Although one in five Australians has a disability, theatrical spaces are notoriously inaccessible for people with disabilities. Spaces that are allegedly wheelchair accessible still have small steps between parts of the theatre, performances are rarely inclusive of people who are deaf or blind, and making sound or moving excessively is almost always frowned upon by other patrons. Not only is this locking out a huge chunk of the population, it’s sending a message to people with disabilities that going through the extra effort to be inclusive isn’t worth the revenue we would bring into theatres. How, then, are we supposed to access the arts?
Backstage in Biscuit Land, featuring Jess Thom, who has Tourette Syndrome, and Jess Mabel Jones, is a wonderful piece of theatre that is not only educational, but funny, emotional, and most importantly, accessible. It was wonderful walking into the theatre — the space was colourful and inviting, there were spaces allocated for people who required Auslan translation, and there were no restrictions on noise and movement. This meant audience members with disabilities weren’t shamed for their behaviours. Throughout the show, audience members with Tourette’s were unafraid to tic along with Thom as she dynamically shaped her performance around what they were saying and doing, and invited those audience members to be part of the experience. Thom and Jones were a seamless duo on stage — their performance educated the audience on Tourette’s and its ups and downs, and they were by turns warm, funny, heart-breaking and uplifting.
After the show, Thom spoke on how important it was to create a theatrical space where everyone felt welcomed, and an audience member broke down in tears when speaking on how much it meant to him to see someone like him on stage.
Touretteshero, a project and blog co-founded by Thom, and Back to Back Theatre, a theatre company for disabled actors, does a wonderful job of making accessible theatre, as well as creating spaces where actors with disabilities can flourish. Presenting their performers as more than just ‘disabled actors’, Back to Back’s Lady Eats Apple reflects on creation mythology, death and the afterlife, euthanasia, social dynamics, sex, and intimacy. Instead of being rigid about how the show should be performed, Lady Eats Apple allows their performers’ differences to shape and improve upon a scene; one of the actors has difficulty with remembering her lines, so her scene partner has them embroidered on his jacket. Watching the performers help and feed off each other is a joy to experience, and provides an ideal model for how disability should be approached by theatres.
Backstage in Biscuit Land and Lady Eats Apple are both refreshing and wonderful examples of how differences can be integrated in a performance to create more interesting and diverse theatre. Not only do we need to make viewing theatre more accessible for audience members, we need to create more spaces for people with disabilities to perform. We as producers, performers and consumers of theatre have a responsibility to accurately represent our society on stage. It’s hard to be what you can’t see, and creators like Back to Back Theatre and Tourettes hero are paving the way for a more accessible and more exciting theatre experience for everyone.