Shona Louise: Theatres must cater better for audiences’ access needs
When you want to see a show, how many things do you take into consideration when looking to book a ticket? The cost or how far you need to travel might be your priorities – or perhaps you just look for day seats for shows when you are able.
For me, and many other potential audience members, the first consideration is: can I even get inside? As a wheelchair user, my trips to the theatre are very different from the majority of theatregoers.
Finding out whether the theatre is accessible is the first consideration before seeing a show. Often I can only book tickets via a phone line with limited opening hours, day seats are totally off limits and, after all that, I rarely get a choice of where to sit.
I simply have to take what I’m given, regardless of how restricted a view it is. This is the frequently the best-case scenario – I cannot even get inside many theatres I want to visit. Whole shows are off-limits for me and many others.
As my experiences vary so greatly, I go out of my way to return to theatres with great access, such as the Other Palace, where no part of the theatre is off-limits to me. I can access the main theatre, studio, bar and restaurant.
This might not sound like much, but as a wheelchair user I’m used to side entrances and seeing little more than the inside of the auditorium. Then there are the negative experiences: venues in which almost half of the stage is restricted from the only wheelchair space in the theatre. Of course, there are many venues I cannot even get inside, especially some of the old West End ones.
There is progress happening that gives me hope though. The Old Vic’s major refurbishment has improved its access considerably, and substantial work at Theatre Royal Drury Lane will have a similar effect.
The Old Vic has increased the number of wheelchair spaces from two to 10 as well as installing a lift to allow access to its cafe bar, and enabling step-free access to the foyer and box office for the first time.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane is also currently working to bring the total number of wheelchair spaces across three levels to 20, all accessed by a new 16-person lift. The number of accessible toilets will also rise to five, in time for the opening of the widely anticipated Broadway transfer Frozen.
These changes are unlike anything I’ve seen before and will put these theatres high above their neighbours in terms of accessibility, securing access for all for years to come. As a disabled theatregoer, I’d like to see other venues recognising the value of changes such as these. In 2019, theatres should not be turning away paying customers through a lack of accessibility.
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