Accessible Show Venues – West End and Central London – Part 1

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Twitter: @_LeahRachel

Instagram: @SightlyImperfectStagey

Theatre is one of the most important things in my life. It’s everything from an escape to a goal. But when a venue is inaccessible it puts up a wall, and says very clearly that there is a certain demographic of people that are not welcome. Of course, there are venues that are old, and have not been built in history to withstand all types of audiences. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t alterations that can be made – and certainly doesn’t excuse brand new buildings that don’t offer access. It’s 2018, come on.

The Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995 and has since been replaced by the Equality act of 2010. So why are there still theatres and venues that I can’t go to?

I first want to credit some of the venues and theatres that I have personally experienced have very good accessibility, and that have wonderfully supportive staff always prepared to help and support guests in any way that they can.

Firstly, The Phoenix Theatre – an ATG theatre on Charing Cross Road. The phoenix has a separate entrance for disabled guests and the wheelchair spaces are at the front of the circle with a wonderful view of the stage. Should you sit in Stalls, the staff are incredibly supportive and will guide you to your seats with care and compassion, and I have many a time had staff members come to check on me during the interval. The disabled bathroom is clean (sounds common sense, but trust me, that’s a privilege) and it’s off the side of a private room in which I was allowed use every time I visited to attach medical equipment. There was also many a time where I dislocated my hip during the show, and so the front of house staff let me watch the show from a screen in the foyer while they got me ice for my hip. The Phoenix is definitely a must-visit for an accessible trip to the theatre.

One of my favourite places to visit where I know I’m not going to have any problems with access is The Other Palace (formerly the St James’ Theatre) on Palace Street, just a 2-minute walk/roll from Buckingham Palace. The variety of shows at TOP means that you can visit regularly and always see something new. There is perfectly level access from street level, and a small ramp by the side of some stairs when you first get in the building. There is a clean disabled bathroom on the ground floor, and the wheelchair spaces of the theatre are level with ground floor. They are however at the top of a steep auditorium, so if parts of performances take place on platforms then it can be blocked by the ceiling. As well as the theatre itself there is also a studio venue where even more shows take place. To get to the studio there is a lift, which can also take you up to the restaurant.

Another venue that is comfortably accessible is the theatre in The Hippodrome Casino – also on Charing Cross road – directly opposite one of the exits of Leicester Square tube station (not that the tubes are accessible, of course).  There is a wheelchair access entrance on the other side to the main entrance, and a lift that can take you around the venue and up to the theatre. I also noticed there is a hearing loop system, and the staff were really helpful and friendly.

Now, sadly, I have to turn my attention to the venues that aren’t accessible. And every Pizza Express Live venue is one of those.

Their website states:

“While the Dean Street and Kings Road restaurants are set up for wheelchair access and have disabled toilets available at street level, the venues themselves are at basement level and are only accessible via stairs. There is lift access to our Maidstone venue, though there are a small number of steps into the building. There is a disabled toilet on the same floor as the music room. Some of the venue’s seating is on a mezzanine, so please advise the box office in advance if you are unable to use stairs. The music venue Pizza Express Live (Birmingham) is situated on the first floor and is only accessible via stairs. Our new venue in Holborn has a stair lift available for those that need it. Please advise the box office if you are unable to use stairs.”

Dean Street and Kings Road: “The venues are at basement level and only accessible via stairs”.

Maidstone: “Steps into the building”.
Birmingham: “The music venue is situated on the first floor and is only accessible via stairs”.
And that just leaves Holborn. This is something that has definitely been given some sort of thought… just not very much, or very good thought either. There is a stair lift within the venue, which is somewhat nice to hear. However, there is a lot that hasn’t been thought through.

Unless it has been wrongly phrased on the website, a stair lift is great for people who may struggle getting up and down the stairs. But those of us in wheelchairs are not so lucky.

Firstly, it completely relies on the guest being able to leave their wheelchair and sit independently on the stair lift, which is a major assumption in itself. If a guest is able to get out of their wheelchair, then there is the slight (and by slight, I mean major) issue of getting the wheelchair into the music venue. Manual chairs are multi-thousand pieces of medical equipment, and so for a staff member to attempt to carry these has plenty of complications. To carry it into the music venue could cause very expensive damage; could mean that a person is, in a worst-case-scenario, left without their mobility aid; and could put the staff member in danger of being seriously hurt. Then there are power chairs, which are even more complicated. They can weigh around 2.5 tonnes and cost tens of thousands of pounds.

Another venue that sadly you won’t be able to attend performances at is The Arts Theatre on Great Newport street. The bar area is accessible from street level, but very simply the stalls are down flights of stairs. I have since been told that the theatre “does have level access to the foyer bar and the circle”, which is great news to hear even though I’ve never had the opportunity to be seated there.

This is the first of what I’m sure will become many articles on the accessibility of theatres – hopefully I’ll even be able to write about some regional theatres too.

