MOVING TO A BIGGER STAGE - Chris Dodd
The last year under COVID has been an interesting one for me as a Deaf artist.
It started the same way as everyone else in the artistic community, with my best laid plans dashed, trips cancelled, gigs withdrawn, followed by an overall sense of melancholy and loss. Those of us in the Deaf and Disability Arts field were already chronically underemployed, so I couldn’t help but worry that the total shutdown of theatre activity at the time could lead to the possible erasure of gains the community had been making towards recognition and inclusion.
However, in spite of a year of mandatory masks, no-hug greetings, touch-adverse environments and digital and online everything, I’m very much surprised to report that I’ve never been more busy or engaged.
But that’s not to say that the pandemic has not been isolating. It most certainly has. Even more so for me, as ASL is a rich and dynamic three-dimensional language and it translates poorly when presented on two-dimensional online platforms. Whether I am taking part in a meeting with interpretation or having a live chat with another Deaf person online, the presence, energy and affinity between us is muted. There is no way that it can compare to the vibrancy and authentic connection of being in the same room as someone else.
This was compounded by the fact that at the beginning of last year, the most popular online platform, Zoom, was barely usable with an interpreter. Zoom was originally created as a tool for the business community and did not have strong accessibility features to start with, so these needed to be added piece by piece following feedback (read: complaints) from the community. Following countless revisions, it is finally a lot more robust and user friendly, although still far from perfect. Now we have such features as being able to pin an interpreter, as well as multi-pin, allowing you to put the interpreter and the speaker side-by-side, along with the ability to drag participants around in gallery view so you can group together ASL users in one spot.
Which leads me back to what I said about engagement. In spite of its limitations, Zoom has (literally) opened the world for myself and others in the Deaf and Disability Arts community. Events, performances and training opportunities have gone from being largely local events to being national (and even international) opportunities. What’s more is that a large number of these events have been either interpreted, captioned or both, paving the way for my inclusion and participation. This past year, like many of you, I have taken part in countless online workshops, panels, webinars, consultations, along with attending conferences, training opportunities and even performing in Zoom plays.
To say that this sudden access was groundbreaking for me would be an understatement. Whereas prior to the pandemic, I would be lucky to have one or two accessible events per month, I now find myself with dozens to choose from each week. What’s more is that these numbers will only continue to rise from here. Back in February Zoom announced that the automatic captioning function would be standard for all accounts, both paid and free. The automatic captions are surprisingly good quality for computer generated transcription and by itself provides basic accessibility, although it is not a substitute for hiring ASL interpreters. But its usage and inclusion, at its most basic, makes any event open to participation. Going forward, there is now no excuse for any organization hosting a Zoom event to not provide automatic captioning at the very minimum.
Of course, accessibility should never be an afterthought. I have been advocating for years that arts organizations should set aside funding for accessibility in their annual budgets so that these costs are anticipated and accounted for, as opposed to being tacked on according to whims or budget surpluses. If more organizations across Canada planned their accessibility from the start, especially with multi-year budgets, then this would have a significant impact towards equity and inclusion for audiences as well as artists who are Deaf or who have disabilities, along with helping normalize access being part of the theatre experience as much as pre-show cocktails at the theatre bar.
As we look ahead with our rising vaccination rates, declining case counts, and Alberta’s grand plan for reopening, I wonder to myself what our so-called “normal” will look like for us as artists. I have no doubt that I’d want to be the first person through the stage door when it comes to getting back into live performances. While I’ve had many wonderful and interesting digital experiences over the past year, my favourite moments were the few I was able to do live with others, regardless of the heavy COVID restrictions in place. These included performing for a real audience outdoors at the Victoria Park Oval last October as part of Catalyst Theatre’s until the next breath and more recently, getting my first vaccine shot and finally being able to travel again, spending nearly a month in Manitoba shooting my first role in a feature film.
SOUND OFF 2020 – photo by Marc J. Chalifoux
But in spite of that desire for returning to immediacy between our artists and our audience, there is still a need for us to hold on to part of the digital world that we have created to fill the void, despite our collective digital fatigue. This was readily apparent to me back in April when I held the 5th edition of my festival, SOUND OFF, entirely online for the first time. Although we bill ourselves as a national festival, bringing Deaf artists together from across the country, the event in previous years has been presented locally and within the confines of the Edmonton metropolitan area. Going digital marked a coming out for our programming to the wider community for the first time and it allowed us to present our biggest festival yet, which led to a record breaking attendance from people across Canada, as well as audiences from the US and the UK. On closing night, just as I had wrapped up my final event, I got a message via Facebook from a woman half-way around the world in Australia who had mixed up the time zones.
It is clear to me that as we move towards recovery, we should all continue to move towards bigger stages. I know that my future festivals will transform to be a hybrid blend of both live and digital events and that we need to continue to connect with our audiences beyond our local stage. Beyond just outreach, when digital events are done right, with the proper access supports, it speaks volumes about your organization’s mindset for social justice and your connection to the communities you serve.
After all, captioning isn’t just for those who are Deaf, it also benefits those who are hard of hearing (especially our older generation), who have English as a second language or who have challenges such as auditory processing disorders or autism. Online meetings can be a lifeline for those who can’t easily attend in-person gatherings, such as those who are immunocompromised, people with social anxiety and those with mobility issues, who never need to worry if the venue they are going to is accessible, nor booking DATS transportation a week in advance. These examples are just a small sampling of those who have benefited from this new paradigm.
So let’s walk forward together as we reimagine what theatre might be. But let’s bring the best bits with us, these new tools and this new sense of discovery. We are going back to live theatre and, yes, we will get to do what we love again. But it’s not going to be the same as before. And that’s okay.