Accessibility is gaining momentum in the theatre world. More performing arts companies and venues are addressing the need for inclusive programming and improved facilities to make theatre available to more communities. Some theatres have adapted their interiors to promote mobility and provided access services in the form of relay rooms or infrared sound and loop systems. Others have focused on diversifying their listings with captioned or signed performances scheduled in. It’s clear accessibility is becoming more of a priority; reflected in the Theatre Improvement Scheme by the Theatre Trust declaring it to be the new theme for 2018. The Government have also appointed its first Disability Sector Champion for Arts and Culture, Andrew Miller. He states that “access to theatres for disabled audiences and employees is vital to ensure the industry acts inclusively and fully reflects its audience”.
But despite many efforts by organisations and venues, there is still a fair way to go. One of the ongoing issues facing theatres surrounds the historical heritage of the buildings, which were the creations of Victorian or Edwardian architects and therefore require carefully-considered modifications to balance accessibility with preservation. Euan’s Guide states that many historic buildings have overcome barriers by using creative ways to enhance accessibility, however it is not always possible for them to be ‘fully accessible’. It does recommend several tips, such as improving the entrance, training staff to use facilities such as wheelchair ramps and hearing loops, and having designated routes for people with disabilities to enhance circulation.
Similarly, companies have arguably become more astute and creative in gearing performances towards various disabilities, with audio-descriptions, captioning and relaxed viewings. However these are still not available at all times. In an exploratory study that monitored accessibility of theatres in 2017, VocalEyes claimed that a mere 17% of theatres show relaxed performances, 21% show captioned performances, 25% show British Sign Language (BSL) shows, and 25% programme audio descriptive shows informed by their websites. According to Disabled Living Foundation, approximately one fifth of the population are disabled, which undeniably illustrates the need to integrate accessibility more in regular programming.
The accessibility of a venue doesn’t just entail its physical state or programming. The theatre experience begins with researching plays and booking tickets, which is often done online nowadays. Many charities and organisations now recognise the need for a theatre’s website to be more accomodating for people with disabilities. VocalEyes’ report on Museum Accessibility in 2016 highlighted the significance of pre-visit information, where disabled people would be much more likely to explore this section of a website than others and use this as a platform to make decisions on whether to visit the venue or not. If a website failed to appropriately include vital access information, the report suggested that disabled people may feel excluded from their target audience and consequently less likely to go. Euan’s Guide accordingly highlight a theatre’s website as an integral part of its overarching accessibility.
Hannah Gagen from the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) describes the significance of aspects related to pre-show access: “We know the journey to the theatre begins before an audience member even enters the theatre, so we understand the importance of things like universal design, a well-planned website,choice and of course the social model of disability; all of which we cover in our newly introduced D/deaf and Disabled Access training courses. Our members are doing excellent work in this area - yet we recognise there are still barriers and so UK Theatre made a commitment in our 2017-21 Business Plan to support the sector in developing best practice in removing barriers for D/deaf and disabled people to access theatre – in terms of both audiences and the workforce.”
In addition, for the last 15 years SOLT have been producing the Access London Theatre Guide and e-newsletter, constantly exploring ways to increase engagement and support members of the society in offering more assisted performances. SOLT’s own website for Official London Theatre was recently upgraded to enhance accessibility, re-launched with full integrated access listings and access information.
Jacob Adams of Attitude is Everything stated that “there is a huge demand for all ticketed industries to adopt a uniform approach to access booking, so that people can always know what to expect.” Adams’ organisation primarily works with live music venues and improving the experiences of deaf and disabled people, but he notes there is a large degree of overlap between the two industries. In their State of Access Report 2018, they found that 82% of respondents experienced problems booking access and over 70% had been put off or felt discriminated against when trying to book. He regards the theatre industry as being ahead of live music in some respects when it comes to accessibility, but there are still avenues for both to explore. He posits that accessibility will grow alongside technological innovation, drawing on the example of captioned glasses that will remove restrictions related to sparse programming of captioned performances; the glasses will allow audiences who are hard of hearing to access any show.
In the wait for technology to catch up, Adams believes there are things venues can do to leverage their stance on accessibility. “A whole venue approach is integral. Marketing (including website information) should advertise accessible performances and facilities as much as they would family-friendly shows (for example). If accessibility is viewed as just a side project with limited online information, people can’t find out about them and so the venue/company may as well as not do it.” Moreover, he states that a whole venue approach extends beyond marketing to all other policies, shifting attitudes and thinking of accessibility so that everyone working in the facility has the correct tools, resources and support to welcome all customers at any given time.
