Guide to accessible theatres in the North of England

Accessible theatres in the north
Aminah Barnes

Aminah Barnes

Accessibility is gaining momentum in the theatre world, including the northern region of England. 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.

The Theatre Improvement Scheme by the Theatre Trust declare accessibility is 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”. It’s clear accessibility is becoming more of a priority, but there’s still a fair way to go.

The barriers to accessibility in theatre

Despite many efforts by organisations and venues, barriers to accessibility still exist. 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.  But 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 importance of online accessibility

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 accommodating 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.”

Hannah Gagen, SOLT

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, not only for a theatre’s website but also to enhance the show experience. Adams draws 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.

Captioned glasses

What can venues do to enhance accessibility?

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.”

Jacob Adams, Attitude is Everything

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.

The approach should also entail ongoing learning. Venues should constantly strive to be accessible without assuming the mission is over.

“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”

Paul Robinson, Artistic Director at Stephen Joseph Theatre

How are theatres in the north of England doing?

Take a look at our pick of some of the theatres believed to be among the most accessible in the north…

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 the north of England scored an average of 1.8 out of 4 when it came to whether they were deemed accessible, 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.


List of accessible theatres in the north of England

Coliseum Theatre, Oldham

Coliseum Theatre, Oldham

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 declares 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 around the north. 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 and adding the the list of accessible theatres in the north.

“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.”

Kevin Shaw, Chief Executive & Artistic Director
  • Infrared Assisted Listening System
  • Loop system
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Audio Described performances
  • Dementia Friendly performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Relay screen in additional room
  • Large print brochure
  • Audio CD brochure
  • Touch Tour

Empire Theatre, Liverpool

Liverpool Empire Theatre

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 accessible north theatre’s surroundings and familiarise customers before-hand.

  • Infrared Loop System
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Audio Described performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Touch Tour
  • Visual/Audio theatre information

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool

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 of the north with 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.

“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.”

Brendan Douglas, Sales Manager

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.”

Brandon Douglas, Sales Manager

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.

  • Infrared Assisted Listening System
  • Loop system
  • Audio Described performances
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Touch tour
  • Large print brochure
  • Audio CD brochure

The Lowry, Salford

The Lowry

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, making it one of the most accessible theatres in the north.

“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.”

Trevor Evers, The Lowry

Visitors can also find details about the building, from navigation to entrance to ground surface, ensuring they have the necessary knowledge before arrival.

  • Infrared Assisted Listening System
  • Loop system
  • Audio Described performances
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Dementia-friendly performances
  • Baby-friendly performances
  • Touch tour
  • Large print brochure
  • Audio CD brochure

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester

Taking on the identity of Manchester being 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. They can enjoy a different kind of performance than in traditional theatre layouts.

The Royal Exchange aims to cater to all visitors’ needs and therefore to be among the north’s accessible theatres. Despite being a listed building, the theatre is largely accessible. It boasts an alternative street entrance boasting a glass lift to take visitors to the theatre area. Both the theatre and studio offer wheelchair access, complete with spare wheelchairs for those that need them. Its programme includes a range of performances that promote accessibility, alongside Disabled Directors Workshops.

  • Infrared System
  • Audio Described performances
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Touch tour
  • Large print brochure
  • Audio CD brochure

Theatre By The Lake, Keswick

Theatre By The Lake, Keswich - interior

Nestled in the quaint and romantic Keswick, Lake District, the Theatre By The Lake is known for its stunning location. From family shows to festivals, visitors can expect a broad programme, as well as new material and fresh adaptations.

The venue’s website provides downloadable access maps of the premises. These highlight important information like number of steps to each row and which areas of flat. This helps visitors make informed decisions . about accessing the building. Inside, the venue features an induction loop and hearing enhancement devices. The Theatre By The Lake also provides familiarisation visits to be more accessible, designed to help reduce any anxieties about visiting the venue in the north.

  • Induction Loop
  • Audio Described performances
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Touch tour
  • Large print brochure
  • Audio CD brochure

ARC, Stockton

The Arc, Stockton

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 area’s influx of students. It’s also 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.

“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 giving staff the confidence to ask questions. This was by providing disability equality training for everyone working at ARC.”

Annabel Turpin, Chief Executive

A leading venue in the north, they have a range of accessible theatre shows.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. These can then be used in the future, rather than filling one in each time. The three performance spaces offer wheelchair accessibility and each level can be reached via lifts.

