Opinion: Reviewing With My Disability
In December 2016, I attended my first press night for BroadwayWorld. I felt a little bit out of my depth, but was tremendously excited for the opportunity it gave me to combine my passion for theatre with my love of writing. To date, I have reviewed eight productions, mostly in my hometown of Bristol, but occasionally in Bath and Cardiff, too.
Being a theatre critic is challenging, but I've noticed more and more frequently that being a theatre critic with the disability I have seems to be a more unique and difficult challenge...
I have a disability called Cerebral Palsy, which means parts of my brain (specifically those that control movement, co-ordination and fine motor skills) are damaged. I'm unable to walk at all, which means I'm confined to a wheelchair.
This alone can make attending the theatre difficult, as the accessible seating can be very limited for those of us who need to stay in our chairs. Of my local theatres: the Bristol Hippodrome only has four spaces, and the Bristol Old Vic only two. As places are so limited, it can be incredibly difficult to get tickets, particularly for the bigger musicals.
This disappointing issue has also started raising its head for press nights. I was excited to have the chance to review An Officer and a Gentleman and Shrek the Musical recently, both at the Bristol Hippodrome. My colleague who normally liaises with the staff was informed that, whilst there were no wheelchair spaces left for press night of Officer, they were happy to accommodate me on another evening. Both myself and my colleague emailed the team on numerous occasions for over a week trying to get this visit arranged, as well as one for Shrek, with no response.
When we did eventually hear back, this time from a different member of staff, unfortunately there were no spaces available for Officer, and most of seats the theatre offered for Shrek (also after press night) weren't suitable for my needs; the only one that was fell on a night I couldn't attend due to other commitments. The lesson this has taught me is that if I want to continue reviewing at my local theatres, especially the Hippodrome, I need to be quick off the mark!
Aside from the lack of wheelchair spaces, reviewing with my disability can be a pain from a logistical point of view. I don't drive, so must do a lot of prep work just in terms of how I can get to the theatre.
Earlier this month, I was set to review a play at Tobacco Factory Theatres. It was a Thursday, and as my PA for those evenings can't drive, I had to make other arrangements for getting there. I booked a taxi a few days prior, making them aware of my needs. I phoned again the morning of the performance to reiterate my needs and was assured it wouldn't be an issue.
Then, five minutes before we were due to leave, we got a call from the taxi driver who informed us he could take us as long as my wheelchair was folded up: not an option with my chair as it's electric, and - as I've mentioned before - I can't get around without it.
Still hopeful we'd make the press night, we phoned three other taxi companies, but unfortunately all of our calls went to voicemail. Knowing both of my parents were unavailable to help, and it being so close to showtime, I was left with no other option than to contact the team at the Box Office and my editor here at BroadwayWorld and inform them I couldn't attend, explaining the transport woes.
Even though it was due to circumstances beyond my control, I was incredibly embarrassed and felt like I was letting the team down, despite their understanding. Unfortunately, I had to miss this play as well as couldn't attend another evening.
Both of these recent experiences have left me feeling anxious about reviewing in future, and I feel like I've not been pulling my weight in the team - which is an awful feeling, as I love the role and want to be reliable and professional.
Transport issues and my disability making spontaneity difficult aside, though, all my other experiences reviewing have been incredibly positive: the role has allowed me to see plays and musicals I may not necessarily have chosen to see, and I'm always learning and improving my craft as a writer.
I especially like going to Bristol Old Vic; having reviewed a couple of their productions now, I'm a familiar face to some of the staff, and they are so enthusiastic and can never do enough to help. The FOH staff always come and check with us at interval to see if we need anything, and always go out of their way to help me safely out of the building at the end of the show.
Personally, I applaud the industry for the steps it does take to make the arts accessible to all, but I think that much more can be done to improve things. There's a preconception within society that disability - whether it be physical like my own or any other kind - affects everyone who lives with it in the same way.
For example, my kind of Cerebral Palsy leaves me confined to my wheelchair, and therefore I am limited as to where I can sit in the theatre, but others with the same condition are able to transfer into their seats or walk short distances.
The problem is a lack of awareness and knowledge. I would love to see more dialogue between all levels of staff at the theatre and their disabled audiences, so we can offer our insight and the staff can be better educated. I am so heartened that certain musicals host autism-friendly performances that are so well received, not only by the audiences, but the performers as well. It's a wonderful example to set that the theatre is welcoming and inclusive, and I wish more shows followed their lead.
I wholeheartedly believe that the industry isn't being intentionally discriminatory, but I am also incredibly saddened by the lack of representation disability has in all areas of the arts - both the stories told and, more so, the people telling them. It's my dream to make a living writing one day, especially in the arts, in whatever shape or form that takes.
Though am trying to take steps to get my foot in the door, I've found no one in similar circumstances who I can reach out to and say "How did you get started, what do I need to be doing to get where you are?". I don't doubt they are out there, but it's hard to connect, as we don't hear about them!
I'd love to see this process become more welcoming and diverse: maybe a forum where those passionate about making their work more inclusive can reach out, and encourage producers to be more open to disabled writers and actors.
You can contact Kerrie Nicholson at firstname.lastname@example.org