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“Everybody has Access Needs”: In Conversation with Stratford Festival’s Kayla Besse

An image of Kayla Besse superimposed over the stage of Stratford Festival's new Tom Patterson Theatre. Stage stage is lit with blue lights, creating a purple aura over the red chairs. Kayla has long, straight brown hair, and wears a black tank top with a high neck. She smiles softly, looking at the camera.
/By / Sep 28, 2022

Kayla Besse has what might be described as a highly specific set of skills. 

She has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Guelph’s school of English and Theatre Studies. Despite the school not offering a standalone disability studies program or department, she integrated disability studies into her work in English literature and theatre, examining representations of disability in the writing and performing arts, as well as the the histories of disabled people and the degrees of autonomy they have/have not had when telling their own stories and representing themselves. 

“In the arts, we’re so often asked what we’re going to do, what we’ll pursue outside of school,” she noted in our interview. “Who gets to work in such a niche role that covers exactly what they studied? It’s incredible.”

Besse is, of course, referring to her role as the Stratford Festival’s accessibility coordinator, a position she came into just one month ago. In fact, Besse is Stratford’s first-ever accessibility coordinator, working with the small but mighty equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) team. As a group, they’re examining access and equity through an intersectional lens in order to implement more care for audiences, artists and staff.

“We want our actors, crew and staff to be really mindful at every point in the creation process,” Besse said. “We’re identifying where there’s opportunity to do more, to do better, particularly in my role around accessibility and disability.”

Despite Besse being the festival’s first full-time accessibility coordinator, she noted that Stratford has taken measures to provide better access to their theatres and performances in the past. The festival has offered ASL-interpreted performances since as far back as the 1980s, for instance, and audio-described performances since 2011. Braille translations of house programs have been available since 2008, and the festival has frequently retrofitted its spaces to ensure they’ve remained accessible.

The festival will continue to work with consultants like Richard III’s Debbie Patterson, but having a designated coordinator year-round will bring endless possibilities to how Stratford can continue to improve their accessibility options.

People think, ‘Well, I don’t have disabilities, that doesn’t apply to me.’ But it might be as simple as saying, ‘I hate overhead fluorescent lights, because it’ll give me a migraine,’ or, ‘I can’t wear this type of shoe for whatever reason.’ Everybody has access needs, whether you’re disabled or not.

In their 2022 season, Stratford Festival offered ASL-interpreted performances and audio-described performances on select dates. Reduced-capacity performances have been a regular offering throughout the pandemic for any guests who would prefer that experience, which include vaccine checks and mandatory audience masking — seemingly small decisions that create an entirely new opportunity for many guests. And there are numerous support options for patrons with mobility access requirements wishing to attend the festival. 

But as Besse notes, there is still much that can be done to create an accessible, and even comfortable environment for everyone in the theatre.

“Something I like to say in our rooms that gets people thinking is that everybody has access needs, we just don’t call it that,” she said. “People think, ‘Well, I don’t have disabilities, that doesn’t apply to me.’ But it might be as simple as saying, ‘I hate overhead fluorescent lights, because it’ll give me a migraine,’ or, ‘I can’t wear this type of shoe for whatever reason.’ Even having gender-neutral washrooms and child-friendly performances or changing stations. Everybody has access needs, whether you’re disabled or not. So I’m trying to open up that conversation.”

A close-up image of the door to one of Stratford Festival's gender neutral washrooms. A black sign on the wooden door features a blue washroom logo with three white figures. The sign reads "gender neutral washroom, and includes a braille translation.
A close-up image of the door to one of Stratford Festival’s gender neutral washrooms. A black sign on the wooden door features a blue washroom logo with three white figures. The sign reads “gender neutral washroom, and includes a braille translation.

It’s not an easy conversation, as Besse noted, but it’s a necessary one. 

“People are really scared of messing up around disability. I think, in particular, people don’t want to say the wrong thing. So I’m trying to remove some of that fear.”

