‘Our work is accessible – but we want it to be liked, or loved, or hated, in the same way as all other work’

The Croydon theatre company Zoo Co puts deaf and disabled artists at the centre – not to be 'good eggs', but because inclusivity makes the best theatre

Flo in a white shirt and glasses sitting next to Fleur, who has a tan shirt and curly hair
Artistic Director Flo O'Mahony and Creative Access Director Fleur Rooth. Pic: Zoo Co

Deaf and disabled representation is the cornerstone of Zoo Co Theatre Company, but co-founder and artistic director Flo O’Mahony is determined to steer clear of any charitable or quota-filling reputations. “There’s something to be said about putting our work on the same platform as all other work and allowing it to be critiqued, or liked, or loved, or hated, in the same way as all other work,” she says. “That has to be better than just, ‘Oh aren’t they good eggs? Aren’t they the sweet baby angels of access? And aren’t we good for coming to see the work?’ No, the show was good, and it was better because of all of those things.”

Formed by four schoolmates with a passion for theatre, the Croydon-based theatre company works with deaf and disabled leaders on every project and maximises representation by normalising the use of integrated British Sign Language (BSL), deaf performers, video supplements and visual vernacular (the use of poetry and miming in theatrical storytelling) in all its shows.

To Zoo Co, it isn’t just that its work is led by deaf and disabled individuals, it’s that its work is better because of the team it has. Playing with the audience’s senses and using special technology adapted to its artists gives its shows a tangible spark. Take Zoo Co’s Perfect Show for Rachel, for example. O’Mahony’s sister Rachel, who is learning disabled, directs every aspect of the play and uses a technology desk accessible to her to control music, lighting, choreography, and scene changes. Each night, the show is different. “The audience thinks, ‘What the hell is going to happen because we don’t know what she’s going to do’, and there’s an electricity to that,” says O’Mahony.

Rachel with her technology desk. Pic: Zoo Co

Zoo Co’s co-founder and creative access director, Fleur Rooth encourages companies to sign up to a tiered access manifesto. “It talks about trying to be brave but also realistic with your access provisions and how – with any budget that you’re at, any stage that you’re at in your career – you should still be able to include access, but it might just not be the best version,” says Rooth.

“I think a lot of the time when we think about access provisions we think, ‘If I do it wrong there could be backlash,’” she adds. “I think people get quite worried about doing access-related things because of that and they might think, ‘If I don’t have the full amount of funding, should I then not do it?’”

This tiered system allows organisations to embrace accessibility to the extent they can. While Zoo Co encourages all theatre companies to be in a wheelchair-accessible venue, other details depend on what tier they fall into. “In the beginning level, it might be your aim to have one BSL-interpreted performance in every show that you create, and then, later down the line, it might be worth it for you to consider making every show accessible to BSL users,” says Rooth.

Zoo Co has also founded an access library, which allows it to share items, such as captioning units and ear defenders that people can hire for free. “It’s a more sustainable way of doing things, and it means that people could follow through on the promises that they wanted to make, because we’re not just saying, ‘You should be doing this’. Instead, we’re saying, ‘You should be doing this, and we can support you in that,’” Rooth says.

Zoo Co’s Young Company welcomes this level of access as well, allowing 14- to 18-year-olds interested in theatre to work with a professional team to create productions. “We’re starting to get to a point where they’re graduating and we’re hiring them on their first professional job,” says O’Mahony.

The fruits of their most recent labour were seen in Memories of the Marshland, performed on March 21. Jack Norris, a movement director who has worked with Zoo Co previously, produced the script during lockdown, exploring the loneliness he felt living in isolation with cystic fibrosis. Working with Flawbored’s artistic director Samuel Brewer and Extant’s trainee artistic director Ben Wilson, the play incorporated audio description and included visually impaired actors.

This level of flexibility is possible because of funding provided by ACE and other providers. “I’m very scared for a future without the Arts Council. I think it’s pivotal in the arts sector and I think people don’t understand quite how much the Arts Council supports and subsidises great art happening that is for everybody,” says O’Mahony. “I think we’re just at that point where we can think a little bit more long-term, and the strategy and the creativity that comes from that is just massive.”

Read the rest of ‘The show must go on’, ELL’s three-day series on local theatre, here.

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