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Close-up of two of the Breathers on stage

Image: Richard Jeffery

Liz Porter: A step in the journey to accessing outside arts

Weymouth seafront was an impressive setting for ‘the Battle for the Winds’ and Unlimited commissioned ‘Breathe’. The creative concept of this collaboration between Cique Bijou, Desperate Men, the team behind Breathe and numerous community groups and colleges was simple yet vast. It involved 7 teams of Wind Gatherers from the South West regions as well as performers from Brazil, with extraordinary and beautiful costumes provided by students from Arts University College Bournemouth.

The basic idea being literally what the title suggests; 7 different wind vessels and their colourful crew represented seven different elements of wind, qualities who come together to compete for who will provide the best wind to propel the Olympic sailors across Weymouth’s waters. However, arch evil baddie Doldrum rears his head from the underworld to cause havoc and chaos. Harmony can only be restored through the appearance of the breathers, breathing new life and energy into rubbish strewn waters, defeating Doldrum, yet allowing him to survive. A family show watched and enjoyed by thousands.

The producers had endeavoured to explore and provide accessibile features to enable disabled audience members to enjoy the experience on a more equal basis, something that doesn’t happen much in major outside arts events, so it was good they had tried.  With a viewing platform for wheelchair users,  audio description and large screens projecting close up images of the aerial work and dancers, captioning and matting over the beach.  However, whilst appreciating the complexities of thinking through all the different access needs and how best to support them, something crucial somewhere along the way around the marrying up on how you experience the creative show versus access got lost and unfortunately, it wasn’t that accessible, indeed sadly at times extremely frustrating.

Working out your access experience is incredibly difficult when you don’t know exactly what or how people will need to interact with the show in a live active way, especially when so many different groups are involved.  It is fundamentally important that it is interwoven from the starting point. This felt like, “we’ll try what we can” and they did and I’ve no doubt that their next production will have taken on board the many lessons learnt from this, but more thoughtful consideration should have been given this time.

This was clearly intended to be a ‘promanade’ performance and we were being encouraged to move amongst the wind machines and performers before the show began. Great if you’re mobile or can see where you’re going, not good if you are (like me) attempting to listen to audio description that keeps cutting out and sat on a viewing platform far away from the stage and the action. Hindsight is a great thing. I wondered if we could have had a procession of all 7 machines as part of the actual event in the centre or along matting. I also felt there could have been opportunity for performers to have taken visually impaired people around the space in character introducing us to the different machines crews. A touch tour or close up experience was needed to get the most out of the experience. Some of the performers did move in and out of the audience. This was wonderful because then I got the chance to see/touch a few costumes which were amazing. I hope this happened on the viewing platform too. It didn’t happen enough and I was stuck in an awkward place so couldn’t mingle without the possibility of loosing my family as there were so many people.

The show itself was pretty good and clearly enjoyed by the majority of audience and the performers taking part. The big screens did help enormously. However, I didn’t get much of a sense of the Breathers or dancework because I was too far away and although I did receive some audio description because it cut out and the literal style in which it was delivered (it was a massive job for anyone) could have done with more poetical artistic interpretation.

There were some poems written for this show by Alice Oswald. They kept coming up on the screen but with no one reading them out. I think it would have been great if they had actually been incorporated into the show and there needed to be more dynamic action between all the wind machines to give the real sense of a major battle.

Once harmony was restored and ‘Doldrum’ repents, the show culminated in linking with an impressive torch procession into Weymouth’s waters with 2012 torch bearers. Those of us who were able to process to the part of the seafront where this fire extravaganza took part were given a wonderful sight, but for those not able to get down to the shoreline it must have been very frustrating and this was a misread opportunity.

I’ve no doubt Jamie Beddard, Alex Bulmer and Christine Hathway and the Producing team of ‘Battle of the Winds’ will have learnt many lessons. I hope they will have the opportunity to work together again so this experience isn’t lost. Also that Weymouth, through this experience, will realise the importance of building access into the creative and audience experience more comprehensively.

For whilst good attempts and efforts are being made to improve access for outside arts events it’s still very far and few between and we’ve clearly got a long way to go.