For many people, no matter how deep their love of theatre, the phrase “90 minutes, no interval” is still one of the sweetest things you can hear as you hand over your ticket. That is unless it’s followed by the words “no readmittance”.
Initially this might sound like a reasonable request. If the production is one of tension or intimacy, it’s probably not desirable to have people traipsing in and out. But, as Guyliner writer Justin Myers highlighted on Twitter last week, no readmittance policies can also be a source of worry and frustration. Calling it out as “inaccessible, anxiety-inducing bollocks”, he kick-started a nuanced, thoughtful and eye-opening discussion about invisible barriers and often-overlooked access considerations.
Sitting through a show of that length might seem manageable enough if you’re young and in good health, less so if you have a medical condition like Crohn’s disease or other hidden disability, you’re pregnant or you’re experiencing the menstrual equivalent of the elevator scene in The Shining. If someone leaves during a performance, it’s usually because they don’t have much of a choice. As Myers puts it, “when you gotta go, you gotta go.” The worry that if you do need to leave you won’t be allowed back in is an additional source of stress.
This stress could easily be circumvented, as with so much in life, through clarity, both at the point of the booking – being clear about any such policy up front – and at the venue itself, so people could make informed decisions. A friend missed 20 minutes of the no-interval West End version of The Exorcist because it had not been clearly stated that popping out to use the bathroom would pose a problem, though at least she was let back in eventually. These rules – often seemingly arbitrary – aren’t always obvious if you don’t go to the theatre often.
Policies like these are also an issue for many neurodiverse people. One of things relaxed performances allow for is the ability for audience members to get up and move, to leave the performance space if they feel the need – and, crucially, to come back in. Theatremaker and activist Jess Thom has long campaigned not only for there to be more relaxed performances – and not just of musicals and family shows, she believes all theatre has the capacity to be relaxed – but relaxed venues. As of next month, Battersea Arts Centre will adopt this as a policy.
A relaxed space acknowledges and accommodates a variety of bodies and minds. Even without fully adopting a relaxed system, venues can make things easier by making sure everyone is actively thinking about access throughout the creative process, rather than as an afterthought. This should include people’s ability to sit comfortably through a show without the option of leaving if they need to. It’s all too easy to underestimate the importance of something if it doesn’t directly affect you.
While it wouldn’t work in every venue – in the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre you need to walk directly across the stage to access the toilet – the readmittance issue could be addressed by reserving seating near an exit for those who need it, or making it clear at the beginning of a show the least disruptive way of leaving. Or simply, as Lyn Gardner argued last week, being accepting of the fact that theatre is a live event and the audience is not a passive mass in which everyone is equipped with a camel’s ability to retain water.
In response to Myers, the playwright and theatremaker Chris Goode raised the knotty question of whether making work that attempted to accommodate everyone’s needs would necessitate a degree of artistic and political compromise. He asked whether it was possible to make work that was formally confrontational, that employed techniques of sensory overload, or set out to disrupt our dominant consumerist white-wine-at-the-interval model, while also being accommodating. Can true radical practice co-exist with the relaxed ethos? It’s a far longer discussion than there’s room for here, but Goode concluded that, while it might require a shift in thinking, “the benefits outweigh the losses by a mile”.
This made me reconsider some of the more formally bold work I’d seen recently – shows such as Milo Rau’s La Reprise, with its appallingly drawn out, hypnotically distressing recreation of a violent murder – and ask if some of the things I find excitingly boundary-pushing may be alienating and exclusionary to others. I’d also be keen to know more about how access was handled during the act of provocation that concludes Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview at Lodon’s Young Vic, especially given it had a no-readmittance policy. How did the show handle the differing needs of its audience while also actively interrogating the role of the spectator?
In the end I feel if Thom can stage Samuel Beckett’s Not I and make it into a powerful piece about inclusivity while simultaneously making the whole experience relaxed, than it shouldn’t be so hard for other productions to accommodate the occasional person who needs to step outside, for whatever reason – to open doors rather than close them.
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/