Paul Robinson, the Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre believes venues should be continually striving to improve accessibility via ongoing learning: “As public venues we never stop learning about accessibility and it's important that we maintain an open dialogue with existing and new potential audiences so we can understand what barriers people face in accessing our work. This requires us to think as broadly as possible about accessibility and to recognise the challenges our diverse community may experience. So our access initiatives are constantly evolving and it's important that we innovate to overcome physical, as well as economic and social barriers”
A study on theatre accessibility by VocalEyes provided holistic scores of theatres across the UK based upon account programming, and onsite and online facilities. It divided theatres and scores by region, and found that theatres in northern England scored an average of 1.8 out of 4, combining scores from Yorkshire, the North East and the North West. With a score falling below 50%, there is certainly still calls for improvement, but the north does appear to provide some accessible theatres.
Take a look at our pick of some of the theatres believed to be among the most accessible in the north:
A Victorian theatre positioned in Oldham in Greater Manchester, the Coliseum has long been at the heart of local theatre-goers. It showcases a range of genres when it comes to performances including a reputed annual pantomime beloved by families each year. When it comes to accessibility, the Coliseum declare that they are committed to being an accessible venue to all visitors. The website illustrates its objective by providing clear information on many areas related to the theatre visit - from making bookings to accessible transport. Visitors can find an Infrared Assisted Listening System as well as a Loop System, where the use of both are clearly explained on the site and there are many seats available with these options. While the current building presents some challenges due to its age, the team are working alongside Oldham Council to produce a new theatre close by that has accessibility at the core of its planning.
Kevin Shaw, Chief Executive & Artistic Director of Oldham Coliseum Theatre, commented “The Coliseum provides excellent quality theatre and opportunities to participate in the performing arts for all people from Oldham. Inclusivity and care for our audiences is a priority across the entire company, and alongside our access performances, the Coliseum also provides Dementia Friendly Workshops. We were thrilled to be amongst the first national cultural organisations to adopt the Family Arts Campaign’s new Age Friendly Standards in summer 2017, providing specific guidance on welcoming older visitors who may have complex needs. The theatre is also a Disability Confident Committed organisation, and we’re working towards being accredited as a Disability Confident Employer, ensuring that disabled people and those with long term health conditions have the opportunities to fulfil their potential and realise their aspirations.”
The Empire is one of Merseyside’s dominant places to see the best variety shows, whether its operas or top touring musicals, or pop concerts by some of the biggest chart-topping artists. It was also one of the leading venues in the celebration of Liverpool as the designated European City of Culture. Despite the Empire’s decadence, having opened in 1925, it has been fully refitted to ensure its visitors can access areas comfortably. All of the internal theatre spaces can be reached by those with limited mobility, apart from the Rear Circle which has lift access and steps. The auditorium has 16 wheelchair spaces and disabled toilets on each level. In addition performances every season. Visitors can obtain useful resources to help plan for their trip, with the Empire’s Visual Story and Audio Story designed to showcase the theatre’s surroundings and familiarise customers before-hand.
With a stunning facade and exquisite design of renowned theatre architect, Frank Matcham, the Everyman Theatre is one of Liverpool’s top theatres. It formerly stood as Hope Hall, enduring a long history of different identities but reopening in 2014 as a theatre and the perfect embodiment of harmony between accessible and modern features with historic charm and ambience. Rated highly on Euan’s Guide, the Everyman Theatre offers a range of different performances. Sales Manager, Brandon Douglas notes the importance of modifying programming to ensure everyone can enjoy the theatre: “The feedback we’re getting on relaxed performances is brilliant, especially from parents of children who are on the autistic spectrum, who tell us how happy they are that they can enjoy a performance together as a family, leaving no one behind, and avoid the judgement that comes with the constraints of standard theatre etiquette.”
Its website has a page supporting each of these services, so visitors are able to gain plenty of information beforehand, and offers videos for its services and facilities to showcase its dedication to being an ‘Everyman for everyone’ theatre. “It’s important to us that we continue to try and make all aspects of our audience journey, from marketing materials, booking paths, building accessibility, supported performances and the representation on our stage, as accessible as possible.” claims Douglas. The building and auditorium are rather flat, with wheelchair access on both tiers and lift access to all floors. It is also fairly easy to access, with an off-street entrance and friendly staff on hand to assist visitors.
Situated just outside of Manchester city centre, the Lowry is a multipurpose venue named after the painter L.S. Lowry. It is famed for its spectacular waterside location and outstanding theatre productions, including many West End musicals, top touring comedy shows, opera and ballet, and concerts from well-known musical artists. The Lowry secured a silver award by Attitude is Everything for their commitment to ensuring access for all its visitors.
