An access response to ‘Twenty Theatres…’, by Pippa Stacey, June 2020

Pippa Stacey is a chronically ill writer and blogger from Yorkshire. She currently splits her time between content creation in the charity sector, writing articles and opinion pieces for various publications, curating her own blog, and authoring books. In her free time, she enjoys theatre, reading, and fundraising, and can most often be found wearing pyjamas and drinking tea. 

“I’m sure I won’t be the only one craving theatre like never before. These are difficult days for the industry, and I have no doubt those who work in the theatre environment will be missing their patrons as much as we’re missing them.

As such, Amber Massie-Bloomfield’s Twenty Theatres To See Before You Die was ultimately a comforting read. As readers, we’re warmly invited to join the writer in her adventures to iconic theatres across the UK, learning more about the historical and cultural contexts that brought them into existence.

Now, I know it’s unlikely that I’ll manage to visit all twenty of these theatres before I die: having a rather problematic chronic illness does limit my ability to travel, and I began reading this book in the knowledge that it would act as more of a stagey pacifier than a bucket list of my own. However, Massie-Bloomfield’s storytelling abilities do far more than simply paint a picture of the theatres in question. With her words, the author easily plucks you out of your current circumstances and plonks you firmly in the midst of the unfolding stories of each chapter.

From the stony coastal edges of Cornwall to a former Victorian Lavatory in Worcestershire, a stage with a floor made only of Earth in the middle of urban London to the unconventional territories around industrial estates in good old Leeds: within each of the relatively short chapters, you find yourself immersed in the culture of the location and the stories of the individuals who nurtured these performance spaces into existence.

One theme that remained consistently clear throughout this read was the author’s undeniable love and appreciation: not only for the magic of performance that occurred inside each of these unique venues, but for the venues themselves. Massie-Bloomfield’s reflections on the bespoke architecture of each location and how this intertwined with her own lived experiences really hit me… because for the first time, it caused me to reflect on my own relationships with the venues I frequent.

It began to dawn on me that so often, my personal experiences of theatre are shaped only by what takes place inside the building: the performance, the atmosphere, the front of house staff… the various factors that influence me are numerous, but never once have I stopped to reflect on the locations themselves, and how much of a role they play in reflecting the culture and values of wherever they happen to be.

With these thoughts brimming in my mind, I continued to read. It wasn’t until a few chapters later still, towards the middle of the book, where the realisation hit me in full force: the reason I wasn’t so heavily influenced by the architecture of theatre venues is because as a disabled patron, these very buildings in which the magic takes place are often a physical barrier themselves. I haven’t ever fully appreciated this element of theatres, because I’ve somewhat unconsciously been demonising them.

It’s no secret that the theatre industry has a long way to go in becoming inclusive for all. As an ambulatory wheelchair user, I know there can be any number of issues to contend with in reaching my allocated seat. If I’m using my wheelchair, the simple act of getting through the door, contending with disproportionately small ramps and lifts, and identifying accessible facilities can be overwhelming and energy-sapping. If I’m not using my wheelchair, we commence the always high-stakes game of ‘find Pippa a chair before her legs give in for the day’, with bonus points for any tutting or disapproving glances from the elderly population who couldn’t possibly fathom that this invisibly ill twenty-something year old isn’t sitting down in spite or selfishness. Essentially, the journey from A to B in the theatre environment is always the most stressful part of the experience for me; something I just want to get over with as quickly as possible. Until now, it never really occurred to me that I could be missing out on a fundamental part of the experience.

This realisation stayed with me throughout the rest of the book, and from this point, reading about others’ profound connections to the places they experience theatre actually made me acknowledge my feelings disconnect from the industry. As such, it would have been easy simply to write this book off as ‘not inclusive for people like me’ in a huff, but to do so would be ignoring another fundamental element of this read: making the case for radical, quirky, and non-conforming performance spaces.

So much of the appeal of this book, in my opinion, lies in the fact that the author has deliberately connected with and showcased diverse and unconventional settings. Rather than sticking with grand old listed buildings, we’re invited to embrace the more unique theatre environments that have come about due to people creatively problem-solving and doing their best with the tools they have available to them. And as somebody whose everyday life depends pretty heavily on these exact principles, doing what they can with what they have, this appealed to me enormously.

