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.”