  • Loop system
  • Audio Described performances
  • BSL performances
  • Captioned performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Large print brochure

Live Theatre, Newcastle

Live Theatre, Newcastle

Boasting a reputation for creating successful new productions, Live Theatre has been the breeding ground for award-winning plays that transfer to the West End. It is situated in Newcastle’s quirky and vibrant Quayside, delivering world-class theatre, comedy, live music and more 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. It notes they are trained in disability and some can command BSL. It claims to be a ‘fully’ accessible theatre of the north, with level access and adapted toilets across three floors.

  • Infrared Seinheiser System
  • Loop system
  • Audio Described performances
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Touch tour
  • Large print brochure
  • Audio CD brochure
  • Braille brochure

Sheffield Theatres

Sheffield Theatres - Accessible theatres in the north

The accessible Sheffield Theatres comprises the largest theatre complex in the north outside of the West End. It is built of The Crucible, the Lyceum and the Studio. Together, they combine fresh and never-before-seen plays alongside revivals and unique adaptations of classics. They also invite 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.

  • Infrared System
  • Loop system
  • Audio Described performances
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Dementia-friendly performances
  • Touch tour
  • Large print brochure
  • Audio CD brochure
  • Braille brochure

Hull Truck Theatre

Hull Truck Theatre

Hull Truck aims to be a hub for diversity and inspiration. It hopes 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 from the north and beyond, Hull Truck Theatre intends to be fully inclusive and accessible. Their web page on accessibility is divided into categories related to different needs. These include 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. Additionally, they are part of the Safe Place Scheme to ensure those with learning disabilities, dementia or are vulnerable have a safe place to go.

“Hull Truck Theatre prides itself on being a fully accessible venue of the north of England. It offers 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. We also continue to encourage dialogue between the theatre and access users to provide the best service possible.”

Danielle McLoughlin, Box Office Sales Manager
  • Infrared system
  • Neck loop system
  • Audio Described performances
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Touch tour

Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough

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. This includes adapting its facilities and programming. The team work closely with Dementia Action Alliance, an organisation spread across the north and the whole of England, 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 that as many of our theatre performances and areas of our listed 1930s building in the north as possible are accessible to the widest range of people. We work hard everyday to try and ensure this, always open to suggestions from our audience members and our colleagues.”

Paul Robinson, Artistic Director
  • Infrared system
  • Loop system
  • Audio Described performances
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Dementia-friendly performances

Leeds Playhouse

Leeds Playhouse - accessible theatre in the north

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 out pour of homegrown talent and creativity.

The north English theatre prides itself in having a strong focus on being accessible. 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. These include changing language, MP3 downloads, screen masking, adjusting font type or size, reciting information, and so on.

“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. This 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.”

John R. Wilkinson, Leeds Playhouse Agent for Change
  • Loop system
  • Audio Described performances
  • Captioned performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Dementia-friendly performances

Unity Theatre, Liverpool

Unity Theatre, Liverpool - building access

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. A popular theatre in the north, the Unity has undergone recent redevelopments and is much more accessible with a street entrance and a lift operating between Unity One and Unity Two.

  • Loop system
  • Audio Described performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Touch tours

Contact, Manchester

Contact Theatre - accessible theatre in Manchester, North England

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.

“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 for theatre-goers from all around the north of England.”  

Oscar Lister, Contact Theatre
  • Loop system
  • Large print brochure
  • Audio Described performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances

HOME, Manchester

HOME theatre and cinema in Manchester city centre

Whether you want to see theatre or prefer dance, cinema or art, HOME is the one-stop place to go. Since opening in 2015, the centre became a part of Manchester’s eclectic and vibrant performing arts scene. It’s the merging of two of the city’s well-loved organisations; the Cornerhouse and Library Theatre Company. Visitors can enjoy its bookshop or dine at one of its three areas for food and drink. The programme purposefully fuses international and contemporary art, bringing fresh, inspirational performances to Manchester’s city centre.

Beyond being an exciting and dynamic venue, HOME also strives to be as accessible as possible. Working with Manchester Airport, their accessibility guide has lots of information about the building and events. It comprises accessible toilets and lift access to all levels, while a travel guide is available online. Additionally, HOME offers a range of accessible performances and screenings, alongside BSL gallery tours.

  • Hearing Induction Loop system
  • Sony Wifi audio amplification in cinemas
  • Sennheiser Infrared amplification in theatres
  • Audio Described performances
  • BSL performances
  • Relaxed performances
  • Captioned performances
  • Lift access to all floors
  • Accessible toilets on all floors

TickX are always open to hearing your thoughts as to which venues you think should be considered one of the north’s accessible theatres. Feel free to drop us an email at hello@tickx.co.uk

To find out what’s coming up in theatres near you, visit our what’s on – theatre page for shows and tickets.

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