Ramps on the Moon: Being the Agent for Change

Boasting the biggest theatre complex outside of London, Sheffield is rightly proud of its theatrical heritage. The Lyceum was restored to its grand Victorian roots between  1985 and 1990 after falling into disrepair years before, since hosting a vast array of unforgettable productions over the years along with The Crucible and Studio venues. From ballet to musicals and classic adaptations to performances of contemporary classics, they’ve always excelled in providing something for everyone.

However, the deaf and disabled community hasn’t always found the theatre scene as easy to access as the rest of us – this being something theatre group Ramps on the Moon are actively looking to change. We caught up with Ben Wilson, Agent for Change at Sheffield Theatres, to find out more about the group’s latest production, Our Country’s Good.

Ramps on the Moon is a nationwide project at the moment which is being run by six theatres across the country. Sheffield Theatres is one group, and the others include The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, Nottingham Playhouse in Nottingham, Birmingham Repertory in Birmingham and Theatre Royal Stratford East in London.

I think that’s why representation is so important. If you don’t see your story up on stage, TV or film, you don’t see yourself represented.

“The point of Ramps on the Moon has two strands to it,” says Ben. “First of all, we do one of these shows each year for six years until the project’s done. Last year was Tommy, the year before that was The Government Inspector and this year it’s Our Country’s Good. Those plays will tour across the six venues and the cast will  be 50/50 deaf and disabled people and non-disabled hearing performers, so we’re building those bridges between the two. Every show will then be as accessible as possible; there will be creative, artistically integrated BSL (British Sign Language), audio description, captions – all so that they can be as accessible as possible to deaf and disabled audiences.”

“The second strand of the shows is to try and use them as the inspiration for more long-term, positive changes in those six theatres about the way they think about disability and access and to try and connect and engage them with other disabled artists and audiences. As part of that goal, each theatre has an Agent for Change, which is what I do.”

Ben, who has been registered blind since the age of 23, says that the BSL and captions have been really well received, particularly at The Crucible. When he first became visually impaired he thought that his acting career was over. “I’d never seen visually impaired actors on stage or on screen and I’d never been given the opportunity to see that, see those stories told.”

“It would have been a comfort to me to see that this wasn’t the end, and that there will be many exciting opportunities for me in my life. And I think that’s why representation is so important. If you don’t see your story up on stage, TV or film, you don’t see yourself represented.”

Ben Wilson: “If you don’t see your story up on stage, TV or film, you don’t see yourself represented.”

Our Country’s Good is based on The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally in 1987, which is itself is based on real-life events. Ben tells us that it’s a play for all audiences, disabled and non-disabled, non-hearing and hearing – but that it has a particular poignancy for him.

“From a disability perspective I think it’s a very interesting play to do because I the play’s about the first set of convicts sent to Australia, where the British were colonising Australia, and the relationships between a specific group of officers and convicts who unite to create a play. I think one of the important key themes is isolation and people being excluded from society. The parallels are really obvious towards modern society in the way that many deaf and disabled people can feel excluded or isolated from society, and how those kind of bridges must be built. There’s certainly got to be more equality and opportunity, and I think that’s why it’s really interesting to see this story told with disabled actors because of the depth and new life it brings to a really well-known and well-thought-of play. For me, when I first saw it, it was a very exciting experience to see that new depth and new level of understanding to disability.”

If you have a look in the Theatre programme or online, you’ll see that there’s usually a captioned, audio described or BSL performance available, which Ben praises, but there is still more work to be done. About Ramps, he says: “It’s a very timely and relevant project that’s doing great work. I kind of think of it as kicking the industry’s arse into shape and, yeah, not a moment too soon.”

He encourages everyone to contact the Theatres, for any reason. “You can come to the box office in person , call the box office, or there’s an email address specifically for that stuff which is access@sheffieldtheatres.co.uk. All the theatres will have someone you can speak to whether it’s someone like me, an Agent for Change, or an access officer, access supervisor, or audience officer – that sort of thing. Y’know just go in and speak to people and have those conversations that you think are important!

Our Country’s Good runs at The Crucible from 12-19 May. Tickets and more info here

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