Yes, we still have a huge access and inclusion issue in the theatre industry. I truly believe that intentions are good, and nobody deliberately stigmatises against disabled patrons and those with additional needs, but we’re yet to see these values reflected in practice… and the accessibility of theatre environments is a prime example of this. However, I’d like to believe that Twenty Theatres To See Before You Die makes a compelling case for capturing the magic of theatre in increasingly diverse ways: experimenting with environmental factors and what they can add to a person’s creative work, and how they can contribute to a safe space that’s welcoming and inclusive for all.

As such, I hope that as the industry becomes more and more informed on how best to meet the needs of their disabled performers, it will follow that existing and future performance spaces adapt accordingly. And in the meantime, if you want to reignite your love and appreciation for the creative arts without the inconvenience of leaving the house, I’d highly recommend this book. It truly is a love letter to Britain’s theatres.”

Access is kindness, by Lisette Auton, May 2020

The Inaccessibility of the Future (or, What To Do When You Just Can’t Zoom)

There are incredible articles in the internet-verse about Zoom fatigue, about access, about connectivity for those where physical access to space was impossible, about people meeting and connecting from all over the world. I don’t intend to duplicate those here.

I want to ask the question, what if you can’t Zoom? What if you can’t do any form of group meeting online? AT ALL.

I always get a worry in my tummy when I’m about to say how I feel, that it may be dismissed or seen as combative. I’m learning to listen to my tummy at the moment, it’s nearly always right (need for biscuits, bad men, dubious work decisions) so in order to placate it, let’s begin with the following:
1) I speak only for myself, but hope that others feeling the same may find a beginning or solidarity.
2) It is not an attack on those doing wonderful work in extraordinary circumstances, it is a question about kindness and how we can be together.

The world has changed. Especially for those of us in the arts. For now? For how long? I don’t know those answers, all I know is that I don’t think I have ever felt so lonely, so missing.

I lost my Zoom-ginity and had my first time group experience on the 1st April 2020. I should have been at Northern Stage performing in Vital Xposure’s Medicine’s Monstrous Daughters on the second week of our national tour. I wasn’t. I wasn’t in my office. I was at home dealing with how to work, and is there any work, and stress, and the noise of the boiler in the little room that I’m now using to write which turns out plunges me in darkness then overexposure on a second by second cycle due to the position of the window.
It was odd.
Seeing all these people I knew in a rehearsal room now placed within their home environments. It was heart breaking that we weren’t together where we should have been. But at least there was a way to try and support each other, to laugh, to plan. Oh my goodness, I’d missed laughter and silliness. I’d missed people! Wondrous, kind, funny, joyous, creative people bouncing off each other. Laughter. I had forgotten all their laughs.
I felt weird afterwards, out of body, and put it down to how surreal it felt, went on with my day.

I had my last group Zoom/Skype/Teams/WhatsApp/Messenger/Google Meet on the 20th April 2020 and then spent the next five days in bed.
I haven’t been part of a group meeting since.

It has to be said, I feel/felt (is this past-participle time yet? Be honest, Lisette.) a failure. Again.
I mean, it’s dead easy, innit? You turn your laptop on, make sure it’s on wiffy, go to the correct website or app, sign in, put in IDs or passwords or follow links and turn on your audio and camera and then there you are, let’s begin – ta dah!
Let’s break that sentence down:
Do you have a safe, quiet space? Do you feel okay showing the inside of your home? Do you have a home?
Do you have any technology that works – smartphone, laptop, desktop? Is your device too old and glitchy to run the meeting programme? Can we hear you on your microphone? Do your children need to use it right now?
Do you have access to reliable Wi-Fi? Can you afford it? Is there enough bandwidth to share around with all of you now working and schooling from home? Does your rural area have it, because now you can’t escape to the coffee shop or office? What if your only space to access the internet was the now closed library?
Are you able to create an account with a multitude of multiple mediums for meetings? Are you able to follow the instructions to log on or get your camera working? Is this all just incomprehensible gobbledygook and you feel silly asking again so you’ll just pretend you can’t make it?
Can you follow what’s happening without BSL or captions or facial cues or audio description or when there are lags and everyone overlaps? Is this causing too much anxiety?
Are you still working so can’t be involved with any of these shenanigans because you’re either at work, eating, sleeping, begin cycle again?
Are you overwhelmed and exhausted by the sheer amount of time now spent in front of a screen?
Do you feel like the only one in the world whose eyes dart around the screen and then there’s vertigo and nausea and sickness and now it happens immediately and you can’t afford five days of horizontal dark room recovery so you’ll just retreat quietly away like you once had to do twenty years ago and it hurts and you feel lonely and like the world will move on without you and forget you and you’re missing out on so very much?

