Guest Blog: Shona Louise On How Theatres Can Improve Access
We are thrilled to debut our Most Accessible Theatre category in the 2019 BroadwayWorld UK Awards! BWW reviewer Kerrie Nicholson explained what access means to her, and now disability and theatre blogger and activist Shona Louise shares her thoughts.
Accessibility is the first thing I think about when I go anywhere, but particularly when it comes to theatre trips. Accessibility isn't just about physically getting in the building either - access plays a part in every stage, from booking tickets to what parts of the theatre I can enter, and even my ability to visit a theatre's stage door. It is so much more than just ramps.
Everyone's access needs look different too. As a powerchair user, I require step-free access, whereas others may be able to manage a few stairs, and those with a visual or hearing impairment will need something entirely different to myself. Everyone's accessibility requirements are unique to them, but that doesn't mean they should be or are difficult to meet.
As for my experiences, I've dealt with both ends of the spectrum and everything in between when it comes to how good or bad theatres have been. Even when it comes to simply booking tickets, it can sometimes be a nightmare. For most venues, access patrons can still only book by ringing up the theatre's access line, and this can be a real issue when it comes to popular shows or short runs that are likely to sell out quickly.
I had a nightmare trying to book the Les Misérables concert for myself and my mum. I spent 75 minutes waiting for someone to pick up, and then when they did, I was told that they couldn't actually book wheelchair spaces and someone would ring me back. On the more positive end of the spectrum, however, more and more theatres are allowing access patrons to book their tickets online. Most recently, the Old Vic has made this possible, and the Arts Theatre (home to SIX) did so too this year - making trips to my favourite shows a lot easier.
I often find that when a theatre's access isn't great, attentive members of staff can make a big difference in improving an experience. When Bat Out of Hell was at the Dominion Theatre last year, the staff went above and beyond to give me as equal an experience as possible - even coming up with an idea to get me and my powerchair into the stalls so I could see the whole stage, rather than the restricted view the accessible box provided.
On the other side of things, a poor experience with staff can really put me off a theatre though - and this was the case when I visited the Theatre Royal Haymarket last year. A member of staff tried to put another patron's wheelchair in the accessible toilet, despite it already being a tight squeeze for myself to access the toilet, and they really didn't listen to my concerns. Also, during the interval I was left having to ask fellow patrons to open the doors to access the space containing the accessible toilet when no staff appeared to help. I find these experiences really impact how much I enjoy a show too, which frustrates me greatly.
Of course, there's a list of theatres that I cannot even get inside, and I find people are often surprised at some of the big names on that list. Theatres such as the Ambassadors and the Vaudeville are off-limits to me, but also the Apollo Victoria, home to Wicked. This is because of the size and weight limit of their lift - a problem I find myself coming up against frequently. It's great that these theatres have lifts, but they haven't been updated to account for powerchair users; some of these lifts are even a problem for manual wheelchair users.
People often say to me that I should be grateful that these old listed buildings have any access at all, but in 2019 I don't see why myself and others shouldn't be pushing for the best access possible. Theatre is for everyone - something we say a lot - but to me, we aren't doing enough to include disabled people in that message.
I think as soon as we stop thinking about access as a box-ticking exercise and start thinking about it more as a human right, then real progress can be made. For me, the theatres with the best access are those that truly care about accessibility - they want to do absolutely everything they can to give myself and others a comfortable and fair experience. Sometimes we're limited in what we can change because of space, money or the buildings themselves, but changing our attitude is something we can do right now. Start up a conversation and let's keep talking about this!
Do you have any experiences to share about theatre accessibility? Tweet us @BroadwayWorldUK
Vote for your favourite shows, performers and theatres - including Most Accessible Theatre - in the 2019 BroadwayWorld UK Awards here