I hope that this post doesn’t come across as an attack on the inaccessible venues, but is recognised by fellow disabled theatre-lovers as an ‘advice guide’ when choosing a show to go and see.

Let me know on twitter or down below if you’ve found a venue particularly accessible, or the horror stories you’ve got too.

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Touch Tours

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Instagram: @sightlyimperfectstagey

Twitter: @_LeahRachel

Being my first proper blog, I thought it might be nice to explore an opportunity particularly unique to the West End in comparison to over on Broadway – the ever magical “touch tours”. 

A touch tour is usually held before an audio described performance, and is where a visually impaired person can explore some of the staging and props by feeling them, having them described etc.

I have only ever been on touch tours with the company ‘VocalEyes’, however if anyone knows any other companies who provide and support them, then I would love to be able to experience one. 

For a little context to my international comparison, when in New York during summer 2017, my friend arranged a surprise morning backstage at The Gershwin Theatre, a theatre equivalent of royalty and currently home to Wicked the Musical. It was an opportunity of a lifetime, and I feel honoured that I was able to help them open up the door for them to be in a position they can begin to offer similar experiences one day if they would like to.

My first West End touch tour was the glamorous Wicked, at our Apollo Victoria theatre. Wicked, particularly at the Apollo, will always be incredibly special to me, as it was one of the last things I properly got to see before my sight unexpectedly, yet significantly, worsened.  This means that I do have a slight advantage that whenever I have watched it since, I have a visual point of reference to aid me in understanding what’s going on up on stage. 

My touch tour at Wicked was a beautiful experience, and truly one I’ll never forget. The first thing that I felt when I walked onto that beautiful stage was how much harder it is under foot than the Gershwin’s stage. It was really nice to be able to understand the perceptions of where dancers and actors stood in relation to props, the size of props and mechanisms, and to gain the spacial awareness of the stage to understand the ways in which the dancers can move so freely and eloquently in what is in fact not as big a space as most would imagine.  

Another subtle yet extremely important part of the touch tour was to be able to experience the texture of the props – of the Shiz University walls, Glinda’s bubble, and of the props that having seen the show mostly sighted I still didn’t know even existed. There are also commonly a couple of cast members who are in costume, which makes understanding the true masterpiece of a story down to the little details something that VI people no longer have to miss out on. 

Going on a touch tour is a transforming and transcending experience to have, liberating the two-dimensional experience of shows that VI audience members normally experience into a three-dimensional world that we can be immersed in – just as all other audience members are. 

If you’ve had a touch tour and want to share your story with me then contact me on Instagram or twitter, whether they be fantastic or horrific – I want to hear it all. 

Sightly Imperfect Stagey

Twitter: @_LeahRachel 

Instagram: @sightlyimperfectstagey
Being a blogger for the team All Things West End, which you can find at atweofficial.wordpress.com,  I wanted to also create a space that people know they can visit which focuses on the wonderful and weird world that is theatre when you're chronically ill, disabled or impaired. 

First of all, thank you for being here to take a look at my little ol’ blog for All Things West End. An accessibility blog devoted to all things stagey, and all things accessibility - the successes, and the horror stories. 

I have lots of things that I need to explain to you here in my introduction, so I’ll start with the very basics. 

I’m Leah, I’m 18 and I’m your writer here at the blog ‘Sightly Imperfect Stagey’. I love everything musical orientated, have a rather unique perspective compared to most, and love to help others understand how what might be seen as limitations can still mean theatre can be a liberating and engaging experience. 

I think it’s important that in order for people to be able to understand my unique perspective of theatre, you need to understand me a little more. I lost a lot of my sight when I was 17 over a lunchtime at school, having only a couple of weeks before that had my eyes opened (pun very much intended) to how life-changing theatre can be. They’re not completely sure why I can’t see, but I don’t mind that too much anymore. 

I also have a degenerative condition, that means all the glue holding my body together, well, doesn’t hold my body together any more. I use a wheelchair some of the time and crutches the rest of the time. It means sitting through shows can be very painful, and takes a lot more energy than it would for most.

My singing lessons, which are usually musical theatre orientated, are my favourite part of the week; and my singing teacher is the greatest mentor in the industry that a gal could ever wish for. 

Some words that you may come across throughout this blog may not make sense depending on if you are reading this from a perspective of the disabled community or the theatre community. The abbreviation ‘VI’ stands for ‘visually impaired, the abbreviation ‘AD’ stands for audio described. I’ll try to explain any others as I go along.

I hope to use this blog to reach out to other disabled theatregoers, and to create an awareness to those who may have never even given it a thought before. To talk about all things that matter to people who have to think just that little bit extra about the complications before heading to a show; and explain their perspectives to the people who don’t. 

I hope that I haven’t put you off just yet, and that you’ll come back to have a read when the next posts are up. 

In the meantime, contact me via Instagram or twitter, or through All Things West End, and tell me your accessibility stories - the happy and the nightmares, I want to hear them all.