it's about implementing that into your structures to be able to go oh, actually, that was really, that wasn't as scary as I thought because it's well supported. And in regards to that, I think every show should be implementing some sort of access support worker in general for mental health and well-being. All of these aspects, you know, we always, as humans make rooms accessible for each other anyway, so access riders, for example being handed in by the cast and the production team helped just to ensure that like everyone is safe and happy as much as they can be in that room kind of thing. So yeah, exposure is big.

Erin: Yeah, and in turn that could create more like job opportunities for disabled people as well if there were more roles like that available. So it's kind of like a bigger picture thing, isn't it? That's what I was going to ask as well because obviously you've mentioned that there are some people that really are wanting to do it like, do you feel like the creative arts industry in general is getting more and more on board with wanting to be accessible and inclusive? Or do you think there's still you know a lot that needs to be done to get people on that, on that journey?

Alice: I think the question surrounding is the industry doing enough for disabled people and creative access and access in general is a very interesting question. And quite a difficult one to answer or pinpoint. I think, I think that the ace strategy, strategy I can't say that word! The ACE 2020 Let's Create strategy, there we go, has helped to change people's perceptions of how they can incorporate minority communities into their work.

Which is a very good thing and potentially one of the only things I would compliment the Arts Council on. But what that has I think in turn done...there's negatives and positives to this, but here sometimes you can, you can now tell a lot if somebody has landed funding, which is a mission in itself, if they are adhering to want to work with disabled people or if they've done it to tick an Arts Council juicy box to land money. So there's a, there's a positive to that.

It's becoming a lot easier to tell when someone's heart is in the work and when it isn't. The negative is it's made it increasingly harder for people who have got the right ethos and message and passion for change who are still not landing the money. Which is politics in itself in terms of like the sector. So that is a as a signpost has been a benefit. We have benefited from strategies like that to ensure that there is an element of disability inclusivity within the arts sector. I feel like it's a very, very exciting time to be a part of this movement for sure, and I think there is still a lot of negativity and I don't think that negativity and that resentment is gonna go anywhere, anytime soon.

But I, I for one am excited because it feels like people are listening because they want to make a change. So yes changes are happening. The counter argument to that is changes should have been happening years ago, which I think is where the resentment comes, especially from people who have been in this industry for quite a while. It's like nothing we haven't heard before, but I think the mainstream shift, TV and screen, have been a massive indication that we are speaking up and we are and we are wanting a change and equity.

Kind of really looking at how we can create rules and an industry standard practice to include, to include us in these conversations. Yeah, that's that's, it’s happening, it is happening and it is exciting to kind of be able to step up and kind of advocate for change and take the next generation with us alongside and kind of, you know, do that and that, and I think that's really, really cool. I think it should be happening a million times quicker than it is, and I think the tick box mentality is still a thing.

And in turn, sometimes it can feel like the Impression Olympics and whatever disability is hot right now. And that when you clock that's happening in a room that can be very disheartening. But it's about understanding that the only way we're going to make the changes that we need to make are gonna happen when we're in rooms of people who are not used to working with disabled people, who are letting us speak up and say what we need to and work with us to advocate for a bigger change. Yeah, it's a very complex question, but it's a good question and I do think we're on the right track ultimately.

Erin: Yeah, that's really good and kind of in your experience as well kind of you know, performing and also going to shows, do you think there's enough like opportunities for disabled people actually to be on stage? Or you, you know, do you find that it's still that mindset of like it has to be a disabled character? Is it like going beyond that yet?

Alice: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I think I think I can only really speak from my kind of perspective. I think I've, I'm pretty split in terms of like casting and what I get, what I get seen for. Because I think I kind of, I've got an invisible disability. Sometimes people don't even clock it unless I say it, and that is, that can be a, it can be a privilege, but that can also be like a mental burden to like deal with for sure. It's, it's a lot.

But what that has meant is that in terms of of casting, you can you know it's it is pretty open and what's nice is when you see casting breakdowns, it's very often they're open for seeing disabled people. However, there are, there have been multiple times, where you get very close to the end, you get very very close to like life changing things and then they don't pick you and they don't pick any other disabled person. And that's again where the tick box comes in. Statistically it looks great for these organisations to be reaching out to this community, but are we landing the jobs? That's debatable.

And you know, for me it's a question of sometimes being too blind or not blind enough, and I think a lot of the visually impaired community have felt that from conversations I've had. I think if we're looking at like the disabled communities in general, if I'm looking at just the visually impaired and blind community we feel, or at least from people I've spoken to, like we're a few years behind. So when it comes to these casting rooms or being, you know getting getting in, getting into the the spaces, it feels like people still don't really know how to navigate that. Because we're not the version that they want us to be, to do with that what you will it changes per room, but it's that's a big reason why I wanna kind of speak up and make a change.