The movement online is wondrous in so many ways. Poetry slams are being attended by people from all over the world. There is no need to rely on rubbish building access information only to arrive and find out it is accessible if you don’t mind being seated away from all of your friends and you can’t have a wee all night because the loo is down a flight of stairs. There is so much I ruddy love about the opening up of the world! But….

….I think we may have forgotten that access is love and kindness. That there is not one size fits all. There never will be, and that’s okay. That access is a continual evolutionary and creative way of being. That there is no solution which will fit everybody all of the time, and we will continue to search for multiple solutions and multiple ways of being with no hierarchy until we can all be equally together. We should celebrate difference and multiple ways to connect.

We know that, don’t we? DON’T WE?

What frightens me at the moment is the way that so many of the group events happening, especially about the creative world in which I live and thrive and breathe, which are inaccessible to so many people for so many different reasons, are billed as building THE FUTURE.
We just can’t build a future for the arts whilst leaving people behind. We cannot set out into a brave new world without taking everyone with us.
We have done that too many times to too many different groups of people, some may say we still do.
We are, we should be, in this together. We are not okay until we’re all okay.

I do not have the solution. Sorry. Were you expecting that having read this far? I really wish I did. This is the beginning of a conversation, not an answer. But you’re a clever, creative lot out there, full of heart and wonder, surely we can work this out together?

The things I have learnt thus far through trial and error, tears and wonderful conversations and would like to share are:
1) Captions and/or BSL – make it happen. As standard. Cost is an issue. I know this. Cost is always an issue. Tough. We need to work out a way that this is maintained in both the virtual and real world. Baseline. Full stop. Build it in to budgets as a non-negotiable.
2) Audio description – begin with your name. It locates and grounds a conversation. Do it.
3) Don’t stop inviting people to things because they can’t attend. Don’t pretend it’s not happening. I’m down with the kids, I’ve discovered FOMO*, it hurts.
4) Record content, let those attending know that content will be recorded. It means that people can catch up in their own time if they weren’t able to attend, if attention waned, or the hamster escaped. Or if they can only attend for a short while.
5) If this is a private meeting and the content is not intended to be available to the public and purely for those that attended, open that up to those that were invited, make sure that those in attendance know that there are others that wanted to be there but couldn’t, that they will be given a copy.
6) If there is networking then, with permission, say the names and brief description of those who could not be there, keep their names and work alive. Send out a list of (non) attendees with their website or contact links.
7) If there are to be presentations, consider using pre-recorded material from those who can’t be there, or reading out their words.
8) Use snail mail, phone calls, pigeon, anything necessary to ensure those who are not there can be represented and informed and not left out, left behind.
9) Take a group photo with permission. Those who don’t want that, that’s fine, turn off your cameras. Wave. Smile. I miss a sea of faces. Send me your faces.
10) Have an idea of what’s going to happen beforehand and send it out. Ask those who can’t attend if they’d like to contribute. Make that contribution and name known, with permission.
11) Make brief minutes of what occurred (please add in the jokes and loveliness) and send out to those who couldn’t be there. Give space for those missing to contribute to this too.
12) Ask, does this meeting have to be in this format?
13) Dialogue. Perpetual, open, dialogue.

I miss you.
I miss you plural.
I feel like a missing.
I said I would never be a missing again.
I said I’d never leave anyone behind. I mess that up all the time. But I own up to it, ask, think, learn, apply, stuff up again, ask again. As long as access is done with kindness and love and willingness to learn and adapt then I do not believe that there is any space for animosity and aggression.
I do hope that you know I don’t feel angry towards you. I just feel a bit sad, and left out, and sad for all those who must be feeling the same.

We are creatives. We are used to problem solving with no money, no time, and the audience about to enter…
Could we please work this out together? Work out the future together.
Make sure no one is left behind, make sure no one is missing.

