Bristol Hippodrome Celebrates 20 Years Of Access Performances

The Bristol Hippodrome is about to celebrate its 200th Assisted Performance since records began, during the run of this year's pantomime, Cinderella. The theatre currently offers three types of Assisted performance: Sign Language Interpreted for deaf patrons who use sign language, Captioned performances for patrons who are hearing impaired, and Audio Described for visually impaired patrons.

Trish Hodson, the Access Officer, and now Group Sales Manager, took on the access role in 1994. At that time, only Sign Language Interpreted performances were offered, but they were booked for as many shows as possible, as even then, before the Disability Discrimination Act (now known as the Equality Act) the Hippodrome took very seriously its role in offering as much access for its patrons as possible. "We worked for many years with Paul Whittaker's organisation, Music and the Deaf, as well as our own local interpreters, Debbie Jones and Sherry Eugene. We now mainly work with Andy Higgins' company BSL Tickets and his interpreters come to us from all over the country. Being on the stage, interpreters have to deal with a wide range of interruptions or distractions, as they are often placed directly in front of speaker systems and lighting rigs, having to face whatever special effects are going on onstage - on some occasions, it's hard to fit them on stage at all. On one notable evening, Debbie was eight months pregnant and had to put up with standing on a box in the orchestra pit for two and a half hours!" comments Trish.

Trish was approached by a regular visually-impaired customer, Alan Brown, who told her about a new facility that was being offered mainly in Scotland called audio description. Apparently originating from football terraces, this system involved a sighted person describing the action on the pitch to a gathered crowd of visually impaiRed Football fans; Alan had heard that this was now on offer in a more formal way in theatres. Alan and Trish investigated, and it quickly became clear that this would involve a lot of expense due to the equipment needed, but it would be possible to hire the equipment for one-off performances - which is exactly what was done for the first audio-described performance, of 'Annie', at the Hippodrome in 1999 as a temporary solution. Fortune was smiling on the venue though as a grant became available allowing the theatre to spend money on access improvements. So, as well as a new accessible loo, the Hippodrome was able to purchase the equipment required for providing Audio Description.

As chance would have it, at that time Trish was also approached by a local actress, Irene Richards, who was interested in becoming an audio describer. Although it took another year to get this set up, Irene has worked with the theatre on a regular basis ever since.

Visually impaired patrons with guide dogs often leave their dogs with Trish for dog-sitting during the performance. On one occasion Trish was bringing upstairs two guide dogs at the same time - they were faster than Trish on the stairs and she was dragged through the Grand Circle Bar into the path of the then CEO of the company who was enjoying a quiet interval drink with the Theatre Manager. Asked over to say hello Trish recalls being red faced and panting, and covered in golden retriever hair, and trying to conduct a professional conversation whilst not looking too flustered!

In the early 2000s, the Hippodrome were approached by a new company, Stagetext, to talk about captioned performances for hearing-impaired customers. Captioned performances use two screens, one either side of the stage, which show the dialogue and sound effects of the production, just like subtitles on tv. Like audio description, this is delivered live by, in this case, a captioner. It's a key skill of the captioner to get the timing right, so that everybody laughs at the joke or gasps at the reveal, all at the same time!

The Hippodrome's first captioned performance was 'Miss Saigon' in 2003, with 127 patrons. The Stagetext captioners were a little nervous - not only was it the first performance, but Cameron Mackintosh would be in the audience that night as well...but everything went off without a hitch.

As with all new technologies, captioned performances were initially very expensive, but in order to offer them more regularly, we managed to find a more local freelance captioner - Cardiff-based screenwriter Chris Lambert, who had been trained by Stagetext. Our company purchased the caption boards for cross-venue use but luckily for the Hippodrome, they tend to use them regularly enough to be their main keepers!

Technology has been the key in lots of ways to the success of these performances and it has only been with the invaluable help of the Hippodrome's long serving Chief Electrician Pete Loft that they have been able to make them work as well as they do. He is always on hand to re-wire, re-connect and re-position any of the bits and bobs involved at a moment's notice (sometimes even as the audience are taking their seats!).

They now try to offer all three assisted performances on their longer-running shows.Over 6,500 patrons have benefited from these performances, many of whom have become regular and familiar faces to us - including Alan Brown, who originally suggested audio description! Customers like Alan have, over the years, helped them to develop access facilities so that they are able to offer the very best in customer service for all patrons. They have a dedicated Groups and Access team based in the venue with a direct telephone and email contact, and we will always endeavour to offer customers the very best seating for their access requirements.

But ensuring the best possible access is always a work-in-progress: and they are delighted to say that they can now offer a brand-new type of assisted performance - the Hippodrome's very first Relaxed Performance will be during next year's pantomime 'Dick Whittington' in December 2014. Relaxed Performances are provided for patrons who are on the autistic spectrum, have sensory and communication disorders, a learning disability or for anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed environment. They offer a more relaxed attitude to noise in the auditorium, in order to reduce anxiety and ensure a safe, enjoyable theatre visit. Prior to the performance itself bookers will be sent a visual story (detailed information and photos), be invited to attend a familiarisation meeting in the theatre and there will be a designated 'chill-out' area for use during the performance.

And a final comment from Trish - "The Bristol Hippodrome's commitment and passion for access will always remain a key focus - there's always something new to learn. We look forward to welcoming and working with our access patrons for many more years to come."



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