What makes theatre inaccessible? Part 1

Photo by Don Milo on Pexels.com [Image description: The words “What makes theatre inaccessible? Part 1 in white impact font written over a background of a crumbling and cracked wall. To the right of the photo, there is a black door with the words “stage door” and a star in yellow.]
I think by now you’ve realised that making theatre accessible is important to me, I did start a blog about it after all! But in case you need a little reminder, take a gander at my Why is accessible theatre important? post or Welcome post.

Whilst on this blog, where I can I want to celebrate and shout about the good work that theatre companies and buildings are doing to be more accessible and inclusive I feel it’s also important to point out why exactly Theatre can be deemed inaccessible. Because if the fundamental reasons why they’re not accessible are not identified how can improvements be made? And not just for a disabled/ chronically ill demographic but to many other social groups who are prevented from doing something they enjoy.

In this post, I’m going to talk about what factors can make theatre inaccessible from an audience member or potential audience members perspective but hopefully, in future, I’ll also look at it from the perspective of performers and other roles.

Theatre Buildings

What better way to start than with theatre buildings themselves. Because if you can’t access the building or get into the auditorium how can you actually access let alone enjoy a show you want to see there?

Even though theatres should make reasonable adjustments to comply with the laws on accessibility those laws were not in place at the time many theatres were built. And even though in some cases hundreds of years have passed access to some venues remains problematic; often for the very reason that they are hundreds of years old. Adaptations can be limited, unsuitable or prevented because they’re listed buildings.

Even in more modern venues access might have been an afterthought, which they’ve tried to make fit with their current infrastructure.

In some venues, only certain areas might be accessible to wheelchair users or anyone with limited mobility. Meaning a restriction on where in the auditorium you can sit. It’s unfortunate that in some theatres these “accessible” seats also provide restricted views of the stage and consequently you’ll not fully get to see a show you’ve probably spent hours on the phone to book, paid good money for and battled through all the access rigmarole of getting there.

Others stipulate that they can only accommodate audience members using manual wheelchairs not powerchairs, which may prevent those who need to use a powerchair access to a show in that theatre.

Location and Transport

Many places focus when it comes to access is about how to get to that location because that’s valuable information for all audience members. It’s good to know what is the closest tube station or bus routes and stops. But public transport is not a disabled person’s closest friend and should you want to see a show in a big city, theatres don’t necessarily have their own car parks or suitable parking nearby. That also won’t cost more than you’ve paid for your theatre tickets. In these instances, disabled people often have to rely on accessible taxi’s and hope they can actually get in the car. Again incurring more cost to their theatre trip.

Should you have a theatre close by with free/ cheap parking then hurrah. I hope the rest is as accessible and that there’s plenty you want to see there.

Both of the reasons above demonstrate the value of good community engagement and for theatre-makers to take their work out of theatre buildings and into the community.

Navigating the Building and Facilities

So you’ve located a level access entrance and you’ve hopefully not been too shocked/ injured by an automatic door that swings out at you at speed. Time to play the facilities lottery.

Firstly can you independently or with the help of a companion/ carer navigate an often very busy building and easily find where you need to go? Is there clear signage? Does the lift tell you what floor you’re on to aid audience members with sight loss? Are there induction loops at the bar and box office? Do the bar and box office have step-free access?

Or is there the option to have someone welcome and help you get to where you need/ want to go before the show, during the interval and after the show? Ideally by people who understand to ask if an audience member wants help without grabbing hold of a wheelchair/ arm holding a cane/ service dog. As well as have a way to communicate with people who may be deaf/ hard of hearing/ have a learning disability/ have a cognitive disability etc. Whilst recognising that not all disabilities are visible and not to judge disability by a person’s age.

Then there’s the big old access quandary that is are the accessible toilets actually accessible? And preferably not being used as a store cupboard/ cloakroom. Can you easily manoeuvre a wheelchair/ rollator/ service dog in and out and around independently or with a companion/ carer? Are there the necessary rails/ a freely hanging red cord/ raised toilet seat/ easy to grip and use handles and locks? Which are just the basic necessities for accessible toilets but can vary from venue to venue and even within the same building.

Let alone the need for more venues to have Changing Places facilities which allow children and adults who cannot go to the toilet conventionally the space/ safety and dignity to do so. Because whether you need an accessible toilet or a Changing Places facility poor or inaccessible facilities can be the difference between whether you visit a place or not.

Access Information

The above factors are of course all sources of information however when it comes to access, knowledge really is power. I’ve researched many theatres access pages of late and found that they vary so much from venue to venue. From a wealth of information to no access information on their websites at all. Access to accurate information and being armed with knowledge is absolutely essential for a disabled/ chronically ill person (and their family/ carer/ friend/ social group) because it helps us make decisions about what is accessible/ viable for our individual needs and helps us feel reassured about whether we can enjoy our time there or not. Therefore the more relevant and detailed information theatres can provide about the building, its access, facilities and services the better. And as ever, the more easily accessible that information is to find the better. Bonus points for that information in a range of media to suit different disabilities.

Programming and Scheduling Assisted Performances

You’ve researched the theatre and gathered as much information you can now you can go ahead and book a show you want to see, yes? Well, perhaps not. Many people might still not be able to access a performance because there are no assisted performances scheduled for what they would like to see. Such as BSL interpreted, audio described, captioned, relaxed performances and shows in which disabled people are performing. I understand that assisted performances are slightly easier for a producing house to schedule than for theatres that are just receiving theatres who rely on what each production are willing to consider. However, theatre companies should be doing more to ensure their shows can be seen by as inclusive an audience as possible. Especially big tours with notable producers. Even if they don’t have the equipment themselves there are plenty of places to hire equipment and services from. It’s like saying “why yes, of course, we’re accessible, you can use the building but you can’t actually see a show here if you’re,” to use an awful phrase “that sort of disabled.” Shudder!

You may have guessed from the title of this post including “Part 1” that I can waffle on a lot longer about what can make theatre inaccessible but I shall save that for future posts because this one is already quite long.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think makes theatre inaccessible too. Or whether you have any nightmare access stories. Leave a comment here or on my social media links.


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