*FOMO – fear of missing out. Exactly what would have happened without this asterisk and handy explanatory note.

image description: section of Lisette’s doodle diary drawn in black pen. A doodle of a bat, an Aldi shopping bag, a rain cloud, a budget in a notebook, pots and pans freaking me out, and in the centre in large block capitals; CRASH, surrounded by a big spiky bubble. My digital radio tuned to 3, me in bed, sad face, curled up with my dog, me on a sun-lounger with a blanket curled up with my dog. In my handwriting: Back to bed today, too much screen, too much stuff, ugh, tomorrow restart Cloud watching with pup, I am human dog bed, sun turns into rain Bullet journal bliss, stationery is despatched, much better PM

For more insights check out Jo Verrent‘s blog of other brilliant tips and tools for making your online events and meets accessible on www.TheSpace.org

Great Access is When Disability seems to Disappear, by Kerami Roberts, March 2019

Great Access is When Disability seems to Disappear… Worth Taking a Risk?

To mark Disabled Access Day 2019, (Saturday 16 March) Kerami Roberts is back with more insights into how spaces and venues can make her feel more or less disabled and help those of us running events to gain a greater understanding of how to make important tweaks that help all audiences feel equally welcome.

“Despite my body needing a wheelchair to get around now, there are many times when I’m out and about in my powered chair, happily able to get things ticked off my ‘to do’ list, feeling able to go where I want to with independence. I am in control of what I do and able to do it.

More often, as a wheelchair user with a weak upper body and chronic pain, there are times when I have to admit that I need help. I say “admit” as even after 6 years of relying on the assistance of people I don’t know, it can make me stick out and feel awkward. There are unfortunately times where even with help, aids and lots of creative thinking…. I am not able to do what I need to do. I am totally disabled by what (and sometimes who) is around me. This idea that it is my circumstances that can disable someone, rather than their own body, is known as the social model of disability. To read more CLICK HERE. l feel that accepting this this model can help us understand what is fantastic access.

At the heart of ‘Disabled Access Day’ this March is confidence. Confidence to take a risk, try something new and discover ways of breaking down the everyday barriers so that as many people as possible can join in. Those who find themselves disabled take risks and are forced to be brave everyday. A simple trip to a show becomes a complex manoeuvre:
where do I park?
Will my wheelchair fit?
Will I be able to see the person signing the show?
How do I afford to pay for tickets for me and my carer because I can’t come without them?
How do I get to the toilet?
How on earth do I come to a show if I can’t sit still in a hard chair for an hour?…
It is stressful and exhausting and often the only answer is to give up and miss out. For me, as a disabled person, to be present in an audience represents effort, lots of questions, a little pain, but most of all risk and being brave.

To really invite a diverse audience into venues, theatre must also be brave. Theatre makers and venues must also take risks and must also be asking these questions and many many more. Venues must create real conversations with the audiences they want to be present. I have found when talking to venues, shops and business owners that almost all are passionate about being accessible but are shy to ask what people need for fear of offence or getting it wrong. That’s why Disabled Access Day can be a fantastic way of starting that dialogue.

My advice to venues wanting to see more disabled people in their audiences? Use empathy but not sympathy.

Think about what barriers we might face and help us knock them down but don’t feel sorry for us (we can smell it!). Make changes to spaces if you can, use as many ways to communicate as possible, give accurate information and be tolerant if we don’t act like your average audience member but we don’t need babysitting. We understand about listed buildings and small budgets and we don’t want you to ruin a beautiful piece of architecture or the creative work of a theatre maker either. You may find that we are the experts when it comes to how to adapt your venue because our life is a constant stream of compromises and creativity. So open up ways for us to talk about it before the performance. Be honest and realistic and give plain, objective descriptions. Let us decide what we can and can’t manage. Treat us like paying customers whose trade you want… because we are!

Being more accessible can be harder work but you are widening your audience and paying customer base. Where I am able to see a show my friends and family will follow. A venue where all members of the family can relax and enjoy the show will be returned to, recommended to others and will be more successful. Very much worth the risk and effort. And the worth to that family or disabled person? When access has been done well, when it truly works, disability can disappear… and I become just another person in the audience and that normality is a rare treat.

