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How UK Theatre Handled Accessibility During the Pandemic

Reflecting on the past year of access in theatre - and introducing our new award!

How UK Theatre Handled Accessibility During the Pandemic
Ramps On The Moon's Oliver Twist

As we here at BroadwayWorld UK look ahead to the coming year, we thought it would be the perfect time to reflect on the past year of theatre, especially in terms of access. BWW reviewer Kerrie Nicholson writes on accessibility post-pandemic, and shares her nomination for our new Accessibility Champion Award. The BWW UK 2020 Awards will launch later today!

It's true that nothing can match experience of being in a theatre - the atmosphere, the shared energy between cast and audience, the conscious acknowledgement that we are witnessing a piece play out with nuances unique to the show and the cast on that particular performance, though of course the story, script (and if we're talking musicals, songs) are always the same.

So, it's been incredible to be able to start to return to that as theatres across the country are adjusting to audiences attending in person again, and cast and crews are once again demonstrating their commitment to their craft as they navigate the measures still in place to keep themselves, each other and their audiences safe. I've been consistently heartened by the stories I hear and see on my social media of the whole raft of understudies, swings and even previous cast members who have ensured, quite literally, that the show can go on!

In my position as a theatre fan, writer and podcast host with a disability, it's been really interesting to see how the world of theatre has adapted its accessibility in light of the closures and other challenges brought about by the pandemic - both the positives and acknowledgement of work that still needs to be done.

As I suspect will ring true to our readers, the challenges and damage done to the industry in light of the pandemic hit me incredibly hard. Personally, I think these feelings were exacerbated by living with my disability and the way it impacts my life: theatre is where I've found the people and forged friendships that I treasure most in the world, something that brings me immense joy that I often struggle to find in other areas of my life, and the industry I long to be involved in as a career.

So, to be away from that sense of meaning and relationships left me at a loss for a while. Especially in those early days of the pandemic, I found it really difficult to engage with the move venues were making to online content as it just reminded me of what I missed so much about the industry.

Eventually, though, I found that connection again and saw and enjoyed an amazing array of plays, musicals and intimate concerts - some of which I sadly missed live at the time (Chichester Festival Theatre's Flowers for Mrs Harrisand Nottingham Playhouse's 2018 production of The Madness of George III being particular highlights on this score).

Or the opportunity to see people I really admire work where I may not otherwise be able to get to (thanks to Old Vic's In Camera initiative I've seen Michael Sheen and David Thewlis perform!). It has given me a new appreciation for different ways of working and the creative process when the "traditional" space and modes of theatremaking aren't available (take a bow, Barn Theatre's The Picture of Dorian Gray).

How UK Theatre Handled Accessibility During the Pandemic
Ramps On The Moon's Oliver Twist

This move to online content availability was also such a gamechanger because it removed the need to travel as content was made readily available for home viewing, and thereby you're immediately striving to be inclusive of a whole range of people for whom this might be a barrier to their being able to attend and experience theatre.

I also massively appreciated this, as my disability means I can't travel as easily to as much theatre as I'd like given I'm limited to certain days and by a venue's accessibility and number of seats for patrons like myself. I'd love for venues and producers to embrace a more blended mix of online, streaming and in-person content in their programming, though of course I am aware that this in itself is costly and time-consuming...

As in-person theatre has slowly come back to life, one particular move caused a bit of a stir: SIX moving home from the Lyric Theatre to the Vaudeville, thereby to a building that isn't accessible to many disabled patrons who use electric wheelchairs and can't transfer, like myself. Me and others worked to draw awareness to this, and I personally have been massively unimpressed by how this move and our concerns have been handled.

The show's social media and acknowledgment of the issue encouraged us to write to the access email with our concerns, which I did, yet despite other attempts to engage with the team following their initial generic "Thank you, we hear you but please understand that theatre access is a complex thing" (no need to tell me this, I KNOW and have done and dealt with it for most of my adult life) type email, I never received any kind of contact.

Nica Burns (CEO of Nimax) made a statement about the issues raised which I added to a piece on the move I did for my own blog, but I found it problematic in the sense that, at least for me, it raised more questions as opposed to alleviating worries. I believe that positive progress has been made on the issues thanks to fellow BWW writer and theatre accessibility advocate Shona, but I can only give you my take as my own concerns haven't been addressed directly, and I haven't been part of those positive conversations.

Accessibility can and does so often feel like an afterthought, or that those people who are affected by it are the only ones that really care, but the whole situation with SIX has taught me that I want to work harder on breaking down that barrier and sense of negativity. And, thankfully, there are organisations and people out there who feel the same.

I'd like to give my Accessibility Champion Award to the work of Ramps On The Moon, a consortium of theatres working to champion Deaf and disabled artists, and who put inclusivity at the forefront of their work. I had the absolute joy of seeing their groundbreaking production of Oliver Twist last year when it was remounted and filmed for streaming, and was blown away by the ease of how sign language, closed captioning and audio description was integrated into the story and production values, as well as such inclusive casting. So much so, I was wondering why it is seemingly so hard for the rest of the industry to follow suit...

The BroadwayWorld UK Awards 2020 will launch later today - and you can put forward your picks for our new Accessibility Champion Award!

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