One of theatre’s biggest preoccupations is accessibility; and it concerns both who gets to put shows on and who comes to see them.
The issues are complementary – unless a greater range of voices is heard on our stages, why on earth would we expect a more diverse audience to turn out to hear them?
Surveying the acres of white faces (and mostly greying or balding heads) in the West End, it is hardly surprising that theatres have traditionally deliberately catered to them. But what happens if you put on a show that doesn’t only speak to them? You might get a different sort of audience.
Arinze Kene, writer and star of Misty, which transferred to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios, recently remarked in an interview: “The fact I’m the second black British playwright to have a play in the West End really upsets me, it’s not good. It’s something that I should be proud of, but I have very mixed feelings about it. I don’t know if I want to celebrate that – instead, I want to say: ‘Can you believe this shit?’ ”
His own experience bore this out. “I didn’t really see a point in coming to see any plays in the West End. It’s because when I had, I found that not only was I never represented on stage, but I also felt that in the audience, there was no one like me. I found that a bit weird. It’s a misrepresentation of London.”
It’s also to do with the gatekeepers: who actually decides what is put on, from artistic directors and theatre owners to producers. But as the cultural map of London has been shifting, with artists of colour such as Madani Younis at the Bush (soon to become creative director at the Southbank Centre), Indhu Rubasingham at the Kiln, Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Young Vic and Nadia Fall at Theatre Royal Stratford East, that’s changing.
Misty began its life at Younis’ Bush; meanwhile, at Stratford East – always a venue that has prized the diversity of its audience – Fall’s opening production is The Village, a reworking of Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna relocated to contemporary India. As playwright Luke Barnes noted on Twitter the night he saw it: “The most telling thing was that there was a group of about 10 teenage girls who had just gone on their own accord sitting next to me gasping and whooping and saying ‘food is better than men’ all the way through it.”
And that’s a different kind of diversity again: attracting attentive, engaged younger theatregoers. Some theatres do a miserable job of this – and it’s not just about the work on the stage but the actual physical environment and things like the cafe. Daily Telegraph opera critic Rupert Christiansen recently noted on Twitter: “So much for the democratising wonders of the Royal Opera House Open Up scheme – the new daytime cafe is a total rip-off and will remain unpatronised as long as prices like that are charged for fancy food that nobody wants.”
Theatres have to cater for a wide range of constituencies – their taste buds and wallets – on and offstage. Many West End productions pay some kind of lip service to this with the provision of day seats, but only the Michael Grandage Company has regularly made it an active part of its policy to make a high proportion of its seats, throughout the house, available for £10 each.
Accessibility also means catering to theatregoers who are not fully able-bodied: for example, by providing regular captioned, British Sign Language or audio-described performances for deaf, hard of hearing or visually impaired audiences. It was recently brought to my attention that the Menier Chocolate Factory is one prominent London theatre that regularly fails to make any such provision. As an unsubsidised venue, this could be an added expense on seats it might be able to sell anyway; but is a significant potential theatregoing population to be denied access to its shows?
And how many theatres offer ‘relaxed performances’ as a matter of course? It’s heartening to see that the current Royal Court run of Poet in da Corner has four relaxed performances across its short run, in which the house lights are slightly up, latecomers are admitted and there’s the chance to leave and return to the auditorium as needed. The theatre is also offering pre-show touch tours on these dates for those who would benefit from this.
Accessibility comes in many different forms, and it’s great to see some venues taking steps to become more accessible. But they should not be the outliers: in 2018, this should be the norm.