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Accessibility with a Difference

The story of the Difference Engine app, which has put Talking Birds theatre company — the creators of The Festival of Lost and Found at Shakespeare's New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon — at the forefront of creative approaches that aim to make performing arts more accessible

Emma Bessent

The conversation around accessibility is one of the most important discussions currently taking place in the arts, culture, and heritage industries. It is essential that organisations welcome audiences with meaningful solutions to their needs. There is much to be done, but fantastic work is already being undertaken to offer creative and exciting access tools to all. One company at the forefront of this effort is Talking Birds, the theatre company which will be performing The Festival of Lost and Found at the site of Shakespeare’s New Place from 11-15 December, 2019.

“We care deeply about making our work available to as many people as possible," Philippa Cross, General Manager of Talking Birds, tells me. Accessibility is completely core to the company’s artistic mission. “Revolutionising the creative possibilities of accessibility” is the second of their Six Big Ideas, and the tool which they have developed to meet access needs, The Difference Engine, was an Innovation Award finalist in The Stage Awards 2019. The creative energy which the company has and continues to invest into access is breaking ground in the industry, and showing great promise for the future of access solutions.

We care deeply about making our work available to as many people as possible

— Philippa Cross, General Manager of Talking Birds

Talking Birds became particularly invested in creative accessibility solutions in 2002, when they created a site-specific performance called Solid Blue for Whitefriars, a partially ruined 14th century monastery in Coventry. The show was a twist on courtroom drama, inspired by the macabre criminal history of the surrounding area, and it was performed in one of the few structures still standing at Whitefriars. However, this space still proved problematic, as Talking Birds wanted to use the atmospheric gallery which was only accessible via stairs; the building had a lift, but it was condemned. This meant that any audience member unable to use stairs due to physical or emotional needs would be unable to see the full performance.

Talking Birds Solid Blue
"Solid Blue", performed at Whitefriars, Coventry

Their access officer for this production challenged them to think about access from a creative perspective, saying “You’re artists. If you can’t solve the problem, who can?” Talking Birds accepted this challenge, and set about developing a creative solution which developed the existing show into something even more exciting, engaging and accessible for the entire audience. 

“At the time, cutting-edge technology was using video,” Philippa explains, before outlining their solution: a live video link between the ground floor and the upstairs gallery, with the downstairs performance space complemented and energised by the presence of the performers who were not needed “on stage”. Aside from making the performance more accessible, Philippa concludes, “It made a better show. The access challenge led to solutions that were better for everybody, not just people who needed that access solution.” 

The access challenge led to solutions that were better for everybody, not just people who needed that access solution

— Philippa Cross, General Manager of Talking Birds

As the situation stands across the theatre industry, typical routes into access for performance are limited for both theatre practitioners and audience members. Infrared is the main technology used in theatres to deliver audio description and amplification of the performance’s sound, including speech and music. The system is very expensive to install, requiring a significant amount of costly hardware; infrared works by sending a signal from a source (usually a radiator panel) and the receiver (a device called a stethoset, worn by the audience member). For the technology to operate, the audience member must have a clear line of sight between themselves and the source, so even their position within the fixed space of the theatre must be carefully selected if the user is to benefit from uninterrupted audio. Added to this, stethosets are often uncomfortable to wear. As an access provision, infrared goes some way to providing for audience members with hearing or visual impairment, but it is by no means a perfect solution. 

Even if infrared systems provide full audio and visual access, the cost and static nature of this technology mean that it is rarely available to smaller, localised, or touring companies. Talking Birds, with their focus on theatre of place, perform in spaces which would be completely incompatible with this type of system. In response to the economic pressure and other challenges of existing access tools, Talking Birds set to work developing an alternative system for theatre companies like themselves, who toured and performed in atypical spaces with limited resources.

The result was The Difference Engine, a software which currently runs off of a laptop and router or Raspberry Pi, and streams captions, audio description and other information to audiences via their own mobile devices. The company is particularly enthusiastic about how this tool merges access with creative potential, as Philippa says. “We’re really interested in  shifting responsibility for access from a marketing or front-of-house-type activity that’s added on at the end, and positioning it right in the heart of the creative process.” The Difference Engine brings access questions and awareness into the very process of devising theatre, encouraging writers, directors and performers to consider how their work can be more inclusive.

Talking Birds Difference Engine
The Difference Engine at work

The Difference Engine is subject to continuous development as Talking Birds learn more about audience needs and how these can be met through technological innovation. The audio development aspect of the tool is still being tested, but the use of captioning is fully available and already in use across the country. Talking Birds hire out kits to other companies, so that this provision can be available to audiences beyond their own.

Although it was developed primarily for small, touring companies, The Difference Engine has been used by a plethora of companies, including big names such as Complicité, Red Ladder, Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, and Belgrade Theatre. Philippa explains that, as an access tool, it is creating new opportunities for companies of all sizes. “Some of those more established companies are using it in situations where what they normally use doesn’t work for them because they’re working in a different space or they have a particularly different need. For small companies, it’s work that wouldn’t otherwise have been made accessible, because they couldn’t afford the solutions that were already there.”

Already, Talking Birds have seen their fellow creatives engaging with The Difference Engine in a way which enriches entire performances. It can offer translation, be used to direct audience movement in a promenade performance, receive live feedback from audiences, and split its output so that different people in the audience receive different information, which could potentially be used to alter audiences’ responses to characters and events. One show has even featured The Difference Engine as a character of its own in a two-man show; the tool performed as a rogue Artificial Intelligence which responded to the actor. The narrative was shaped by the feedback function, as audiences could affect the ending by whether they chose to answer a question at the beginning of the performance with “yes” or “no”. A new feature called Takeaway allows this creative work to continue inspiring and entertaining audiences even after the performance has ended, as they can take away resources such as programmes or information about the historical foundations of a site-specific performance. 

As with any creative process, the success of any access solution entirely depends on how you approach it. Talking Birds are proving through their work that access solutions can be exciting, refreshing elements of a performance. When access becomes as integral to a show as its costumes, lighting, and script, the experience becomes more valuable for all involved. Inclusivity is not an obstacle, but an opportunity.

The Difference Engine will be used to caption all performances of Talking Birds' latest show, The Festival of Lost and Found , at the site of Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, from 11 to 15 December. There will also be a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance at 6pm on 14 December.

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