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Access at the theatre

You never know what’s going to happen until you ask.

On center stage two performers with two audience members in costume  being applauded by audience below and two interpreters on far left stage waving arms in air.
O’ Christmas Tea

Few weeks back I wanted to treat my husband to a comedy for his birthday and saw that the Kingston Grand Theatre was having a show that looked intriguing. One problem, I wanted to be able to enjoy the show too! I emailed the theatre to ask if interpreters can be provided knowing how short notice it was. 

The show is about a British duo from British Columbia characterized as James and Jamesy, played by Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles, who hosted the most awesome tea party during their performance of O’ Christmas Tea at the Kingston Grand Theatre on Saturday. 

Lo and behold, the theatre made it happen as they provided funding to cover the cost of the interpreters. I had a good time laughing at their various rich trips of imagination and enjoyed them incorporating the audience  members in their performances. The interpreters dressed in black standing in place under a light on the left side of the stage safely tucked away from the performers running the stage with smoke machines blowing smoke around them and bringing audience members onto stage. Not the usual location for interpreters but because the show had sold out a number of seats prior to my interest in having interpreters, seats for Deaf patron(s) was limited and consequently effective staging options for the interpreters was limited. They did have 4 seats available for any Deaf patron interested beside us, it was shared on S5WAVES and the duo shared it on their James and Jamesy page.

I had the honour to meet Aaron and Alastair after the performance, thanking them for obliging to my request. They were more than willing to continue the conversation via email to answer some questions I had for them about the overall experience in having interpreters.

    When Kingston Grand Theatre reached out to you, what did they ask and what was your response? Was your response quick or did you need time to consider it? 

    Kingston Grand Theatre Manager, Dianne Zemba, forwarded your query if sign language interpreters would be possible. Our ‘yes’ response was pretty quick. As individuals, we knew we wanted to say yes, but we strive to make decisions by consensus, so it just took the time to get the team together (performers and technicians) to determine that the staging of the production could work with interpreters on stage. From there, it was a quick, collective ‘yes’.
    *There are cases where other theatres deny the effort to provide access.

    Have you worked with interpreters before in your play? Or in any other environments?

    Earlier this year we hired Maxim Fomitchev, a master-mime for Cirque du Soleil, to give us private instruction in mime performance techniques. He is a Deaf person and recommended an interpreter we hire. We hired them both. That experience was delightful, new, and we found that communication was very easy. We will be working with him again this spring.
    *Not everyone has done this before, they were lucky to learn from Maxim himself.

    Did you spend time reviewing the performance with them prior to the event?

    We sent the interpreters a script and video recording of the production to prepare, and spoke about show details like the number of characters, and inclusion of improvised elements. It was a very easy process.
    *This is very important for interpreters to prepare and rehearse ahead of time.

    After the performance, what are your thoughts on having the interpreters present? Were they a distraction? 

    We loved having them! We try to make our show accessible to a variety of patrons, and to be able to connect with the Deaf community was a delightful experience we hope to repeat. Having them at the edge of the stage was only a very minor distraction for the performers.
    *Love it when performers or production are willing!

    Do you think this experience might change your script writing in the future? How?

    We love creating work that is very physical, and expressive. 

    Alastair has created a solo show that is entirely wordless too, with the thought that it could cross language barriers (including ASL!). 

    One of our performances, called ‘In the Dark’, is performed in the dark, illuminated by headlamps worn by the performers. In that instance, having illuminated interpreters would dramatically alter the theatrical experience, so we would have to put our thinking caps on to determine the best way to make it accessible.

    Alastair’s partner Stéphanie Morin-Robert, recently performed a show in French and had subtitles written in English available on iPads. I understand written English is a different language than ASL, but we would be happy to explore ways to make that show accessible to the Deaf community if we perform it again. 
    *To more possibilities, Deaf patrons can expect from them to accommodate.


    Both the Kingston Grand Theatre and James & Jamesy proves that theatres and productions can make it work to provide access. The theatre provided access for ‘Menopause the Musical’ last year with 4 interpreters for me to enjoy with my husband. It was a real treat to see a show at least once a year, although I’d like to see more. I enjoy shows like this one that are very physical and expressive.

    Many thanks to both for a great time!

    If you are a patron and need access, ask! The Kingston Grand Theatre is equipped with assistive listening systems. A free headset that can be picked up at the Coat Check prior to a performance with a photo ID. The Grand OnStage program occasionally features shows that include ASL interpretations that are advertised in advance.  Kingston Grand Theatre will also endeavour to arrange for ASL interpretation upon request depending upon lead time, the availability of ASL interpreters, and the necessary approvals on the part of artists and/or presenters.
    * Check the accessibility pages of other theatres.

    If you run a theatre and want to learn how to be accessible, reach out to me to come up with strategies with a network of people to make it happen.