Disability in Theatre: Part I – The Theatre-Goer

How many times have you been in the queue for the toilet at the theatre and thought “these queues are so long” or “this is really inconvenient”? Have you ever thought how it would be worse if you were physically disabled?

Or are you like me who has Pre-Show rituals where I like to get to the theatre early to easily buy my merch, find my seat and have a relaxing experience? Have you also ever thought how these would be severely affected and there would be a whole other load of considerations to think about if you were physically disabled?

These women have, and they face these struggles every day. Not just in the theatre, I’m sure, but all four of Kelly, Shona, Kerrie and Devon as theatre-goers face struggles when going for an enjoyable evening that I’m sure most of us haven’t ever considered before.

These lovely women gave up their time to chat to me about how their physical disabilities affect their theatre trips so here, without further ado, here is part one of a three-part series on disability in theatre:

Part 1 image

Part I – The Theatre-Goer

In terms of planning theatre trips for a start, Devon (who has fibromyalgia, arthritis and joint hypermobility disorder as well as debilitating migraines and walks with a crutch) always has to plan far in advance when booking theatre trips. She says she needs “a seat with leg room close to the front of the stalls”, which I’m sure are not easy to come by. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve booked last minute tickets to the theatre, and this is something that people with physical disabilities and walking aids are simply unable to do.

Kerrie has similar experiences whereby she has to plan far in advance because of the lack of choice in seating. In her wheelchair, Kerrie (who suffers from Cerebral Palsy) cannot transfer into a “normal” seat and most theatres only have a handful of spaces where she can sit. This is, fortunately, something I have never had to consider, which is one of the reasons that led me to writing about this blog post. While I wouldn’t say I am ignorant, nor am I implying that the general public is either, things like this I have simply never had to think about before. I am trying, therefore, to open my eyes to wider social and political aspects of theatre and its fans.

Kerrie
Interviewee Kerrie

It is also definitely not only me who hasn’t thought about the implications on theatre for disabled people, but is a frequent occurrence in theatres themselves, say the interviewees. All four of Kelly, Shona, Kerrie and Devon have not been able to, or chosen not to, attend a show due to its lack of access.

Devon says that theatres often have too many steps which she can’t get up with her crutch or shows only sell seats for disabled people at the back of the stalls where she often wouldn’t be able to see. Kerrie has explained that she simply can’t see any shows at the Ambassador’s Theatre as the theatre itself is simply not accessible, while Shona has said that trying to see Chicago at the Phoenix Theatre is simply a waste of time because in the theatre’s access seats, over 50% of the performance would be missed due to restrictive seating.

Shona has a condition called Marfan Syndrome and therefore has to use a powerchair which weighs 205kg. This has meant that she has been unable to see Wicked at the Apollo Victoria because its lift has a maximum weight of 200kg.

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Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre

Finally, Kelly has often made the active choice not to attend performances because she worries that she would be too annoying or difficult.

Kelly (who has a degenerative condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome) has good reason to worry that she will be annoying or difficult as she has had bad experiences at the theatre with her disability. She explains how she struggled to get to her seat as it meant going up “stairs, stairs and then some more stairs…and the theatre did not have an elevator.” With Kelly’s Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, she is still mobile but has “an impaired mobility” and simply cannot climb steep stairs. Kelly told me that “after an uncomfortable conversation with an elderly usher who seemed confused as to our ask, as I don’t look disabled – the theatre floor manager overwrote our tickets”, so while the issue was resolved, Kelly described the conversation as “uncomfortable”. Devon, similarly, described herself as feeling “like a burden”, which would further explain why Kelly has previously decided herself not to book tickets – to save feeling this way.

