Liz Porter went with her family to soak up some of the Greenwich Fair at Greenwich + Docklands International Festival 2012. She offers a visually impaired person's view of the events on Saturday 23 June.
The first performance we saw was ‘The Man Who Lost His Buttons’ by Catalan company Circ Pànic. <www.circ-panic.com> This energetic, if somewhat dangerous, acrobatic sway pole, dance performance was extraordinary. Working in harmony with live music; and in synergy with his pole, Jordi Panareda mirrored the beams and sails of the newly restored Cutty Sark. The pole changes from mast to oar to pedal boat to anchor, echoing the sea at every move. We held our breath as the fifteen foot long metal pole was spun round and round, sometimes balanced precariously on his back.www.circ-panic.com>
As audience, we were a little too close for comfort, but equally our position meant I was able to get a lot from what was happening.
Our next port of call to see GRAEAE’s Prometheus Awakes was sheer joy. The audio description provided through headsets worked extremely well, giving relevant information in a poetical style that enhanced the visual spectacle. It added a vibrant yet sensitive layer, signposting me to what I should view next.
It was a bonus to actually have more contextual information than most of the audience. I’d urge large scale outside arts producers to actively consider adding such narratives. I wish more festivals would take a creative approach to audio description on board and explore ways to make it a part of the experience for everyone.
Another accessible piece for visually impaired people in the festival was ‘Mean between Times’ [Running at GDIF until 30 June] This train journey gives a theatrical audio sound experience between Charing Cross and Greenwich. Passengers aboard heard stories and sounds from the past and present, bringing the urban landscape to life. This was a great idea! In the age of the app, I wonder if the tourism and heritage sector will take advantage of the technology to produce similar creative audio experiences?
Throughout the Saturday we soaked up the atmosphere. Starting on a serious note, the first show we saw was Helen Chadwick’s theatrical close vocal harmony piece, ‘White Suit’. Telling the story of a young landmine survivor, the songs provoke the audience to consider the implications and impact of arms dealers actions and what happens to landmine survivors. Pitching a subject like this to a family audience is tricky, but Helen’s intelligent and sensitive approach to language, atmosphere and emotional content raised this important issue leaving the audience with some open ended questions.
In Monument Gardens we took in some of the incidental action in the Greenwich Fair. The Pink Invasion of larger than life pink alien type characters, moving chaotically through the crowds caused great mirth. The maze was fun and the pink pig intriguing (although there was too big a queue to witness). We were accosted by the comical nose women who pressed fake long noses, which I dutifully wore for an hour – much to my daughter’s delight! (Apparently audience members used to wear these in the original Greenwich Fairs of long ago.)
My favorite show of the day was ‘Carrousel des Moutons’ presented by D'irque and Fien. It was two-handed comical and magical performance involving an ingenious flying, revolving, grand piano.
The act entertained with wonderful music, fantastic acrobats, juggling and dance routines. A bit like watching a silent film, a dream or a circus, the story centres on one man’s attempts to go to sleep and the dreams he enters.
Finally we caught up with ‘Falling Up' by Mimbre - a comical acrobatical show, which explored the body beautiful. Fun and engaging with lively sound track this all women’s group kept most of the audience engaged with their skill and delightfully energetic performance. However, I wasn’t one of them, as I couldn’t see it and it was over 40 minutes long.
I do question whether you can make large festivals such as this fully accessible to blind and partially sighted people. A good attitude to try goes a long way. Certainly GDIF has this, but there could be more of an equal balance between shows with verbal narrative or soundscapes, versus physical shows, to encourage more visually impaired visitors. Experiencing a show is one thing, but simply getting around the festival site from event to event would be extremely difficult. I couldn’t do it without a sighted person to guide me.
We heard from two blind friends that they had rang up GDIF to ask for stewards to support them and were told they could arrange this kind of access provision: ie to received orientation access support between events. This could be made clearer on the website which is cumbersome to navigate.
GDIF is certainly a leading arts festival in the UK and sets some good examples around involvement of disabled artists. It is good to notice that companies are exploring ways to work more collaboratively with disabled performers. We came across several individual disabled performers who were taking part in some of the shows. It’s also great that GDIF has a disabled producer – Chas de Swiet on its team. [To read an interview by Charlie Swinbourne go to www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/london2012-greenwich-and-docklands.]
Festivals need to be encouraged to work with disabled and deaf creative producers and to actively work with local deaf and disabled people to develop focus groups and work together to increase access etc.
This year’s GDIF was big, but not as large as last year and I wonder given all the cuts whether Festivals like this will survive? I hope so because many people get a huge amount of enjoyment from taking part or being an audience.
Greenwich + Docklands International Festival runs until Sunday 30 June. For details go to www.festival.org/