Opinion: Can the Fringe Ever be Accessible?

Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae, and writer and performer of Self-Raising, shares her thoughts on accessibility at the Fringe

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 3 minutes
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Jenny Sealey
Published 02 Aug 2023

It’s 2023 and I am performing at the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time age 59 ¾ with my show Self-Raising. It may be my first time here as a performer but, Graeae has been part of the Fringe for many years – with Fittings The Last Freak Show by Mike Kenny in 1999, Peeling by Kaite O’Reilly in 2002, The Solid Life of Sugar Water by Jack Thorne in 2015 and Cosmic Scallies by Jackie Hagen in 2017.

Back in the day, the only shows that were accessible for deaf, blind and people with mobility impairments were either produced by Graeae or a Birds of Paradise show because both companies only performed in wheelchair accessible spaces and all the work was either BSL or captioned (or both) and audio described. So, I only saw our shows … as well as a lot of dance. 

Over the years though things have changed – slowly. Now there are many more deaf and disabled-led companies coming to the Fringe. Non-disabled led companies have also started to stage interpreted and audio described shows and are now taking note of the overall accessibility of the performance space. Paines Plough, for example, created the Roundhouse with accessibility in mind, and they also made a commitment to using the Talking Birds captioning set-up, so most of the shows there were accessible to a deaf audience. 

Before the pandemic, I joined a panel in Edinburgh to discuss the need for a deaf festival within the main festival. This is now in its second year!

The Fringe is a glorious gluttony of the arts.  I am greedy and want to be able to see all the things I want but this will not be possible. A fully inclusive festival is still a long way off. Many venues are never going to be wheelchair accessible and admittedly, Edinburgh is a rather wheelchair unfriendly city. BUT there are ways around this. Can the festival develop more streaming of work so people can have a mini festival in the comfort of their accessible home? Or is there a mini streaming festival in an accessible venue with a big screen so people can at least get some of the Edinburgh vibe being in an audience with people? Captioning work does not need to be complicated and if it is part of the design concept and operated by stage management then it is core to the delivery of the show. 

Audio description can operate live or in the ear (if companies have the right kit – which can become a shared commodity between all companies at any given venue) and can be pre-recorded and be played as a sound cue. There are some excellent audio description consultants out there who can consult on best practice.

This year’s Graeae show Self-Raising with me in it, is spoken, signed, captioned and audio described.

As a director, I have witnessed actors learning their lines, all too aware that they simply cannot paraphrase as the captions are behind them. Now it is time for me to have a taste of my own medicine as I have to learn my lines accurately. I am terrified but so excited to be here, back on stage, acting, telling the story of my family and spilling a few secrets which till now have been firmly in the closet. Do come and see it.