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Stairs at The Cambridge Theatre London

As I have highlighted so far, I wonder how many of us have considered these things when booking tickets/arriving for the show. Sure, I’ve definitely booked restricted view tickets before to get the cheapest price and wondered just how restricted they would be, whether I’d be able to see or not, but never have I had to worry about whether I’d see the performance due to not being able to get into the venue! My bad experiences in the theatre have previously come from shows I simply haven’t enjoyed, actors I wasn’t keen on, a tall person sitting in front of me, lack of leg-room or overpriced programmes! Attending the theatre with physical disabilities, however, can give fate a much higher chance of giving you a bad experience.

Devon told me of an immersive show for The Great Gatsby that she attended once. She says:

“I enquired with their stage manager and producer if it would be okay to attend with mobility requirements and they said it would be fine. Sadly it wasn’t. I was left to sit on a chair behind other people who were standing and I missed most of the show. I ended up crying. The theatre goers are to blame but I was assured by the stage manager that I would be able to see and that she’d check on me during the show, this didn’t happen. I’d have rather been told not to come.”

When I received this interview back from Devon I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get quite upset about the situation. Not only did my heart ache for Devon, who in no way should have been treated like that, it also made me think of how potentially unaware I have been in the past to people in Devon’s shoes.

Similar bad experiences have been noted by Shona, for example when she attended the Theatre Royal Haymarket to see Heathers. She told me that the staff member who was helping her rushed her to her seat so quickly that she didn’t get the chance to ask about merchandise and it felt like she had “other places to be”. “They also didn’t come and open the doors to access the area where the disabled toilet is during the interval”, she says, “and didn’t open the doors at the end of the show for me to exit the theatre”.

Shona
Interviewee Shona

As I have said in a previous blog post and earlier in this post, I love to arrive at the theatre early to make sure I have enough time to browse all the merchandise to my heart’s content, enjoy and soak up the atmosphere and really get excited for the show. Had I been rushed to my seat without a second’s thought I’d have been heartbroken.

It is not all doom and gloom, though, as the women have detailed some really good experiences between them.

Shona has explained how front of house staff members at the Dominion Theatre were not only helpful and accommodating, but also creative in the ways in which Shona could have the best experience possible. As Shona has the possibility to move from her powerchair, team members suggested that to use the lift with its maximum weight of 300kg, that she and her chair be moved separately to allow her the access to sit in her desired seats still!

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Bat Out of Hell at the Dominion Theatre

Kerrie and Devon both had similar responses in what makes a great theatre experience for physically disabled people is the helpfulness and friendliness of the staff. “The staff at The Palace Theatre and Aldwych are among my favourites in the West End”, says Kerrie. “They’re always so pleased to see me, and really can’t do enough to make you feel comfortable and welcome”. Devon, similarly, says that “The Prince of Wales is definitely the most active in ensuring that disabled people like myself are comfortable and happy. On visiting they have a specific person assigned to be a helper to a disabled person”. Both Devon and Kerrie agree here that in order to make a good theatre experience it is often the staff that can make everything run as smoothly as possible.

A general consensus between the interviewees is that all it usually takes is an extra “we are here to help” or “are you okay?” to improve theatre experiences.

Further agreement from the women are that reception from others does very but is generally positive. Staff in theatres are often friendly and helpful, though an interesting comment from Kelly was that staff in more modern theatres with better access are generally more helpful than those in more old-fashioned theatres with less access. The response from other theatre-goers varies more, with Devon saying that some are helpful while others treat her like she is not a human, but Kerrie saying that theatre-goers are generally kind and patient.

A heart-warming example of reception from others was one from Devon, who explained that while she can’t stand at the end of shows, she still loves to show her appreciation so cheers loudly, especially if sat near the front. She has been acknowledged by cast members in the finale bows for this especially loud cheering and one performer even leant off the stage to shake her hand! I loved this.

In order to improve the experience for physically disabled people, it is disabled people who need to be spoken to so they “can offer [our] insight and the staff can be better educated”, says Kerrie. One thing that Devon has pointed out that she appreciates is the access rates for disabled seats. Both Shona and Kerrie have said that they often need a carer to assist them when going to the theatre and Devon has said that “it’s quite expensive being disabled” so “the addition of access rates is really helpful and kind”. Access rates can come in the form of Equity Tickets, which is where disabled people can get discounts for many productions (depending on the show), or through the HYNT, which is a national access scheme for theatres and arts venues in Wales for disabled people to have increased access.