Not only does the option of an accessible theatre experience open doors for patrons with disabilities or who require additional access measures and support, but accessible performances can also create an entirely new experience for everyone who enters the theatre space. Besse described the innovations taking place in Deaf theatre, noting in particular an increase in opportunities for Deaf artists as well as changes in ASL interpretation on stage.

“[The festival] has ongoing relationships with ASL interpreters and with audio describers,” Besse told me, “and I would always be excited to see more of that. Particularly Deaf-led interpretation. That would involve teams of interpreters working together: a hearing interpreter interpreting what’s happening on stage to a Deaf interpreter, who is, in turn, interpreting for the audience. That way, someone who is considered a native user of the language is the one providing the performance interpretation.”

We spent some time discussing Deaf West Theatre, an LA-based, Deaf-led theatre company that weaves sound and movement into an entirely unique story-telling experience. The company double-casts roles with both hearing and Deaf actors, allowing the bilingualism and interpretation to happen in real-time on stage. 

“[The actors] basically mirror each other and move together,” she explained. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Lapis, a black dog with curly fur, sits in a seat at Stratford Festival’s Festival Theatre facing the stage, which is lit with blue and pink lights. Lapis started the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides’ Foster Puppy Program in summer 2021, and recently started the second phase of his training in Autism Assistance.

Well, yeah. As I struggled to push my jealousy aside, we moved on to talking about Besse’s self-described forté in her work: relaxed performances.

“Relaxed performances came primarily out of autistic communities in the UK dating back to the 90s, before it was even on anyone’s radar here,” she told me. “People had been told that they weren’t proper theatre patrons, that they were disturbing others if they couldn’t sit fully still and silent for the duration of the show. Perhaps they weren’t familiar with theatre culture, and don’t know when to react, when to clap. And so, a line that we say often when discussing relaxed performances is that they just let bodies be bodies.”

Prior to her position at Stratford, Besse worked with Tangled Art + Disability, an entirely disability-led Art Gallery and non-profit based out of Toronto. Her primary role there was as a relaxed performance consultant, and we again took a second to acknowledge the amazing intersection of the role’s requirements with her resume of skills and expertise. 

After a pause due to COVID-19, relaxed performances resumed at Stratford in 2023, having been offered by the festival since 2016.

Besse was more than happy to elaborate on how those relaxed shows operate.

“Rather than pretending that everybody’s just a silent spectator, without physical, emotional, or mental needs or reactions, a relaxed performance might allow you to leave and come back,” she explained. 

“It likely includes pre-show notes, or pre-show talk that would say, ‘hey, here’s a content note for this type of subject matter, in case it might be triggering,’ or ‘this is when there will be strobe.’ They may even choose to remove the strobe or a gunshot that might otherwise prevent individuals with a startle reflex or a history of seizures from being able to sit through the show.”

“Relaxed performance kind of calls that into question and throws it on its head and says, ‘well, says who? Says who that that’s what it means to be a good audience member?’”

These are only a few of the current relaxed performance practices used in Canadian theatres. As Besse pointed out, not all relaxed spaces are equally relaxing for all visitors, and adjustments can be made depending on the show, audience, artists, and content.

“I want to bring disability culture in [to Stratford] as much as I can, because I’m just one person. I don’t know everything and everything I do know, I’ve learned from being in community with people who not only have intersecting interests, goals, needs and desires, but also different access needs than me. And so creating those communities of expertise based on lived experience is important to me.”

“I can’t make any promises on what’s happening in Stratford going forward,” she clarified, “because it hasn’t officially been decided. But everyone at the festival has been so receptive and excited to learn more about access, especially if it’s not something they have a lot of experience with just yet.”

If relaxed performances seem like an exclusive opportunity for those who require them, Besse noted that a large part of what they represent is accessibility for all. Relaxed performances take the idea of a “polite audience” and turn it on its head.

