Fringe and West End theatres are facing fresh pressure to improve their backstage access, with disabled performers warning that careers are being stifled by venue inaccessibility.
It comes after writer and actor Athena Stevens revealed she had to crawl up stairs to perform at London’s Finborough theatre.
The Stage has spoken to more than 10 disabled performers, who have revealed their experiences of accessing venues, with one claiming she had been replaced in a role because it was easier for the theatre to recast than accommodate her.
Melissa Chapin, who uses a wheelchair, said: “I’ve lost out on work and auditions because the space wasn’t suitable, so they decided to change the actor rather than improve the [space].”
Theatremaker and comedian Jess Thom, who uses a wheelchair and has Tourette’s syndrome, said that while venues had invested in front-of-house spaces, they were “lagging behind when it comes to equal access to back-of-house [areas], [performance] stages and tech spaces”.
She added: “When I toured in 2016 across the UK and internationally, I worked out that I had to access about 60% of the spaces that we visited in a different way to my non-disabled, non-wheelchair-using colleagues.”
She said this ranged from not having access to a toilet backstage, to not being able to get on to the stage itself. This had impacted her “physical energy and emotional resilience”, she added.
Disabled theatremaker and poet Jamie Hale, whose showcase CRIPtic ran at London’s Barbican last year, told The Stage both fringe and commercial theatres had a problem.
“There’s a perception that disabled people are being very demanding when we outline access requirements,” they said.
Hale praised the Barbican for adapting its backstage area of the Pit to include “proper shower, adult changing bed, changing room and a hoisted access toilet” but warned that a lack of accessibility to smaller venues meant their career “has been very limited”.
Hale called for legislation requiring buildings over a certain size to provide hoisted-access facilities.
Meanwhile, performer Sarah Howard, who is also access co-coordinator at London’s Park Theatre, said: “Many in-house areas for staff, artists and technical teams do not accommodate the basic access needs of D/deaf and disabled people, resulting in a lack of representation throughout our industry. This is such a short-sighted approach, as much ability and talent are being lost.”
Phoebe Kemp, chair of Equity’s Deaf and Disabled Members Committee, said the committee was “disappointed, but sadly not surprised, by the inaccessibility of many performance venues” and described physical access as one of the “largest barriers” to members getting work.
“Equity is currently working with other industry bodies to create an accessible casting venue database – as often these spaces are also inaccessible – and the hope is in the future this audit can be extended to performance spaces,” she said.
Following her own experience, Stevens said Arts Council England should “start withholding funding until theatres make their venues as accessible as possible”.
A spokeswoman for ACE said: “We know that many theatres, in both the commercial and publicly funded sectors, don’t meet building accessibility requirements.
“Although the Arts Council has been able to support some theatres through our capital programmes – and we are encouraging applications addressing inclusivity in the next round of our Small Capital Grants launching in April – this intervention can’t support every space that needs upgrading.”
However, some venues have taken steps to ensure their building is accessible.
London’s Bush Theatre said it had taken measures to become “fully accessible”, while the production team at Trafalgar Studios constructed an accessible dressing room for disabled actor Storme Toolis, who starred in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg last year.
A spokesman for Trafalgar Entertainment said: “We assess the needs and requirements of all performers before they come to Trafalgar Studios.”
The 2010 Equality Act, updated in 2019, states that both large and small entertainment venues are required to make “reasonable adjustments” to remove barriers for disabled people. This includes changing a physical feature of the building.
Reasonable adjustments” are dependent on factors including: