Accessible Theatre. A varied experience

Accessible theatre

Jessica Joseph

Jessica Joseph

By Jessie Joseph

The Theatre, and live performances, is one of my passions. The experience gained from seeing any ‘Art form’ being performed for an audience within the Theatre environment, or site specific, is always unique to each individual, and a different interpretation of the work is felt by all.

My experiences of the Theatre with regards to access/ability to actually see the performances has been varied. The local theatre has been adapted to suit the needs of disabled people, with regards to gaining entrance and seating, but not for the capacity needed.

Tickets to the ballet to see Swan Lake was my first professional performance, watched at the local Theatre, which as always I had to turn into a humorous situation. The tickets were a present and the purchaser had not thought of seating difficulties within the Theatre. Seats for the needs of disabled people were… 6 in a 1,500 seated Theatre!! Not the right percentage I feel? So of course our tickets where located in the balcony, not a problem at all if lifts where available, but a beautiful curvaceous spiralling staircase had to be tackled. Well, my normal ‘ham joint’ carrying position by stoic mother was not an option, primarily due to my fashion choice for the Ballet, and also I was getting tired of being carried up public stairs like a sack of potatoes! The ticket office kindly changed our tickets to seats of lesser value in the back row of the stalls, row ZZ, which of course were still available due to restricted viewing. My mother, sister and I didn’t allow this to ruin our enjoyment of the performance; and through the admiration for the talent and technical ability of the dancers, and the inspirational classical music, the love and the connection felt with this art form was born.

Hooked on the Theatre and the joy it brings, further afield I travelled, to watch different shows, West End productions, contemporary performances, dramas and of course more ballet. Many West End Theatres are listed buildings and access for disabled people is still extremely difficult. Needless to say, more time is always required to overcome any obstacles to be faced and I would always arrive as soon as the Theatre was open in anticipation of what was to be tackled! At one West End Theatre our seating was so in accessible, even though we had made the situation fully clear before traveling all the way to London, we were asked to sit in the foyer whilst the rest of the public were seated. This had taken our waiting time to get into the Theatre to over an hour! We could hear the music of the performance starting and still the ushers were racing around in a panic not knowing what to do about the situation, showing their discomfort regarding walking frames, and other aids which apparently might cause problems to others in the audience!.

The Duty Manager for the performance was finally called after my mother, who had sat with the normal patience acquired after years of practice and tolerance, erupted in a volcanic stream of verbal dissatisfaction (to put it mildly) with the equivalent force, and only then a remedy was found and we were on the move to be seated! We were led out of the Theatre onto street level, around to the side and into an ornate door. Full of heightened anticipation we walked down a small corridor, and into what we soon realised was the Royal Box.

We sat down suitably quietly after all the turmoil, and in what was rather stunned surprise, to then start to enjoy the production. We were left to absorb the performance and duly escorted out after the final curtain. Obviously it is a memory that has stuck in my mind. This is for several reasons, firstly of course the fact that we watched the performance in such an amazing location within the Theatre, and the beautiful surroundings and incredible view of the cast. Not many people can say they have sat in the Royal Box. But also a negative side, as for the amount of stress that was experienced before. Why was this situation even faced, why did the difficulties in seating arise, why had those tickets been allocated in the first place when there had been a full discussion of circumstances and needs prior to purchase and travel.
I must add that I have seen most of the West End shows and still do not understand the difficulties that have to be faced. I do not want to mention specific Theatres, as my love of the shows and the memories that the performances have left with me have always made my access difficulties less of a burden, but it is still shocking that they still have to be overcome.

Also, many Theatres have the disabled seating as a ’section’, which I felt in my younger years really highlighted the fact I was disabled. I hated to walk with my frame or being pushed in my wheelchair to the allocated disabled seats. I always felt that it made me seem different from the rest of the viewing public in the Theatre and it certainly made me feel different. I don’t understand why the seats, which were never of different shape or size, were set away from the rest of the public or why disabled people are grouped together. Why is this? It still remains, even in newly built performance sites. Some disabled people may like to have the opportunity of a choice of varying views of the performance. We might not all like to view from the side, or back, or at various times in a restricted viewing area. Disabled people might like to pay different prices for their seating the same as the rest of the public! These are all questions that I asked myself when younger, I really didn’t understand why I would be led by an usher to the disabled area. I wanted to be at the front or more awkwardly in the middle of the Theatre and in the middle of the row, so everyone had to stand up for me to get past, in my flowing ballet gown of course! I am admittedly just joking here, but I am sure you understand the points that used to run though my head. I still do feel that varying positions of seats should be available, with varying prices, disabled people should certainly have that choice.

More locally, I have seen many contemporary performances as I enjoy supporting new works and new artists. A local Centre of Excellence for the Arts in the South was built only three years ago and this has given me new feats of ‘free running’ to gain assess for a performance. Stairs all around the Theatre lead to the entrance which is below street level. One lift is available that can fit one wheelchair but no carer. This situation that I’m going to mention still makes me smile and I know it is at the expensive of my friends, but we laugh about it together too. We excitedly arrived for a Contemporary performance from a new German Dance Company, I managed to negotiate the lift and steps. Waiting at the bottom of the lift for my friends who have walking aids, I wondered if I had been abandoned! The lift didn’t return down and of course I couldn’t attempt the assault course of steps to go back up. So I waited, and waited. Staff were informed. My friends were stuck in the lift! The performance was missed by us all, and my friends I have to add, were rather shaken due to the claustrophobic environment endured. Free tickets for other performances were given, and tea and coffee (was nothing stronger available☺). Of course we laugh about it extensively now, but it was distressing at the time. Around the Country I am sure there are many similar ways to access different performance spaces, but with new builds it is very surprising that more inventive ways, more care and consideration is not taken to give disabled people the same access, and dignity of access, as others.

How different would my first experience of the ballet been, in my flowing ‘ballet’ gown, siting in the originally purchased, front row balcony seats?