Front Of House Staff Can Have A Big Impact On Theatre Access
Ensuring that the arts are inclusive for all has never been more important, and the theatre community in particular has always been particularly supportive of marginalised groups. However, translating people's good intentions into meaningful action can often be problematic.
As a theatre addict who happens to be a chronic illness sufferer, I've wheeled my way through a whole spectrum of accessibility experiences. These range dramatically, but one thing I've consistently found is that the Front of House team can make all the difference.
A common problem with theatres is that many happen to be listed buildings, meaning structural changes cannot easily be made to accommodate facilities that would improve access. Visiting one of these buildings has the potential to be a disabled person's worst nightmare; however, this is where FOH staff can really save the day. The impact of having a polite, informed member of staff available for assistance should never be underestimated.
Last year, I went to see Show Boat at the New London Theatre. As a part-time wheelchair user, I would never usually book tickets without first researching accessibility, but this was a one-time, spontaneous trip and obviously, I couldn't live with myself if I turned down tickets to see Show Boat!
Although this was a relatively new building, we could see straightaway that my wheelchair was going to be an issue. Upon entering the bustling auditorium we were fully prepared for the worst, and couldn't have been more surprised when a member of the FOH team immediately spotted us and made his way over to assist.
Within moments he had helped us away from the heaving crowds and explained that he would take us to our seats via an alternative route through the backstage area. Now, I suppose it could be argued here that the absence of wheelchair access at the front of house represents poor practice, however my inner theatre nerd couldn't help but see this as an unexpected bonus to my trip.
The nosy part of me revelled in seeing the backstage area, and again our lovely FOH assistant delivered: he talked us through everything we saw, enthusiastically answered my questions, and we had a good old natter about everything musical theatre. Safely deposited in our seats after our exclusive little tour and ready for the performance, I felt relaxed and happy - feelings sadly not often enough associated with being a wheelchair user in a public place.
Above all, the extra work we were bringing wasn't approached as if it was a burden, and the staff member turned our unavoidable struggle into such a positive experience. It may be difficult for an able-bodied person to fully understand just how much these things matter, but my experience in the theatre that day is something that I will always remember.
If you have access needs, I would always recommend informing the theatre ahead of time so that the best possible assistance can be arranged. However, if we could receive support as amazing as we did at the last minute with no prior arrangements, there's no reason why anybody who books in advance should face an ordeal.
I believe that all those who work in the theatre generally have good intentions with regard to accessibility for disabled theatregoers, however celebrating the work of those who really do go above and beyond could help to improve practice further. If you too are a disabled person who has encountered excellent service from FOH staff, I encourage you to speak up: the more we share our experiences and express our gratitude for this excellent work, the more likely it is that others will experience it too.
Photo credit: Johan Persson