In spite of these great schemes, all of the interviewees have said that the view from “disabled” seats are often not good, so one suggestion made by Devon to improve experiences for disabled people is to perhaps “one or two tickets could be reserved on front row for disabled people”.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t always need insight and instead, theatres are making their own headway in improving access. Kerrie told me about the planning permission being granted for the second stage of renovations to the Shaftesbury Theatre, which will include step-free access to the stalls for the first time in the venue’s 106-year history which is great.

However, this isn’t always the case. Shona has explained that for physical access, most theatres cannot change anything for her if the access isn’t appropriate because of the building’s listed status – access cannot change until the status does.

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There are a few overarching problems in terms of looking at disability in theatre and one of which is “a lack of awareness and knowledge”, says Kerrie. Shona agrees by saying that “people just don’t give enough thought to disabled theatre-goers and access in theatres if it’s not an issue that affects them personally, so change is slow”. What I am hoping to achieve with this series is, hopefully, an increase in both awareness and knowledge by sharing some personal stories and experiences.

One aspect of knowledge that Kerrie also says needs raising is how disability is different for everyone and affects everyone differently. “For example,”, she says “my kind for Cerebral Palsy leaves me confined to my wheelchair, and therefore I am limited as to where I can sit in the theatre, but others with the same condition are able to transfer into their seats or walk short distances”. In some ways, I think this level of knowledge will never ultimately change because it is a kind of preconception that people without disability think that all those impacted by disability are impacted in the same way.

This is why this series has come about – I am hoping to raise some awareness and knowledge of the struggles that disabled people in the theatre world face, how we can potentially better help by even being more aware of the difficulties of, what many of us would call, simply seeing a show.

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Kelly pointed out something that really stuck with me too, which was the fact that disability is not necessarily something that people are born with but is something that happens to people and can indeed happen to any and all of us, so we should all be more aware of the struggles that many others face. According to a survey conducted in 2016/17 by Family Resources, 8 per cent of children, 19 per cent of working adults and 45 per cent of pensioners are physically disabled. This makes up a significantly large portion of society and it is likely that a large number of us will encounter physical disabilities in our lives. Whether this be down to a broken leg leaving us on crutches for a certain number of weeks, difficulties walking in later life or a more serious and permanent disability, physical disabilities are not rare, nor are they to be shunned.

Of course, I recognise that this blog post mainly addresses physical disabilities that can often be seen. One issue raised by Kelly is that she often does not “look” disabled. As she does not always need her mobility aids, gaining help from ushers can be tricky when she doesn’t “look” disabled. In a conference I went to at the Wales Millennium Centre discussing access and accessibility (which I will discuss more in part III of this series), this was a big issue raised by multiple people.

I, therefore, am aware that there are many more issues of disability in theatre than physical, including autism, being visually impaired or having hearing problems. I wanted to address that I am aware of this, and it will be discussed further later.

As fellow theatre-goers, and potentially theatre-workers who may be reading this blog, I encourage you to be aware of other disabled theatre-goers on your future visits.

I would like to thank Kelly, Devon, Kerrie and Shona for letting me interview them for this part in this three-part series. Keep your eyes peeled for parts 2 and 3!

If you want to read more on disability in theatre, my interviewees Shona, Kelly and Kerrie have their own blogs, definitely check them out!

Shona Louise Blog – http://www.shonalouise.com/

Kerrie Blog – https://wheeliestagey.wordpress.com/

Kelly Blog – https://kellyhills.com/blog

f you’re already interested in disability in theatre then you’ve also probably heard of Life of Pippa blog too. Pippa is a chronically ill lifestyle blogger, musical theatre and book reviewer. Check out her blog and Instagram!

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