National Theatre of Scotland: Reaching Deaf Audiences through Digital
At the end of 2018, I was lucky enough to receive a bursary to attend the Arts Marketing Association’s Digital Day ‘Future Now’. After a short plane journey from Belfast to Glasgow, I spent the day surrounded by inspirational speakers, friendly arts marketers, and some lovely Scottish accents.
The highlight of the day for me was a presentation by Charlotte Gross, from the National Theatre of Scotland. Charlotte talked about how National Theatre of Scotland is using digital creatively to improve accessibility.
National Theatre Scotland doesn’t have its own venue, and creates much of its work in partnership with theatre-makers, companies, venues and participants. This means that collaboration comes naturally to them, something which definitely shows through in their approach to accessibility.
Case Study: My Left/Right Foot - The Musical
This show was created by Birds of Paradise and National Theatre of Scotland, and began life at the Edinburgh Fringe. It follows a Scottish am-dram society who create a musical version of ‘My Left Foot’ in order to win extra points for complying with the ‘equalities agenda’.
The show includes integrated signers. Instead of a traditional BSL interpreter at the side of the stage, integrated signers are actively performing at the centre of the play. This means that audiences don’t have to keep looking to the right or left of the stage to follow what’s happening. All of the performances included audio description and captioning too.
In order to draw audiences to the show, particularly those who use BSL on a regular basis, NTS created a really inventive BSL trailer for the play.
The trailer features the integrated BSL signer Natalie waking through the theatre sets, introducing us to actors from the play. There’s an effort from actors to sign a little bit about their characters, although they are not fluent in BSL. Charlotte explained that this was equivalent to visiting Spain on your holidays and using a few basic phrases – it shows that you are willing to make an effort and want to be friendly.
At the end of the video, there is lots of info about booking and a clear invitation for viewers to get in touch with any questions.
“We’ve got to sell tickets, but it’s also our responsibility to accompany audiences a little and make sure they have the best experience.” – Charlotte Gross, National Theatre of Scotland
Charlotte talked about how engaging with pre-show digital content can actually improve the audience member’s experience once they get to a live show. Knowledge, relevance, and expectation all exist in the viewer’s mind before the show even starts – but have a big impact on how much they enjoy the live performance. Pre-show marketing is therefore an intrinsic part of the overall audience experience and is not just about shifting some last-minute tickets.
In the BSL trailer for ‘My Left/Right Foot’, potential audiences get to hear from the cast, see parts of the set, and get an overall context for what they show might be like. All building expectation for the live theatre performance.
Future Audience Development
I asked Charlotte about their future plans for growing this audience and encouraging re-attendance. For National Theatre of Scotland, working with pre-existing groups, such as Deaf clubs, has been key to finding specific audiences. She says it has been challenging to engage specific audiences like this one, who may not have traditionally had much arts provision or engagement.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, sometimes you put a lot of work into something and very few people turn up on the night. But if you are publicly funded, it is your responsibility and you must make that decision.”
The key is to have a long-term strategy: across digital, marketing, and programming. National Theatre of Scotland want to show a commitment to this audience – that’s it’s not a one-off exercise. The National Theatre of Scotland is committed to offer integrated BSL interpretation for all of its productions. All of their Scottish shows will also be autism friendly.
Top tips to take away
- Creative thinking - Digital can allow for creative ways to increase accessibility. Think of it as an opportunity for artistic and creative content, not just add-ons like captions or interpreters.
- Remember that arts marketing is not all about sales. Digital and comms have a role to play in the artistic experience for the audience.
- Pre-event digital affects the event experience – invest in communicating with your audience before shows.
- Work with pre-existing groups and organisations – they can offer advice and expertise, and access to potential audiences.
- Develop toolkits to keep audience experience across different venues, companies, and partners. Agree expectations and objectives at the start of a partnership.
- Work across departments – artistic teams can take the lead, as well as marketing staff.
- Plan measurement and evaluation into the project. By offering access tickets online, and working closely with box office staff, you can get more granular data on who is attending.
- Both YouTube and Facebook have free automatic captioning tools now. So even if you don’t have budget to create a BSL-interpretation, you can quickly and cheaply improve the accessibility of your video content for Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.