When Underwired Productions put on our first ever show last year, The Lost Toys’ Big Christmas Adventure!, we were determined to make it as accessible as possible – it’s one of our fundamental aims as a charitable organisation.
I have a son with severe disabilities, meaning he can’t walk or talk, so it’s also something that’s incredibly close to my heart. We talked to venues and settled on the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, who were able to offer us a fully accessible space, and we put on a show that was accessible to children with profound and multiple learning disabilities. A great result, we thought.
But we learned something incredibly important about accessibility in the process. You can make theatre as physically accessible as you like, but there are financial barriers in place too. Unless theatre is also affordable, it doesn’t matter how wide the doorways are, or whether there are suitable lifts and wheelchair ramps.
That’s why this year, we wanted to focus on cost. The first thing was to slash ticket prices, which was made easier thanks to funding from Arts Council England. According to the Society of London Theatre, the average theatre ticket outside the West End cost £27.10 in 2018, up 8% on the year before. A ticket for The Lost Toys’ Big Christmas Adventure! this year is £32 for a family of four.
But £32 is still more than many families can afford. That led us to looking for ways to remove the financial barrier altogether and we hit on an idea we haven’t seen before – working with food banks.
Food bank use is growing in the UK. The Trussell Trust ran just 57 food banks at the start of this decade – it now runs 424. It’s a particularly pressing issue in coastal towns such as Hastings, where we’ll be performing this year. According to figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Hastings is the 13th most deprived local council in England.
So we started talking to food banks there, and in Eastbourne and approached local businesses and organisations to see if they’d be interested in donating money to cover the cost of the tickets.
So far we have been able to fund enough tickets for 500 people to come to a show free of charge, and we’re working with Hastings Foodbank and Eastbourne Foodbank to distribute tickets.
It’s not just about bringing a few families to the theatre though, it goes much deeper. The arts aren’t a luxury – they’re essential. Giving people access to them, especially in times of hardship, is something we all need to fight for. And the arts need children from all backgrounds to experience something magical and come away thinking: “I want to do that”.
They could be our future actors, directors, writers and stage managers, but they’re never going to have an opportunity to pursue these careers without being exposed to the arts.
The arts need to reflect the whole of society, not just the bits that can afford them. So, this Christmas, we are focusing just as much on accessibility, just a different kind of accessibility.
Kali Peacock is co-artistic director of UnderWired. The Lost Toys Big Christmas Adventure runs until December 29 at White Rock Theatre, Hastings