Trevor Evers from the Lowry describes how its website is one of the ways the venue demonstrates it strive to be accessible: "Our website outlines the range of facilities and services we offer to meet visitors’ requirements, and offers practical information and guidance. A major feature of the site is BrowseAloud – a software that provides speech, reading and translation support, facilitating access and participation for those people who need support reading print, dyslexia, low literacy, mild visual impairments and those with English as a second language. The website also has a video guided tour via Access Social which allows people to explore the building ahead of their visit.”
Visitors can also find detailed information about the building, from navigation to entrance to ground surface, ensuring they are well-equipped with the necessary knowledge before arrival.
Taking on the identity of the northern city at the core of the Industrial Revolution, the Royal Exchange is a capsule located in the old Cotton Exchange. It promotes productions for theatre in-the-round, meaning that spectators are always close to the stage and can enjoy a different kind of performance than in traditional theatre layouts. The Royal Exchange aims to cater to all visitors’ needs. Despite being a listed building, the theatre is largely accessible, with an alternative street entrance boasting a glass lift to take visitors to the theatre area. Both the theatre and studio offer wheelchair access, and there are even spare wheelchairs on site for those that need them. Its programme includes a range of performances that promote accessibility, alongside Disabled Directors Workshops.
Nestled in the quaint and romantic Keswick area in the Lake District, the Theatre By The Lake is known for its stunning location and in-house productions. From family shows to festivals, visitors can expect a wide range of shows in its programme, as well as a new material and fresh adaptations. The venue’s website provides downloadable access maps of the premises, which highlights important information such as the number of steps to each row and which areas of flat, facilitating any prior decision-making about accessing the building. Inside, the building features an induction loop and hearing enhancement devices. The Theatre By The Lake also provide familiarisation visits, which are designed to help reduce any stress or anxieties about visiting the venue.
The ARC is a multipurpose venue that contains a cinema, theatres, gallery spaces, meeting rooms and more. As a centre for the arts, many different disciplines form its well-rounded programme, including comedy, spoken word, dance, exhibitions, film screenings and dramatic performances. It regularly collaborates with Durham University to increase the areas influx of students, as well as being the site for external events such as BBC’s Question Time and Dance Fuzion.
Stockton’s creative complex is designed towards the promotion of accessibility and at the heart of their new Cultural Shift programme. Chief Executive Annabel Turpin discusses how accessibility is at the core of their workforce and policies: “ARC has worked in partnership with a disabled-led theatre company, Little Cog, not just to inform our access policies, but to consider disability equality across all aspects of our organisation. Key to making positive change has been about giving staff the confidence to ask questions, by providing disability equality training for everyone working at ARC.”
Their range of shows include audio-described screenings and BSL and relaxed performances, as well as enhanced via hearing loops. The ARC’s website signifies which seats optimise this facility. Additionally, guests can fill in forms about their seating requirements that are then stored on the ARC’s system so as to not require filling one in each time. The three performance spaces offer wheelchair accessibility and each level can be reached via lifts.
Boasting a reputation for creating successful new productions, the Live Theatre has been the breeding ground for award-winning plays that went on to transfer to the West End. It is situated in Newcastle’s quirky and vibrant Quayside, delivering world-class theatre, alongside comedy, live music and other artistic performances to the community. Live Theatre declare to take accessibility seriously, and their detailed website provides plenty of information, contact numbers and instructions. Live Theatre is one of few that draws attention to the capabilities of its staff, noting that they are trained in disability and some are able to command BSL. It claims to be a ‘fully’ accessible theatre, with level access and adapted toilets across its three floors.
Sheffield Theatres comprises the largest theatre complex outside of the West End, built of The Crucible, the Lyceum and the Studio. It combines fresh and never-before-seen plays alongside revivals and unique adaptations of classics, while inviting many of the top touring musicals from London’s theatre playground to Sheffield. In 2015, Sheffield Theatres were awarded the title of the ‘Most Welcoming Theatre (Yorkshire and Humberside)’ at the annual UK Theatre Awards. This is referred to in their stance towards accessibility, aiming to ensure all visitors feel welcome and are able to enjoy theatre there. The organisation seek to also be dementia-friendly, which is reflected in their programming. The building is equipped with loop systems in the box office and infrared in the auditoria. Information is available via audio versions, Braille and large print.
Hull Truck aim to be a hub for diversity and inspiration, hoping to transform and nurture local talent with its resources while welcoming all members of community with its programming. It began as a theatre company creating children’s shows in 1971, growing to become a respected theatre venue that saw record numbers of audiences alongside the positioning of Hull as a UK City of Culture in 2017. In an effort to welcome diverse communities, Hull Truck Theatre is also intended to be fully inclusive and accessible. Their website page on accessibility is divided into categories related to different needs, the physicality of the building and a place to provide feedback to promote improvement. The theatre offers level access with a lift between the floors, which features voice commentary. Above all, Hull Truck is part of the Safe Place Scheme to ensure those with learning disabilities, those with dementia or those who are vulnerable have a safe place to go.