I recently experienced amazing access while on holiday in Leeds. We went to see The Magic Flute, my favourite hilarious opera by Mozart performed by Opera North at the Leeds Grand Theatre. I enjoyed that wonderful feeling of just being a human being the same as all the other people around. The venue had put real effort into every stage of access from the first phone call, to pricing, seats, refreshments and communication. I was in less pain, I could see, hear and read well and I experienced much less anxiety and stress. Not everything during that visit was ‘perfect’ for example when you use the more accessible back entrance you miss out on the beautiful entrance way and we had no where to buy a programme. But they had taken a gamble on a new system that made such a big difference that these little tweaks were just a tiny part of a fantastic evening. Slowly I dissolved into the show I was watching until I realised I felt like me again. It was fantastic, it inspired me and I will be returning and recommending.

I am so looking forward to the next season of Jabberwocky Market events, and will be working with the team to present as much information about the spaces and communication used in the shows. Together we know that everyone’s the expert of their own needs, and we do our best to enable everyone to be comfortable and able to fully participate in events.”

For more from Kerami, see:

In Conversation about ROOM FOR MORE, chaired by Kerami

Meet Kerami, new Access Consultant blog

To view the Access Guides that Kerami helps to create, have a look at the Jabberwocky Markets venues page.

In Conversation: Room for More, Oct 2018

Featuring Miriam Sherwood and Thom Andrewes from the show Rendezvous in Bratislava, and Jade Byrne, associate artist and creator of Pricks, chaired by Kerami Roberts; taking place at Polam School’s Liddiard Theatre foyer.

Hints & tips for artists & venues working with learning disabled people, October 2012

ARTS CHOICE was a pilot project in Newcastle from September 2010 to May 2011 that worked with families and carers, artists and venues and Newcastle City Council to explore models to overcome this risk; with the aim of making arts activities across the city available to all young people in the short to medium term and to help with understanding of the barriers.

See the article (right or below depending on your screen) entitled “Theatre ejects autistic boy, 12, for laughing”

This type of incident happens all too often and generally goes unheard, the fact that it now provokes report is a step in the right direction.  It takes a brave family to continually face this risk, but it’s the reality of being the family of a person with learning disabilities.

Through effective communication and experience, we gain understanding.  Through understanding we gain the ability to communicate more effectively and ultimately strike an appropriate balance to ensure that everyone is prepared, that there is a mixture of inclusive and specialist activity, that all young people can do arts and see shows that interest them; experiences which will open up their social circles, their understanding of the world and teach them skills that can entertain and engage them as well as being transferrable to help them become more able, independent and fulfilled people.

It is generally recognised that this is a right that should be open to all young people.

To make this all possible requires a small but concerted effort.  There are some important steps and everyone involved needs to understand that a positive attitude and empathetic understanding make it easy and effective.

The Arts Choice project encountered all sorts of barriers and challenges and managed to find some ways to overcome them, which this report will share.  There are many varying opinions within the worlds of arts and disabilities and this guidance can be developed, refined and improved with your input and responses.

Please send comments to cp@luxicreative.co.uk

 

HINTS AND TIPS FOR VENUES AND ARTISTS

Remember

 

Advice for Artistic Directors or Chief Executives

One member of staff in a venue can be enough to create a welcome, but we should expect more; consistency of welcome can be about allowing staff to add personal touches, which are really important to people with learning disabilities.

 

Advice for Marketing and Press departments

                 ** Some examples of good practice, include:        
                    (correct at date of first publication – August 2011)

  1. www.bagbooks.org
  2. www.unicorntheatre.com/booking/access_access_performances
  3. The Broadway Theatre Complex, Essex
  4. Glasgow Film Theatre
  5. Eden Court Theatre, Inverness
  6. Odeon cinemas, eg.    http://www.odeon.co.uk/fanatic/film_info/m100279/Autism_Friendly_Screening_Mr_Popper_s_Penguins/
  7. www.dimensions-uk.org/autismfilms/

 

Advice for Box Office and sales staff

 

Advice for Front of House and reception staff

 

Advice for Learning and Participation department

 

Advice for Artists

 

Prepared by Caroline Pearce, in consultation with Liberdade CIC, Aug 2011, as part of the Arts Choice project for Newcastle City Council

 

The original format report is attached here  OUTCOMES FROM ARTS CHOICE PROJECT_aug 2011 rev oct13 for web