A space for all*: what makes a cultural space attentive to the needs of its audience?

Home » A space for all*: what makes a cultural space attentive to the needs of its audience?

Case study: the National Theatre of Londra

Credit: Rob Youngson

In recent years, an increasing number of cultural institutions have begun to develop formulas for the use of their services that take into account the growing demands for attention to the mental and physical well-being of the public and a better level of accessibility by diverse users.

An Italian example is the Baby Pit-Stop at the National Museum of Ravenna, a structured area within the museum where it is possible to nurse, breastfeed and take care of small care needed by children, giving the possibility to visit the museum without worries.

Being a civic aggregator, of meeting, dialogue, experimentation, and cultural development open to all, in fact, requires greater attention to the access of multiple audiences that-hitherto-have been given little consideration in the management and planning of its events.

What can you do to become a place that is attentive to the needs of its audience?

A space for all: London’s National Theatre

“The National Theatre must be its own advertisement – must impose itself on public notice, not by posters or column advertisements in the newspapers, but by the very fact of its ample, dignified and liberal existence. It must bulk large in the social and intellectual life of London… It must not ever have the air of appealing to a specially literate and cultured class. It must be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community… It will be seen that the Theatre we propose would be a National Theatre in this sense, that it would be from the first conditionally – and, in the event of success, would become absolutely – the property of the nation.”

Preface (1904) A National Theatre: Scheme and Estimates by William Archer and Harley Granville Barker, London

Since 1963, the National Theatre in London has taken up and interpreted this advocacy and transformed it into the mission that guides its actions and strategic choices: “The National Theatre’s mission is to make world-class theater, for everyone.

The desire to be a more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable place requires constant attention to the ability to make the cultural works produced within the theater season accessible to more segments of the public.

The institution has managed over time to include in its programs a number of initiatives that can listen to the needs of its audience, giving a wider audience the opportunity to experience the magic of live performance.

When thinking aboutaccessibility, oft-coming solutions concern activities related to the digital world, a reality within reach of a large segment of the public where content can always be available.

An example of their digital programs are National Theatre Live, which broadcasts some of Britain’s best plays to more than 2,500 venues in 65 countries; the National Theatre Collection, which makes recordings of plays available to UK schools and the global education sector; and theNational Theatre at Home streaming platform.

These tools allow a worldwide audience to access content they would be unlikely to come into contact with.

However, there is a part of the potential audience who would like to access the live performance, but due to psychological, cognitive or physical barriers do not feel suitable to see the performance in the theater.

Usually these types of potential audiences are not taken into consideration when drawing up the theater program. In doing so, people who would like to access the cultural venue for physical or cognitive reasons feel inadequate and do not take part in cultural events.

For this reason, well-structured reruns are established at the National Theatre where people can access them without feeling uncomfortable. In fact, in a theater season we can find:

Captioned performances

Captioned performances with text on the screens at the front of theauditorium so that the deaf and hard of hearing, or anyone who wishes to read, can also enjoy the performance.

Tied to this initiative, the theater has provided smart caption glasses that, thanks to the transcription of dialogue and sound descriptions displayed on the lenses of the glasses, can be used by individuals with hearing impairments.

Audio-described performances and Touch Tours

“Audio-descriptive” performances where the actors’ dialogue is interspersed with the audio description heard through headphones by the user. There is a short “program notes” session at the beginning of the performance , explaining the atmosphere, costumes, characters and action, and a touch tour for blind and visually impaired patrons to familiarize themselves with the set before the show.

Performances in British Sign Language

Thanks to British Sign Language interpreters, performances are translated into BLS.

Sensory Adapted Performances 

Fully sensory-adapted shows to cater to users with an autism spectrum condition, epilepsy or learning disabilities.

Users can enjoy the theater experience through a more relaxed environment thanks to technical changes made to the production, such as adjustments to lighting and sound effects.

These performances also allow for noise and movement in the auditorium, provide arelaxation area for those who might need some time away from the performance and return when needed.

Relaxed Environment performances 

As with the Sensory Adapted Performances, these performances are allowed noise and movement in the auditorium, re-entry when necessary, and arelaxation area for those who need time away from the performance.

Relaxed environment performances are reruns suitable for anyone who needs to be able to make noise, leave and return to their own during the performance. These possibilities thus provide access to a theater-loving audience with dementia, anxiety, Tourette syndrome, an autism spectrum condition or a learning disability.

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How to become a place that is attentive to the needs of its audience

Formulating programs and activities that can support the individual in overcoming not only architectural barriers, but cognitive and psycho-sensory barriers is the challenge that the institutions of the future will have to take up in order to make the cultural experience accessible to all*.

The use of digital tools is one of the methods of approaching an audience that would be unlikely to come into contact with the cultural product due to distance, but it is not the only one that can be implemented.

A cultural institution needs to be a place for the public, which gives physical access to its spaces by giving the opportunity for live experience.

Barriers to entry are not only physical, as we could see from the programming at the National Theatre in London, but they pertain to a broader audience that for various needs needs a place more suited to their being.

Embracing this challenge will ultimately benefit both individuals who want to enter cultural venues right now (but do not feel taken care of), and cultural institutions that by developing programs, activities, and spaces tailored to the needs of their community will be able to expand their visitor numbers.

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