“Hull Truck Theatre prides itself on being a fully accessible venue, offering a range of assisted performances throughout the year, including audio described and captioned. In the last year we have introduced the facility for access users to be able to book wheelchair spaces, essential companion seats and best view caption seats online and we continue to encourage dialogue between the theatre and access users so that we can provide the best service possible.” states Danielle McLoughlin, Box Office Sales Manager at Hull Truck.
An intimate theatre in-the-round or a traditional end-on theatre layout, Stephen Joseph Theatre is a popular venue in Scarborough thanks to its variety and no-frills approach to performances. The attractive art deco building is home to Olivier and Tony Award-winning playwright, Alan Aykbourn. Stephen Joseph Theatre has come a long way in opening up its theatre to wider audiences, including adapting its facilities and programming. The team work closely with Dementia Action Alliance to further allow theatre access to those with dementia, alongside many other accessible performances of different genres of the arts.
In efforts to ensure their theatre reaches audiences across the social and economic spectrum, the team have created several initiatives to enhance accessibility and promote open dialogue between venue and audience. “Our recent crèche pilot for parents who face childcare issues is one such example of ‘thinking outside the box’ - there are many ways in which we can make our buildings and work more accessible and this was an initiative that made it more possible for single parents to attend the theatre. It’s hugely important to us to know that as many of our performances and as many areas of our listed 1930s building as possible are accessible to the widest range of people. We work hard every day to try and ensure this and are always open to suggestions and comments from our audience members and our colleagues.” Paul Robinson, Artistic Director
The Playhouse was born out of the local Art Council’s desire to provide a home for contemporary theatre in Leeds. It gained reputation for producing its own first-class shows, placing the theatre at the heart of Leeds’ regeneration scheme and outpour of homegrown talent and creativity. The venue prides itself in having a strong focus on accessibility. Beyond its physical facilities, the Playhouse website is leading the way with its online tools to enhance access. Turning accessibility ‘on’, a menu appears at the top which features a range of tools such as change language, MP3 downloads, screen masking, adjusting font type or size, reciting information, and so on. They are also part of the Ramps on the Moon Consortium, which advocates deaf and disabled actors being cast in major productions.
Leeds Playhouse Agent for Change John R. Wilkinson reflects on the stance of the venue: “Leeds Playhouse plays a key role in creating opportunities for communal celebration, interrogation and reflection. We are passionate about bringing artists and participants together to affirm our humanity. This year, the Playhouse undergoes a major Capital Redevelopment which will vastly improve accessibility in and around the venue for audiences and artists alike. As a founding member of the Ramps on the Moon consortium, we are committed to increasing representation of D/deaf and Disabled people on our stages, focusing our work through a D/deaf and Disabled lens and giving D/deaf and Disabled artists opportunities to develop great art and sustainable careers.”
The Guardian described the Unity Theatre as the ‘most ambitious’ in Liverpool, thanks to its mission to disseminate and encourage innovation, creativity, diversity and participation in the area. The Unity first opened in the 30’s and is reputed for offering a platform for local theatre companies, while receiving a range of touring productions too. Following recent redevelopments, the Unity is much more accessible with a street entrance and a lift operating between Unity One and Unity Two.
Situated close to Manchester’s two universities, Contact is truly a theatre for young people. Not just in its audience, young people are also at the forefront of decision-making and programming, ensuring the theatre reaches its target demographic. While Contact aims to be a transformative agent for youths, it also provides a well-rounded theatre experience for all ages. Whether it’s pantos for the little ones or emerging stand up comedians, there’s something for everyone to enjoy at this visionary independent theatre.
Its website provides useful information on accessibility, clarified by dividing it into physical space, events and parking. Contact also claims to offer assistance when buying at their box office, with a member of staff trained in BSL on hand.
Oscar Lister from the Contact team reflected on how the theatre is integrating accessibility into their plans as they undergo refurbishment: “As our building on Oxford Road undergoes its capital transformation we are putting new initiatives into action to better enable us to provide opportunities and entertainment that meet the needs of all of our diverse audiences. Increasing accessibility in the widest sense is one of the four key aims of the building improvements being undertaken. We have consulted with Manchester Disabled People’s Access Group, Manchester People First and Graeae Theatre Company throughout the design and development of the project to make the building work better for people with a wide range of disabilities and difficulties. In general we are improving how people can move and find their way around the building; making the existing spaces more accessible and usable and adding new accessible spaces and facilities.”
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