In recent years, I have gone from walking through the stage door as a performer to sitting in the audience as a patron instead. Becoming chronically ill as a young adult has posed many new challenges to my way of life, made all the more difficult by the fact that often my illness is invisible.
On a day when I’m not using mobility aids, there is nothing that distinguishes me from other theatregoers heading off to catch the evening’s performance. In some ways, that can be a blessing: it makes a welcome change from my identity being defined by disability. However, many non-disabled people simply don’t realise how challenging the theatre environment can be when your impairment is less easily seen.
Walking about the auditorium, you wouldn’t see my muscles cramping up with the exertion of keeping me upright. Queuing for a programme, you wouldn’t know my brain felt like it was caving as vertigo kicked in. You wouldn’t realise the complex decision-making going on in my head as I worked out whether I could continue standing and queuing or whether it was time to bail. You’d be blissfully unaware of what it’s like to genuinely consider whether you’re well enough to actually see the show before it’s even started.
And of course, we mustn’t forget every invisibly ill person’s favourite social encounter in the theatre environment: daring to use the accessible toilet. Theatregoers will be no stranger to the stampede for the toilets as the interval commences, each patron with eyes only for making it to the front of the snaking queues. Naturally, this option just isn’t viable for the vertically-challenged like me, but chancing the disabled facilities comes with its own challenges. No matter how secure and justified you feel in your choices, you can always count on the tutting and passive-aggressive looks of pensioners to make you feel low.
Hearing about my experiences, you could argue that not all theatregoers are like this: many would go out of their way to assist you, if only they knew. So, how do we make the invisible visible in the theatre industry?
The Sunflower Lanyard scheme has been adopted by many organisations, and it’s been wonderful to see it becoming embraced by various ATG venues across the UK too. The lanyards can be picked up and worn by patrons, covertly symbolising that they may benefit from some additional assistance. This could then facilitate extra care from front of house staff and patrons alike, allowing wearers to more comfortably enjoy their theatre experience.
It’s important to remember that not everybody with an invisible illness will necessarily want to disclose their needs in this way, and so it’s always important to practise kindness and inclusivity: you never know who might need it. However, for those engaged with the scheme, the Sunflower Lanyards may be a ground-breaking method of ensuring the theatre industry becomes as accommodating as possible for those whose needs aren’t immediately visible.