“I do want people to come to a relaxed performance if they’ve never come before. Maybe that’ll be their first encounter with disability arts or seeing disabled folks on stage. It may be a different embodied experience, sitting for three hours and just witnessing a different type of feedback and joy… I could go on forever, but there’s audience studies to be done around that kind of thing.”

The topic is especially fascinating when discussing classical theatre, particularly Shakespeare’s works, as they are largely still regarded as a form of high art. 

But as Besse reminds me, audiences in the 17th century were far removed from the polite, restrained silence we so cherish in theatres today.

“You want the authentic, Shakespearian Elizabethan experience? The audience was rowdy!,” she tells me. “This is a pretty new, colonial idea of what it means to be a good audience member. And so relaxed performance kind of calls that into question and throws it on its head and says, ‘well, says who? Says who that that’s what it means to be a good audience member?’ We want to say theatre is for all, art is for all. But when you take that limited approach, who are you not reaching?”

An image of a Stratford Festival’s programme held outside of one of the festival’s buildings. The programme is open, displaying the Accessibility page: it lists the accessibility measures available for guests with low vision, restricted mobility, scent allergies or restrictions, those who require additional support persons, and for guests who are Deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing.

Much of what we’ve talked about pertains to live, in-person performances in a physical theatre space. But for Besse, despite the many obvious barriers that the pandemic created for Disabled people across the world, the theatre industry was forced to come up with creative solutions that inadvertently increased access.

“I think there’s been a renewed interest [in accessibility] through COVID,” said Besse. “I haven’t done any formal work in terms of research on how relaxed performances might have changed in the past few years, but I would classify some of the theatre efforts that came through the pandemic as relaxed performances. Zoom theatre and streaming productions can be forms of relaxed performances, even if people didn’t know that’s what they were doing. You can be in your own home, you can be in your bed, you can control your sensory environment. That’s pretty cool. That’s pretty relaxed.”

The conversations surrounding access and representation in theatres can’t simply end with audiences. As Besse previously noted when we discussed ASL-interpretation and Deaf bilingualism onstage, there needs to be more space in the industry for disabled artists to participate in every aspect of theatre. With productions like Richard III and Richard II, which was recently announced as part of Stratford’s 2023 season, we’re seeing a renewed conversation surrounding what it means to have authentic representation on stage.

“There are lots of theatres doing really cool things with accessibility measures for their performers,” she told me. “In short, access is difficult work: it takes effort to build up the community in order to build up trust. But it’s always worth it. There’s a lot of technology coming out right now – some theatres are testing captioning glasses – and the technology isn’t perfect yet. But I’m really excited for even five, ten years from now. I think there will be some really cool possibilities, even with VR and projection captioning.”

After a brief sojourn into reality television and home-makeover programs (Netflix, call us. We have ideas), I asked Besse the really difficult question: what is her vision for the future at Stratford?

She paused momentarily to consider the question, noting that it’s still too early to mention any of Stratford’s plans for their future of accessibility. But she has an answer.

“There’s this concept of ‘Access Intimacy,’ which was coined by Mia Mingus, who’s one of the key figures in the Disability Justice Movement. The term really rocked my world when I first encountered it, because having a sort of ultimate goal isn’t really something you can put your finger on,” she said. 

“But if the Stratford Festival could be a place where people come and feel a sense of access intimacy because their needs have been considered, their needs have been met, and they feel that sense of intimacy, then… then I’ve done a good job.”

To find out more about Stratford Festival’s current Accessibility measures, visit their website.

Jessica Watson

Jessica Watson

Jessica is a former associate editor at Intermission, as well as a writer, classically-trained actor, and plant enthusiast. Since graduating from LAMDA in the UK with her MA in acting, you can often find her writing screenplays and short plays in the park, writing extensive lists of plant care tips, or working on stage and screen (though she uses a stage name). Jessica freelances with various companies across Canada, but her passion lies in working with theatre artists and enthusiasts.



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