Local performing arts festival strives for greater audience accessibility | CBC News

Organizers of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival will offer a host of accessibility-related resources and initiatives to ensure people with special needs can still enjoy the performing arts. 

“It basically means that we try to take away some barriers,” Anika Vervecken, PuSh’s accessibility co-ordinator, told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC’s The Early Edition

The theatre, music and multimedia festival kicked off it’s 16th year on Jan. 21. Performances will run until Feb. 9. 

For deaf audience members, certain performances will feature ASL-interpretation, captions and so-called surtitles. For blind attendees, the festival has worked with VocalEye, a Canadian live descriptive arts service, to develop audio descriptions of some visual-heavy shows.

And then there are “Relaxed Performances” intended to cater to the needs of people who might not feel comfortable at a typical theatre or visual performance. 

For instance, some Relaxed Performances will take place with the house lights on to accommodate those who become distressed by sitting in the dark. Other times, artists may be asked to exclude extreme visual simulation, like strobe lights, that could disturb audience members who suffer from sensor sensitivities. 

In some cases, Relaxed Performances may even include spoilers.

“For somebody with autism, just the experience of going into a new space can be so overwhelming,” said Vervecken. “So, we actually give them a visual story that says everything that’s going to happen.”

People living with Tourette’s and verbal tics or folks who struggle to sit still and would prefer not stay in their chair are all welcome, added Vervecken. 

“That’s all OK,” she said. “I always say the only thing that’s not allowed in a Relaxed Performance is shushing. If you want to do that, then please come to an ‘uptight performance.'”

According to the festival, some of the most accessible performances this year include FRONTERA, Cuckoo and Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.

PuSh Festival is not the first Vancouver performing arts group to promote greater audience accessibility. The Cultch, Bard on the Beach and the Arts Club Theatre Company have all featured VocalEye, Relaxed Performances and other resources.

But how do the artists feel about adjusting their work or accommodating what would typically be seen as unwanted audience disruptions? Vervecken said the response has been positive.

 “One of the shifts that I’m seeing that I’m really happy about is that people are starting to consider [accessibility] earlier and earlier in their process.”

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