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Susan Elkin: No one else wants to ask this question, so I will

A scene from Yeh Shen at Polka Theatre. Photo: Yellow Earth
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Theatre is for everyone. No one should ever be excluded. It’s a universal medium. Inclusivity is key to everything theatre stands for and trainee actors are all keenly aware of that. Of course this is what I want to believe and practise, along – I’m sure – with every reader of this column. But it isn’t as simple as that, is it?

At the risk of being shot down in flames for my perceived intolerance and for daring to raise a tricky issue, I shall tell you about two experiences I had last week.

The first was at Red Rose Chain’s lovely new theatre, The Avenue in Ipswich, where you can catch Joanna Carrick’s fine new play Progress until this weekend. On the evening I saw it there was a party of adults with learning difficulties in the audience. One was seated in her wheelchair at the very front, jutting into the playing space because there was no other way of accommodating her (and I applaud the front of house staff for their unfussed flexibility).

The lady concerned then called out loudly and frequently throughout the play and tried, at one point, to engage an actor in conversation. Now this would have been fine under some circumstances but Progress is a fairly formal, quite wordy play and parts of it were drowned out by a single audience member for whom it clearly wasn’t a suitable choice. And it must have been very difficult for the cast who, to their credit, coped admirably.

Of course there are often theatregoers who do not behave in a way we think of as appropriate to the environment and we certainly don’t want a divisive world in which certain people are welcome only at ‘relaxed’ performances. It’s also worth pointing out that Red Rose Chain is commendably strong on inclusivity and integration. But how do we also cater for the needs of the majority of ticket buyers who want to hear the play they’ve chosen to attend? I don’t pretend to know the answer but it’s time someone asked the question.

It was a similar story a few days later at Polka Theatre when I sat for a performance of the enjoyable Yeh Shen (until March 8, then touring) immediately in front of a party of children with learning difficulties. Their rustling, banging and oral noise made it impossible for me to hear quite large chunks of the play which, again, is text dependent. It was wonderful to reflect that these children were enjoying their trip out in their own way, but if their enjoyment cancels out someone else’s then surely there’s a problem?

Perhaps the issue is partly to do with choice of play. Of course everyone gets something out of the magic of theatre at some level because it’s a medium which can communicate before it is understood. On the other hand, would it not be more sensible to take children and adults with quite severe special needs to shows where text is less important and audience noise matters less? Pantomime is an obvious winner, for example.

I hope drama schools are visiting these thorny issues and preparing their students to work with and for diverse audiences. Meanwhile I simply don’t know how we can safeguard everyone’s rights to inclusive theatre, bearing in mind that ‘everyone’ includes people who don’t have special needs. This needs discussing openly and fairly at every level in the industry.

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