How accessible is theatre to a disabled audience?

Recently I went to the theatre to see a piece by students from the University of Exeter as part of the Exeter Ignite Festival of theatre.  The piece was called Shakespeare in Hell, which was basically the dark, bloody, evil side of Shakespeare’s plays.  The idea was that Ariel from The Tempest leads the audience through the various circles of hell.  The show started conventionally with us the audience sitting in the auditorium seats watching the show.  Then they raised the curtain and had us enter the second circle of hell, by getting us all to come over and join them round a long table.  It made for a very intimate scene which was brilliant for that particular extract, but then they expected us to keep standing for every scene.  These days I am fine with that, having had a total hip replacement over two and half years ago and being able to stand better than ever in my life.  However it got me thinking afterwards about the time before my replacement or just after when there was no way I could have stood for that long, which was just over an hour.  I started to wonder, just how accessible is theatre to a disabled audience?

Lets start with the basics, the conventional type of theatre where the audience sit in the auditorium in a specially constructed theatre building.  These days disabled people can in most good theatres enjoy the show much like everyone else.  I used to be a volunteer steward at a local theatre and know that we could deal with disabled customers well.  When booking tickets some disabled customers could request we had a wheelchair space for them, which would require us to take out one of the normal theatre seats in advance, which I gather could be done very quickly and easily.  Most theatres will be able to do this or some will have a box or side seat area for disabled customers to sit in with their companion.  For hard of hearing people most theatres now use induction loops which send audio signals to hearing aids.  This works best for shows that use microphones, musical instruments or recorded sounds.  Sometimes a show may have a sign language interpreter that stands at the edge of the stage translating everything that is spoken or sung, but not all companies do this and mostly they only do it for one or two shows, but it should tell you in the theatre brochure which performances have this.  Occasionally a show might use captioning where the text is displayed on an LED screen right above or beside the stage.  I have only seen this done with the English Touring Opera, and this is mainly to translate or make the opera clearer.  However I gather some London and West End theatres caption shows every now and then for deaf audiences.  For blind or partially sighted people theatres sometimes have an audio description.  Using a headset a description of what is happening on stage is relayed from a specialist describer usually sitting in the technical box or somewhere where they can see the action clearly without being heard by the rest of the audience.

The advances made for disabled people to enjoy theatre thanks to modern technology are brilliant, but what if you go and see something a little less conventional?  The above mentioned show Shakespeare in Hell is a good example of what is sometimes called promenade theatre, where the audience are expected for the most part to stand, walk and move about.  This can be brilliant to help immerse the audience in the action and encourage interaction, but often fails to take account of disabled audience members.  Personally I do not mind this sort of theatre if they give you some kind of advanced warning that this will be the set up.  Having looked again at the advertising for Shakespeare in Hell I see it made no mention that there would be standing and walking about, and when I brought my ticket this was not mentioned to me.  Sometimes a wheelchair user would be OK in this situation as they at least had a seat and can move about, although in this case they would have come unstuck when it came to the stairs right at the end.  Then there are those disabled people who do not have a wheelchair, but can not walk very far or stand for very long.  Sometimes a seat can be left in the corner of the performance area out-of-the-way for the disabled person to sit down as and when they need to, but in some shows this is simply not possible or the disabled person has no idea they would need to even ask for it.  There is a growing trend in younger companies to do this kind of theatre, especially student based companies, who have often learnt about promenade theatre as part of their studies.  I spent a number of years studying performing arts and found that it was often tutors trying to inspire students to think outside of the box who pushed this trend, well this is all very well, but not once did they ever think to mention how this affects disabled audiences.

Then there is site specific theatre which takes place outside a traditional theatre building, somewhere that was originally not intended to ever hold a performance.  This can include buildings such as hotels, disused factories and car parks or outside spaces such as forest clearings, parks and gardens and shopping precincts.  The idea of site-specific theatre is to exploit the space so that it becomes part of the experience, with the history and context of the building helping to make up a complete concept for a show.  This means most of the time this kind of theatre is not transferable to any other space.  The trouble for disabled people is that a lot of these sites are not so accessible, as often companies use spaces that are abandoned or about to be demolished or re-purposed, which mean that they are often old and built before disability access was much of a consideration. However all venues are subject to the same legislation as more conventional theatre buildings, which have to comply to the Disability Discrimination Act.  The act requires ‘reasonable adjustments’ are made to make your product or services available to people with a wide range of needs.  In some cases the adjustment needed to provide disabled access is not reasonable as it would take too long or cost too much to do, such as some outside spaces which could require a whole new landscaping job.  However in a lot of cases the adjustments are much simpler and cheaper to do than some people may think. For example a building with just one step might simply need a hand rail and a small ramp, which are fairly easy to source and install.  An alternative route for promenade performances may need to be planned out, but could easily be done for some shows to avoid steps or hazards. For some shows I have seen just thinking about the technical side of things such as where electric cables are going to go would help.  Rather than trail across the side of the stage could the cable be tacked to the bottom of the wall or tapped down better.

When the company Talking Birds were using a 14th century monastery for a production, they faced the problem of a lift that was broken beyond repair.  Wanting to be as inclusive as possible they came up with a solution for people who could not use the stairs. Which ‘was to provide an alternative view of the performance downstairs in the evocative cloister space, via a video and sound link, enhanced by visits from the three actors when they were “off-stage” for the upstairs audience. It was relatively inexpensive to carry out with the aid of technicians already working on the gig’ (Talking Birds).  This shows that with some creative thinking disabled people need not necessarily miss out on these types of experiences.

In  conclusion I think that theatre has come a long way for disabled people, partly due to new legislation meaning theatres have to comply with disability law and partly due to new technologies making it easier for disabled people to access theatre.  A disabled person needs to make it clear to the box-office staff when booking a ticket what extra help they will need.  Some theatres require booking in advance for equipment such as audio description headphones and for a disabled space to be made available, however they should be happy to help.  Box-office staff also need training in inclusiveness and to be fully aware of the theatre policy on disability issues  that could arise.  Sometimes the box-office staff seem to have no idea what the disability policies are  and that could result in someone wrongly assuming a show would be unsuitable for them.  This seems to happen a lot more for concert venues when they often use out-sourced ticket booking lines and the call handler has never even been to the venue concerned.  A good idea would be to ask other people who have been to the venue how assessable it seemed to them.  Disabled people should be made to feel welcome at performances of all kinds.  Not only does this help disabled people feel more included in society, but potentially theatres have a chance to boost box-office numbers.