Volume Four: TIME TO CHANGE
in conversation with Nickie Miles-Wilden
Nickie is a power house. As head of new writing at Graeae she spearheaded many of their digital projects over the last year. Below is a snap shot of what we talked about, and we could have gone on all day. Her passion for our industry is palpable but also the drive for change, asking who are our theatre's for? How to reach different audiences? And demanding access to be more than a tick box exercise.
Hope you enjoy.
Madeleine: What has ‘theatre’ felt like for you over the last 16 months?
Nickie: It's been a real mix of emotions. Particularly working for a disabled led organisation, where the majority of staff, the majority of audiences, the majority of artists were all shielding, all classed vulnerable. I think it kind of hit us how big this was. We Shall Not Be Removed got set up, just to remind people that disabled voices are out there. And it just kept growing. We realised how important it was for the disabled community to still have stories being told, to have their voices put out there to be on a public platform.
But I think slowly, we all started to get a bit bored of digital work. And I kind of feel this a bit with Graeae at the moment, I feel like we're all sort of treading water. There's this uncertainty of if we’ll get to do these plays that we've got planned for autumn and for spring next year. It's not as easy as saying everybody has been vaccinated now, when rates are going up again. You've been warned if you're clinically vulnerable, not to go near anyone that isn't vaccinated and to potentially stay in (basically shield, but they're not telling you that so they don't have to give you care packages). I feel more anxious now than I did in March 2020, because I'm not sure when I'm going to feel safe to go back to the theatre. And I think for me … I'm going to sound so pessimistic.… I'm not sure how much I've missed theatre? As to what theatre was.
I've come out of this thinking we need to really think seriously about what theatre is, who it's for, what stories are being told, why and by who? Do we really need big stages? Like, theatre can be anywhere. And how do we reach audiences? When I reflect on the last year, looking at some of those big buildings that just shut their doors, whereas some were becoming food banks, providing a lot of outreach, community work, but there were some big venues that just shut their doors.
I lost a lot of faith in the industry for that.
There were a lot of zooms saying ‘we're a big industry, can we please all work together to be more inclusive and more accessible?’ And you're like, ‘Oh, okay, this sounds hopeful’. And then as soon as there's this sense of everything opening, it feels like disabled people are left out of the conversations, once again.
Dylan: What would you like the theatre industry to learn from this past year?
What would you like to see it learning and changing?
Nickie: I would love access to be a priority, not just a little tick box. I don't want it to feel like we have to wait for the non disabled people to do it and validate it. Like it should be fucking validated already. (Excuse my French.) It just feels like at the moment nobody believes sign language in a show can work, until the Royal Shakespeare Company does it. Then we all like wet our pants and think it's amazing. And it's like, no, no, no, the disabled community have been doing this for 40 odd years. You’ve learned from us, so give us credit.
Who has decided what is mainstream? White, non disabled, Eurocentric storytellers. That’s who. There's loads of conversations at the moment about decolonizing the way we tell stories, let's do that. Let's decolonize what the hell theatre is. And I think with that, everything will start to become a little bit more accessible for everybody. Thinking about what work you are programming and why? Who is it for and why now? And if you think it's just for your group of friends, then I think you need to seriously reflect on who your group of friends are. Because chances are your friends look like you. Theatre used to be for the working classes and then suddenly it became the most academic thing ever and pushed people away. Like, why can't we resort back to who it was for? And that's [not saying] it can't be high brow work, it's just about getting rid of expensive ticket prices. What we need is an arts culture, like they have in Berlin, where it's really valued by people, by the government. People are paid properly to work in the arts, because it is given value. And at the moment, this country seems to be moving far away from that.
I want the people that run the big venues and organisations to have access in their budgets: 10 to 15% of budgets in those big places need to be for access. Just do it. It's not rocket science. I also think there has to be more consultation with people with lived experience when plays are being made, if that's what they're about. Having disabled artists throughout. To me, it doesn't feel like rocket science.
Madeleine: A thing that I hear quite often is ‘Digital theatre is the solution for access’;
but is there a worry that digital performances will let venues off the hook of ever creating an accessible venue? That it will become ‘don't worry, our digital version is captioned and wheelchair accessible.’
Nickie: In the beginning I was like, ‘Oh my God digital's amazing. I don't have to travel to London to see shows.’ But then the quality of some of those shows, the way they're filmed is just appalling. Like, we need to get better at thinking how are we going to live stream theatre without it just being a camera at the back of the auditorium. Like, what's the sound quality? We need to learn a bit, I think from film and TV and also video gaming, as to how interesting theatre can be from a digital perspective. But also people go ‘Oh digital, it's more accessible.’ No, it isn't. Not necessarily for visually impaired people or deaf people. Or when theatres live stream a show and it’s only available for three hours. It’s ridiculous, why can't I buy a ticket and have it available for 48 hours? You're still limiting me to watching it at that time, and that's not accessible. I might be having a bad pain day, but I want to see it. And that's the point of digital, making it more accessible.
It will make people get lazy, like, ‘Oh, we can do this. We don't have to worry about having sign language integrated because we can easily put captions on or we can pre film someone and stick them in the corner.’ That's not proper integrated access. That's your bog standard access. Think about how you're going to be able to do it creatively, how you can play with sound to make it more accessible, how you're going to integrate a deaf performer or a deaf translator? Where's your captioning going to be?
I think [digital] is great because it means if you can't get to the theatre, you have got that opportunity to watch it. It's cheaper. But don't do away with wheelchair spaces, or let yourself off the hook because it's not a wheelchair accessible venue. No, no, no, you still need to be working towards the bigger picture. For me, it’s a stepping stone.
I think where I've gotten bored [of digital theatre] is when it is just a pure recording of a show. I don't feel like that's using digital to its fullest. I've started thinking around what are the potentials of digital that we haven't yet explored as theatre makers. I think theatre makers should hook up with game makers, because that is all around creating a pretend world. There's something interesting in that because then our stories will reach a wider audience. That's where I'm at. I’m bored of the only option being a live streamed or filmed event. I think I'm a bit bored of making everything over zoom.
Madeleine: We touched on the beginning about like, you don't necessarily know, but what’s Graeae’s plans for the future?
And with content? Do you have any idea when you might be back in a physical space? Or is that still very much up in the air? And even if we return to a world of in person performance, do you think a digital element will remain in some way?
Nickie: I was very certain as Associate Director, that whatever we put out now, after the pandemic, has to have a digital mission, whether that is that it's filmed, or it's live streamed. And that is what we're doing going forward. We've applied for funding so we can get a really good filmmaker in. I'd love for it to feel like it could be a bit more interactive. But I think for us, it's kind of baby steps, baby wheels, to see what's possible. If the National Theatre can do it and charge people loads of money to watch something that feels like it has just had two cameras stuck either side, then we can do something even better.
Dylan: Part of this project is that we wanted it to act as a resource for artists. So I was wondering if there are any major pitfalls that you think people fall into when trying to make work accessible?
Nickie: If you're bringing consultants in, make sure they're consultants who have the lived experience to feed into audio description, to feed into translation for sign language etc. Access is a creative opportunity. It's not a barrier. And it's not about taking anything away from the work. Always remember why you're making that work, who it's for, and why now. As long as you've got that at the heart, and you start adding in access, you'll be fine. But, don't allow access to take over from the art. That's the other thing we fall into. It becomes so much about how accessible it is that we've actually forgotten what the fucking art is.