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Theatre Deli aims for industry-leading disabled access

Recognised by the RNIB for an award, Nathan Geering of Theatre Deli tells Now Then why the organisation wants to be accessible to all.

Nathan Geering at Migration Matters Closing Party July 2021 Credit Amani Creatives JPG

Theatre Deli Co-Artistic Director Nathan Geering at the Migration Matters 2021 closing party.

Amani Creatives

Initially situated in the old Woolworths store on The Moor, Theatre Deli entered the Sheffield performing arts scene in 2014. Having now left their second venue on Eyre Street, they work with local communities to create connections, promote performing arts and offer opportunities to artists.

Nathan Geering, who started as co-artistic director in June last year, has put disabled access at the top of his priority list, aiming for Theatre Deli to be a pioneer. Geering wants the organisation to lead the country in making performing arts accessible.

I asked him why accessibility was so important to Theatre Deli.

“For us at Theatre Deli, it's really important that we have such an inclusive environment of not only work, but also an inclusive space for our audiences, as well as people that come to the venue to hire this space, and anybody that has any kind of interaction with the Deli because we view everybody as equal.”

Recognising that many institutions do “tick-box exercises” rather than implementing truly accessible solutions, Nathan is determined that things have to change.

“So when I came into post at Theatre Deli, I was like, ‘I want to make sure that Theatre Deli really shows that we're committed to accessibility’.”

“I didn't want there to be any excuses for productions that were made that didn't have accessibility in mind. And so I said, ‘Well, we have the opportunity to actually make a proper stand here’. What we're going to do is create this policy to hold ourselves accountable. And to be that industry-leading organisation that can really show the industry ‘Look, if you care enough, it really can be done’. And it's not as hard as a lot of institutions would have you believe.“

Without a long-term venue, Theatre Deli has been working in a more distributed way with a range of venues, which inevitably brings additional accessibility challenges. Nathan explains that they are looking at 25 potential venues across the city with a view to being less centralised.

“These can be in community spaces or community centres or meeting rooms, where we can actually take the art to the communities, but we can also ask the community, ‘What art do you want to see?’ and then we can help them create that on their doorstep. And, if they want to, they can perform in the city centre, or they can make the work in the city centre and perform on their doorstep.

Nathan Geering
Foteini Christofilopoulou

But the desire to reach beyond the city centre does not mean the team is compromising on accessibility.

“Within all these venues, the top thing on our list is looking at how accessible are these venues: if they're not accessible, if they don't have an accessible toilet, for example, we definitely can't work there. If they're not wheelchair accessible or can't be made more accessible in some way, then it's just not happening.

“We’re constantly in consultation with people with disabilities, just to make sure that we can make things as accessible as possible” Geering adds. In fact, they’re going even further than that with an entire residency devoted to access.

On a more personal note, Nathan has also won an award for his work making performing arts more accessible.

“So I just recently won the RNIB See Differently award of Community Contributor of the year. And that award is to celebrate people that are contributing a lot to the sight-loss community”, he explains.

“Never in a million years did I even expect to be nominated for such an award, let alone to be fortunate enough to win. So when that happened, I was completely speechless, because I didn't prepare a speech because I didn’t think I’d win!

“It was really surprising and emotionally overwhelming, if I'm honest. Because it just came as such a surprise, but to be recognised by the community that I serve in that way was really, really touching and beautiful. I'm over the moon.”

Nathan is not visually impaired himself, and it was a performance in a theatre company he ran that gave him an interest in making theatre accessible. In a very visual performance, where the audience closes their eyes and the performers move - almost a stop-motion technique - he and his colleagues began to wonder how to make their performances accessible to visually impaired audience members.

“And then a company member said to me, ‘You do realise we can all become visually impaired at any point in our lives?’ And I wasn't aware of that. And at that moment in time, it really hit me in terms of what was to happen if I was to wake up and couldn’t see my two-year-old daughter again. And that was something I wasn't emotionally prepared for, and something that wasn't personal to me all of a sudden just became super personal to me.

“So I started to work with some visual impairment organisations like the Partially Sighted Society in Doncaster, Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind, the RNIB, and within doing that, I found that there are also quite a few unlikely links between hip hop and visual impairment. And so the more I went in, the deeper I went, the more these synergies and these links came about. And then before I knew it, it became my life's work.“

“I went on to be the artistic director of the Special Olympics opening ceremony in 2017, which was held in Sheffield. Fate takes you on incredible pathways on incredible journeys. This is my calling.”

Theatre Deli itself is going from strength to strength, from the community venues that are currently being finalised to being “super close to signing our new major flagship venue in the city centre”, ready to refurb then launch. And there’s more.

“We've just launched our new residency programme, which is our biggest ever. We have a classic residency anybody could apply for, we have our Access residency strand that is specifically to support people with disabilities. And we have our XL residency strand, which is to support artists from marginalised communities.

“But also, we are allocating funding to local artists with our Sheffield Performing Arts Grant. We got given some money by the South Yorkshire Combined Mayoral Authority to distribute funds to communities.

“We've got some incredible artists that we're looking to support. We've got incredible gems in Sheffield and I'm really looking forward to supporting them.”

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