Edinburgh International Festival: a pro-active and personal approach to access

Joe Turnbull takes a look at the access offer of Edinburgh International Festival, an organisation with a rich history spanning more than 70 years. 2019 saw the festival feature more accessible performances than ever before and included disabled-led theatre company Birds of Paradise as part of its main programme.

5 performers on a colourfully lit stage
Birds of Paradise’s Purposeless Movements at Edinburgh International Festival. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Few festivals are as iconic as Edinburgh International Festival, which was established in 1947, spawning the upstart offshoot, Edinburgh Festival Fringe the same year. Although the Fringe has arguably eclipsed EIF in terms of global fame, and sheer scale, the latter is still a truly massive event. This year, EIF welcomed 420,000 attendees to 293 performances. But these two Edinburgh giants are vastly different in terms of approach, with EIF offering a carefully curated counterpoint to the open door free-for-all of the Fringe. Edinburgh as a city is not the easiest when it comes to access, with its cobbled streets and the Old Town’s medieval buildings, plus plenty of steps. The anarchy of the Fringe has also created a unique access challenge – though it has made massive strides in recent years. In theory, EIF’s more selective approach should make for an easier ride when it comes to accessibility.

“I would describe our approach to access as genuine, pro-active and personal,” explains Brian O’Regan, Audience Development & Access Co-ordinator at EIF. “We actively reach out to audiences and potential audiences alike to provide support where needed, identify barriers and build relationships with audiences and organisations who support disabled people.”

Touch tour taking place on a stage in an empty theatre
Touch tour of Peter Gynt at Edinburgh International Festival. Photograph: Gaelle Beri

The number of accessible performances at EIF has been steadily increasing and in 2019, the festival offered more accessible performances than ever before, with 17 Audio Described performances, 15 British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted/integrated events and performances, 11 Captioned performances and 2 Relaxed Performances. O’Regan expands:

“As well as offering a greater variety of accessible productions, we also now offer repeat performances where possible which means audiences can engage with a performance on their own terms and on a day/time that suits them. Technology also plays a big role, and this year we worked with SignLive, a BSL video interpreting service, to enable BSL users to book tickets using this service. We also offered Relaxed Performances for the first time ever which was a significant step, and they seem to have been very well-received which is encouraging.”

Every festival, EIF produces an Access Guide, which acts as a centralised resource for all things related to accessibility at the festival. It includes details of all the accessible performances, as well as the names of BSL interpreters and audio describers, plus information about each of the venues. O’Regan explains the importance of the guide, especially in relation to Edinburgh’s accessibility challenges as a city:

“I think one of the big challenges for our audiences is actually navigating Edinburgh in August due to the increased numbers of people in the city and this can be even more challenging for disabled people. Our main responsibility in this context is to ensure that our venues are as accessible as possible and that we provide as much information to audiences in advance of performances to help them prepare. Our Access Guide provides detailed access information, images and maps to help audiences find their way around. All of the venues that we use are fully wheelchair accessible, and the Access Guide details whether there is accessible parking nearby, where the accessible toilets are located, whether the venue has a loop system etc. We are pro-active in identifying these barriers and removing as many as possible for audiences, but I think we need to work within the context of Edinburgh as a city, but also as a World Heritage Site.”

Man and woman with a guide dog on a stage
Touch tour of Peter Gynt at Edinburgh International Festival. Photograph: Gaelle Beri

The festival may take place in August, but access is an all-year concern for EIF. “There’s a big consideration during the planning stages around making sure the access programme is balanced and varied in every sense in relation to the wider programme,” says O’Regan. “This can be challenging as not all shows are confirmed at the same time so it’s a gradual process as the wider programme comes together.”

Naturally, providing accessibility to performances means involving the artists. As EIF hosted 2,800 artists from 41 different countries in 2019, it’s not surprising that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Whoever the artist or company is, EIF start conversations about access very early on in the process of working with them.

“Some companies will be very keen to offer as many accessible options as possible and that’s brilliant,” O’Regan enthuses. “Some of these companies may even bring their own Audio Describers, Captioners or BSL interpreters. But in the majority of cases, we would source local, Scottish-based providers and then act as the conduit between the company and the access provider/freelancer.”

It’s encouraging to hear that more and more companies are considering working in an ‘integrated’ fashion when it comes to access, especially with BSL. “An integrated approach is something that we’re really keen to encourage,” says O’ Regan. “Although, it’s not always possible, especially with a touring company who are in Edinburgh for a very short time. It was really great to work with Birds of Paradise this year. Accessibility is at the very core of their work, it’s integral to their creative process. The piece that was performed, Purposeless Movements, not only has integrated access provision on every performance, but it also champions disabled performers which is so important and also a very different thing to providing Audio Description, BSL interpretation or Captioning.”

2 male performers standing alongside female sign language interpreter
Purposeless Movements included integrated BSL, captioning and audio description. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

On top of offering relaxed performances for the first time this year, EIF also has another stand-out new initiative in 2019, Deaf Theatre Club. With Deaf Theatre Club, which is available alongside all BSL-interpreted shows, D/deaf audience members are met at the venue by a BSL-trained staff member who can assist with ticket collection, ordering refreshments and finding seats. Participants are also offered additional insights into the show with a short BSL pre-event introduction. It also has a social aspect, allowing D/deaf theatregoers to meet their peers.

“The really great thing is that it’s ‘D/deaf-led’,” O’Regan explains. “This came about through a connection with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, who offer a BA Performance in British Sign Language and English. After meeting with Claire Lamont, the Head of the course about this idea, I was contacted by one of their recent graduates EJ Raymond, who runs an organisation called Turtléar, and EJ took the lead on bringing other recent graduates on board to become ‘Deaf Theatre Club Leaders’. We are hoping to continue to develop this initiative for next year alongside EJ and the DTC Leaders who were involved this year.”  

It seems EIF’s efforts this year have paid off, with access review website, Euan’s Guide bestowing it the ‘Spirit of Inclusion Award’ which is awarded to ‘an organisation that has exceeded all expectations and has shown that disabled access and inclusion are woven within the fabric of what they offer’. Despite this, O’Regan is only too aware that improving access is a never-ending process, “We are continuing to develop our offering and we seek advice and feedback from a range of different sources to inform those decisions.”

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