And in terms of opportunities I think over the last few years there have been a plethora of opportunities, which is incredible, and we're not just talking acting, we're talking like theatre organisations wanting to reach out to you, disabled writers, making sure they've got time for this community, and other minority communities, offering virtual writing opportunities. Because usually they'd be in London. It seems like a really exciting time to be making work as a disabled person because I do feel like whether or not the organisations and the bigger, the bigger people high up want to listen to us, very often the people that are employed, the people that are working with the communities, especially up north, it does feel like you are held and there are people that do want to hear and advocate for what you're talking about. In general I outside the casting room if you will, the opportunities I think are coming and that's really exciting. And they’re have been. And the casting room I think is still a few a few steps behind, especially with visually impaired people.

Erin: Right. Do you think as well in like a strange way the pandemic kind of helped? Like you know, you just mentioned now people are doing things virtually and being able to get involved from a distance. Do you think the pandemic kind of actually helped open those doors as well?

Alice: Yeah, this is like obviously like pandemic was bad, the pandemic we do not like the pandemic! I'm just going to make that clear, yeah? We do not like it!

Erin: [laughs] But it opened some...

Alice: Right like I, I think a lot of good came from the pandemic and me personally my career kind of kicked off during the pandemic, which is a mental battlefield, when obviously like it was such an awful, awful time. But opportunity suddenly felt feasible because London opened up and suddenly everything kind of became more virtual and self-tapes have stayed a thing more so than they used to.

It's the virtual side of things seems to be going, which is a whole other argument and something that I'm advocating not to, not to happen. And kind of when I make work offering virtual opportunities with it. But I think the pandemic gave everyone a time to reflect and look at how we can make a change and people really started to speak up and I think it has adhered to a lot of opportunities for the disabled community in particular to really kind of get our voices heard. Because of this time where society shut down and we really had to reflect on what we were doing and how we could make a change.

Erin: Yeah, I think it's like after a difficult few years you gotta take the wins where you can, can't you?

Alice: Yeah, yeah, yeah you have to. And not be, not apologise, I think for, for yeah, for doing, for doing what you, for doing what you love and doing what you work hard for. But it can be, yeah, it can be really hard. But I think there was, I think a lot of a lot of self-reflection and a lot of positivity came out of such an awful time, which is, which is I really tried to hold on to yeah.

Erin: Yes, yeah, definitely. Well thank you. This has been really interesting to hear about the work that you're doing and kind of the changes that are happening and the opportunities. Before we go is there anything you wanna plug, anything that you're working on coming up that you wanna mention? I'll put all your links to your website and your socials on our show notes, but yeah, anything you wanna mention before we go?

Alice: Well, thank you so much for having me. It's been really great to chat. And if anyone like listening to this wants to continue to chat, like my socials and everything are available because I think the big thing comes from just keeping these conversations going. I will be at Vault Festival over January and February with a show called Tinker.

I'm in it, which is lovely. If anybody would like to come and see. And I'm currently working with the Lowry in Manchester on my next play, Fade which is a two hander about twin siblings coming to terms with their mother’s sudden death. So if anyone is interested in that, kind of just keep an eye on the socials because it's all happening which is really scary, but really really exciting. And yeah, yeah, it's just, it's just really cool, but. If anyone is a round in London in February, come see, come see [laughs].

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Erin: That sounds great. Thank you so much. Well thanks so much, it's been really great to chat and really good to hear about all of this.

Alice: Thank you so much. It's been great!

Erin: Well I know that chat with Alice really got me thinking about theatre and captioning in a whole new way! It was really great to hear about some of the work that’s being done to move theatre forward and think about new ways that disabled audience members can be more included in the experience.

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What about you? Have you seen anything cool like creative captions? Or have you been to see something that just wasn’t inclusive at all? Let us know by getting in touch on Instagram or Twitter @LeonardCheshire or by emailing disabilitydownload@leonardcheshire.org.

And I’ll put all the links to Alice’s website and her social media channels on the show notes of our Simplecast site, and you can find a full transcript of the episode on there as well.

And if there's a guest in mind that you really want to hear from, tag them on social, tag us and let us know. And as always please do remember to like, share and subscribe to the podcast.

Before we go, I wanted to give a quick shout out to our editor Sally Raper, who edits the podcast for us – thanks Sally!

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And thanks so much for listening everyone, until next time, I’m Erin and this has been The Disability Download!

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